DE BEAUVOIR TOWN
The area known today as De Beauvoir Town has historic borders, with the Roman Ermine Street to York - now Kingsland Road - to the east. The mediaeval parishes of Islington and Shoreditch lay to the west and south respectively, and an old track to the north connected small settlements in Holloway, Dalston and Hackney.
It was mostly open fields used for agriculture and archery practice until an elegant 3 storey manor called Balmes House was built in the late 1500s/early 1600s, with formal grounds and a moat. A London Mayor, Sir George Whitmore, lived here and entertained Charles I in the 1600s, then was imprisoned as a Royalist during the English Civil War. Balmes House was subsequently bought by Richard de Beauvoir from Guernsey in the 1680s He was said to live here in great style, with foreign visitors enjoying the beautiful house and gardens.
Balmes House - Courtesy of The Priaulx Library
The house was later let out as a private asylum, and along with the grounds and farming land passed down through the De Beauvoir family until the early 1820s. The Reverend Peter De Beauvoir had no direct heirs and died 6 months after granting a building lease to William Rhodes (grandfather of the explorer, Cecil Rhodes) in 1821. Rhodes was a very successful speculative builder and had persuaded the elderly and infirm Reverend Peter to sign away 150 acres very cheaply. The original architectural plan was for four smart residential squares connected by diagonal roads to a central octagonal plaza, intended to appeal to fairly upmarket tenants.
The inheritor of the estate was a distant cousin who took the name, Richard Benyon de Beauvoir. He investigated the highly advantageous Rhodes leases, took the matter to court and first obtained an injunction against Rhodes to stop development. He then fought a long and costly court battle that eventually went to the House of Lords, on the grounds that Peter de Beauvoir was not of sound mind when he signed the leases before he won in 1834.
Plan De Beauvoir-Town Estate by Mr Rhodes
The Regent’s Canal had been completed in 1820 along the Hackney/Shoreditch border at the south of the area, and Kingsland Basin was an important import point for building materials. The layout and houses we see today were mostly built by Benyon de Beauvoir from the late 1830s onwards - there is an 1839 plaque on ‘Benyon Cottages’ in Hertford Road. The original plan was downgraded to build mostly more modest homes suitable for clerks in the nearby City and only one of the planned squares - De Beauvoir Square - was built, although three of the diagonal street layouts survive. Balmes House was a casualty of estate development and was demolished in 1852. St. Peter De Beauvoir church, several pubs, and shops in Southgate Road opened to serve the new community, whilst industry burgeoned along the canal and basin.
In common with many areas in inner London, by the late 1800s the area was deteriorating, houses were in multiple occupancies and small industries sprang up in back gardens.
De Beauvoir is mentioned in the Charles Booth notebooks (George H. Duckworth's Notebook). We have extracted two of the drawings.
Page 109 - Whitbread Sussex Hotel (The Scolt Head Pub)
Page 111 - Sketch of houses in Church Road, De Beauvoir Town
The next major changes came, courtesy of World War II, when some parts of the area were bombed, most notably on the west side of De Beauvoir Square and the west end of Downham Road.
WW2 bomb damage in a garden on Stamford Road
The 1960s saw much redevelopment and provision of social housing including the Kingsgate, De Beauvoir and Lockyer Estates. Plans to demolish most of the remaining original houses were resisted by the community group that was to become the De Beauvoir Association. Instead, some roads were closed to traffic and De Beauvoir became a Conservation Area.
Northchurch Road looking towards St Peter's Church
De Beauvoir today is a lively mixture of tenants, leaseholders and owner-occupiers. There are plenty of small local shops, a huge range of cafes, restaurants and pubs, an active church, De Beauvoir Women’s Institute and Gardeners Club - and of course, the De Beauvoir Association.
Southgate Road parade of local independent shops, restaurants and pub