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Origins and Some Famous Early Inhabitants

Trees have always been a distinctive feature of the hill-top area where Muswell Hill evolved, in fact in early times the area was largely covered by the great Middlesex Forest. Clearings and settlements were undertaken by the Anglo-Saxon farmers who settled in Britain after the Romans departed and it is they who named many of the areas. The manor and parish in which Muswell Hill is located was called Hornsey and the Bishop of London was Lord of the Manor.

A stone church was built in the village of Hornsey in post Norman conquest times, and the old tower still standing by Hornsey High Street is a reminder of where the medieval parish church once stood. Besides Hornsey village, other settlements were formed at Crouch End, Stroud Green, Highgate and Muswell Hill, connected by common or church land and country lanes. During the 18th century Hornsey church vestry was to evolve into the centre of local government and in due course the ancient parish was to become the borough of Hornsey.

As the forest areas were slowly reduced, dairy and hay farming developed on the neighbourhood’s estates, but the clay soil was not very suitable for intensive arable agriculture and so the local population was always very small.

In about the year 1152 the Bishop of London - who was the Lord of the Manor of Hornsey - gave 64.5 acres to some Augustinian Canonesses who had established a religious house in Clerkenwell.

This area, later to be known as “Clerkenwell Detached” extended some 330 yards East from Colney Hatch Lane and was almost 1,000 yards long.

The nuns used the land as a working dairy farm, and on the land itself, a notable feature was a Clearwater spring or well.

A Tudor historian recorded how a Scottish King was cured of a disease by drinking this water, and from this, the spring gained religious significances. The nuns built a chapel, and Muswell Hill in Medieval times became a place of pilgrimage to the holy “well”.

Various local residents declare that if you stand “barefooted” on the corner of Elms Avenue and Muswell Road - even today - you can sometimes feel the “energy” of the water vibrating beneath your feet.

The earlier Saxon name was Pinnes Knoll (variously spelt in ancient documents). In Old English - Muswell - means mossy spring and, linked with the steep Hill, the colloquial name for the area became Muswell Hill.

In 1815, Muswell Hill, Hornsey, Crouch End and Highgate were still villages set amidst farms, wood, commons and gentleman’s estates.

(Map reproduced from Victoria County History of Middlesex Volume VI by permission of the General Editor.)

From Medieval and Tudor times onwards the area was sought out as a pleasant rural place to live by the rich merchants and professional men of London. At Muswell Hill near Colney Hatch Lane, which is part of a very ancient route to the north, was “Mattysons”. In this large house - now long gone - lived the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Master of the Rolls to James I, Sir Julius Caesar. His unusual name evolved because his father was an Italian physician named Caesar Adelmare who attended Queen Elizabeth I when she was a Princess. Caesar was a friend to Sir Francis Bacon, who lived in nearby Highgate, which was also home to many of the aristocracy.

The Grove - now no longer standing - was another important large house that was built near the top of the Hill. Probably beginning as a farmhouse in a forest clearing, it was subsequently enlarged and rebuilt and in the 18th Century, rented by Sir Topham Beauclerk, an illegitimate descendant of Charles II by Nell Gwynn.

To the Grove came some of the most eminent scientists and artists of the day, such as Sir Joseph Banks, and Horace Walpole. Beauclerk was a scholar and a rake, a man who owned an enormous library in his Bloomsbury town house and yet dissipated his life in gambling and drugs. He married a Lady Diana Spencer whose portrait by Reynolds hangs in nearby Kenwood.

At Oxford, Beauclerk had met Samuel Johnson, who became famous as an essayist and poet. It was he who also prepared the first great English dictionary. Dr Samuel Johnson was a visitor to the Grove and even now, years after the house was demolished, the cultivated estate, now part of Alexandra Park, still has a tree-lined walk named after him.

It was in the 19th century that Muswell Hill began to be more fully used by Londoners as a country retreat. As London expanded in wealth, becoming a great financial centre, a great port and the centre of a world wide empire, so more and more Londoners sought country homes away from the cramped and often unsanitary city.

The Hornsey Enclosure Act 1813 led to former common lands, such as the 10 acre common between St James’s Lane and Muswell Hill, being made available for agricultural or for residential use.

Soon, Muswell Hill became a village of detached villas and mansions standing in large grounds. Only six miles from London, it could be travelled to fairly easily by those who could obtain either horses and a private carriage or who could get to the stage coach at East Finchley. An erratic horse omnibus service also operated - luckily the transport facilities in Muswell Hill are far better today!

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