y interest began when I saw these amazing ceramic birds perched on top of washing posts,” says Diana Foster, founder of Somers Town History Club.
What she had clapped eyes upon was one of the neighbourhood’s assorted hints towards a past rich in radical thinking, creativity and community action. The birds were among more than 200 sculptures commissioned to brighten up housing estates run by the St Pancras Housing Improvement Society in the 1920s and 30s.
Acclaimed sculptor Gilbert Bayes designed the colourful finials (arranged nicely on poles for hanging communal loads of washing out to dry), as he passionately believed that art should be part of everyday life, and accessible to all.
“These decorative finials and lunettes really were ‘art for the people’,” says Diana, “but I think it tells you all you need to know about the history of social housing that most of them today have been stolen or broken, and replaced with replicas. If this was Hampstead they’d have had a Grade II listing and protection.”
As Diana looked into the story of the finials, she also discovered a long list of characters and organisations that had each pioneered positive social change in Somers Town, and subsequently made an impact much further afield too.
“I’m no historian,” she says, “but I do come from a similar working-class background in a town up north, so I became fascinated by the narrative of social reform running through so much of what has happened here.”
From radical priest Basil Jellicoe, who founded the aforementioned art-championing social housing group, to anti-authoritarian philosopher William Godwin and his feminist visionary wife Mary Wollstonecroft, who advocated education for girls – in fact, it’s predominantly the names of women who appear driving the area’s radical agenda.
These include the first female chartered surveyor Irene Barclay, who worked tirelessly improving conditions here for half a century alongside beloved landladies Phyllis Hodges and Edith Neville. Earlier still, Italian immigrant sisters Helen and Olivia Rosetti (relatives of Painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti) ran revolutionary anarchist newspaper The Torch from a flat on Ossulton St.
And though many would think London’s famous Pearly Kings and Queens originate from the East End, the original King, Henry Croft, was born and raised in Somers Town, establishing the regal button-sewn suit pageantry initially as a way of raising money for local hospitals.
“I discovered that this is really where social housing began,” says Diana, “and not philanthropy or charity towards the poor, but genuine investment, so essentially it’s the home of very first social enterprise. It’s still in living memory, too.”
She started the History Club as a way of recording the voices of people who still remembered these local characters, and had benefitted from their visionary zeal.
In the course of her research, she uncovered photo archives and old film clips buried away at places like the BFI. She even encountered the only original Bayes ceramic finials sequestered, like Somers Town’s very own Elgin Marbles, lurking at the back of the British Museum.
“My immediate thought was that all these artefacts need to be seen in the neighbourhood again,” she says. “It’s great that these ones are being preserved and respected, but why should historic photos sit in dusty archives, only accessible to academics? There’s a real disconnect, yet I brought an old photo out to show at one of our events, and had a man say, ‘oh, that’s me in the photo, in my grandmother’s arms, aged three’. This is when I realised this community needs its memory preserving in a physical museum, and it should be in – and for – Somers Town. The area is overwhelmed with development, so its identity needs preserving.”
Diana is aware that the word ‘museum’ might conjure up unhelpful ideas of stuffy old displays in glass cabinets and trigger long-held resentments towards the lofty institutions located nearby, places which may have not felt comfortable or particularly welcoming for the local working class and immigrant populations to spend much time investigating.
Instead, her vision is for something that becomes a hub of today’s community, harnesses the latest digital technology, and brings the pride and that radical spirit of the past back to life in an area that feels besieged by endless big construction projects.
Of course, Somers Town owes its very existence to being located between three big railway termini, the resulting slum housing equally the reason such groundbreaking social improvement schemes needed to be conceived here in the first place.
All of which is why Diana is so keen that the museum project must physically bring this story back to the people who live here, just as much as it draws in visitors keen on learning about its unique social history.
“A museum could mean people here finally feel something is being given back to them,” she says. “At the moment, whether it’s the missing finials or the destruction of housing and parks in the path of HS2, residents just feel like everything is being taken away.”
Today, all museums are big on community outreach, so what better way to achieve this than by rooting a display of Somers Town heritage in one of the remaining pubs, or other social spaces in the very streets that would be its focus?
As another step on the path towards realising this dream, the assembled team of passionate locals, assorted academics and social history buffs now behind the project put together Spirit, a printed magazine full of incredible local stories, personalities and creativity.
“Spirit can mean drinking, as in a lament to lost pubs and social spaces, but equally it represents the radical anarchic spirit present throughout these previous generations,” says Diana.
“If all this fantastic heritage is used to sell luxury flats – and let’s face it, that is inevitably going to happen to some extent – then what can the existing community gain from that process, too? How can we ensure this unique history of social reform isn’t flattened with each new tower or institution? I think a museum is a vital way to do just that.”
Buy a copy of Spirit at Nata Café on Ossulton Street, City Newsagents on Chalton St, Housemans, the British Library or Owl Bookshop Kentish Town. More info on events and progress funding a Somers Town Museum here