The Broader Picture: The loss of a local history

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PRESERVING the past is a patchy business. The parts most likely to be saved - to be judged worth saving by those with the power to do so - are the districts, dwellings and possessions of the rich. Others get squeezed out: railways are run through them, houses are knocked down because no one speaks up for them. Take Somers Town, a small area of London just north of the Euston Road, begun as a garden suburb in the 1790s, once a home to painters and writers, and to many refugees from foreign oppression: French, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish. Later came the Irish to build the railways, and the area is now a jumble of new council flats, schools, pubs and churches - there has been a Catholic chapel since the French Revolution sent in its emigres.

Somers Town still boasts some Georgian houses, although in 1894 it lost the Polygon, a fine group in which Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was born; it was demolished to make way for railway workers' flats. And, despite its associations with Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, William Hazlitt, Thomas Hardy and E M Forster, there has been little encouragement to local pride in its history. During the 19th century a workhouse was built on one side, the railway lines cut through the lovely old churchyard and virtually closed off the area on two more sides, and it sank into poverty and squalor. In 1912 there was even a proposal to raze it all as insanitary and unruly.

But it survived, and in 1980 the GLC commissioned the London artist Karen Gregory to paint a mural on the wall of a school to celebrate the history of the district and its famous residents. Anyone who wants to see it in its 33 ft by 44 ft glory in Polygon Street will have to be quick, because it's about to disappear.

The story of the mural is a reminder of what happened to London during the Eighties. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) owned the land, Camden Council contributed to the expense and, later, the Arts Council paid to have photographs made. The intention was to produce a poster and leaflet explaining the mural, to be used in schools. The mural itself was expected to have a life of at least 20 years, and there were plans to make a garden in front of it.

But as so often in the history of Somers Town, circumstances changed; ILEA and the GLC disappeared, and the skill and energy that went into the project is being allowed to go to waste. The garden was never made. Instead it is going to be built on. New flats are a very good thing, but they are not the only good, and so far nobody seems concerned even to make a proper record of the mural, though it's probably the finest in London.

It offers a journey through time, drawing on the styles of many artists; Stubbs, Constable, Gainsborough, Ford Madox Brown, Sickert and Gilman. Old St Pancras church is in the background, surrounded by hay fields. The Fleet river runs by under an elm tree. Beneath it are seated the figures of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who belong to the earliest period of Somers Town's history. Their daughter Mary is shown as a young woman, with her husband Shelley, sailing paper boats from the bridge over the Fleet, while behind them appears the head of Frankenstein's monster.

On the left hand side, the rural charm of Somers Town disappears as the railways arrive, first Euston, then King's Cross. You can see Charles Dickens, who also lived in the Polygon as a boy, and behind him the brick kilns and dust heaps he described in Our Mutual Friend - here rather smaller than they were. In the foreground is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's Hospital for Women, opened in 1872. There is also a chimney sweep's boy, representing one known to have died in Somers Town, and groups of the ragged children who became a chief feature of the streets. In the 1920s Father Basil Jellicoe worked here with two remarkable women, Edith Neville and Irene Barclay. They shared an ideal of good community-living which they tried to put into practice, founding the excellent St Pancras Housing Association, setting up nurseries, children's holiday funds and low-rent housing, maintaining gardens and running a local theatre. Ironically, it is projected building by the St Pancras Housing Association which threatens the mural that records its work.

One way to preserve it would be to reproduce it on the wall at the other end of the school; with modern copying techniques, Karen Gregory believes this could be done quickly and cheaply. At the very least, posters and postcards should be made, as was planned at the outset. No one has any money now, but still we don't live by bread alone. Couldn't the Arts Council, the London Arts Board and Camden each at least make a contribution? -

(Photograph omitted)