Kensal in the 18th and early 19th centuries
Cemeteries, railways and growth
Social problems in Victorian Kensal
The development of Kensal Rise
Places of worship, schools and entertainment
Kensal in the 20th century
The area today
Local history articles
Kensal Green is situated on Brent’s southern border, along the Harrow Road. The famous Kensal Green Cemetery is actually in the Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, not in Brent.
Recorded as ‘Kingisholt’ (‘The King’s Wood’) in 1253, the area is first called Kensal Green in 1550.
The green itself was a prominent feature at the junction of Harrow Road and Kilburn Lane (known in the 17th century as Flowerhills Lane). The Countess of Richmond (the mother of King Henry VII) and All Souls’ College, Oxford, owned land in the area in the middle ages.
Kensal formed the heart of the lands of the small manor of Chamberlayne Wood (named after Richard de Camera, an early 13th century priest who received income from the land) and the sub-manor of Malories. In the 17th century, field names suggest sheep farming was the dominant form of agriculture between Harlesden and Kensal Green.
By the mid-18th century, there were farms and two larger houses at Kensal Green. There was also a pub called the Plough, where artist George Morland was a regular in the 1780s. A cottage followed before 1800.
In 1801, the Grand Junction Canal was built, with barges full of iron, coal, waste paper and gravel towed through Kensal. This traffic led to the foundation of a brick works and stimulated the growth of the village.
After 1814, the Cumberland Sharpshooters, a local rifle club, used the green as a shooting range.
Following enclosure in 1823 (which allowed farmers to fence off farms and claim common land), the green was divided up into small plots. By 1829, cottages were built on these plots – which local tradespeople bought, and rented out to the poor.
The well-known Willesden steeplechases were held on the site of the King Edward VII recreation ground (now Willesden Sports Ground) until 1903.
In 1832, the opening of All Souls’ Cemetery (now Kensal Green Cemetery, on the border with Kensington and Chelsea), a ‘model cemetery’ planned to replace the unhygienic burial grounds of central London, brought more employment and encouraged building. Interesting early burials include Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth (d. 1837), the Duke of Sussex (the sixth son of George III, whose interment at Kensal in 1843 made the cemetery a fashionable place to be buried), the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (d. 1859), and the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (d. 1863).
In 1837-38, two railway lines were constructed, the London & Birmingham line to the north and the Great Western line to the south. The cemetery and the railways together transformed Kensal Green from a village into a London suburb.
In the 1840s, Kensal Green expanded considerably, with St John’s Church opening on Kilburn Lane in 1844. New pubs followed, including The Case is Altered (1843) and the William IV, then known for its large bowling green surrounded by summerhouses. A gas works lit the streets and discouraged crime.
The novelist William Harrison Ainsworth lived at Kensal Lodge from 1835 to 1841, when he moved to Kensal Manor House (both houses have been demolished). At Kensal Lodge, literary friends, including Dickens, frequently visited him. In 1839, he published Jack Sheppard, a novel that gave a genuine highwayman a false connection with Willesden.
In 1858, St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery was set up, to the west of All Souls’ Cemetery. Many of the 12,500 people buried there during the next eight years were Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. Notable burials included Sir Anthony Panizzi (the Italian-born principal librarian of the British Museum, who was partly responsible for the creation of the round Reading Room), Edmonia Lewis (an African-American sculptor and daughter of a freed slave), and Mary Seacole (a Jamaican nurse, adventurer and writer, most famous for her work in the Crimean war).
During the First World War, Belgian soldiers who had died in St Andrew’s Hospital, Dollis Hill, where buried in the cemetery. The plot eventually became a Belgian military memorial and cemetery and now also includes a number of graves from the Second World War, including at least one woman.
In 1860, the Hampstead Junction Railway opened. Kensal Green & Harlesden Station followed in 1861. In 1873, the railway moved the station half a mile to the east and renamed it Kensal Green. Willesden Junction Station, on the London & North Western Railway line (L&NWR) was built in 1866.
People could also travel from Kensal Green into London on horse-drawn omnibuses. In the 1850s, there were 14 services a day to London. This included two buses from the William IV pub to London Bridge operated by Mr Andrews, owner of the Pantheon Bazaar Stores in Oxford Street, an early department store. As early as 1890, the popularity of buses and trams (which first ran in 1888) led to fewer passengers on the railways.
Improved public transport encouraged development. Between 1861 and 1871, Kensal’s population quadrupled from 675 to 2,138, and the number of houses more than doubled.
Many two-storey cottages were built in the following decades, several on land acquired by the United Land Company (north of Harrow Road and west of College Road) and Edward Vigers (in the triangle formed by Harrow Road and the L&NWR line).
Watch this video showing how Kensal Green and Kensal Rise has changed over time.
This volume of construction brought urban squalor to the area, with the poor sanitation made worse by the fact that many local people kept pigs. Indeed, the slaughtering and selling of a pig at the Plough pub was a highlight of the week for many.
An exception to this general squalor was Queen’s Park, situated in Paddington to the east of Kensal Green. The Artizans, Labourers, and General Dwellings Co. built houses here between 1873 and 1886. There were long waiting lists for this low rent accommodation, which enabled the tenants to be vetted for ‘respectability’. Queen’s Park Station opened in 1879.
In contrast to Queen’s Park, and despite the provision of land, libraries and clubs by Victorian philanthropists, Kensal acquired the unenviable reputation of being a near slum. 55% of the population of Kensal Town were in poverty in 1899. One resident, however, a schoolgirl in 1900, fondly remembered Kensal Green as being ‘a proper little village’ with 18 shops in Hazel Road.
After 1888, when the surrender of a farm lease allowed construction north of the L&NWR line, All Souls’ College, Oxford, which owned land in the area, began to exploit this systematically.
For example, it built Chamberlayne Road, which connected Kensal with Willesden Green and eventually boasted a pleasant little shopping centre, as well as some light industry. This new area of development was given the name of Kensal Rise. Kensal Green Station was renamed Kensal Rise in 1890.
The All Souls’ estate now stretches from Kensal Green to Harlesden. Charles Langler and Charles Pinkham built many of the houses. Their most noteworthy houses are those in Clifford Gardens (built about 1897), which have intricately decorated fronts.
In 1911, the population of Kensal Rise was described as ranging from ‘the very poor who when thrown out of work ... have little or nothing to fall back on, to those who have regular employment as clerks, accountants, salesmen, etc. in the City’.
As everywhere in suburbia, development led to the creation of churches and schools to cater for the growing population. St Martin’s Church, Kensal Rise, opened in 1899, while numerous schools opened between 1877 and 1913. In addition, from 1916 to 1919, refugee children were educated at the King Albert Belgian School in Wrentham Avenue.
Of course, construction reduced access to some pleasures. People could no longer drive along a rural Harrow Road, as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert liked to do, or pick blackberries on Kilburn Lane. However, a host of new leisure facilities made up for this.
The Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club began playing in 1886, and the National Athletic Grounds, which stood on the site of the present Whitmore Gardens, opened in 1890.
In September 1900, Mark Twain formally opened Kensal Rise Library on Bathurst Gardens. He had spent the summer in Dollis Hill House. Initially just a reading room, after a few years the building expanded and it became a lending library.
Kensal Green Lawn Tennis Club started in 1906, and the Constitutional Club in 1909. In the same year, Willesden Council purchased 26½ acres (0.1 km²) of open land to the northwest of the National Athletic Grounds, creating the King Edward VII recreation ground. In 1945, Ohel Shem Synagogue was founded on Chamberlayne Road.
Around 1904, a slump in the housing market (possibly exacerbated by Kensal’s bad reputation) seriously slowed down construction both in Kensal Rise and on the Mount Pleasant Estate at Brondesbury Park. Despite this, in 1916, the new Kensal Green Station opened on the L&NWR line.
Construction on houses had begun again by 1924. However, it was in the 1930s that many of the semidetached houses and flats in the area were built. Many considered them to have the best housing layouts in the Borough of Willesden.
Between the wars, Kensal’s population declined as the number of houses increased. In 1949, its population was only 26,238. Despite this, the Victorian terraces west of Chamberlayne Road were still overcrowded. As late as 1971, 25% of these dwellings lacked full amenities.
Attempts to redevelop them in the 1950s and 1970s were half-hearted and met with local opposition, including indignation from residents whose streets were branded slums. Kensal Green’s Victorian houses successfully avoided demolition and were eventually renovated.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many immigrants, especially African-Caribbean people, moved to Kensal, and in the 1980s, some middle-class professionals moved to the area as well.
In 2006, a tornado hit Kensal Rise, damaging 150 houses on Chamberlayne Road and neighbouring streets. The tornado ripped the roof of one house, and pulled trees up from the roots. Six people were injured.
The Lexi Cinema opened on Chamberlayne Road in October 2008. The Lexi describes itself as ‘the UK’s first social enterprise independent boutique digital cinema’. They give 100% of their profits to a charity in South Africa, and the cinema is run predominately by local volunteers. The Lexi is also the first cinema to serve as a foodbank collection point.
Local history articles
Find out more about this area by looking at our local history articles, written by volunteer researchers and members of local history societies:
- Robert Barker, History of Kensal Rise Library, 1900-2000 (.pdf, 44.6kB)
- Brent Walk: Kensal Green to Willesden Green (.pdf, 1.15MB)
Much of the information you have read on this page came from the following resources, some of which are held by Brent Museum and Archives, and available to look at. For more information, contact us by phone 020 8937 3600 or email email@example.com.
BBC News – Six hurt as tornado hits London (7 December 2006)
British History Online – A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7 (Victoria County History, 1982)
Day, J.R. – The Story of London’s Underground (London Transport, 1974)
Field, J. – Place-Names of Greater London (Batsford, 1980)
George, A. – Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century America (Smithsonian Magazine, 22 August 2019)
Gillett, J.T. – The History of Willesden (1964)
Gomersall, W.J. – Old Kensal Green and its Parish Church (1916)
Jewish Communities & Records – Ohel Shem Synagogue (10 October 2006)
Leff, S. & Blunden, L.V. – The Willesden Story (n.d.)
Mee, Arthur – Middlesex (Hodder & Stoughton, 1940)
Meller, H. – London Cemeteries (Gregg International, 1985)
Mills, A.D. – A Dictionary of London Place Names (Oxford University Press, 2001)
National Portrait Gallery – Take another look: Mary Seacole (2017)
Snow, L. – Brent, A Pictorial History (Phillimore, 1990)
Snow, L. – Willesden Past (Phillimore, 1994)
Spencer, A. – Britain in Old Photographs: Willesden (Alan Sutton, 1996)
Wadsworth, C. – Lost Willesden Railway Stations (CAW Books, 1998)
Wadsworth, C. – Traditional Pubs of Brent, Volume 1 Willesden (CAW Books, 1999)
Wadsworth, C. (ed.) – Beating the Bounds: A Walk around the Willesden Boundary (Willesden Local History Society, 2000)