History of Willesden Green

Willesden Green is in eastern Brent. The High Road forms the centre of an ‘X’ of roads connecting Neasden and Church End with Cricklewood and Kilburn.

Early history
Reformation, revolution and the beginnings of change
The early 19th century
Railways and development
Places of worship
Social life in 19th century Willesden
The early 20th century
The Second World War
After the Second World War
Migration to Willesden continues
A new millennium
Local history articles

Early history

Wielldun (Willesden) probably means ‘the hill of the spring’ in Anglo Saxon. The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic-speaking groups who migrated to England from northwestern Europe from the 5th century. Alternatively, it may combine the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘hill’ with the name of a Saxon settler.

The Anglo-Saxon period ended with the invasion of England by William the Conqueror from Normandy in France in 1066. He ordered for a survey of English land ownership, known as the Domesday Book, in 1086. ‘Wellesdone’ is recorded in it.

Records show a Willesden family, in the area from 1278 to 1494, almost certainly named after the place. By 1425, they held the lease of the manor of Oxgate in the north of Willesden parish. Oxgate Lane, which led to Oxgate farm, still exists today.

Willesden Parish (the area connected to St Mary’s Church at Willesden) was triangular, lying along the west side of Edgware Road, east of the river Brent, and north of the Kilburn brook and an ancient track, some of it later forming part of Harrow Road and Kilburn Lane. 

Willesden Green was the largest hamlet in the parish of Willesden. It started as a settlement in a woodland clearing. This clearing became a large green in the middle of the parish. Soon there was a significant group of houses around the green. Several of these were farms, one of which dated back to the 1300s. The area of Willesden Green remained very rural, and most of the population would have consisted of agricultural labourers, right up to the 1800s.

Most of the land in the area belonged to St Paul’s Cathedral. A large portion of land to the south was the property of All Souls’ College, Oxford. There were two manors called Bounds and Chambers. Bounds bordered Willesden Lane. Chambers was named after Richard de Camera, an early 13th century cleric, and owned tenements at Willesden Green.

There were also estates carved out from St Paul’s land, where the rent went to support a member of the clergy. One of these clergymen was called Mapes, so the land became known as Mapesbury (Willesden Lane was also formerly known as Mapes Lane). There was also an estate called Brondesbury. Brondesbury’s lands were quite mixed in with Bounds.

A tile kiln, first mentioned in 1438-39, formed part of the All Souls Estate at Harlesden. The kiln lasted throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries, producing tiles for London using imported wood and clay.

Reformation, revolution and the beginnings of change

By the 1500s, pilgrims came to St Mary’s Church, Church End to see the shrine containing the statue of Our Lady of Willesden, popularly known as the Black Virgin of Willesden, which many people thought had miraculous powers. Medieval pilgrim medals were struck and sold. At the time of the Reformation in 1534 (when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church), the statue was seen as idolatrous and it was destroyed. In 1972, a new statue was sculpted and placed in the new church.

There are some records of property taxes, called rates, and they show us that, in 1687, there were 11 ratepayers at Willesden Green and around the same number in 1720. Only by 1738 was Willesden Green surrounded by buildings.

Willesden’s history and cultural life has been shaped by immigration. The earliest known record of a black person in Willesden is the christening record of Sarah Eco, ‘daughter of Tobias Eco, a Black’. She was christened at St Mary’s Church in 1723. She appears to have had at least two brothers, Tobias and John, who were also christened at St Mary’s. We need to do more research, to try to find out more about this family.

 Section of a census page, with the following text highlighted in yellow: 'Sarah Daughter of Tobias Eco'

The early 19th century

Willesden Green was a rural area with farms up until the 19th century, when many more houses and roads started to be built. By the early 1800s, nearly all the woodland in the area had been cleared. Much of the land was used for hay farming.

As early as 1787, the Spotted Dog pub was being advertised at Willesden Green. The advert described it as a ‘compact new built freehold villa with numerous convenient offices, coach-house and stabling’. The advertisers most likely hoped to attract wealthy Londoners on their travels in and out of the city. In 1792, another publication described it as a ‘well accostomed Publick House’.

A description of Willesden Green in 1817 paints it as ‘a retired pleasant village, which appears as remote from London as at a distance of an hundred miles’. This contrasts with another picture of Willesden Green – as a venue for ‘bare-knuckle boxing matches’ and ‘bull baiting’. However, the leaders of the church (the vestry) put a stop to these activities in 1810 because it disrupted the hay harvest.

In the 19th century, the Spotted Dog pub was famous for its pleasure gardens and, by the 1920s, its dance hall. Pleasure gardens were ticketed outdoor spaces holding events and activities, including dancing, eating and music. The largest gardens were in Vauxhall and Chelsea, but others popped up on rural outskirts of London, where there was more space.

Willesden was also famous for pigeon shooting. Later, several shooting clubs developed connections with Willesden Green. The celebrated shotgun manufacturers Purdey’s had a shooting ground in the area in around 1860, while, in 1887, the West Middlesex Rifle Volunteers owned a drill hall in Regency Terrace.

Records show that in 1823, the village had 40 houses. A large property, Willesden House, stood west of the Spotted Dog. By 1834, a number of cottages, owned by tradespeople and occupied by the poor, had been built around the green and on Pound Lane (named after a brick animal pound that existed there until 1895). One of these cottages survived as late as 1935. At least one hut was built by a squatter encroaching on the green. This dwelling, near the site of the present Library at Willesden Green, was still standing in the early 20th century.

In 1826, land near the High Road was up for sale, but with little success. By 1829, the population included a smith (a metal worker), a wheelwright (someone who builds and repairs wooden wheels), a coach master (the driver of a horse-drawn coach) and a beer brewer. Records reveal that the last two businesses had gone by 1851, but there were new additions to the village, such as a dame’s school (run by a local woman, for a small fee), and a grocer. However, people still had to walk to Paddington to buy many goods.

One of the largest movements of Irish people occurred in the 1840s, due to the potato famine in Ireland and better work opportunities in London. Many Irish people helped to build the railways, and later, many came to the area for work opportunities after the Second World War. There was also considerable immigration of Jewish people at the end of the 1800s. There are still large Irish and Jewish populations in Willesden today.

Railways and development

The London & Birmingham Railway briefly opened a station called Willesden at Acton Lane in 1841, and then again from 1844 to 1866. However, the railway had not intended the line for suburban passengers, and it was a long way from Willesden Green. In 1866, Willesden Junction replaced it, which was not in the parish of Willesden. These stations had little effect on the growth of central Willesden.

Construction on the Metropolitan Railway began in 1860. The extension line from Baker Street began in 1868, and Willesden Green Station opened in 1879. Charles Walter Clark redesigned the station in 1925. Clark designed 25 tube stations in total for Metropolitan Railway, including Baker Street. Willesden Green Station is a listed building.

Street lighting had also reached Willesden Green in 1867, making it safer to get home from the station. By 1876, Willesden Green was still somewhere wealthy people moved to live in rural surroundings near to London. However, the picturesque village had been partially replaced by ‘mean brick cottages’. Estates had already begun selling their land off for development. When it became clear that the Metropolitan Railway intended to build a local line, development sped up.

In 1873, the Grange estate was sold for development. A brickworks opened there, owned by the wealthy Furness family. The Willesden Brick & Tile Works in Chambers Lane, near the High Road, was established in 1882, providing many bricks for local buildings until 1937.

George Furness was a Derbyshire man who owned Roundwood House in nearby Harlesden. He was involved in civil engineering projects worldwide, from Cricklewood to Brazil. Furness and the engineer Joseph William Bazalgette built a large portion of the Thames Embankment from Westminster Bridge to Somerset House. His projects also helped to rebuild parts of Odessa (then in Russia, now in Ukraine) that had been damaged during the Crimean War.

In 1877, the United Land Company laid out streets northeast of the green, ready for the opening of Willesden Green Station in 1879. For some people, the new houses ‘absolutely ruined all the centre of Willesden as a residential district’.

By 1882, Willesden House had been demolished and semi-detached houses stood along the north side of Willesden Lane, with roads and plots laid out to their north. More building followed. According to the Willesden Chronicle, the population had risen from 100 in 1882 to 5,000 in 1887.

A huge amount of housing development occurred in the 1890s, covering virtually all the available land south of the railway. The houses were aimed at the lower middle classes. Willesden became the fastest growing district in Greater London. At one time in the 1890s, four houses were being built in the area every day. By 1896, buildings on both sides of the High Road were popping up, especially near Willesden Green Station. In 1898, developers built Rutland Park Mansions, a large block of flats, on the site of Rose Villa on Walm Lane. The houses opposite were soon converted into more shops, which were needed by the growing number of residents.

By 1890, the building development in Willesden Green met Brondesbury to the southeast, Chapel End to the west and Harlesden and Kensal to the south. North of the railway, the Buckingham Estate was developed in the early 20th century, merging Willesden Green with Cricklewood.

The larger houses were demolished, and smaller ones were built. Willesden Green’s population became increasingly lower middle class and working class. Most of the working class men worked in transport or building, and the women as domestic servants or laundresses.

At the same time, the High Road turned into an impressive centre with many shops. Local employers had become much more varied. In the 1870s, there had been mostly stables, job masters (people who lent out horses) and horse dealers.

Places of worship

In 1880 St. Andrew's parish was created, with a permanent church on the High Road from 1887. The church was, and remains, very Anglo-Catholic, and its services were famous for ‘bells and smells’. There were only 857 people in this parish in 1881, but its population

had grown to 11,296 people by 1901. St. Gabriel's parish was formed to the north of the railway in 1898. Its population was 5,341 in 1901.

In addition to these Anglican churches many non-conformist chapels were set up. Houses in Willesden Green had been used by dissenters as early as 1815, and there were 10 chapels, including a large Baptist one, in the town by 1903. A Roman Catholic church and two convents were founded in the 1900s and another convent in 1928. A Jewish cemetery had been set up at Pound Lane in 1873. At the end of the 19th century there was considerable Jewish immigration to Willesden Green.

Social life in 19th century Willesden Green

Along with the Spotted Dog, records show there was a pub called the Victoria on Willesden Lane by 1865. Two more pubs, Case is Altered and the Rising Sun, had opened by 1890.

Other social facilities included a concert hall, and working men’s clubs, such as the Regency Club on the High Road.

The library was opened in 1894. The library resulted from Willesden Local Board’s decision to adopt the Free Libraries Act in 1891, a decision that was largely due to the efforts of W. B. Luke. The first librarian, Frank Chennell, lived in a small flat on the first floor of the library building. Chennell also collected local materials that form a valuable part of the Brent Museum and Archives collection. The library was extended in 1907 to meet the needs of Willesden’s growing population. The 20th century saw two further redevelopments, in 1989 and 2015. Part of the 1894 original library has been retained, showing the Arts and Crafts Tudor revival style. It is now a locally listed heritage asset.

The early 20th century

Development continued after 1901, especially north of the railway at Dudden Hill, although the economic slump slowed the pace after 1906.

Part of the original green was still visible in 1907, but vanished shortly afterwards. A school opened in Pound Lane in 1903 and, in 1918, a maternity and child welfare centre opened on the High Road. The First World War brought more light industry, including the British Ensign Motor Company.

After the war, electricity replaced gas lighting. By 1924, All Souls’ College, Oxford had built houses on their land at the High Road, and at Robson Avenue in 1934. The Furness Estate Brickworks vanished, replaced by streets of large, detached houses built between 1925 and 1939, while large semi-detached houses were built southeast of the green from 1927 to 1935. The population, however, did not rise significantly.

The Electric Palace cinema opened on 7th July 1910. Other cinemas came later. One of these, the Granada Theatre, became a bingo hall in 1962 and is now a church.

The Second World War

Between October 1940 and June 1941, 772 bombs were dropped in Brent causing huge amounts of damage to homes and businesses. Willesden was a target for bombing in the Second World War, because of its factories and transport connections.

Many more Jewish people moved to Willesden and surrounding areas in the 1920s, and as refugees from Nazi Germany, in the 1930s and 1940s.

Many more Irish people, especially young men, came to the area to work in factories supplying the Allied war effort. By 1943, St Paul’s Avenue, the eastern part of Chapter Road, had a particularly large Irish population.

After the Second World War

After the war, Willesden Green’s population was 27,418, living in 4,260 houses and 1,196 flats. Willesden Council set out a plan to develop industry and housing in the area between Willesden Green, Harlesden and Kensal Green. However, not much progress was made in the 1950s or 1960s, and the area suffered decline.

From the 1960s onwards, shops, including a large Co-operative store, started closing, while traffic congestion on the High Road was a challenge. Out-of-town superstores, such as Tesco at Brent Park and Asda at Park Royal, began to drain customers away from the town centre. In the 1980s, money was offered to traders to improve their shops in an effort to save the High Road and, in 1984, work began on a town centre supermarket (now Sainsbury’s).

Migration to Willesden continues

As was clear from Sarah Eco’s record in the Parish Register back in 1723, immigration has shaped Willesden for hundreds of years.

Willesden Green continues to have one of London’s highest Irish populations, alongside Dollis Hill, Mapesbury, Fryent and Kilburn (all in Brent), and Harlesden has a large Caribbean population.

In the 1950s, in Willesden and neighbouring Harlesden, many people from the Caribbean began to move to the area, as part of the Windrush Generation.

Windrush Generation refers to people from the Caribbean that came to Britain between 1948 and 1971. ‘Windrush’, refers to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Dock (at the River Thames estuary near Gravesend) on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, encouraged by the government to help fill post-war UK labour shortages. Many of these men and women filled low-paid industrial jobs in nearby areas.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gujarati communities arrived. Many were refugees from East Africa, especially Uganda, where Dictator Idi Amin had ordered their expulsion from the country. The large Hindu Gujarati community encouraged the building of the Shree Swaminarayan temple at Willesden.

The Pakistan Community Centre on Station Parade began life as the Pakistan Workers Association in 1965, helping the newly arrived migrant workforce from the Indian subcontinent to find jobs, housing and other needs. More recently, it has acted as a central hub for Willesden Mutual Aid during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

217 Willesden High Road was the site of Kuo Yuan, one of the first ‘Peking’ restaurants in London. In 1963, a former Chinese ambassador, finding himself out of a job following a change in Chairman Mao’s policy, set up the restaurant on Willesden High Road, serving the local neighbourhood its first taste of the Chinese specialty, Peking Duck.

Willesden is also among the top three areas for Latin American inhabitants, particularly from Brazil. The others are nearby Kensal Green, and Oval.

The 2011 census showed there had been a large increase in the number of people settling in Willesden from other European countries, including Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

Novelist Zadie Smith grew up in Willesden, and she has celebrated the great mix of people living there. Her novel White Teeth is set partly in Willesden Green, as is her novella The Embassy of Cambodia, which tells the story of a woman called Fatou from Ivory Coast, seeking her fortune in England, working as a housemaid for an Asian family in Willesden.

A new millennium

In April 2001, it was announced that Brent Council was to provide £100,000 to promote a series of major regeneration initiatives around Willesden Town Centre, and that English Heritage had agreed to support the project with a further £300,000 over the next three years. The Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme included new street signs, upgraded public spaces, and improvements to pavements, improvements to local historic buildings and up to 90% grants for high street businesses to improve buildings, shop fronts and signs.

Willesden Town Centre has been a conservation area since 1993, with additional appraisal carried out in 2006. In 2018, Brent Council developed a design guide to support this work, to help shopkeepers preserve the heritage of their frontages, the look of the high road, and access for pedestrians.

In 2012, Brent Council developed plans for the refurbishment of the Library at Willesden Green. Its previous redevelopment had been in 1989, and had included a cinema, arts complex, cafe and bookshop, replacing the original Victorian wings of the library, and leaving the front building and its famous turret intact. The initial 2012 proposal involved removing the old frontage, but there was a strong campaign against its removal by local residents, and this part of the library building was saved. This event suggests a strong community feeling about preserving the High Road, and its identity. Building work was completed in 2015, with Brent Museum and Archives finding a new home on the 2nd floor.

In 2014, local residents set up a non-profit organisation in collaboration with Brent Council, as part of a Government initiative by Mary Portas to develop Town Teams to improve local high streets. Willesden Green Town Team was formed with aims including improving green space in Willesden, art projects, and help for small businesses. Among other projects, they commissioned cat mosaics, inspired by the illustrator Louis Wain (1860-1939), who had lived for several years in Brondesbury Road.

In 2019, Willesden Green was shortlisted for 'Rising Star' in the Great British High Street Awards.

Watch a video of a walk led by Mayor Ernest Ezeajughi, courtesy of Willesden Local History SocietyNotjustcamden.uk and Anna Bowman:

 

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:

Self-guided walks

Further reading

Brett-James, N.G. – Middlesex (Robert Hale, 1951)
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)
Gillett, J.T. – The History of Willesden (1964)
Leff, S. & L.V. Blunden – The Willesden Story (n.d.)
London Borough of Brent Planning Service – Willesden Green Conservation Area: Character Appraisal (Brent Council, March 2006)
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)
Spatial Planning – Shopfronts Supplementary Planning Document (Brent Council, June 2018)
Spencer, A. – Britain in Old Photographs: Willesden (Alan Sutton, 1996)
The Great British High Street – High Street of the Year Awards (2019)
Wadsworth, C. – Traditional Pubs of Brent, Volume 1 Willesden (CAW Books, 1999)