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Edwardian Muswell Hill

When Muswell Hill did change, it turned into a “built environment” that is still seen as a very desirable place to live, and it is not by chance that much of Muswell Hill is now designated as a Conservation Area for planning purposes. The evolution of Muswell Hill was into an Edwardian suburb, probably unrivalled anywhere in Great Britain.

One reason for this, was its careful development during the period between 1896 and 1914, mainly by two leading builders, Edmondson and Collins. The houses were built with good materials, to high standards, during an interesting architectural time, resulting in distinctive and attractive Edwardian period houses.

Secondly, the area was planned in a well thought out fashion to meet the needs of middle class people. Churches and many shops were provided and the avenues laid out in curving lines.

The core of Muswell Hill was exceptionally well constructed and planned, a world away from the straggling juxtaposition of houses, by many different builders, found in less cohesive urban villages.

Muswell Hill enjoys another advantage. It is ringed with surviving, green open spaces of some magnitude. To the South are two remnants of the great forest, which originally covered the area, the 70 acre Highgate Wood and the 51 acre Queens Wood, which lie either side of Muswell Hill Road, connecting Muswell Hill with Highgate. To the North is Coldfall Wood, a small remnant of the same forest on the northern slopes. To the South East lies Crouch End Playing Fields, 40 acres in extent, a preserved remnant of old farmlands, now used by tennis and cricket clubs. To the North East of Muswell Hill lies the beautiful 200 acres of Alexandra Park, with a history all its own, some of which we will tell you about later.

Muswell Hill’s transformation into an Edwardian suburb begins in 1896. Before then some roads had been laid out, but the planning for building was slow. These late Victorian roads were mainly on the East side of Colney Hatch Lane, or were near the top of the Hill where Muswell Hill railway station had been opened in 1873 on the branch line to Alexandra Place. Grosvenor Gardens had been built here then, but house building in Alexandra Gardens and Muswell Hill Place, opposite, was sporadic.

A terrace of substantial houses was built opposite St James’ Church, but the 1894 ordnance survey map shows that only about a dozen villas and their grounds took up most of Muswell Hill.

One factor said to have held back development, was that the 64.5 acres given to the Augustinian Convent in 1152, were not under the control of Hornsey, but of Clerkenwell. Because of this anomaly, conflict developed over drainage, sewage disposal, paving and lighting, which therefore impeded house building.

It was 1900 before Clerkenwell surrendered control of this land to Hornsey, and allowed the expansion of Muswell Hill to go forward.

Muswell Hill was to become famous in 1896 when an elderly man living in a detached villa in Tetherdown - now demolished - was murdered by two burglars who were subsequently caught and hanged. The local newspaper reported that over 15,000 people came to view the scene of the crime and its often been said that development of Muswell Hill followed on from this publicity.

In fact, it was the auction of a major estate in 1896, that led to Muswell Hill being transformed from a rural enclave to a built up suburb. The estate was called The Limes - with the house situated where Muswell Hill library now is.  The last occupant of the house had been Charles Mudie, the creator of a famous circulating library.

The developer James Edmondson of Highbury acquired this estate, and with it the adjacent estate of Fortis House. These purchases gave him 30 acres of flat land near the hill top. They lay between Fortis Green Road to the West, Muswell Hill Road to the South and Colney Hatch Lane to the East.

Over this land, Edmondson laid out Princes Avenue and Queens Avenue as his two most impressive residential avenues. Building began in 1897 with the erection of the Queens Parade of shops and flats between Princes Avenue and Queens Avenue, with the first shops opening in August 1897.

Edmondson then built Princes Parade between Princes Avenue and Fortis Green Road and then St James’ Parade in 1900 in Fortis Green Road. In this way he ringed his property with a mixture of shopping parades and residential accommodation. In Fortis Green Road he built a concert hall called the Athenaeum - which since 1966 has been the site of Sainsbury’s supermarket. He continued his development with more shopping parades on the East side of Colney Hatch Lane and acquired further estate land, which allowed him to build on both sides of the route. These parades of small shops have always been popular with Muswell Hill residents. Martyn’s, the coffee and provision shop in Queens Parade has continued trading since 1897 and contains early shop fittings still in use.

In this way Edmondson created the core of Muswell Hill, whilst generously giving land for a fire station in Queens Avenue and sites for nonconformist churches. Once extensive building began the other estates soon come on to the market and the character of Muswell Hill changed. Edmondson acquired many of these, but other builders were also active, some on a small scale.

These included Mr. T. Woolnaugh of Crouch End who built in Kings Avenue, Tetherdown and St James’ Lane - Mr. T. Finnane who built the Summerlands estate - Mr. J. Pappin, Mr. F. Papworth and Mr Charles Rook, the latter who built particularly in the Alexandra Park area.

The other prominent builder was William Jefferies Collins who lived in a villa called Fortismere on the West side of Fortis Green Road.

He developed much of Fortis Green Road and the adjacent Firs estate by laying out Grand Avenue and five other residential avenues from it. He also built in Church Crescent and South of Muswell Hill on the Upton Farm estate. On the West side of Fortis Green Road, he built the Firs Parade of shops and flats, and North of it the magnificent Birchwood Mansions in 1907, as well as his now very sought after blocks of flats along Fortis Green.

Both Edmondson and Collins developed their workforces and built to high standards. The period 1896 to 1914, when much of their Muswell Hill construction was done, was still a time when quality counted and their work has stood the test of time.

A 1910 guide book describes Muswell Hill as “one of the most salubrious heights around London, for, standing at an elevation of 335ft. above sea-level, the air is exceptionally pure, and it enjoys its full share of sunshine. This dominant height commands extensive views over the Middlesex vale, with Epping Forest and the Hertfordshire Hills in the distance on one side, and the heights of Highgate and Hampstead on the other. The many residential thoroughfares which radiate from the fine central business quarter known as the Exchange, occupying the crown of the hill, are all of a pleasant character, and contain numerous modern, well planned and artistic houses….There is ample accommodation for new residents in the district….”

Muswell Hill was fortunate in being built up when Victorian terraced housing was being developed with particular individuality, and coming under the influence of new architectural styles, inspired by men like Norman Shaw and CFA Voysey.

In this transitional period, light red brick and stone dressing were being used, elevations featured irregular patterns of windows and gables, with outside painted woodwork, balconies and other interesting features. Many large family houses were built, each distinct from its neighbour. Gables often have bargeboards with a wonderful use of decorated plasterwork, known as “pargeting” on the façade under the gables or on the eaves.

Decorative windows are common, with the large plate glass sash windows of the Victorians, by now pleasingly improved in appearance to prevent possible fading of interior furnishings. The upper panes are split into smaller areas with decorative woodwork and colour glass being used with great effect in windows and doors, both externally and internally. There are also many designs of attractive and practical porches, often in white painted wood.

Local Houses are either semi-detached properties or, more often, terraces, disguised as individual properties by large featured bays and recessed service areas linking the house. The small scale, semi-detached houses which become common in the 1930’s in the speculative outer London suburbs, are not often to be seen in Muswell Hill.

Respect for Muswell Hill’s period houses is a matter of concern for many homeowners and careful thought has to be given to alterations. So often the whole effect of a period road can be ruined by one or two owners who do not understand how the facades of the houses are composed. For example, the wrong style of window or door can often destroy the balance of a period appearance and thus reduce its value.

The new architectural ideas for domestic buildings at this time, drew on elements of rural or vernacular houses with the use of brick, prominent chimneys, cat slide gables, and hung tiles on the facades.

This period of the Arts and Crafts movement led to what is known as Queen Anne or Domestic Revival, when the fussy elements of Victorian building began to disappear.


Rookfield Garden Estate at the foot of Muswell Hill was to see these new ideas fully expressed. William Jefferies Collins purchased 23 acres here in 1899, when he began to build more traditional family sized houses. This area had been occupied by Rookfield, Avenue House and another house known as Lallah Rookh, near the foot of the Hill. The name is taken from a long poem by the Irish ballad writer and poet Thomas Moore who lived in the so called cottage in 1817. His small daughter is buried in Hornsey churchyard, near the tomb of a now forgotten Victorian poet called Samuel Rogers.

In 1912 Collins moved to Southampton - where he built some more famous suburbs - and the development of this Rookfield area was taken over by two of his sons, Herbert and William Brannan Collins. Both of these men were under the influence not only of the new architectural styles, but also of the garden city movement, which began with the formation of Letchworth Garden City from 1903 onwards.


The two Collins sons developed the land as the Rookfield Garden Estate, providing a lower density of housing, irregular grouping of houses and communal open spaces, whilst retaining grass verges, mature trees and leaving the roads unadopted and unmade up. Gates are also set across the entrances to the estate to continue this private feel.

Built in the same era as Hampstead Garden Suburb, it is similar in appearance and today special planning regulations prevent unwanted destruction of properties by ill considered alterations.

It is a little known but desirable place to live for those who want a feel of the country, close to town.

Horse-drawn buses had begun to operate from Muswell Hill roundabout in 1902 - when a stand was provided in an area once known as The Plantation. By 1914 a regular petrol bus service had begun to run from here to Finsbury Park and this severely reduced passenger traffic on the steam railway. Muswell Hill station and the - now also demolished, Cranley Gardens station in Muswell Hill Road - opened in 1902 - both closed for passenger services in 1954. Since that time road transport has been used by Muswell Hillians to get to the nearest Underground Stations or to Alexandra Palace Main Line Station with its direct, speedy links to the City and West End.


Muswell Hill railway station, next to the Green Man on the Hill, was opened in May 1873. It was on the branch line from Highgate built to serve the newly built Alexandra Palace. The last passenger train ran July 1954. The site is now used by Muswell Hill Primary School and the old railway track is now the open greenery “walkway” of the Parkland Walk. ( Photo from Hornsey Historical Society Archives. )

 

 

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