Thursday, 14 June 2001

A Historical Introduction to MHBC


Historical introduction by Ken Gay 

In the year 1896, Muswell Hill was to change dramatically. Until then it had been a rural Middlesex village dominated by about a dozen large private estates, each with its own detached house and outbuildings. Their occupants had done well professionally or commercially and often regarded their Muswell Hill estate as their country residence. North Bank in Pages Lane is a surviving example of such an estate and so is Grove Lodge on the side of Muswell Hill. 

With the opening of Alexandra Palace in 1873, Muswell Hill had gained a railway station and a steam train service to Kings Cross, but this had not led to much housing development. In the 1880s Muswell Road and Muswell Avenue were laid out east of Colney Hatch Lane and houses began to be built in this area, following the sale of some estate land by the company owning Alexandra Palace and Park, but the building and occupation of houses here was slow. 

The death of James Hall Renton in 1895 was the catalyst from which changes stemmed. This prosperous stockbroker who lived in Park Lane, overlooking Hyde Park, owned about 30 acres of fairly flat land in the centre of Muswell Hill. On it stood The Limes and Fortis House, two ancient mansions whose grounds occupied the area between Colney Hatch Lane and Fortis Green Road, extending up into Tetherdown. Part of this land Renton used as a stud farm. Following his death, the land was sold by his heirs and in April 1896 was purchased by James Edmondson. The son of a former Cumberland farmer who had set up a building business in Islington, Edmondson was to become an important developer building suburban houses from Golders Green to Winchmore Hill. 

Edmondson set about turning Muswell Hill from a village into a middle class suburban centre. Around the thirty acres he built the residential shopping parades and across them he laid out Queens Avenue and Princes Avenue with their large terraced houses. Muswell Hill lost its rural attraction for the other residents and Edmondson acquired Hillfield, adjacent to St James's Lane, The Elms, Wellfield and North Lodge to expand his suburb. Another principal developer, William Jefferies Collins, acquired the Fortismere and Firs estate on the west side of Fortis Green and laid out Grand Avenue and associated avenues across it. Other builders built elsewhere in the suburb. 

Muswell Hill Bowling Club was to be one of the facilities helping to make the new suburb into a viable community which Edmondson assisted to become into being. He did this in an often generous way. For example, he gave the sites for the Congregational church in Queens Avenue (now United Reformed), and for the Baptist church in Dukes Avenue, as well as giving good terms for the former Presbyterian church in the Broadway. He gave sites for a fire station and a library and provided the concert hall building called the Athenaeum in Fortis Green Road (replaced in 1966 by the Sainsbury building). 

The availability of the bowling club site was due to James Edmondson. On 5 November 1900 he granted a 21 year lease at £50 a year to three gentlemen who lived near each other in Queens Avenue: Alan Wildsmith, John William Fletcher Ford and Joseph Edward Hounam. These lessees represented the future club. The deed describes the lane as abutting the gardens of Nos 42-50 Queens Avenue (175 feet), Kings Avenue (147 feet 3 inches) and Tetherdown (162 feet). Access was granted along a footway from Kings Avenue. This area had once been part of an estate at the southern end of Tetherdown called Fortis Lodge. It had been bought by James Renton in 1876 and added to his larger estate, with which it was contiguous. 

The irregular rectangle of land formed back land to the new residential houses and was a perfect site for the gentle game of Bowls (which does not attract the fervour and noisy followers of other sports). Two years later, on 18th November 1902, Edmondson conveyed the leasehold land to the three lessees for £600 the sale included the pavilion. The deed covenanted that no building more than one storey high was to be erected and that the land was not to be used for any other purpose than as a bowling green, tennis club or cricket ground, or nursery or nursery garden without the express consent of the vendor. Edmondson was surely right in making this provision, for the value of his fine leasehold properties in Queens Avenue (now locally listed and in a conservation area) might be depressed by unacceptable development of this back land, a point of which is still valid. 

It is interesting that Muswell Hill should acquire a Bowling Green, for it had a forerunner in the seventeenth century. The then owner of The Limes estate, Sir Thomas Rowe, was in 1663 granted by Hornsey manor court the ownership of a parcel of waste land for the recreation of the tenants of the manor 'and of the gentlemen who should contribute to the work and expense of a Bowling Green.' This green seems to have stood where No 188 Muswell Hill Broadway (Brocklehurst's furniture shop) is today. The Manor Court rolls make a further reference to the 'Former’ bowling green in 1765, by which time it had gone; by 1816 it was the site of a cottage and garden. 

Bowls of course has a long history. The Southampton Bowling Club was founded in 1699 but its history is earlier than this and the tradition of Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe at the time of the Armada is well founded. By the middle of the nineteenth, the game had fallen into disrepute, being associated with pothouses, drunkenness and gambling. The Scots rescued it with new greens and rules. Bowls Associations began to be formed in the late nineteenth century, including London and the Southern Counties in 1896, the year Edmondson bought the Muswell Hill property. The development of bowls was all part of the Victorian revival of sports and games on an organised basis, with the creation of leagues and associations for not only bowls, but also tennis, football, cricket and other sports. This well organised movement, providing legitimate sporting outlets for the expanding population of the country, helped save acres of open land from being built over; we still enjoy these green spaces today, even though in recent years they have yielded to supermarket developers and others; preservation of bowling greens, tennis courts and playing fields is important to our heritage.

Muswell Hill Bowls Club, founded in 1901 and a benefit to the Edwardian suburb then being built, survives a hundred years later and a debt is due to all those who created it. The following pages tell in detail who they were and how they set about the task.

Ken Gay - Hornsey Historical Society