Until the end of the 19th century Muswell Hill remained a rural area of pasture, woods and open spaces situated on the edge of a glacial plateau overlooking the Thames and Lea valleys.
Its hilly nature and the streams running from it had long deterred the building of roads. Its heavy clay soil, suitable for the growth of trees and woods, prevented the development of arable farming to any large extent. What clearances existed were used for grazing animals and growing hay. The numbers living here were small, centred around the needs of the owners and occupiers of small estates and farms.
There is some evidence of a Roman presence. Pieces of pottery and a Roman kiln (in Highgate Woods) have been excavated and 694 coins from c.209 AD were discovered in 1928 in a buried Roman pot in Cranley Gardens. Saxon people who came to the area probably settled around the little church some mile away in what became Hornsey village.
A curative well
The ‘mossy well’ which gave the settlement its name, was situated on 64 acres of land east of Colney Hatch Lane. This was given in 1152 by Richard de Belmeis ll, Bishop of London, to the nuns of the Augustinian Priory of St Mary, Clerkenwell, for use as a farm. The well was believed to have curative properties after an apparent cure of a King of Scotland and a chapel with a priest’s house were built by Bishop de Belmeis to serve the pilgrims drawn to it.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539) under King Henry VIII the well ceased to be a place of pilgrimage. The land passed into private ownership but civil jurisdiction was exercised by Clerkenwell parish. The area was known as ‘Clerkenwell Detached’ until 1900 when it came under the control of Hornsey Urban District Council. The well survived until 1898 and a plaque on No. 40 Muswell Road marks the spot.
Deep in mud
The main route which connected Muswell Hill to London for hundreds of years came through Crouch End along what is now Park Road, up steep Muswell Hill and along Colney Hatch Lane to Whetstone and the North. It was a poor road – deep in mud in winter and rutted in summer. In the 16th century an alternative route was favoured out of Holloway up Highgate Hill and, as the Great North Road, on to Barnet. Another important route was from Muswell Hill to Highgate along what is now Muswell Hill Road, formerly Southwood Lane.
The little settlement consisted of private estates, villas and some scattered houses and cottages. The clean air, proximity to London and the view from the top of the hill made it a favoured country residence of the rich from Tudor times on. Large villas were built on the hill, along the west side of Colney Hatch Lane and in Fortis Green. Their residents were mainly professional people or merchants.
A palace is built
In the middle of the nineteenth century, farmland to the east of Muswell Hill was sold for the creation of Alexandra Park followed by the opening of Alexandra Palace in 1873. This in turn led to the construction of a branch railway line from Highgate connecting with Finsbury Park and the City, with a station in Muswell Hill (see under Alexandra Palace and Park).
Along Fortis Green, the origin of the name is unknown, property development got underway after 1852 when the National Freehold Land Society laid out Eastern, Southern and Western Roads. Nearby was a site which was firstly a brewery, then a police station and now an apartment building.
An end to rural life
An end to rural life in Muswell Hill came in 1895-96. James Hall Renton, a wealthy stockbroker, owned two large mansions; The Limes, situated near the present roundabout, rented until 1887 to Charles Edward Mudie who ran a very successful lending library business, and Fortis House which Renton occupied. On Renton’s death in 1895 the properties were sold to Frederick Manson who sold them on in April 1896 to a builder, James Edmondson of Highbury.
He laid out Queens Avenue across The Limes estate and began building the Broadway shopping parades. Edmondson, working with his father Isaac, had already been developing shopping parades in Hornsey village and in Crouch End.
In total, Edmondson developed six estates in Muswell Hill – The Limes, The Elms, Fortis House, Wellfield, North Lodge and Hillfield. In 1895 Samuel Soames sold his Fortismere Estate to William Jeffries Collins, the second important builder of Muswell Hill, who bought ‘The Firs’ estate the following year and developed the Rookfield estate on the hill in the first decade of the 20th century.
Muswell Hill was soon transformed by bricks and mortar. It remains a surprisingly well preserved Edwardian suburb. Most of Muswell Hill, Fortis Green and the Rookfield Estate are now conservation areas.
Eleri Rowlands, Muswell Hill Four Walks, Hornsey Historical Society, 2016
Ken Gay, A History of Muswell Hill, Hornsey Historical Society, 2nd edition 2013
David Frith, The Rookfield Estate, Hornsey Historical Society, 2013
Hampstead Heritage Trail – Section E: East Finchley to Alexandra Palace, Hornsey Historical Society, 2012
Janet Owen & John Hinshelwood, A Vision of Middlesex The North Middlesex Photographic Society’s Survey & Record of Middlesex, Hornsey Historical Society, 2011, 54 – 63
Steven Denford, Hornsey Past, Historical Publications, 2008
Ken Gay, Muswell Hill Revisited, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2006
Albert Pinching & David Dell, Haringey’s Hidden Streams Revealed, Hornsey Historical Society, 2005
Malcolm Drummond, The Clays of Muswell Hill, Hornsey Historical Society, 2003
Ken Gay, Muswell Hill History & Guide, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2002
Joan Schwitzer & Ken Gay, Highgate & Muswell Hill The Archive Photographs Series, Chalford Publishing Co., 1995
Jack Whitehead, The Growth of Muswell Hill, Jack Whitehead, 1995