The marbled splendour and menagerie of Whitehall Park
- Credit: Andrew Whitehead
There's a street in our corner of north London which sports dozens of wonderful marble columns – and I suspect that few among us are aware of it.
I certainly wasn't until recently when a cycling detour took me along Harberton Road.
Of all the architectural details that add a touch of distinction to late Victorian terraced houses, the miniature marble columns which enliven this street in South Highgate really stand out.
Every house on the north side of Harberton Road, except the end houses, bears these decorative columns – so too do many of the houses on the south side. In all, more than eighty of the street's terraced homes are graced by these emblems of neo-classical design.
In the spurt of suburban growth at the very end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, property developers were keen to catch the eye of potential purchasers and tenants. Much of the development was speculative. Across what was then the northern limits of London, builders were putting up terraces to attract those in clerical and middle class occupations.
The self-important Charles Pooter, in the Grossmiths' masterpiece of 1890s social comedy The Diary of a Nobody, moved into the fictional Brickfield Terrace in Holloway while commuting to his clerical work in the City. He represented a new social phenomenon – office workers liberated from the cramped confines of central London by the introduction of commuter trains, trams and omnibuses.
These middle class commuters wanted a home and a lifestyle which set them apart from the masses. They couldn't afford the villas that sprang up in the mid-Victorian era. Terraced houses were much more within their financial reach. But they did care about status.
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Speculative builders cramming terraces for clerks and better-off artisans into the sloping pastures of north London couldn't offer lots of space or substantial gardens, so they sought to make their houses more desirable by adding details. Across the streets of Highgate and surrounding areas, there was an almost competitive urge in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras to provide decorated plasterwork, coloured glass, tiled porches, and classical-style columns just to give the houses a touch of class.
These were terraces, but altogether a step or two up from the "mean streets" – slum novelist Arthur Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets appeared in 1894 – of the poorer parts of the capital.
But marble columns really are a cut above the average. They do perhaps look a touch incongruous in their suburban setting – but they certainly catch the eye.
Harberton Road was built in 1892, a few years after much of the locality and just as the development of nearby Crouch End was getting into full gear. It's part of Islington's Whitehall Park Conservation Area and the website of the Whitehall Park Area Residents' Association includes David Seton's excellent account of the history of the area.
The road took its name from Harberton House, a substantial building with stables and more than an acre of "pretty" grounds which disappeared to make way for the new homes. The main figure in the development of the area was a Scotsman, John Cathles Hill, who was responsible for the building of more than two-thousand North London homes. He lived for several years in Whitehall Park, and while the marble columns can't be directly attributed to him, they do fit his sense of style.
Hill's surviving masterpiece is the Queens pub on Crouch End Broadway, which is given the rare accolade of "outstanding" in Nikolaus Pevsner's compendious survey of London's buildings. This dates from the end of the 1890s and includes marvellous Art Nouveau-style glass which can only really be appreciated from inside. What better reason can there be to visit a local pub!
Hill's career had a sad ending. There was a lot of money to be made in speculative building – but there was risk as well. The property bubbles of the early years of the last century were even more pronounced than those we have become familiar with in recent years. In 1912, excessive borrowing brought him down; Hill was declared bankrupt. He was discharged from bankruptcy in 1915 but died a few weeks later.
A few of Whitehall Park's decorative columns are supported by exuberant plaster depictions of animals. These are "a bit of a local mystery", says historian Oonagh Gay: "They are likely to have been a fancy of local builders who would have had access to mass produced pattern books."
Harberton's Road menagerie is not as splendid as its marble, but it all helps to make the street a touch out of the ordinary – which was exactly the builders' intention.
Andrew Whitehead's new book 'Curious Crouch End' is being published later this year.