On the 1st of May 1913, the gates to Kilburn Grange Park were thrown open to the public for the first time, but without any fanfare or celebration. The fact that Kilburn still has this fantastic open space owes more to good luck than careful planning.
The park takes its name from a large mansion, The Grange, which was built in 1831, despite claims about it being a much older property. The house stood facing Kilburn High Road, where the Grange Cinema, now used by the Universal Church, stands today.
|Kilburn in 1893 showing The Grange
The Peters family were there from 1843. Thomas Peters was a successful and wealthy coach builder who made coaches for Queen Victoria. The last occupant was Mrs Ada Peters, the widow of his son John Winpenny Peters. Ada died in the house on 5 February 1910. For pictures and more information about Ada and her lover the Marquis de Leuville, see the previous story posted on the Blog on 6 Dec 2012. Our ebook, The Marquis de Leuville: a Victorian Fraud? can be downloaded from Amazon and other ebook sites.
The Grange was the last of the large houses. The flood of suburban building had long since surrounded the property, leaving the house and its extensive grounds marooned in a sea of small streets and tight terrace housing. Most of today’s streets had been built. Population densities were high on both sides of the High Road, where living conditions were often cramped and insanitary.
In the centre of the poorest and most crowded part of Kilburn stands the Grange. Round it stretch rows of small houses, and house after house built for one family is occupied by three. Hundreds of children live nearby. It is estimated that there are 4,000 children under the age of fifteen years of age in the Kilburn Ward of Hampstead. The streets are the only open space outside the playgrounds of the Council schools.
What the area lacked was a public open space. As a small boy Warwick Edwards remembered visiting the Grange during the summer of 1911.
One day it was thrown open to us schoolchildren and with wide eyed curiosity we roamed the grounds which were in a state of undisplined nature with much entangled undergrowth. The house and its surroundings, so near the hustle and bustle of the High Road, yet such a different world!
|The Grange, from The Graphic 1901 (Marianne Colloms)
The first hopes that the space could be made into a public park were raised in 1901 when Mrs Peters decided she didn’t want a school built on the edge of the grounds, in Kingsgate Road. She encouraged local residents in the belief they could purchase the grounds as a park. Unfortunately her actions took no account of the facts. Anticipating future demand, the London School Board had already bought the land in 1892, renting it back to the Peters family until the school was needed. But even worse, Ada failed to mention her legal status following her husband’s death in 1882. Under John’s will Ada only had rights to live at the Grange during her lifetime as a ‘tenant for life’. She could not sell it and the property would revert to the Peters family when she died.
A local Grange Open Space Committee was formed in April 1901 to resist the ‘mutilation’ of the grounds: the short-lived campaign gained popular support before collapsing in June 1901, as Mrs Peters first prevaricated and finally had to admit she couldn’t deliver. The School Board was forced to take her to court in 1902 to obtain possession of the site, and by October the foundations for Kingsgate School were laid.
After Ada was buried alongside her husband at Kensal Rise Cemetery, the Peters family regained possession of the Grange and its grounds. Locals knew the estate was one of the last chances Kilburn would ever have to acquire a ‘green lung,’ accessible to thousands of residents. So for a second time, plans were made and meetings called. But a new set of problems had to be overcome. First and foremost were the intentions of the Peters family.
Just a couple of weeks after Ada’s death, the local paper reported that the nine and a half acre estate was for sale. Things got off to a promising start when the agents acting on behalf of the Peters family contacted Hampstead Council to ask if the authority was interested in buying it as an open space, reminding them of the unsuccessful but hugely popular campaign of 1901. Councillors asked for a three month option to buy, giving them time to get an independent valuation of the property.
Meantime the house contents were disposed of in a 50 page catalogue, and the sheer volume of goods meant the auction lasted three days. On 12 April 1910 more than 300 items of furniture went under the hammer, followed by 600 paintings, clocks and bronzes the next day. Finally there were around 1,000 items of less valuable plate, china and kitchen equipment plus all the outdoor effects such as statues, six carriages built by Peters and Sons and a Merryweather fire engine. The sale commenced each day at 1pm, and the lots were knocked down at a rapid rate. The house was earmarked for demolition so where possible, its structural components were sold for salvage. This included the door to the billiard room, purchased by local developer and publican Richard Pincham. He installed it as the new entry to a function hall on the first floor of his Railway Hotel on West End Lane.
|Some of the contents from the Grange house sale, April 1910
The agent’s response to Hampstead Council was swift – the Peters refused an option to purchase and had decided the property would be publically auctioned, ‘to have the question of price fixed by competition,’ but by deferring the sale to 24 May, they hoped this would give the Council ‘nearly the three months required.’ Hampstead promptly cancelled any valuation and decided that they’d pass the whole matter over to the LCC. The LCC considered that while the ‘back land’ might be suitable for an open space, the development value of the frontage to Kilburn High Road was too high, so this should be excluded from any park plan. The Kilburn Chamber of Trade agreed with this proposal, pointing out business premises ‘would contribute to the Borough Rates’. Presumably because the Grange estate stood on the boundary between the Boroughs of Hampstead and Willesden, and was also fairly close to Paddington and St Marylebone, the LCC also advised Hampstead to ask for financial contributions towards the purchase price from adjoining authorities. Hampstead and Willesden drew up broadly similar financial plans to acquire the land. On 6 May a deputation attended the LCC. Councillors from both Hampstead and Willesden, thelocal MP accompanied by representatives of Middlesex County Council and the Metropolitan Gardens Association, bluntly outlined the situation: ‘they desire to point out that unless the present opportunity of acquiring this estate is embraced all chance for providing an open space for Kilburn will disappear.’
The Grange sale particulars show the Peters’ intention was crystal clear, to maximise the value of their freehold property by selling it for development.
The auctioneer opened proceedings promptly at 2pm on the 24 May 1910, by suggesting many uses for the property. He said it was eminently suitable as the site for a skating rink, theatre, cinema, music hall, aeroplane factory, exhibition ground or residential flats, any of which would result in ‘untold wealth for the lucky purchaser,’ (in the words of a slightly tongue in cheek report that appeared in the local press). The auctioneer asked for an opening bid of £40,000, but just £10,000 was offered and had to be accepted as an opening bid, despite his pleading for a ‘more worthy’start. Slowly £22,000 was reached, with incremental bids of £1,000, and then the bids went up by £500, until the price stuck at £30,000. ‘Not all the cajoling from the rostrum could get a further bid, and with a crest-fallen look the auctioneer withdrew the property, stating that the reserve price was £35,000.’ The Peters’ desire for the price to be fixed by competitionhad fallen short of their expectations.
This reversal in the family’s fortunes meant plans for an open space could be taken seriously again. Bizarrely, this wasn’t raised at the next meeting of Hampstead Council held just a few days later. A councillor who asked if the Trees and Open Spaces Committee ‘were aware that the children of Kilburn had already taken possession of the Grange,’ got no reply. Local residents had already held packed meetings to promote the idea and were appalled at the possibility the land could be built on and, ‘disappear before the march of modern progress.’ They continued to campaign and fund raise.
In fact, the Council had already re-opened negotiations with the Peters family, offering to buy eight and a half acres of the land plus an access strip from the High Road. The reply was conditional but positive: while the Peters wanted to sell the estate as one lot, they would be willing to sell the ‘park’ land for £18,000 so long as the plots fronting the High Road was sold at the same time and simultaneous contracts exchanged. This was still a considerable amount of money, but working on an anticipated £5,000 from the LCC plus £4,000 from their own funds and private donations (over £500 already collected), Hampstead Council again approached the agents acting for the Peters.
Then, as a local paper put it, their representatives ‘had an unpleasant surprise’ when at the end of June, theywere told the Grange estate had been sold privately for an unnamed sum. The new owner was Oswald Stoll, a major name in the entertainment world. But again, fortune smiled on the park campaigners, when it was hinted that plans were being made for the plot on the main road but the land behind might still available.
The wheels of local government moved slowly and locally, fund raising limped on. It seems surprising in view of the obvious need for open space that money flowed in so slowly, but so far as personal donations were concerned, Kilburn pockets weren’t deep and many people had no cash to spare. The name of at least one notable local benefactor, Sir Henry Harben, who had given large sums to good causes in the past, was missing. The Middlesex County Council pledged £1,000 but the Corporation of London declined to contribute. The local MP pointed out that while Hampstead had spent £40,000 in the past acquiring open spaces, ‘nothing had been done for Kilburn.’ Personal donations had only reached £667 by early August.
What followed was a series of proposals and counter proposals. In October, Stoll’s agents contacted Hampstead Council. They offered five and a half acres of land at an asking price of £12,500. This would lie on either side of a proposed new road, running from the High Road across the estate, to make a junction with Hemstal Road. The Council agreed but only if the price was reduced to £10,000, (and this had to include financial contributions from other authorities). Stoll’s agents agreed to the Council’s offer but their further condition was for Hampstead to pay half the cost of creating the new road.
Stoll wanted to erect a Coliseum on the Kilburn High Road frontage. He already owned and operated the well-known London Coliseum in St Martins Lane. He put in an early application to the LCC for a music and dancing license, which Hampstead Council decided to oppose, a move hardly calculated to ease negotiations over the land. The agents suggested Hampstead reconsider its opposition and spelt out in no uncertain terms that the low price for the back land was conditional on the high returns expected from the Coliseum, the implication being no license, no land. They issued a further lightly veiled threat, that the value of the five and a half acres would be considerably in excess of £10,000, if ‘cut up’ for building. The Trees and Open Space committee of the Council added further pressure, concluding ‘the loss of the present and probably last opportunity of acquiring an open space for Kilburn would be calamitous.’
Hampstead Council caved in. They agreed to all Stoll’s terms for purchase and to rescind their opposition to his license for a ‘Kilburn Coliseum.’ This didn’t please a large number of local residents: although desperate for the open space they disliked the idea of a massive music hall so close to their homes.
The decision was taken out of Hampstead’s hands a few months later, when the LCC agreed to purchase around eight and a half acres of the Grange estate for £19,500 and maintain it as a park. This is equivalent to about £1.6 million today. Hampstead Council’s contribution was £5,500 with Middlesex County Council and Willesden Council each pledging £1,000. Donations accounted for a further £690 with £105 from the Metropolitan Gardens Association.
Contracts were exchanged on 4 April 1911, and as originally conceived, the park covered seven acres. The LCC earmarked half an acre to enlarge the site of Kingsgate Road school and reserved an acre along Messina Avenue in case it was needed for ‘tramway purposes’ (but agreed to add this to the park in 1914). ‘Kilburn Gardens’ was proposed for the park by the LCC, but Hampstead’s suggestion that the name of the old house should be perpetuated was adopted, hence it became ‘Kilburn Grange.’ The grounds were opened informally for much of the summer of 1911 while plans for its layout were completed, these included;
An ornamental garden, children’s playground, model yachting pond, band stand, footpaths, drainage, etc., and at a later stage, children’s gymnasium, tennis courts, bowling green, and accommodation for refreshments.
Existing trees were to be kept, and three entrances planned: from Hemstal Road, Messina Avenue and the High Road.
It took a while to complete the landscaping, during which time the grounds were generally closed; in fact nearly two years elapsed before the LCC informed Hampstead Council the park would be opened to the public on 1 May 1913, but, ‘it was not proposed to hold any opening ceremony.’ This seems a rather damp squib, unworthy of the success of the lengthy campaign.
|Marianne Colloms postcard
What happened to the land bordering the High Road? There was never any suggestion that the house would be kept. The site was used for a short length of road, a few shops and the impressively domed Grange Cinema. This opened in 1914 on the High Road corner of Messina Avenue, the march of modern technology having overtaken Stoll’s earlier plans for a music hall.
Postcards like the one above, were produced of the Grange Park and the Cinema. Marianne has several of these cards. One from an unnamed writer, was posted during the First World War to Bert.
It read as follows:
My Dear Bert,
At last I am sending a few cards, I can’t get a very choice selection, as Kilburn is not particularly pretty place, but I will get a few more next week, the Grange pictures are new to you, as that is a new place since the old place was pulled down. I could not get one of the Cinema yet, but I hope you will come over to see for yourself. The war still seems to be going strong, but I guess old Kaiser Bill won’t realise the height of his ambition. Joe has got in the Royal Fusiliers and is at Colchester now, he hopes to go to the Front soon.
The park was an important open space for Kilburn. Concerts of military and popular music were played on the bandstand during the summer months. Dick Weindling remembers playing football there most evenings, and in the summer the path around the paddling pond was the running track for him and his friends in the 1950s. As a keen athlete, he had a stop watch and details of the best times for one, two and four laps were kept in a notebook. In the 1950s and 1960s young men from the large Irish community often played a form of Shinty on the grassed area, violently hitting a small ball with sticks.
One last proposal to extend the park was made in 1972, when it was suggested that nearly all the houses in Gascony and Messina Avenues, between the High Road and Kingsgate Road, should be demolished. Grange Park would have been extended south across the cleared site, which would also have provide spaced for Kingsgate School to expand.
|Kilburn and the Grange Park, 1935