The history of Kilburn: A rich tapestry

Local historian Ed Fordham tells how Kilburn’s history stretches back to Roman times

Virtually everyone you meet in London knows of Kilburn – they may not have been here – but they have heard of it. It’s one of those places that apparently is a bit tricky... yet for all of the perceptions most people who live here know it for what it is – great fun, , incredibly diverse and with an incredible back story.

Of course, part of that back story is that so many fascinating people have lived here– HG Wells, George Orwell and AA Milne to name but a few.

But this is almost just modern history to the full stretch of Kilburn’s true history. It was back in the early days of 43AD that the Roman Emperor Claudius and his army invaded Britain and established the furthest western province of the Roman Empire.

It was that conquest that the following year saw the construction of Britain’s first motorway – Watling Street – a direct route out of London and north – in those days to Verulamium (now St Albans).

That’s where Kilburn’s story starts for that road – now Kilburn High Road, – is what had created, shaped and formulated the Kilburn we have today.

It’s a means of travel – thousands of people over centuries have come to the local area, stayed for a time, some have settled, many have moved on that had created the atmosphere and the amazing vibe.

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For the rebellion of Iceni Queen Bouddica it was the road that got her to London so quickly for her to burn it down in 61AD before the Roman Army could return from Wales and northern England.

And so Kilburn became the point for which people passed through – Roman Emperors and their court, Kings and armies of old passing north out of London.

So it was that in 878AD when King Alfred signed a treaty with the Danish invaders making Watling Street the boundary, Alfred retained control of the Brent side (Wessex) and the Danes kept the Camden side (Danelaw) – until he conquered London a few years later.

The next milestone in the historic development was the construction of the medieval priory at the start of the 13th century. Nothing now remains of it, but the street names reflect that heritage and you can still see Hermit Place where the first religious settlement was by the river.

The fast changing growth of London in the 19th Century, the construction of the railways and the underground piping of most of the natural rivers changed forever the character and nature of what we see today.

But Kilburn today for me still shows off all of these influences – the straight direct road north and south, the stark distinction between east and west, Camden and Brent.

But most of all it remains about it’s people – whether here briefly, permanently, or in a transitory journey living here for just 18 months. That rich tapestry of Kilburn’s ancient and medieval history can still be found – but you have to look at what exists and understand how it developed – then you come to see more of Kilburn. Look again – there is so much to see.