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A history of democracy in Camden

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Camden Town Hall

In preparation for their Democracy walking tour, Three Founder members of the Camden Tour Guides Association walked the route.

The walk starts just outside Camden Town Hall in Judd Street. A good example of a Neo-Palladian building built from 1934-7 by the architect A J Thomas (who used to work for Edwin Lutyens). The interior of the building (grand staircase, and wooden panelled function rooms) makes it a popular place for Weddings. It also has a fine Council Chamber with seating in semi-circular style based on a Saxon Court, where public can observe democracy in action during meetings of the Council.

Next time you walk past take a careful look at the exterior of the building. It has some stone carving - including a series of three carved heads over the doors on the North, South and main West sides. It looks as if these keystones (apparently by William Charles Holland King) are based on real people. We've so far been unable to find out who these people are - so if anyone reading this knows, please get in touch with us.

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Unknown stone carving by William Charles Holland King
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Unknown stone carving by William Charles Holland King

The Town Hall was originally completed for the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras. Camden was created by merging St Pancras with two other authorities - Holborn and Hampstead. It was really an extraordinary marriage. Each of the previous Boroughs were completely different from each other. St Pancras was densely populated, and led by a strongly socialist Labour grouping, focused on improving housing and social conditions. Hampstead was traditionally conservative, didn't invest in many services, and kept the rates low. Holborn was a very small borough, but wealthier than Hampstead and St Pancras as it had lots of business and so good income from business rates. It was largely run by councillors who represented the commercial interests in the area. None of the boroughs would have chosen to merge with each other - they all would have preferred different partners, but the decision to bring the three together to form Camden was clever, and acceptable to politicians from all sides, as the new borough was seen to be winnable by either of the two main parties.

Naming the new Council was also a matter of some importance. Charlie Ratchford, Labour leader of the older St Pancras Borough wanted to call the new borough St Pancras or Greater St Pancras. Hampstead preferred a name based on the River Fleet (one of London's Hidden and underground Rivers) which runs through Hampstead and St Pancras - so Camden might easily have been called something like Fleetside. In the end Camden was chosen, based on the central area of the borough, Camden Town. Camden comes of course from Lord Camden the landowner who first laid out and developed Camden Town.

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The first official Camden Guide, 1967
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Forward to the first official Camden Guide, 1967

The first elections were held in May 1964, with the new Council taking power from the old authorities in 1st April 1965. As it turned out the new election returned a Labour majority. The Council was younger than typical (2/3rd of the councillors under 40), and the majority party adopted a strong leftwing socialist viewpoint, with a great focus on acquiring and building social housing. A new Camden logo was also adopted.

The Town Hall is the visible centre of Democracy in Camden, and as a result is a centre for demonstrations and protests. In the early days before Camden was established St Pancras was one of the most radical councils in the UK (sometimes referred to as the Socialist Republic of St Pancras) and Labour leader John Lawrence attracted much publicity by flying the Red Flag from the Town Hall during a trade union demonstration (which included clashes with a right wing group) on May day in 1958. Protests focusing around plans to raise rents regularly took place outside the Town Hall in the 1960s, leading at one stage to government banning protests for three months in the area. The Town Hall has also seen occupations - by various groups, notably by homeless Bangladeshi families in 1984.

Article by Dave Brown, Founding Member of the Camden Tour Guides Association

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Camden Town Hall.