Todays London History of Brent

Wembley Arch
A Short History Of Brent

The London Borough of Brent was created out of the re-organisation of London's Government in 1965, yet its component parts, with only a few exceptions like Queensbury, are derived from hamlets which began as self-supporting communities in forest clearings.

The orginal Anglo-Saxon names of these communities had meanings very often relating to local people or to the nature of the land surface:

Wembalea A.D.825 - Wemba's forest clearing
Neosdune A.D 924 - the settlement on the nose-shaped hill
Wellesdune A.D 939 - the hill of the spring
Cyngesbyrig A.D 957 - the King's stronghold

Kelebourne describes the stream which flows from Hampstead under the Edgware Road into South Kilburn and so through Bayswater to the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

The lack of written records of early settlement does not imply that the forested claylands were entirely uninhabited before Saxon times. Evidence of Roman occupation has been unearthed in Kingsbury and Neasden and excavations on Horsenden Hill, just outside the Borough boundary, have revealed man-worked flints dating back to 5000BC. The Celts had an elaborate system of trackways across the country before the Romans came. One such route led from the Thames at Westminster, via Kilburn, Willesden Lane, Dudden Hill Lane, Fryent Way and Honeypot Lane to Stanmore.

With the claylands becoming miry at many times of the year, the older established trackways e.g Edgeware Road, Harrow Road, assumed particular importance. Not that they were always passable either, for the disrepair and flooding of these two roads was a common hazard even in the 19th century. To the north, the bad state of repair of roads in Kingsbury and Kenton continued well into this century.

The Borough of Brent was totally transformed from a collection of country villages amid a settling of fields and hedgerow trees in a period of eighty years after 1858, primarily as a result of the development of the railways (especially the Metropolitan) and the British Empire exhibition (1924-5). However it was London's natural expansion which brought the first pressures of redevelopment on Brent's countryside to Kilburn in the 1850s.

Kilburn grew up on one of the principal routes to the North. Passing through it, Watling Street had become a broad trackway so that traffic could work its way around the ruts and great swathes of mud in winter and spring. Local and long distance traffic on the Edgware Road through Kilburn resulted in the establishment of inns - the 'Red Lion' (c 1444) the 'Cock' (1466).

Kilburn had come to prominence after Godwyn had established a priory here in 1130. The priory owned much land in this area and was for many years a stopping place for pilgrims on their way to the shrines at St Albans or Willesden. The priory was disbanded with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535. An air of respectability came to Kilburn in the eighteenth Century. The Bell Inn, which had appeared on the site of the Priory around 1600, with it's tea gardens became a fashionable spa due to the discovery of the 'special qualities' of the Kilburn Wells Spring in 1714. By the end of the 1700s the medicinal reputation of Kilburn had given away to a popularity for cheap and unsavoury entertainment.

The appalling state of roads led to gifts, from benevolent gentleman, like William Kempe, Edward Harvist and John Lyon, to aid their upkeep. The effect of their generosity was limited and in December 1711 an Act of Parliament was passed to repair the road from Kilburn to Stanmore. The high cost of road maintenance led to the creation of turnpikes to exact tolls from road users. Kilburn Gate was erected at Kilburn Bridge in 1864 and had finally moved to Shoot Up Hill when it was abolished in 1872. The spread of London in the 1840s and the coming of the North London Railway in 1853 brought more people to Kilburn, so that by 1909 the centre comprised some 300 shops.

The expansion of the hamlet of Kensal Green began in connection with the cemetery, whose 70 acres, opened in 1832, became the resting place of many of the Victorian elite. Kensal Green Manor House which once stood on the south side of the Harrow Road, became the home of the novelist, Harrison Ainsworth in 1841 who in his twenty years of residence in Willesden wrote 'Rockwood' and 'Jack Sheppard'. The Borough has associations with other authors, including Church End with Mrs Craik, author of ' John Halifax, Gentleman' and Kingsbury with Oliver Goldsmith who wrote 'She Stoops to Conquer' there.

Harlesden's passing mention in the Doomsday Book reflects an early origin, but the country village with an air of a wild west shanty town, remained relatively unchanged until the 1870s. The London-Birmingham Railway had appeared on the scene in 1836-7 and was accompanied by railway cottages. "The appearance of this place, as a decent village, has been destroyed by the erection of a row of small brick houses, resembling Irish cabins. There are, however some neat specimens of the detached English cottage at Harlesden and some fine old farm houses".

When Willesden Junction was opened in 1866 more railway cottages appeared. The railways brought people and trade encouraged the railway to enlarge its services. Willesden Junction became an important railway centre with extensive yards and sidings between 1873 and 1894. People came to find work and with them came the building prospectors. The green fields of Harlesden and the neighbourhood became the haunt of builders, but not until the 1870s were out. The terraced housing in Harley Road for the employees of London N. Western Railway did not appear until the 1890's. Tubbs and Purves road began earlier from 1882 onwards. Minet Avenue, Acton Lane and Nightingale Roads appeared in the mid-1880s and early 1890s. During this period the Jubilee Clock was erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee of 1888 - by a committee of Harlesden Residents at a cost of £299.10.0d.

In 1816 Willesden Parish was described as a "peaceful country area, ideal for the retirement of citizens" and it was essentially rural in 1870, though the agricultural life and times were often very hard for the local farmers. The most important influence on the growth of Willesden was the Metropolitan Railway, opened to Willesden Green in 1879. The population of Willesden Parish soared from 18,500 in 1875 to 140,000 in 1906. Wealthy city merchants began building their houses at Willesden Green and Brondesbury Park and local farms were brought up and laid out as housing estates.

To the west of Willesden Green is the celebrated church of St Mary - once situated near the local manor house and farmstead in a cul-de-sac lane at the west end of the village, hence "Church End" . The present church site may have been occupied by a wooden chapel in Anglo Saxon times but there is no documentary evidence to confirm this. The existing attractive building is of 13th century date (with Victorian additions) and was a famous centre of pilgramage in the 14th to 16th centuries for the shrine to Our Lady of Willesden. In the churchyard is the vault of the Finch family who, in 1825, built Dollis Hill house. The latter became the property of John Campbell Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen, from 1882 to 1893 and a favourite residence of the Prime Minster, Gladstone, who stayed here for long periods. Mark Twain also visited the house in 1900. The grounds - 96 acres - were opened to the public in May 1901 and named Gladstone Park.

Neasden House, which formally stood in Neasden Lane, in what is now the shopping precinct, had its origins as far back as 1195. It was occupied for 300 years by the Roberts family, the most celebrated of which, Sir William Roberts, Parliamentarian, entertained Oliver Cromwell here many times. Neasden House later became the home of Neasden Golf Club where W.G Grace frequently played as a member. With the passing of the Roberts family in 1700, part of their estate was acquired by Thomas Wingfield. The house he subsequently built for himself at Neasden Green was called 'The Grove' and its accompanying stables were converted in the 1800s by a London solicitor into a house called 'The Grange'. The latter now survives as the local history museum. Neasden began to develop in the 1920s with estate development associated with the Metropolitan Railway and the coming of the North Circular Road.

Twyford was selected to be the permanent show ground for the Royal Agricultural Society under the fanciful name of Park Royal. The venture, was not, however a success and in 1905 the scheme was abandoned. Instead, the Park Royal area proved ideal to meet the demand for extensive munitions factories during the 1914-18 war and so, what could have been a very attractive amenity, became an estate of munitions factories which established Park Royal as an industrial area.

Amongst their distinguishing characteristics Willesden and Wembley can be differentiated in terms of land ownership. In Willesden, the Church held a vast amount of land. The Manor of Harrow in western Kenton and part of Wembley was for long in the hands of the Lords Northwick and local farmers were tenants. In eastern Kenton and in much of Wembley the Page family had large estates until the eighteenth century when, as in Kingsbury, the estates became fragmented and gave rise to notable landowners. Throughout Brent as a whole, All Souls College, Oxford held substantial interests.

The Welsh Harp Reservoir, named after an old alehouse which stood on the Edgeware Road, is one of several water supplies for the Grand Union Canal. It was built in the 1830s to give greater effect to the canal feeder which had been constructed through 'Stonebridge' earlier in 1810. ('Stonebridge' recalls the days of the old bridge which carried the Harrow Road over the River Brent. It became the site of an alehouse - 'the Coach and Horses' - which the painter, Morland, frequented nearly 280 years ago). From about 1850 to 1900 the reservoir and its public house were very popular places of recreation and entertainment. The proprietor of the 'Old Welsh Harp', W.P Warner, created a fishery here and by 1862 had laid out a Kingsbury Race Course. One of the many races was for the Volunteer Vase - presented by the proprietor of Marylebone Music Hall, which gave rise to the appearance of this popular inn in music hall song: "You couldn't find its equal if you walked for miles about, there's no mistake about it, it's the jolliest place that's out".

The settlement of Kingsbury originated on the site of the King's 'hunting lodge' now occupied by the 12th/13th century church of St Andrew. The ravages of the Black Death of 1349 almost destroyed the settlement which, 100 years later, was growing as a local trading centre where Kingsbury Trading Centre is today. Here country life continued well into 1920s and early 1930s. The growth of the settlement at Kingsbury Green brought pressure for a new church to be built nearer home which was effected at Holy Innocents in 1883. The coming of the Metropolitan Railway (later Bakerloo and now the Jubilee Line) in 1932 led to a new Kingsbury being created at Kingsbury Station and the development of all the surrounding fields. Apart from the local farms, cottages and imposing country villa's, a country seat (Kingsbury Manor) was built here in 1899 for the Duchess of Sutherland. In 1928 its stabling block was rented to John Logie Baird who, in 1929, received the first television signals from Berlin and achieved the first combined sound and sight transmission in March 1930. The growth of Kingsbury brought about by the railway and the British Empire Exhibition created pressures for a new, larger church for the district. This was finally accomplished in 1933 by removing the Church of St Andrew from Wells Street, Oxford Circus and transporting it stone by stone to Kingsbury where it was rebuilt next to the old St Andrews church.

The other influencing factor on Kingsbury's development was the First World War. It's close proximity to London Aerodrome at Hendon led to this horse breeding area becoming one of aircraft manufacture. Apart from the inevitable factories and airfields an entire village was built at Roe Green to house aircraft workers in 1918 to 1920.

The development brought to Willesden by the Metropolitan Railway after 1879 did not have the same immediate impact on Wembley. Although the line was opened to Harrow in 1880 a station did not appear at Wembley Park until 1894 and only then for the recreational ground. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the landscape had undergone considerable change at the hands of the canal companies. The Paddington branch of the Grand Junction, opened in 1801, particularly affected Alperton where bricks and tile making flourished in the middle of the last century. Apart from handling the shipment of sand, gravel and coal the canal transported hay to London and carried passenger traffic on pleasure trips from the city to the 'Pleasure Boat' at Alperton and back.

Much of the ownership of Wembley had been in the hands of the Page family whose principal seat, Wembley House, lay on the south side of the Wembley Green (now the site of Copland School). In the 18th century this was superseded in preference to a large house which stood on the slope of Wembley Hill. In 1793 Page engaged the landscape architect Humphry Repton, who had recently laid out Brondesbury Park, to restyle his property as a country mansion and landscape its grounds. This was the origin of Wembley Park. After 1887 the park was acquired by the Metropolitan Railway to be developed as a recreation centre for north west London. Dominating the cricket pitches, running track and boating lake was the principal feature - a virtual replica of the Eiffel Tower. This was never completed and was demolished in 1907. The beauty spot was selected by the Government for the site of the British Exhibition of 1924-5 which, apart from the destruction of Wembley Park's countryside was primarily responsible for the rapid development of the district. Approximately 27 million people visited the exhibition of 1924-5 which, apart from the destruction of Wembley Park's countryside, was primarily responsible for the rapid development of the district. Approximately 27 million people visited the exhibition and many sought to settle in the charming countryside around.

Wembley had acquired a railway station in 1844, two years after Willesden. The church of St John was erected in the following year, close to Barham Park where Wembley's benefactors, the Copland family, lived. Real development, however did not, begin until the 1890s. The death of the local landowner released building land for sale whilst the Great Central Railway, built across Wembley Hill, opened a station there in 1906 and encouraged further building along the High Road. Wembley's population of 203 in 1851 had reached 48,500 in 1931, by which time the former hamlets of Preston and Kenton to the north were undergoing rapid change.

Preston's earlier history was subordinate to the fortunes of the Manor House at Uxendon whose occupants, the Bellamys, were arrested for treason in the Babington Plot of 1586. Perhaps the most famous resident of Preston was John Lyon, who lived on what is now Preston Hill, and who not only founded Harrow School in 1572 but gave property for its upkeep and, by bequest, provided for the repair of Edgeware and Harrow Roads. A proposed station for Preston was rejected in 1896 because there were not enough residents. A halt appeared at Preston Road in 1910 but the station did not materialise until 1933.

Kenton's settlement was originally centred on the Plough and Kenton Grange in Woodgrange Avenue. The old Plough licensed by 1751 was the only inn in Kenton until 1873 when a beer shop appeared near the railway. The station was not built until 1912, by which time the beer shop had been demolished and replaced by the Travellers Rest, which in turn was re-built in 1933. In Kenton, the coming of the railway, the British Empire Exhibition and road improvements led to phenomenal growth - from a population of 300 in 1921 to 6000 in 1931. Building materials were held up by the government until 1925 and in the thirteen years which followed Kenton was transformed from a small village into a lmage suburban area.

Further information on the history of Brent can be found at

Written by G. Hewlett June 1976
Reproduced by D. Thomas August 2005


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