Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2016/31 posted by hidden europe on

It is 150 years since the Midland Railway, which in 1866 was extending its tracks south into St Pancras, demolished a poor, working-class community which inconveniently straddled the company's proposed route to its grand new London terminus. Agar Town was tucked into the wedge of land between the Regent's Canal and the main railway line running north from King's Cross.

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Dear fellow travellers

We have over the years in hidden europe looked at many communities which, for one reason or another, have been erased from the map. They include communities in mid-Wales and northern Italy which were flooded by the rising waters of new reservoirs. The story of Agar Town is interesting as a very different case of a place being erased from the map. Within the space of just a few weeks, an entire district of London was obliterated. Thousands of inhabitants were unceremoniously removed.

It is 150 years since the Midland Railway, which in 1866 was extending its tracks south into St Pancras, demolished a poor, working-class community which inconveniently straddled the company's proposed route to its grand new London terminus. Agar Town was tucked into the wedge of land between the Regent's Canal and the main railway line running north from King's Cross. It abutted onto Somers Town, another London district which has hovered on the edge of obscurity, but one which has latterly found new visibility in estate agents' advertisements as a wave of gentrification sweeps through that area.

The most extraordinary thing about the demise of Agar Town is that, as far as we can see, there was simply no public outcry at a capitalist initiative which rendered thousands homeless - without a penny of compensation.

As a young man John Hollingshead, who later went on to a distinguished career as a theatre impresario, wrote powerfully about issues of politics and social justice - he also penned some good travelogues which deserve to be better known. Hollingshead wrote about Agar Town when in early 1861 he set out to explore the underbelly of capital life, which he described in his book Ragged London. Agar Town, he writes, is "built on a swamp and runs down to the canal in every stage of dirt and decay." Agar Town was a stepping stone to the workhouse or the first port of call for those who had just left the workhouse. It was, Hollingshead observed, a place too poor and miserable to have any appeal for thieves and prostitutes.

The London of 150 years ago suffered from a chronic shortage of housing. Hollingshead saw in Agar Town elements of solidarity and ingenuity in a working-class population which simply had no choice but to improvise when it came to housing. A number of commentators have offered quite positive accounts of Agar Town life. Although it had a gasworks (though no gas for those who lived in its shadow), it also had space for kids to play and there was a security within its rutted lanes and grimy alleys. The reputation of Agar Town was perhaps worse than the reality, and that played into the hands of the railway promoters.

Agar Town was swept from the map in 1866. London's middle classes did not mourn the passing of this community. Yet more recent scholarship has led to a reappraisal of Agar Town. Steven Swensen's analysis of census data has revealed that many in this closely knit urban community were in gainful employment. There were laundry workers and labourers, bricklayers and bootmakers; there was even an accountant, a pharmacist and a jeweller.

Events of the last months, both in Britain and the United States, have shown how evidence may play a woefully small role in collective decision making. Rumours and insinuation often count for more than facts when it comes to influencing public opinion. So it's interesting to note how the resourcefulness and resilience of the Agar Town community evidently counted for nothing when it came to weighing the claims of the Midland Railway against the needs of the inhabitants. For the chattering classes of London, the destruction of Agar Town meant one less slum. The residents of Agar Town surely took a very different view.

One hundred and fifty years on, Agar Town has slipped into cartographic oblivion, bar for one shadow of this lost London community. There is still a road called Agar Grove just north of St Pancras.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.