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St John’s Wood History

St. John’s Wood was once part of the Great Forest of Middlesex. The name derives from its mediaeval owners, the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers), an Augustinian order, which took over the land from the Knights Templar in 1323. After the Reformation and the Dissolution of monastic orders, St John’s Wood became Crown land, and Henry VIII established Royal Hunting Grounds in what became known as Marylebone Park, to the north of which lay St John’s Wood. Apart from short periods during the reign of Mary Tudor and Cromwell’s Protectorate (when most of the trees were felled, none of which could have happened if the Society had then existed), the area known as The St John’s Wood Estate remained Crown land until 1688.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, when plans for residential development first appeared, the area remained in agricultural use. Apart from a small piece of land, around Barrow Hill, which was owned by the Portland Estate, most of St John’s Wood had been acquired in 1732 by the Eyre family. A second, smaller estate, lying alongside the Edgware Road, had been acquired by John Lyon in 1574: the estate was later bequeathed by him to his foundation, Harrow School, on trust to maintain the roads between London and Harrow in good repair.

Building began in 1809 in Alpha Road, on the southern boundary of St John’s Wood, (these villas have long since gone with the advent of the railway in 1894) and rapidly spread over the two estates. It was a unique pattern of development: as the renowned architectural historian, Sir John Summerson wrote: “It was the first part of London, and indeed of any other town, to abandon the terrace house for the semi-detached villa – a revolution of striking significance and far-reaching effect”. The comparatively inexpensive Italianate villas, Cottages Ornés and Victorian Gothic pairs, surrounded by large gardens and tree-lined avenues, attracted many who valued the charm of living in rural calm so close to the city. Many artists, authors, philosophers and scientists made their homes in St John’s Wood throughout the nineteenth century. They were joined by craftsmen and merchants, who gave to St John’s Wood its village atmosphere, which survives to this day.

Although many of the original houses and gardens disappeared during the twentieth century, through bomb damage and the building of new roads, railways, blocks of flats, hospitals, schools, much of the original character of the area remains. In the 1960s, most of St John’s Wood was designated a Conservation Area and its houses listed by English Heritage. In 1814, Lord’s cricket ground moved to its present site and St. John’s Church was consecrated. In 1825, the Riding School, now part of the Royal Horse Artillery Barracks, was completed, and in 1836, St Marylebone Almshouses were built (re-built on the same site in 1965), and the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady. In 1847 St. Mark’s Church, Hamilton Terrace was consecrated. All of these historical features are still prominent in the life of St John’s Wood today, and together with more recent developments, such as Abbey Road Studios and the Central London Mosque, continue to give St John’s Wood its unique character.



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