Kentish Town was a Lovely Place, by Gillian Tindall, Camden History Society newsletter, August 1974
One of the oldest inhabitants of Kentish Town, commercially speaking, is Mr Hamilton, whose well-stocked stationers in the High Street is known and appreciated from Camden Town to Highgate. The present facade, already almost a period piece with its draw-down shutter and lacquered advertisements for fountain pens, bears the name ‘Bishop and Hamilton’: in fact it was in the early 1890s that the present Mr Hamilton’s father, a ragged boy with little formal education, joined Mr Bishop, bookseller and stationer, as his hard-worked and ambitious assistant. By 1914 he had managed to buy Mr Bishop out: the photo above shows him (the one in the high collar fading spectrally off to the right) together with two assistants – male, of course. Mr Bishop remained, but retreated with his lack of business sense to the basement storeroom, where he spent his time writing. (I wonder what?)
The elaborately-dressed window in the picture is worth studying: the lettering ‘Discount bookseller’ refers to the shop’s original speciality, the sale of paperbound re-issues of three-volume novels, marked initially at six shillings but bought in bulk by Mr Bishop and sold off at 4/ 6. The shop was also typical of its time in running a ‘Twopenny Library’ (see the notice on the left): the days when a free Public Library would flourish in the High Street exactly opposite were still distant. But, aware of changes blowing in the wind, Mr Hamilton senior set about expanding the stationery side of the business. He also, in 1917, took his fourteen-year-old son away from the Acland Central School and took him into the firm as a parcels’ boy, fetching the daily orders of books from the City warehouses by tram.
Three years later, when his son did something he didn’t like, he sacked him, and though he was afterwards forgiven and reinstated the present Mr Hamilton still remembers the occasion with fear: ”My father was brought up to work and really that’s all he did. He was a bit of a martinet – it was the style then, it didn’t matter who you were working for, your father or anyone else, you had to do what was expected of you, or out.” At seventy, Mr Hamilton is inclined to mourn the days when an order placed in the evening could be supplied by lunchtime the following day. (The shop stayed open then from eight in the morning until seven at night, nine on Saturdays and midnight on Christmas Eve).
He also regrets the passing of the ‘carriage trade’ from the big houses in Caversham Road and Bartholomew Villas, and feels sad – and he is not the only one – that Kentish Town High Street, once a place of private businesses held on modest rents, has now been battered and despoiled by alien commercial pressures: “In the old days, we all knew each other. Kentish Town was a lovely place then, it really was. There was more violence in parts of course – you used to see some dreadful things, fights outside the pubs and so on. But there was Mr Dunn, the owner of the hatters next door to us; he used to come and visit my father smoking a big cigar, and when he died he left it in his Will that Dunns was to go on doing as much business as possible with us – of course that’s all been forgotten now. And there was Mr Rex of Salter Rex with a spade beard and a top-hat like Churchill’s – they had a beautiful office down the road, all mahogany, and when he came in all the clerks used to get up and say together ‘good morning Mr Rex’. And then there was Mr Head, the shopwalker at Daniels, the big stores; he was always very smart in a frock coat, everyone knew Mr Head. All gone now, all those people. Just gone, and nothing left of them.”
In the 1920s the nextdoor shop was owned by a greengrocer (Walter Ansell) who did a little horse-dealing on the side, keeping the horses behind the shop on some waste land backing onto the Midland Railway. He apparently looked as rural as he sounds, being given to old-fashioned farmer’s corduroy trousers with wads of cash kept inside the front flap. One day he was standing before his shop in this guise looking pleased with himself, and told Mr Hamilton senior that he’d just bought the freehold of the place for cash’. He suggested that Hamiltons tried to do the same and they took his advice and did – which is how, today, Mr Hamilton junior comes to be his own master, still running his admirable low-turnover business in an era when such useful shops are more and more being squeezed out by huge rent increases only payable by large companies or by the proprietors of luxury high-turnover businesses such as restaurants and clothes shops.
But even he will not remain forever: “I’m getting on, I suppose I’ll have to be thinking about retiring soon and letting the business go. My wife and I do discuss it, but the thing is, I’m too used to work and I’m too much of a one for having things the way I’m used to them. I don’t know what I’d do, with nothing to do all day. The shop’s been my life, really. I’ve never had the time to develop any hobbies. It was all so different, long ago – I really can’t convey it.”
The COVID-19 health crisis has burned our economic and cultural landscape much like a forest fire. But across a charred, razed environment, strong green shoots inevitably emerge.
CAMDENIST is a new collaborative local media platform, currently in beta mode and launching soon. Born from the smoldering ashes of this unprecedented era, it will provide fertile support for the regeneration of our communities, businesses and cultural spaces in the times ahead.
Worth following, too.