Pickford’s Stables

A remarkable but forgotten stables complex in Primrose Hill

By Peter Darley

Walking along Gloucester Avenue and over Fitzroy Bridge in early October, you would have found the road closed. Foundations were being placed for the crane that will lift a new railway bridge span into place after removing the corroded old western span. 

Concern for the horse tunnel which ran under Gloucester Avenue into Pickford’s Stables, now sealed on the Waterside Place side, has caused Network Rail to monitor the tunnel’s integrity during the bridge span replacement.

Meanwhile Waterside Place residents are concerned with the integrity of the party wall along Gloucester Avenue, an archaeological curiosity from the stables era. A similar section of wall remains on the Primrose Hill School side. Both provide essential forensic evidence in reimagining how the stables were laid out and functioned.

Peter Toms, son of the stable master, described growing up on Princess Street in the late 1940s and meeting horses emerging from the horse tunnel, to give them a rub down and guide them to their stalls.

A few years earlier the stables had suffered major war damage from a fire-bomb. “News came down to us one night (in the shelter in Primrose Hill) that stables nearby had been hit and the horses were running wild through the streets” (Caroline Amy Read, Primrose Hill Remembered).

But Pickford’s Stables after the war were a pale imitation of their former size and architectural significance, having been reduced from three to one or at most two storeys. While this was in response to war damage, it would also have served the reduced demand for horse haulage. More than 200,000 horses were put down in the UK in 1947/48, 40% under three years old.

An oblique aerial photograph of 1846 shows the repaired and reduced stable ranges. Allsopp’s Stables, where 42 Gloucester Avenue is today, appear to have survived the war intact, complete with wooden staircase to the hayloft. Beyond lies the covered footbridge that crossed the main line railway to carry workers to the goods station ‒ a “human tunnel”.

We have no such photography for the original stables complex that operated over the 85 years from 1857 to 1942, so must rely on creating the complex from limited sources.

Pickford was the larger of two main agents that served the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), carrying more goods traffic than any other company for what was, in the 1850s, the largest company in the world. To serve Camden Goods Station, stabling was needed for 270 horses with all the requisite smiths’ shops, harness rooms and machinery. Following the destruction of their first stables by a massive fire in 1857, a new site was selected where once Calverts had intended a brewery.

Their 1857 stables, on well aired and lit ground and first floors, accessible by ramps, were arranged around a central services building. Two decades ahead of their time, this innovative solution created for Pickford by LNWR’s architect was barely remarked on then or since. They were far in advance of those built at the same time, now part of Stables Market, in size and sophistication.

The plan at stables-yard level uses artistic licence to expose the stable bays at yard level, while also showing features at higher levels. Whereas most stables ranges were three storeys, with the second floor providing storage for fodder, the central service block was four floors. The basement housed the steam engine, boiler and flue, and coal stores. Above were the farriery and harness makers’ shops. The upper floors housed machinery for making horse feed and provided storage for provender, moved to each of the stables ranges via wooden bridges.

Hay and other feed were offloaded from barges moored alongside the stables on the Regent’s Canal and raised by hoist to be transferred to the central service building.

The yard was served by the horse tunnel that ran from the goods depot under the main line railway, providing a safe passage to the stables. This can be seen in the recreated Gloucester Avenue elevation showing both the yard level and the street level. The window arrangement was standard for all ranges, but windows facing the street were blind.

Horses would negotiate this passage independently, being met by stable hands on emerging into the yard, from where they could be led to their stalls, the first floor being accessed by a ramp leading to a gallery that wound around three sides of the yard.

Stalls were separated by swing bales, without the intervening panel partitions seen in the photograph, which also shows the hooks and pegs for harnesses, collars and tackle, singular to each horse.

The street entrance on Princess Road was gated and led down to the manure pit. The stables yard lay well below the road and below the present courtyard level in Waterside Place. It was served from Princess Road via a steep cobbled slope. The daily manure cart required a third horse at the front to pull the cart up the slope with sparks flying off the horses’ hooves (Primrose Hill Remembered). Also shown are the gallery and wooden bridge linking with the central block. The entrance stables range housed loose boxes for horses that were sick or injured.

Today the ghost of Pickford’s stables hangs over Waterside Place. It can best be exorcised by not allowing such history to vanish. Perhaps we can respect their memory by a plaque on the Gloucester Avenue façade.

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