History of Brent

Early Brent history
11th to 16th centuries
Willesden parish vestry
18th century
Railways, reservoirs, cemeteries and growth
20th century development in Wembley
Willesden in the Second World War
The London Borough of Brent
The Borough of Cultures
Local history articles


Early Brent history

The area of Brent has been settled since prehistoric times.

There is evidence of a large Late Roman villa near Salmon Street, Kingsbury, with a similar building on Dollis Hill. Edgware Road was the Roman built Watling Street.

Many of the districts in Brent began as small communities in forest clearings. The modern names are derived from the original Anglo-Saxon. The names of these communities often had meanings relating to people or to the landscape, for example:

  • Wembalea means ‘Wamba's forest clearing’
  • Neosdune (Neasden) means ‘the nose-shaped hill’
  • Wellesdune (Willesden) probably means ‘the hill of the spring’
  • Cyngesbyrig (Kingsbury) means ‘the King's stronghold’
  • Kelebourne (Kilburn) means ‘the cattle stream’

For most of its history, Brent consisted of a collection of small villages and hamlets.

Willesden had its own church and formed a parish. Wembley was part of Harrow Parish, though there was a chapel at Tokyngton by about 1240. Kingsbury had its own church, St Andrew’s, which resembles a Saxon church but post-dates the Norman Conquest.

Land ownership differed between the Parish of Willesden and the Parish of Wembley. In Willesden, the Church held much of the land. In Wembley, the Page family and the Lords Northwick were the major landowners. All Souls’ College, Oxford, owned a lot of land across Brent.

In 1350, the plague heavily affected Kingsbury parish. People abandoned their houses, resulting in property and population becoming concentrated in northern Kingsbury. Southern Kingsbury shrank from a village to just a church and one or two farms.

11th to 16th centuries

In 1134, Kilburn Priory, a convent, was set up and used as a stopping place by travellers and pilgrims. By the 15th century, Kilburn inns (pubs) such as the Red Lion and the Cock had opened to serve travellers on the Edgware Road. St Mary’s Church, Church End, became a centre of pilgrimage in the late 15th century. Both the Kilburn Priory and pilgrimages to Willesden ended at the Reformation in the 16th century (a movement across Europe when people challenged the Catholic Church and set up Protestantism).

The Reformation also brought problems for the Catholic Bellamy family who owned the manor house at Uxendon, north of Wembley. They sheltered both a plotter against Elizabeth I and a Jesuit priest, and as a result lost all their lands by 1608.

Someone who did well out of the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries was Sir William Roberts of Neasden House, who was an active Parliamentarian during the English Civil War. He was given confiscated church lands, and though these returned to the Church after the Restoration, the Roberts family leased them.

Willesden parish vestry

A member of the clergy (e.g. priest or vicar), the churchwardens (responsible for church maintenance) and overseers (church elders) led the Willesden parish vestry meetings, where they discussed business relating to their parish (the area served by the church).

The Poor Relief Act of 1601 made the churchwardens responsible for welfare. By 1608, there is a mention of an ‘overseer for the poor’ (who collected and distributed money, food and other resources to poor people). A poor rate (a property tax used to fund welfare) was taken twice a year from 1678. We know from rates books that, in 1730, the tax was £90.

Eventually there were monthly vestry meetings, usually in the Six Bells pub or St Mary’s Church. A vestry hall was built in 1857, as an office for the church staff and a place to hold their meetings.

In the early 18th century, 'baby-farming' became a problem in the area. Unwanted infants from London were sent out to Willesden to be nursed. Mortality was high, and we can see from church records that more than 70 infants were buried in Willesden parish between 1720 and 1730.

18th century

In the 18th century, without a nationally managed road network, the appalling state of the Harrow Road and Edgware Road led to gifts from benevolent gentlemen like John Lyon (the founder of Harrow School) to aid their upkeep. Another problem was highway robberies, though Willesden’s connection with the thief Jack Sheppard comes from a Victorian novel and is fictional.

Private generosity was not enough to improve the roads. In 1710, a turnpike trust was set up to repair the Edgware Road from Kilburn to Stanmore; this involved charging people to travel on the road. The tollgate, to collect the payment, was on the Maida Vale border. The tollgate moved around, covering different stretches of the road until it was demolished in 1872.

In the early 18th century, the Bell in Kilburn became a fashionable spa due to the discovery of the special qualities of the Kilburn Wells spring, which contained iron. This eventually led to dog-fighting and bare-knuckle bouts as the springs ‘dumbed down’ to poach clientele from nearby Belsize House (known at the time for its illegal gambling and notorious parties).

Railways, reservoirs, cemeteries and growth

In the early 19th century, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth called Willesden ‘the most charming and secluded village in the neighbourhood of the metropolis’. In 1839, he published Jack Sheppard, a novel that gave a genuine highwayman a false connection with Willesden.

The rural nature of Brent started changing in the 19th century with the coming of the railways and the ribbon development along the main roads.

The growth of London led to a shift to haymaking by local farms, to supply London’s horses. Railways depended on horse-drawn transport to load goods trains, meaning that more railways led to an increase in the use of horses.

The Welsh Harp Reservoir (named after an old pub that stood on the Edgware Road) in Kingsbury was created in the 1830s to supply the Grand Union Canal. From about 1850 to 1900, both the reservoir and the pub were popular destinations. The proprietor of the Old Welsh Harp pub created Kingsbury Race Course. The pub had its own railway station until 1903.

By 1870, Kilburn’s location on the Edgware Road, and the opening of railway stations, had made it a thriving commercial centre. The first new parish church in the area, Christ Church, Brondesbury, opened in 1866.

There was considerable poverty and overcrowding in Kilburn and surrounding areas in the 19th century. Infant mortality was high. In the 1890s, 20% of families were living in poverty.

All Souls’ Cemetery in Kensal Green, which opened in 1832, led to growth of the area. Interesting early burials include the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (d. 1859) and the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (d. 1863).

Development in Harlesden was kick-started by the opening of Willesden Junction Station in 1866. The railways brought people and trade, and this encouraged the railways to increase their services.

At first, Harlesden was a middle-class suburb, but soon factories moved into the area, and it became predominantly working-class. These included the McVitie’s Factory in 1902 and the Heinz Factory in 1925.

Before Transport for London took over the running of the London Underground, different companies built and ran the various lines. The Metropolitan Railway, which opened Willesden Green Station in 1879, was the most important influence on the growth of the area.

The population of Willesden soared from 18,500 in 1875 to 140,000 in 1906. Wealthy city merchants began commissioning houses in Willesden Green and Brondesbury Park, and companies bought local farms to develop housing estates on the land. For example, in 1877, United Land Co. purchased Bramley’s farm from Mrs Catherine Nicol. Two years later, the company had plotted out streets near the brand-new Willesden Green Station, and sold off small plots for builders to build rows of terraced houses.

Following the Local Government Act of 1894, Willesden became an urban district. Willesden was divided into seven wards, with 21 councillors. The council’s offices were set up in Dyne Road in Kilburn, in what later became Willesden Town Hall.

Wembley Urban District was set up the same year, with 12 councillors. However, in 1900, Kingsbury separated from Wembley and became a separate district, taking their three councillors with them.

When the Metropolitan Railway extended the line to Harrow in 1880, it set up a depot at Neasden. The Great Central Railway also set up works in the area. The job opportunities and transport links attracted people to the area, and Neasden soon became a popular suburb.

The munitions and aviation industries in the First World War, and the creation of the North Circular Road in 1922-23, encouraged industrial development in Cricklewood and Park Royal. Park Royal was the site of a failed attempt to create a permanent showground for the Royal Agricultural Society in 1903-05.

20th century development in Wembley

In the 1880s, Sir Edward Watkin, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, acquired Wembley Park. He planned to turn it into pleasure gardens, served by Wembley Park Station. Watkin intended to build a 1200-foot (366-metre) octagonal steel tower to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The half-finished tower was demolished in 1907 and became known as ‘Watkin’s Folly’.

In the 1920s, Wembley Park became the site for the British Empire Exhibition. The Empire Stadium (later renamed Wembley Stadium) opened on the site in 1923. The exhibition itself was open in 1924 and 1925. Visitors to the Exhibition could travel on experimental railways, visit displays celebrating different cultures and traditions, inspect a coal mine, travel by rail through ‘the Rockies’, walk through an Australian sheep station and visit an amusement park.

The exhibition was primarily responsible for the rapid development of Wembley. Although it had been an Urban District since 1894, and had a number of Victorian and Edwardian buildings off the High Road, it was still largely a rural area.

Approximately 27 million people visited the British Empire Exhibition, with roads and bus services improved to facilitate the visitors. In response, many people started moving to the developing suburbs around Wembley. Wembley's population rose from 203 in 1851 to 48,500 in 1931.

By the early 1930s, the hamlets of Preston and Kenton to the north of Wembley became suburbs too, served by stations opened between 1908 and 1933 and by new motorbus services.

The growth of the settlement at Kingsbury Green led to the building of a new church, Holy Innocents’ Church, in 1883. The opening of Kingsbury Station in 1932 led to Kingsbury’s centre moving as the population soared.

The same year, a newspaper ran a competition to name the newly developed area north of Kingsbury, resulting in the creation of Queensbury and its corresponding Metropolitan Line station. The winning name is a play on the name Kingsbury.

Kingsbury’s growing protestant population led to calls for a bigger Church of England church. In 1933, a second St Andrew’s Church was transported, stone by stone, from the West End to Kingsbury. It was rebuilt next to the old St Andrew’s Church, in the heart of Kingsbury.

Willesden became a municipal borough in 1933, making it the most populated non-county borough in England. By 1937, the Borough of Willesden had 13 wards, and 39 councillors.

Wembley became a borough in 1934, reuniting the urban districts of Wembley and Kingsbury for the first time since 1900. In 1937, the new Borough of Wembley had 12 wards, and 36 councillors.

By the 1930s, both boroughs were highly populated areas, with a combined population of around 238,000.

Willesden in the Second World War

Willesden was heavily bombed in the Second World War. It experienced over 1,000 air raid warnings between 1939 and 1945. This was partly due to the concentration of industry and railway lines.

By the end of the war, 372 civilians were dead and 2,108 were injured in Willesden. A memorial in Willesden New Cemetery commemorates the 72 dead who had no relatives to claim them. These people were buried by the Council, a potentially a unique situation in London.

Willesden Borough helped the war effort by buying a Spitfire and at least one bomber. A Polish squadron (No. 302 City of Poznan) flew the Spitfire, named Borough of Willesden. On 30 December 1941, the Polish ace Czeslaw Glówczinski shot down a Messerschmitt fighter while flying Borough of Willesden. The plane was lost in June 1942, while escorting some bombers to Le Havre. Its pilot, Flight Sergeant Antoni Lysek, was never found.

The London Borough of Brent

The population of Willesden and Wembley peaked at around 316,000 in around 1951. It then began to decline as people moved away, some to New Towns like Hemel Hempstead.

In 1965, Willesden and Wembley joined to become the new London Borough of Brent. At this time there remained a divide between the richer, Conservative Wembley, and the poorer, Labour Willesden.

Nationally, Brent was the third highest spender per head of population and the second highest spender on social services. Industrial decline hit Brent hard from the 1970s onwards, and many jobs were lost. The population also continued to decline, from 296,000 in 1964 to 243,000 in 1990.

From the 1960s, Brent became the most ethnically diverse borough in London. Many people came from the Caribbean, and the Indian sub-continent to make Brent their home. For example, Harlesden has become the centre of Brent's large Jamaican community, who have had a big impact on local culture, making it the unofficial ‘UK capital of reggae’. While East African Asians, mainly Gujaratis, have rejuvenated Alperton over the last 50 years, taking over shops along Ealing Road, creating ‘Little India’.

The area had a significant Jewish population, who had come to Britain to escape 19th century pogroms and 1930s Nazism. Irish people had been coming to Kilburn and Cricklewood as seasonal labourers since the early 19th century, and continued to settle in the area into the 20th century.

By 1981, 37% of Brent’s population had been born outside the UK. By 2002, most of its population came from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The Borough of Cultures

Brent is a thriving borough, producing and supporting some of the world’s biggest talents in the areas of sport, music, art and more.

Brent is home to a number of cultural centres. From the 1950s to 2000s, the Galtymore dancehall in Cricklewood was an important hub for the Irish community in Brent. In Kilburn, the Kiln Theatre (previously the Tricycle) on Kilburn High Road has been producing thought-provoking plays since 1980.

In Preston, from the late 1970s to 2012, the Strathcona Theatre Company gave young adults with learning difficulties the opportunity to put on and tour plays. In Wembley Park, in 2019, BTS made history as the first South Korean K-Pop group to perform at Wembley Stadium, and their tickets sold out in just 90 minutes.

Many amazing creatives have lived in Brent. George Michael grew up in Kingsbury in the 1960s, and went on to find fame as a singer with the band Wham! in the 1980s. In 1972, Bob Marley and the Wailers briefly lived in Neasden, and attracted big crowds to a secret gig in Dollis Hill. Celebrated author Zadie Smith grew up in Willesden Green, and set her debut book, White Teeth, in Willesden and Kilburn.

As well as being the home of the national football stadium at Wembley, Brent has produced some remarkable sporting talents. Footballer Cyrille Regis grew up in Harlesden after moving to the area as a child from French Guiana. Boxer Henry Cooper lived in Preston, and went on to fight Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) at Wembley Stadium in 1963. Rachel Yankey got her start representing Brent in the London Youth Games, before going onto represent England at the World Cup and Britain in the London Olympics in 2012.

2020 marked Brent’s year as the Borough of Culture. Reimagined as the ‘Borough of Cultures’, the project championed art by local artists, recorded and celebrated stories from the local Reggae scene, and amplified local young people’s voices and abilities. The project culminated in the first Brent Biennial, with art by local artists displayed on buildings and billboards and across 10 community and council libraries.


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:

Further reading

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 museum.archives@brent.gov.uk.

British History Online – A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 4 (London: Victoria County History, 1971)
British History Online – A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7 (London: Victoria County History, 1982)
Brent 2020 – Brent Biennial (2020)
Brent Council – Brent’s War (1995)
Gillett, J.T. – The History of Willesden (1964)
Gretzyngier, R. and W. Matusiak – Osprey Aircraft of the Aces 21: Polish Aces of World War 2 (Osprey, 1998)
Leff, S. & Blunden, L.V. – The Willesden Story (n.d.)
Mills, A.D. – A Dictionary of London Place Names (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pevsner, N. – The Buildings of England: Middlesex (Penguin, 1951)
Snow, L. – A Short History of the Labour Party in Brent: 1900-2000 (n.d.)
Snow, L. – Brent, A Pictorial History (Phillimore, 1990)
Snow, L. – Willesden Past (Phillimore, 1994)
Spencer, A. – Britain in Old Photographs: Willesden (Allan Sutton, 1996)
Valentine, K.J. – Neasden: A Historical Study (Charles Skilton, 1989)
Valentine, K.J. – Our Lady of Willesdon (1988)
Valentine, K.J. – Willesden at War, Volume One (1994)
Wadsworth, C. (ed.) – Beating the Bounds: A Walk Around the Willesden Boundary (Willesden Local History Society, 2000)
Wadsworth, C. (ed.) – The Church of St Mary, Willesden: A History and Guide (Willesden Local History Society, 1996)
Waller, J.G. – On the Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Wilsdon, Transactions of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, Vol. 4, Old Series (1871)
Zamoyski, A. – The Forgotten Few (John Murray, 1995)