OUR FRIENDS INTRODUCED us to a square in north London, which we had never visited before despite the fact it is near the pub where we meet them regularly, when covid19 regulations permit. The square, Camden Square, is about 1000 yards northeast of Camden Town Underground Station. The rectangular open space that comprises the ‘square’ was developed between 1830 and 1850 and formed the centrepiece of Marquis of Camden’s New Town development (https://londongardenstrust.org/). The square and Camden Town take their names from John Pratt (1759-1840), the First Marquis of Camden (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900/Pratt,_John_Jeffreys). In 1736, he was called to the Middle Temple, where many years later my wife became a barrister. In 1795, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and was not popular with the Irish. He was opposed to emancipation of the Catholics and to parliamentary reform. His attitude towards the Irish was repressive and he developed an intrusive intelligence network. In May 1798, insurrection broke out in Ireland and he appealed for more military personnel to be sent from England. Later that year, he was replaced by Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805). A remarkable soldier, Cornwallis was involved in attacking the formidable Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) and forcing him into signing an unfavourable treaty in 1792 at Seringapatnam near Bangalore and Mysore in India.
Given the Irish antipathy towards the Marquis of Camden when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, it is ironic that at the southeast corner of the square, we find the building that houses the London Irish Centre (https://www.londonirishcentre.org/). It was founded in 1954 to provide assistance to Irish migrants arriving in London after WW2, often quite unprepared. Its present home, 50 Camden Square was bought in 1955. Its location was chosen because it is close to Euston Station, where many of the Irish arrived by train from Holyhead. A plaque placed on the outside of the Centre’s elegant neoclassical Victorian façade commemorates the ‘Forgotten Irish’. It reads:
“In commemoration of that generation of post-WW2 Irish emigrants, both men and women, who left their homes, counties, and country. They came to work and rebuild this city and country, ravaged and destroyed by war. Sometimes called ‘The Forgotten Irish’, many would never return to Ireland. This plaque recalls their contribution and their loss…”
The Centre contains many facilities including a good library, a bar, and a community café.
The Irish centre and almost all the houses on the eastern and southern sides of the square date back to long before WW2. However, some of the buildings on the western side of the square are post-WW2, most likely built on the sites of houses destroyed by bombing during the war.
Number 57 on the southern side of the square was home to the Indian politician Krishna Menon (1896-1974) between 1924 and 1947, when, after India won independence, he became Indian High Commissioner to the UK. Menon received much of his education in London, at the London School of Economics and University College. He was also admitted to the Middle Temple. Menon worked with the publisher Allen Lane at the time when Penguin Books was established and might have been the inspirer of the idea of producing cheap editions of quality titles, which was the principle adopted by Penguin.
As a member of the Labour Party, Menon was elected borough councillor of St Pancras, and was later given the Freedom of the Borough, an honour which had only one other recipient, George Bernard Shaw. A close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian patriot and future Prime Minister of India, Menon was President of the India League between 1928 and 1947. The League fought for the complete independence of India from the British. Once Menon was asked whether India would prefer to be ruled by the British Empire or the Nazis. He is supposed to have replied that one:
“ …might as well ask a fish if it prefers to be fried in butter or margarine.”
At Camden Square, Menon:
“… had a room and the use of the bath. His furnished room had a bed, a table, a couple of chairs, a wardrobe and a sideboard. Come hell or high water, he had to have his morning bath, and hell often broke loose when the Luftwaffe set out to put the torch to London. Krishna Menon’s landlady is still puzzled about this. Did he, she wonders, insist on his morning bath because of his religion? He paid a pound per week for rent, including the price of his breakfast tea and toast. The rent was modest even for Camden Town.
Krishna Menon used his room only for sleeping. He never gave any parties nor did he entertain guests. In the evening he returned at irregular hours, and if it was not late, he asked Mrs. Rouse for tea. While Krishna Menon was meticulous about his clothing, he left his room in Bohemian disarray. It is with some amusement that Mrs. Rouse recalls that his discarded clothing was scattered all over the room and that he seemed to be unable to fold his towels ‘neat-like’.”
(quoted from “Krishna Menon” by Emil Lengyel).
Almost across the road from Menon’s home, is number 1 Camden Square, home to Robert Harbin (1909-1978) in 1928. ‘Who he?’, I hear you ask. Born Edward Richard Charles Williams in Balfour (near Johannesburg in South Africa), he came to London, aged 20, and began working in the magic department of Gamages toy shop. An accomplished magician, he performed in music halls and later in television and in films. He became interested in Japanese paper folding and became the first President of the British Origami Society, founded in 1967.
Other famous persons have lived in Camden square, many of them artists. They include the Dutch-born painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), who lived briefly at number 4, when he first arrived in London from Belgium. The sculptor William Turnbull (1922-2012) lived in the square nearer the end of his life. During the 1960s, my mother worked alongside him in the sculpture studios of St Martins School of Art, then in Charing Cross Road next door to the famous Foyles bookshop.
Before I mention the currently most famous resident of the square, I should record the fact that there are no houses along the space’s northern edge. The northern edge is the southern boundary of the grounds of St Paul’s church, Camden Square. The church is a non-descript structure completely devoid of architectural merit. It was built as a temporary replacement of an older church that was designed by Frederick Ordish and John Johnson and built in 1849, and then severely damaged by bombing during WW2.
Number 30 at the north east corner of the square faces three trees whose trunks are surrounded by screens made of bamboo rods, some of which have padlocks attached to them. For, number 30 was the home of the popular singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). Some of the padlocks have her name inscribed on them by the mourning fans, who attached them to the trees.
Now that the covid19 pandemic is forcing us to meet others outdoors, the weather has become of even more interest than in healthier times. This brings us to George James Symons (1838-1900), who lived at number 62 Camden square between 1868 and 1900. At the age of 17, he became a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, becoming elected its President twice. He was a pioneer in the scientific study of rainfall and founded The British Rainfall Organization as well as establishing a Climatological Station in the square.
Fortunately for us, there was no rainfall whilst we walked around the square and through the peaceful, well-maintained garden in its centre. I am grateful to our friends for introducing us to this square full of diverse historical associations, some of which were new to all of us.