By Martin Sheppard.
Until 1970 the houses bordering the railway at the entrance to Primrose Hill from Gloucester Gate, 4–24 Gloucester Avenue, were a distinguished group of high-quality Victorian villas. They had been built by the architect Henry Bassett in the 1840s. Although many were in need of restoration, most were habitable or restorable. They could easily have remained as highly desirable houses or been turned into flats. They were demolished, however, in the early 1970s and replaced by the three modern blocks of Darwin Court.
Not all of Henry Bassett’s Gloucester Avenue villas had survived as long. No 2 was demolished to allow the railway to be widened in 1905. At the junction of Gloucester Avenue and Regent’s Park Road, Bassett’s double-towered villas were replaced by Cecil Sharp House in 1930. No 41, bombed in the war, was replaced by James Stirling’s red-brick block. On the railway side, the villas nearest to the canal, numbers 26–36, were replaced by an electrical substation in 1910. This is now 36 Gloucester Avenue.
The Achilles heel of the surviving villas on the railway side was that they were owned not individually but by British Rail, the successor to the London and Birmingham Railway which had built the line in the 1830s. They had, indeed, escaped destruction when the railway was widened in 1905. In March 1968 British Rail offered them to Camden Council, which decided against buying them. British Rail then sold them, for an undisclosed price, to a developer, Amberville Securities, which put in a scheme to Camden Council for redevelopment as a terrace of thirty-five three-storey houses, seventeen maisonettes and a flat. Amberville was given planning permission for redevelopment in late 1969, but then rapidly sold the site to another developer, Samuel Properties, which at once put in a proposal for ninety-four flats, each with a garage. By the time the St Pancras Civic Society and its nascent Regent’s Park branch discovered what was about to happen, the villas were already on death row.
A vigorous campaign, led by Jean Rossiter and Diana Gurney, who lived respectively at 10 Manley Street and 31 St Mark’s Crescent, made an excellent case for preserving the villas. They challenged the views and proceedings of Camden Council’s Planning Department and wrote to enlist the support of their local MP and of key Camden councillors. They also repeatedly demanded that the villas, and in particular numbers 4–10, should receive special protection from the GLC and Ministry of Housing, corresponding with Lord Kennet, the then Minister of Housing.
The campaign to save the villas was supported by the Victorian Society. As Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote on 17 April 1970: “As Chairman of the Victorian Society, I wish to plead for the preservation of nos. 4, 6, 8 and 10 Gloucester Avenue, four houses which could easily be converted and which represent the best that is left of a group once larger. Even so, these four remain very impressive, and they belong to a kind too rapidly jettisoned. They are doubly impressive owing to their position at the junction of Gloucester Avenue and Regent’s Park Road.”
Sir John Summerson, the distinguished architectural historian, who lived locally and who had written about the villas in the Architectural Review in 1948, added his voice to the campaign, which was also supported by the conservation campaigner Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, the daughter of Barbara Cartland and later step-mother of Princess Diana.
Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. Conservation, and with it the recognition of the importance of preserving notable local housing as well as outstanding individual items of architecture, was in its infancy. The late stage at which the campaign to save the villas had begun, the difficulty of overturning planning permission once given, and the lure that the redevelopment would increase the housing capacity of the area, made the combined local, London and national bodies unwilling to interfere.
A central problem was Camden’s Planning Department, led by the forceful modernist Dr Bruno Schlaffenberg; he was helped by the fact that Victorian architecture, as opposed to Georgian, was still at a heavy discount. Philip Hardwick’s Euston Arch had been brutally demolished in 1961. Sir George Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece, St Pancras Station, almost followed. It was only saved by the intervention of Sir John Betjeman and by its listing as Grade I by Lord Kennet.
By early 1970, Samuel Properties had in turn sold the site to JM Hill and Co, though the architects, Ronald Salmon and Partners, remained the same. Planning permission was given for the scheme. It was cold comfort to the campaigners to be assured by Councillor Alan Greengross on 21 April:
“The Committee, when discussing this, did not lightly reach a conclusion and it was only after extensively discussing the matter that they decided in favour of redevelopment. There were many reasons for this, not least the considerable housing gain that would be obtained over the whole site.
“In the belief that one of the things troubling people in the area was the type of building that would take the place of these houses we added a very strong rider to our permission which I hope will make it quite clear to any intending developer that the replacement buildings will be judged against a most stringent standard and if need be they will be continuously rejected until they reach this standard.”
Subsequently, in October 1970, an imaginative compromise was drawn up by a local architect on behalf of the St Pancras Civic Society. This was a feasibility study which allowed numbers 4–10 to be kept, even if the other villas were replaced by flats. The study was simply ignored by JM Hill Ltd, whose directors refused to meet representatives of the St Pancras Civic Society.
There were, however, improvements made to the developers’ plans before demolition and rebuilding took place, rendering the development less obtrusive. The scheme for a continuous block of housing was changed to the present three blocks, and the proposed red brick was replaced by a more sympathetic hue. The villas were pulled down and replaced by the end of 1973. As a member of the St Pancras Civic Society summarised it:
“The beautiful villas which have been replaced by the undistinguished flats known as Darwin Court were built in the early 1840s by Henry Bassett, a Royal Academy gold medallist. Numbers 2–24 Gloucester Avenue were particularly handsome and formed a ceremonial entrance to the neighbourhood. The Civic Society tried hard to save the four longest and finest of the group, and the feasibility study shows how this could have been done. But permission had been granted for redevelopment of an earlier scheme, and to revoke it would have involved the payment of compensation – not just for expenses incurred but for ANTICIPATED PROFITS – an iniquitous rule which means that mistakes cannot be rectified.
“The only consolation to be drawn from this sorry affair is that the design of Darwin Court is a lot better than as first presented. We could have had a long flat unbroken slab with horizontal windows.”
As Diana Gurney wrote to the Minister of Housing and Local Government in October 1970: “The law as it stands does not assist people to defend the buildings they value, and it is we who are frustrated and posterity who will be the losers.” At least some of the original Bassett villas survive on the other side of the street as 39, 43 and 45 Gloucester Avenue.
The whole case, on the cusp of conservation becoming a force capable of saving the Victorian heritage, led to the establishment of the Primrose Hill Conservation Area, in whose Advisory Committee’s archive the exchanges over Darwin Court form the earliest folder.
Residents in Primrose Hill should remember Jean Rossiter and Diana Gurney with gratitude, as well as being thankful to their successors, Richard Simpson, Ann Swain, Valerie St Johnston and Pam White, for fighting later inappropriate developments. The Primrose Hill Community Association’s archive, now professionally sorted by Laura Rifkin, is an important source and resource for the history and current life of the neighbourhood.
The 1911 census reveals that numbers 1 and 3 Gloucester Avenue were the Convent of the Helpers of the Holy Souls, while 8 and 10 were occupied by a religious order, the Servantes du Sacre Coeur. Next door to them was an American, Methodist-inspired Evangelical group, the Pillar of Fire.