A local history book prompts James Cracknell to discover more about his neighbourhood
Shortly before the world changed, when WHSmith was still open, I found myself browsing the bookshelves looking for a birthday present.
Not quite sure what I was after, I stumbled upon a local history book called Old Southgate and Palmers Green, written by Bernard Byrom. I was instantly fascinated by the old black-and-white pictures from a time before motorised transport and the arrival of the Piccadilly Line, which transformed this area from rural village to busy suburb.
I finally settled down to read the 95-page book as the pandemic lockdown began. One of the few historic facts I already knew was that the name Southgate derived from its position, in medieval times, at the south gate of Enfield Chase, then a royal hunting ground. It remained a hamlet until the 19th Century, when Southgate’s “abundantly wooded and agreeable” green spaces, combined with its convenient location “a reasonable carriage ride from London”, led many of the city’s wealthy gentry to make it their home. Significant landowners included the Taylor and Walker families, who collectively ran the Taylor Walker brewery in Limehouse.
The Walkers lived in a mansion house at Southgate Green called Arnos Grove, but the tube station of this name is today situated nearly a mile away, which gives an idea of exactly how much land the Walkers owned. The Grovelands estate, on the other side of Southgate, was owned by the Taylors.
The origins of today’s east/west divide within Enfield borough can be traced back to these two families. It was the arrival of the railways, and its cheap fares, that led to a great exodus of working class populations from the East End out to new suburbs spread either side of the Lea Valley; Walthamstow, Tottenham and Edmonton. This migration was “viewed with alarm” by the Taylor and Walker families, according to Byrom. To avoid a similar thing happening on the west side of the borough, the families expanded their estates so that they could exert greater control over housing development across Southgate, Palmers Green and Winchmore Hill. They even opposed the construction of railways in these areas – but were ultimately unsuccessful.
The seven Walker brothers who lived at Arnos Grove became famous for the their prowess in the sport of cricket. Annual matches were played on the green now known as the Walker Ground, between Southgate Cricket Club and an “All England XI”. Crowds of 10,000 flocked to watch the three-day fixtures held every August and, between 1858 and 1863, Southgate won five and lost just one of these games against England – which subsequently “passed into folklore”.
The entire Taylor estate went up for sale in 1902, and the Walker estate followed in 1918. Over the next few decades, the large houses and private grounds that had characterised Southgate through the Victorian period were split up and built over. Street after street of semi-detached dwellings sprung up, selling for around £500 each. Immigrants arrived from the middle-class areas of Islington and Stoke Newington, including a significant Jewish population. Southgate was touted as one of the healthiest places to live in outer London; in 1900 its mortality rate was already far lower than in Edmonton, a trend that has continued ever since.
Chase Side in Southgate marks the border between Enfield and Barnet boroughs, and although Osidge is on the Barnet side, it is worth giving a brief mention to its most famous resident. Sir Thomas Lipton, originally from Glasgow, built the Lipton grocery empire in the late 19th Century. Among its best-selling products was Ceylonese tea, leading to the creation of the Lipton Tea brand that remains well known today. After the company relocated to London, Sir Thomas made his home in Southgate in 1892, at the mansion house known as Osidge. He died there in 1931. The house is currently in the process of being revamped and sold as luxury apartments selling for upwards of a million pounds each.
The Piccadilly line arrived at Southgate in 1933, cementing its status as a desirable London suburb. The station building and its adjacent shopping precinct were designed by Charles Holden. His Art Deco designs for several tube station buildings won many plaudits and Southgate, in particular, is frequently singled out for praise. In my (biased) view, it remains the prettiest station on the whole network!
As an addendum to this brief journey through Southgate’s fascinating past I want to give a special shout-out to the area now known as New Southgate. Historically called Colney Hatch, from 1851 it became synonymous with The Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum, the largest in Europe. In 1859 the asylum had 2,000 patients and the adjacent Colney Hatch Station was built largely to serve it. By the 1880s it had “become infamous throughout London” and locals sought to “disassociate themselves” from the asylum by lobbying – successfully – for their village and railway station to be renamed New Southgate. It therefore became associated, instead, with the entirely separate settlement a mile-and-a-half up the road.
Buy a copy of Old Southgate and Palmers Green: