The nicest child I ever knew
Was Charles Augustus Fortescue…
He rose at once in his Career…
He thus became extremely Rich,
And built the Splendid Mansion which
Is called The Cedars, Muswell Hill,
Where he resides in affluence still,
To show what everybody might
Become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT.
Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales for Children, 1920
One reason why we all feel so good living in the heights of Muswell Hill is that there’s an abundance of urban forests within our midst, some dating from prehistoric times. The trees of Coldfall, Queen’s and Highgate Woods, Alexandria Park and the parklands of local golf courses remove the ‘fine particle matter’ – man-made pollutants – from the air. We can breathe deeply and contentedly knowing that The Sunday Times has commended this leafy hamlet as one of the most pleasant places to live in Britain.
Excavated artefacts such as pottery, tiles and coins indicate a Roman presence, while settlement in pre-Norman conquest times is suggested by the borough names of Haringey and Hornsey (oddly enough), derived from the old English words Heringes-hege – the ‘g’ being pronounced as a ‘y’. The medieval tower once part of Hornsey parish church confirms continuing settlement.
It’s believed that the name Muswell Hill derives from the springs or well north of the church tower from which flowed the Moselle brook. The first part of the name is derived from the Old English word meos – moss – while the second part originates from the Old English word wielle – well, fountain or spring – so defining Muswell as ‘the hill of the mossy spring’.
The spring was on 64 acres of land given to the Augustinian Priory of St Mary for the nuns to use as a dairy farm. The well was believed to have miraculous curative properties. After the dissolution of the monasteries the land came under civil jurisdiction. Members of the aristocracy and professional classes established sizeable estates upon it and in the locality. One was once the home of Charles Mudie, the publisher and bookseller who initiated the first public lending subscription library. By the end of the nineteenth century the local population of roughly a thousand was set to rise markedly, and massive development changed the nature of the terrain.
One of the two major developers was James Edmondson. He may have discovered the Muswell paradise while cycling up from Highbury on his penny-farthing for pleasure or to investigate the area, which had become notorious for the brutal murder of an elderly local resident! (About 15,000 people visited the scene of the crime!) Edmondson gave sites for chapels and a fire station and spurred the creation of shopping parades and residential avenues. One of his sons became a Conservative MP and was ennobled as 1st Baron Sanford in 1945.
The Collins family were also major developers. One member, William – ‘Billy’ – was a painter who had exhibited at the Royal Academy. His designs for the Rookfield Estate (Thomas Moore’s poem ‘Lalla Rookh’ inspired the name) were in keeping with the architectural style of the Arts and Crafts Movement associated with Voysey, Lutyens and Shaw: airy, red brick houses with white joinery for canopies, balconies and small paned casement or sash windows, decorative plasterwork, stained glass, panelling and carved chimney pieces, and spacious gardens.
Thus Muswell Hill was transformed into a ‘respectable and sought after’ suburban enclave. And I can’t help but wonder what folk then would have thought of the jazzy links with The Kinks’ album Muswell Hillbillies, and the fact that band members Ray and Dave Davies are born and bred Muswellians.
This article first appeared in Living North Resident, September 2013.