Lissenden lives

Step into the world of Lissenden past.

Its 1906, and final touches are being put to the Lissenden Mansions blocks that run along the south side of Lissenden Gardens.

Some things look pretty much as they do today: the domed turrets at the end of Lissenden and Clevedon Mansions, announcing the entry to the estate from Highgate Road; the colourful patterned tiling in the entrance porch to each block. The Arts and Crafts weather vane overlooking the central ‘square’, and the decorative metal balconies that will become the ‘signature’ for the Lissenden Estate, are all in place

Other things look very different. At the beginning of Lissenden Garden’s 100 years of history the towering plane trees of today are delicate saplings, and the walls around the garden areas outside each block are topped with metal railings, like those around the tennis court.

At the top of the square, between the ends of the Parliament Hill and Cleveden Mansions blocks, the Hansel and Gretel style Cottage is a base for the estate gardeners. In 1906 it is flanked, not by a garage and caretakers’ store, but by lean-to greenhouses where flowers are raised for planting out in the estate’s flowerbeds. Originally the central space in front of the Cottage, between Cleveden, Parliament Hill and Lissenden Mansions, was is laid out as a fenced garden square. We are still trying to pinpoint when it was changed to a tennis court for residents’ use, but an advertisement for a flat to let in 1906 mentions ‘two tennis courts’, which could suggests this may have happened very early in Lissenden’s history. (Any information on this will be gratefully received.)

Finally, old post cards show another difference: many balconies are shaded by shop awning-style blinds, to protect the early 20c furnishing fabrics and patterned wallpapers that were prone to fade in strong sunlight,.

Who lived here in 1906-1915?

Flat living developed in London during the nineteenth century, with both tenement style inner city blocks for poorer families, and ‘mansion’ flats for the better off.

The Lissenden Gardens flats would have been marketed to the well off middle classes, and the families of business and professional workers. However, even in these early days, local Electoral Registers show quite a mixture of people living here. There were also live-in domestic servants, who were essential to the smooth running of Edwardian households, and a few people were also letting a room to lodgers. From the outset, mansion flats, with their secure entrances, resident caretakers and modern conveniences, proved popular with the growing number of women who were beginning to lead independent lives.

Why build at the edge of Parliament Hill Fields?

Red brick mansion blocks, with their decorative tiling and distinctive balconies, first appeared in central areas like Marylebone and Kensington, where mansion flat living had been enthusiastically taken up by young professionals and business people, and by newly independent working women.

But, as London’s roads and public transport improved, developers and landlords have begun to look for cheaper sites further from the city centre. Improved railways, and horse and motor bus transport up Highgate Road, helped to make Lissenden Gardens a desirable spot, and by 1906 it’s ‘exceptionally healthy’ location was being promoted as a major selling point – as in the following advertisement that appeared in ‘The Times’ on 23 March 1906:

TO LET at Parliament Hill Mansions NW5: A most charming FLAT in this select and exceptionally healthy neighborhood within easy access of either City or West End, near Gospel Oak Station, and having a splendid service of both motor and horse buses. Accommodation: 2 reception rooms, 4 bedrooms, bathroom. Gardens front and back and two tennis courts. Rent: £3.3s a week.

And a little later, in Lissenden Mansions:

“Situated in this notably healthy and select district, and having commanding views across London from the back and towards Highgate Hill from the front. Tram passes and Gospel Oak and Highgate Stations * are within 4 minutes walk. Accommodation: 2 reception rooms (one 12’ x 26’) 3 bedrooms, bath (h+c) kitchen, electric light and all modern fittings. Rent: £4.00 (inclusive)

[ * Highgate BR Station was located at the bridge across Highgate Road, just South of the cross roads with Gordon House and Chetwynd Roads. ]

Who stepped out of the pages of Lissenden history to tell their stories when we started our Centenary researches?
Discovering what life was like here in the early days of Lissenden Gardens was something all of the ‘Lissenden Lives 1906-46’ live history group enjoyed. the early days of Lissenden. For women members of the team, it seemed a very different world. With few domestic appliances and without the wonder cleaners of today, there was endless back breaking housework that took up long hours of each day, even in these modern flats.

We looked into how households managed, as young London women left domestic service in favour of working for better pay in factories, shops and offices, and as pioneering women like Alice Zimmern promoted labour saving devices to free women from the drudgery of Edwardian housework.

In our researches Alice Zimmern (1855 – 1939) emerged as a real life Lissenden heroine. She moved into 41 Parliament Hill Mansions in 1906 when she was about 50, and lived on the estate until her death in 1939. Like many people, she moved flats within the estate, and her final home was in Clevedon Mansions, overlooking Parliament Hill School for Girls.

Alice Zimmern was the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants, who were lace merchants in Nottingham. She became one of the early graduates of Girton College Cambridge (which had been founded in 1873 as the first university college for women in the UK). After graduating from Girton in 1885, she worked as a teacher and writer.

Her earlier writing shows her passion for learning and teaching, and for making learning interesting. As a classics scholar and teacher she produced translations and commentaries to make learning the classics interesting and accessible. Later she travelled to research and to write about education in Britain and America. In ‘The Renaissance of Girls’ Education’ she provided clear and persuasive arguments for giving girls with an education of equal quality to that of boys (with Camden School for Girls given as an example of how this could be achieved).

On the issue of women’s suffrage she was a moderate. Alice Zimmern did NOT chain herself to railings outside Parliament or go to prison for breaking department store windows in Regent’s Street or – even more militantly – for planting a bomb in number 10 Downing Street (having taken good care that the Prime Minister would not be at home when it exploded!). But ‘In Women’s Suffrage in Many Lands’ she wrote wonderfully clear and persuasive arguments on why women should be given the vote.

A point that has endeared Alice Zimmern to many of us involved in ‘Lissenden Lives 1906-1946’ was the fact that she was a practical feminist, who promoted labour saving devices in the home to free women from the drudgery of housework. We visited the Geffrye Museum of Domestic Life in Hackney to find examples of these early domestic gadgets. Many of them look laughingly complicated and cumbersome today, but they are important because they established the idea that machines can deal with daily cores as well as human muscle – and can free up human time and energy for other, more enjoyable and life enhancing activities than endlessly cleaning cutlery and scrubbing floors.

Real Lissenden Stories from 1906-1916

Reading the Times Archive – available to Camden Library card holders as part of Camden’s Virtual Library – we unearthed a real life Lissenden tragedy and scandal from 1911, involving a parlour maid from Cleveden Mansions, a boarding house in Holloway and a shady doctor from Liverpool Road. To find out about it, read Ellen Hargreaves account (see below) of life as a domestic servant at the turn of the century

Fictional ‘Lissenden Lives 1906-1916’

Insert Ellen Hargreaves web text – attach Ellen Hargreaves story as PDF

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