History of Kilburn
Kilburn is situated on the south-eastern borders of Brent. Today, Kilburn sits within both Brent and Camden London boroughs, with Kilburn High Road as the border.
Kilburn is thought to get its name from the Saxon word for ‘cattle stream’.
Kilburn grew up where the Roman road, Watling Street, crossed the Kilburn brook. Kilburn Priory, probably a community of Roman Catholic Augustinian canonesses (female church members), was founded in 1134. It stood where the High Road meets the modern Belsize Road. Henry VIII dissolved Kilburn Priory in 1536. By 1814, nothing remained of the structure except for a ‘rising bank’.
The part of Kilburn in the parish of Willesden belonged to the manors of Bounds, Brondesbury and Mapesbury. All were the property of St Paul’s Cathedral. Mapesbury (named after Walter Map, an early medieval priest) and Brondesbury (‘Brand’s manor’) were respectively situated north and south of Mapes Lane (later Willesden Lane).
The Red Lion and Cock pubs (inns) may date back to the 15th century. Records show that the Bell existed by 1600. The Black Lion pub may date from 1666.
By 1677, there were several houses along Edgware Road. Road conditions were so bad that a turnpike trust was set up in 1710. The gate sat near the Queen’s Arms pub in Maida Vale, at the entrance to Willesden parish. In 1864, it was moved to the end of Willesden Lane and, later, to the top of Shoot-Up Hill, before it was demolished in 1872.
In 1714, a chalybeate spring (a spring where the water contains iron) near the Bell was enclosed in a brick reservoir. By 1733, the Bell publican advertised the water in the well as a cure for stomach problems, in imitation of Hampstead Wells. Despite later adverts targeting ‘the politest company’, the publican may also have wanted to attract customers from nearby Belsize House (known for its illegal gambling and notorious parties). If so, he succeeded, for dog fighting and bareknuckle bouts became common.
Records show the Bell was still selling water in 1741, but, by 1814, the wells were in decline. Renamed Kilburn Wells, the pub successfully rebranded as a popular tea garden. Kilburn Wells was demolished and rebuilt in 1863.
Seasonal agriculture did not encourage settlement by the poor and highway robberies and a lack of good views kept the upper classes away. In 1762, there were only 10 houses, seven cottages, the tollhouse, a smithy and three pubs on the Hampstead side of Kilburn (now Camden borough). In 1749, a terrace called Elm Row had been built on the less populated Willesden side (now Brent borough).
Kilburn became a notorious duelling spot in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Nonetheless the area was described as ‘more rural and tranquil than might be expected’ in 1816.
In 1815, records show a developer called Thomas Buckley built seven large houses along the west side of the Edgware Road, just north of Willesden Lane. He named them Waterloo Cottages after Wellington’s victory. Wealthy professionals lived in the cottages, until they were demolished in 1885.
By 1819, houses were built on the Kilburn Priory Estate, bordering St John’s Wood. In the 1820s, development spread along the Edgware Road, but mostly in Hampstead and Paddington parishes. In 1829, the Willesden parish segment was still largely rural, the only serious development being at Kilburn Square, around St Paul’s Chapel. The chapel was built in 1825, and demolished in 1934.
By 1839, much of the new construction in Kilburn consisted of ‘beautiful villas and houses’ aimed at middle class professionals. In 1834, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth lived in Kilburn. In 1839, Ainsworth published Jack Sheppard, a novel that gave a genuine highwayman a false connection with Willesden. From 1839 to 1856, W.H. Smith, the newsagent, and future First Lord of the Admiralty, lived with his father at Kilburn House, just north of Kilburn Square.
By 1851, houses lined Edgware Road. In the 1850s, large middle class houses began to be built in South Kilburn (Kilburn Park). This scheme was not a success and Kilburn Park remained a deprived, underdeveloped area. Nonetheless, in 1857, the builder James Bailey began work on a development nearby. From 1861 to 1867, Bailey built a series of roads and houses around a triangular space called Cambridge Gardens. From 1866, estates east of Edgware Road began to be developed.
In ten years, Willesden’s population quadrupled, from 3,879 in 1861 to 15,869 in 1871. Most of this rise is due to the growth of Kilburn. By 1870, many houses had been built in South Kilburn, while the rest of Kilburn still had relatively few.
In 1853, a militia unit, the Rifle Volunteers, banded together to face a perceived threat from Napoleon III. Until it was built over, their practice range was next to St Paul’s School, a national school (for poor children) founded in 1847.
In 1867, the Kilburn Times was set up, the first local newspaper for the area.
By 1872, Kilburn had a Catholic school, followed by a number of Anglican Church schools, which appeared in the 1880s. In 1876, Willesden Polytechnic (now College of North West London) was founded.
In 1891, Willesden Town Hall was built on Dyne Road. It was demolished in 1970, following the creation of the London Borough of Brent.
In the 1880s, Kilburn High Road (now Edgware Road) had more than 300 shops. Foreign nationals, some of them Jewish immigrants, owned a number of shops in the area, especially on Willesden Lane.
In 1909, the Kilburn Empire theatre opened, and specialised in variety shows and film screenings.
There was considerable poverty and overcrowding in Kilburn in the 19th century. In 1875, Kilburn residents faced high rates of disease and infant mortality. In 1887, bad weather and unemployment exacerbated the social problems. By 1890, 20% of families in Kilburn were classified as living in poverty.
Watch this video showing how Kilburn has changed over time:
In 1838, the London & Birmingham Railway opened. It ran from Euston Station to Curzon Street Station, and the track passed through Kilburn.
In December 1851, Kilburn High Road Station opened. Then, in 1860, the Hampstead Junction Railway opened Edgware Road Station (later Brondesbury Station). In 1879, the Metropolitan Railway opened Kilburn & Brondesbury Station (now Kilburn Station).
However, these stations alone did not stimulate the growth of Kilburn. Instead, the main cause of growth was ribbon development of houses along Edgware Road. This was encouraged by constantly improving bus (and later tram) services. However, as one old resident recalled, in around the 1870s, many workers actually walked to their offices in the West End, rather than taking public transport.
In 1839, there was a horse-drawn bus from Kilburn to Bank. By 1856, 22 buses a day ran to London Bridge and, by 1896, over 45 buses an hour served South Kilburn. A limited motorbus service to Oxford Circus began in 1903. Underground railways came to Kilburn in January 1915 when the London Electric Railway opened Kilburn Park Station.
As early as 1847, some houses had been built on Willesden Lane in Brondesbury. The elevated site was thought to make the land suitable for the better kind of villa and, in the 1860s, work began on the first entirely new suburban development in Willesden.
In 1866, the parish of Christchurch, Brondesbury, was formed, the first new parish within the original parish of Willesden. Nonetheless, Brondesbury was still underdeveloped by 1896. Furthermore, in 1904, a slump hit the housing market. As a result, the west side of Brondesbury was not developed until 1920. In 1934, Brondesbury Manor House was demolished to make way for new houses.
Shortly after 1901, houses began to be built north of the Metropolitan Railway in Mapesbury. In 1924, Mapesbury House, south of the Metropolitan Railway line, was demolished to make way for development.
Kilburn’s rapid growth brought problems, dividing an urban south Willesden from a rural north.
The district gradually got modern amenities. In 1849, limited street lighting came to Kilburn, and was extended in 1861. As it is part of Willesden, Kilburn fell outside the area of the Metropolitan Board of Works, but nonetheless used the Board’s sewers, which overloaded the system. The rest of Willesden relied on open ditches.
In 1863, the destruction by fire of Mapesbury Mill on Shoot Up Hill led to the creation of the Kilburn, Willesden, and St John’s Wood volunteer fire brigade.
Watch this video on the history of Queen's Park:
A number of churches were built as development progressed. In 1878-79, the Catholic Sacred Heart Church was built on Quex Road. This church became an important place of worship for the local Irish community, some of whom had settled in Kilburn decades earlier. A number of non-conformist chapels appeared in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Anglican Church in Kilburn was divided between High and Low Church, the High Church having an affinity with Roman Catholics and the low with Protestants. This led to tension between vicars and congregations and even to the founding of new churches, even though there was no population growth to warrant them.
From the 1870s, Jewish people began to settle in Brondesbury, either moving out into the suburbs from the East End, or emigrating from Eastern Europe. Initially, Jewish people in Brondesbury had to walk to synagogues in St John’s Wood or Hampstead. However, in 1902, a temporary iron synagogue was built, followed by a permanent synagogue three years later. The Jewish population grew rapidly in the area in the years leading up to the First World War, and Brondesbury Synagogue had 413 male seat holders by 1914. Later, the Jewish population declined, as people moved out to Willesden Green, Cricklewood, Dollis Hill and beyond. In 1974, Brondesbury Synagogue closed, and many of its members moved to the Cricklewood Synagogue and Willesden Synagogue (now Brondesbury Park Synagogue).
The earliest industries in Kilburn were probably tile and brickmaking. Records first mention tile making in Kilburn in the early 16th century. By 1890, there were coachbuilders, bicycle manufacturers, monumental masons (to create and repair headstones at Paddington Cemetery), and a railway signal factory. Light engineering and printing were also established by 1914. The First World War stimulated industry and employment.
Several large houses in Brondesbury served as hostels for Belgian refugees during the First World War.
Few houses were built in Kilburn between the wars, partly because there was nowhere to build them. In the 1930s, flats replaced some houses east of the High Road and at Shoot Up Hill.
In 1931, the RSPCA War Memorial Dispensary opened at 10 Cambridge Avenue, to commemorate the animals that died in combat in the First World War. The clinic continues to care for sick and injured animals to this day.
In 1937, the Gaumont State Cinema opened on Kilburn High Road. Designed by architect George Coles, the Gaumont State was the biggest cinema in England at the time, with 4004 seats. It was art deco in style, with a 30 by 15 metre stage and a Wurlitzer organ. The State was also a popular venue for live music and acts such as Pat Boone, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles performed there. The State closed in 1990, and the building was used as a bingo hall until 2007, when Ruach City Church moved in.
Another branch of the Bakerloo line began serving the north in 1939, when Kilburn Station was rebuilt.
Kilburn suffered much bomb damage in the Second World War, including a V1 hit on Canterbury Terrace that killed 16 people.
After the Second World War, London needed to be rebuilt after widespread destruction, particularly in the centre of town. The Greater London Plan (devised in 1944) was used as a plan for reconstructing the city, and reducing overcrowding.
In Kilburn, this meant a reduction of industry, and the replacement of overcrowded slums with flats. This started in 1951 in Kilburn Vale, and 1954 in South Kilburn, where the average population density was 10 people to a house and where some houses were actually falling down. Flats were also built at Shoot Up Hill. Many of the labourers were Irish, leading to Kilburn getting the nickname ‘County Kilburn’.
In the early 1960s, a 17-storey tower block and shops were built at Kilburn Square. People who had been living in slums moved into these flats, helping improve the overcrowding problems in Kilburn.
From the 1970s, many people from the Caribbean and Asia moved to Kilburn. The 2011 census showed that 50% of Kilburn’s population identified as BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic), with Black people representing 24.6% of the population, and people of Asian descent representing 11.4%. In 2011, over half of residents were born in the UK.
In 1970, Ian Dury gave Kilburn the high honour of inspiring his first band’s name, Kilburn & the High Roads. It is perhaps fitting then that there was an attempt to turn Kilburn into ‘Music Mile’, London’s Greenwich Village.
The building at 269 Kilburn High Road was built in 1929, as a meeting place for the local branch of the Foresters’ Friendly Society, which provides financial and social support to its members. In the 1930s, the building doubles as a music hall. In the Second World War, it was used as an air raid shelter and a food distribution point. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the society forges links with West Indian immigrants, now known as the Windrush Generation.
In 1980, the building is taken over by the Wakefield Tricycle Company, a theatre group. The Tricycle Theatre establishes itself with political and thought-provoking plays. After a fire in 1987, the building closes for two years. In 1998, the Tricycle Cinema opens next door. In 2018, the venue is renamed Kiln Theatre.
Helped by the presence of the Tricycle Theatre from 1980, the Kilburn Festival from 1982, and its diverse population, Kilburn today perhaps deserves the reputation of an artistic hub.
In 2004, the Signal Project was funded to make the Kilburn Tube Mural Project. Thelargest public graffiti art ever commissioned in the UK, it was voted London’s Best Mural by Time Out in 2006. Graffiti artists Snug, Dane, Bleach and others created the mural design, with community input. The mural sits on the border between Camden and Brent, underneath the Kilburn Station bridges. The mural includes characters from Kilburn residents George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The mural also includes the Gaumont State Cinema, as well as representation of Kilburn’s Irish and Black communities.
2020 marked Brent’s year as the Borough of Culture. Reimagined as the ‘Borough of Cultures’, the project championed local artists, musicians and celebrated Brent’s diversity. 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. In Kilburn, two murals by British-Filipino artist Pio Abad, titled Remember this House, are on permanent display on Kilburn High Road. The murals bring together objects from Brent Museum and Archives, items from local residents and photographs from the artist, to create modern-day still life paintings that together represent Brent today.
Find out more about this area by looking at our local history articles, written by volunteer researchers and members of local history societies:
- Irina Porter, Uncovering Kilburn's History: Part 1
- Irina Porter, Uncovering Kilburn's History: Part 3
- Irina Porter, Uncovering Kilburn's History: Part 4
- Irina Porter, Uncovering Kilburn's History: Part 5
- Irina Porter, Uncovering Kilburn's History: Part 6
- Irina Porter, Uncovering Kilburn's History: Part 7
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
AIM25 – Brondesbury Synagogue (2010)
Brent 2020 – Brent Biennial (2020)
Brett-James, N.G. – Middlesex (Robert Hale, 1951)
British History Online – A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 7 (Victoria County History, 1982)
Colloms, M. & D. Weindling – ‘They had no choice’: Kilburn’s Animal War Memorial Dispensary (West Hampstead Life, 30 September 2014)
Day, J.R. – The Story of London’s Underground (London Transport, 1974)
Field, J. – Place-Names of Greater London (Batsford, 1980)
Gillett, J.T. – The History of Willesden (1964)
Graffolution – Signal Project (n.d.)
Leff, S. & Blunden, L.V. – The Willesden Story
Lloyd, M. – Kilburn Theatres (Arthur Lloyd, 2001)
Mills, A.D. – A Dictionary of London Place Names (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Snow, L. – Brent, A Pictorial History (Phillimore, 1990)
Snow, L. – Willesden Past (Phillimore, 1994)
Spencer, A. – Britain in Old Photographs: Willesden (Alan Sutton, 1996)
Victoria County History: Middlesex Vol. VII
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)
Weindling, D. & Colloms, M. – Kilburn and West Hampstead Past (Historical Publications, 1999)