Moving to London and looking to learn a bit more of its history? As we enter the second half of the alphabet in our April A to Z Blogging Challenge, you’d think from this post’s title that I’m jumping into the letter “P” already. Ah, but no… Those visiting or relocating to London have likely heard of Portobello Road—well, anyone who has seen a particular film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, for that matter, should have heard of it by now. This is the street that fills up like a theme park on weekends, but continues to provide a colorful, delightful stroll along its antiques, boutiques, and food market during the week. This is the street located in the neighborhood none other than:
“N” is for NOTTING HILL!
I know we blog about Notting Hill a lot, and it’s with good reason. Like it or not, it continues to be a massively popular London neighborhood for expats moving to London from the US—see “Finding the US in the UK” and “The Best Places for Expats to Live in London” as well as “Not Notting Hill” for a counter-perspective. (Additional Notting Hill resources: Notting Hill Diary, Notting Hill Online Guide, London Notting Hill)
But aside from the quaintness of the area and its London apartments that we see today, most probably are not aware of the highly contrasting history of this London neighborhood. Believe it or not, cute lil’ Notting Hill was once referred to as the “Potteries and Piggeries” in the 19th century. As the name would imply, a lot of potters produced bricks and tiles there, and the number of pigs was actually triple the amount of human residents!
Long before that, however, the area was originally settled by Saxons from 700AD onward. The origin of the name “Notting Hill” is rather uncertain, but it’s speculated that it might derive from the Saxon personal name Cnotta after the people who settled on its hill. A 1356 royal document notes the name “Knottynghull,” and a later text suggests the name derived from a Kensington manor named Knotting-Bernes, Mnutting-Barnes, or Nutting Barns.
Wherever the name came from, the settlement didn’t amount to much more than a hamlet until the 1800s, when it evolved into a village and working-class housing popped up all over. This is when potters came to fire the local clay (the remnant of this trade still existing on Potters Lane) and farmers raised their pigs. When you picture the cosmopolitan, affluent Notting Hill of today, it’s hard to register that at the time of Potteries and Piggeries, it was a less than desirable area to live.
From the 1820s to 1840s, the Ladbroke family sought to develop the area into something more residential, and this is when communal gardens emerged for homes to back onto. As time passed, though, people could no longer afford the large homes available for sale there—the very wealthy had always opted to remain close to the city centre while the upper middle class migrated out of the area as well—so these buildings were divided into smaller flats that fell into slums in the WWII era. Notting Hill’s history became increasingly turbulent as Afro-Carribean immigrants flocked to the neighborhood. Racial riots started to break out in 1958, and, in response, the Notting Hill Carnival was born to celebrate the new demographic’s culture. This weekend-long festival to this day draws millions to Notting Hill’s streets every August.
Corrupt landlords and shoddy housing left in disrepair continued to render Notting Hill a seedy place to avoid as late as the 1970s. It evidently drew in the starving artists, however, as it became a center of creativity that continues into present-day, with notable artists and designers considering Notting Hill home for themselves and/or their studios (Stella McCartney is based there). It’s remarkable that in only four decades, the neighborhood has turned itself around to such a great extent, in terms of its quality residences, bustling commerce, and integration of diverse cultures.
So just when people want to write Notting Hill off as a touristed cliche, understanding its history might encourage you to look at it again through a new lens of appreciation. No, it shouldn’t be the only neighborhood you consider when you relocate to London, but it should certainly be among the ones that you do.