It’s often easy to write off your home as some effective backwater unless you find yourself at the heart of some globally-known location – and Harrow, despite being a part of London, is no different. Yet this is unfair. The smallest things can have the greatest significance, and even the (seemingly) most mundane and ordinary places can have stories that fill centuries. Harrow’s story is but another example – a borough touched by everything from pagan rituals to industrialisation, and from which a number of people of global significance have come to change the world.
It all started back in the Middle Ages – the time before England, let alone the UK, was even a realised nation. The hill for which Harrow is now renowned for became the focal point of the early borough – the possible location of an Anglo-Saxon tribe’s religious shrine. The fact that a church now sits on the mount today speaks to the scouring of the pagan faiths during the sixth and seventh centuries, and its replacement with Christianity. Yet whilst this original source has been almost entirely lost, these pagan roots endure in the borough’s name – ‘Harrow’ deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word for heathen shrine.
With the institutionalisation of Christianity, the country as a whole began to take structure, and Harrow was no different. The later Middle Ages saw a number of the borough’s most famous landmarks and traditions spring-up – perhaps most notable of all Headstone Manor in 1310, and the Pinner Fair, started in 1336 by a king’s grant, and continuing to this day. It was also during this time that Harrow got its first taste of strife – with the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 resulting in widespread rioting across the borough, and trespassing on the unpopular Archbishop of Canterbury’s property in the borough.
Yet this would not be the last time the borough would see domestic conflict – Harrow, it would seem, has a history of rebellion. The outbreak of civil war in the 1600s saw turmoil make its return to the borough – our famous hill possibly becoming the site of a military base for the parliamentarian forces. Indeed, Harrow, it seems, was a stronghold for the parliamentarians – with one of the borough’s biggest figures of the period being Sir Gerard Gilbert, a property owner in Harrow and a close ally of Oliver Cromwell. As before, then, Harrow was played an active role in assisting rebellion and, in this case, ending a regime. For more on this period, follow this link.
It is in the next two centuries, however, that the borough’s history really comes to life. A number of the borough’s most famous faces and stories can be found here. The likes of Queen Adelaide, famous poet Lord Byron (who’s notorious lifestyle can be seen to have left its mark in St. Mary’s churchyard), and the inspiration of Scrooge Daniel Dancer can all be found in this period. This period also saw one of the borough’s most altruistic figures in Mary Isabella Beeton, whose famous soup kitchen was set up in Hatch End to give relief to the poor and homeless in the harsh winter months of 1858.
As the 1800s came to a close and the 1900s began, the winds of industrialisation began to spread across the nation, and across Harrow also. This initially gave rise to a macabre lineage of being the first to see transportation accidents – first with the death of Thomas Port by rail (immortalised by a headstone at St. Mary’s), and then with the first ever fatal car accident at Grove Hill. However, in time, this industrialisation eventually saw the likes of Whitefriars Glassworks and Kodak come to Harrow – until recently providing jobs for the local population, and all the while contributing to the transformation of the world.
This period of the borough’s history was also the origins of the Harrow that is now known today. The development of the Metropolitan Railway strengthened areas like Harrow’s connection to central London – resulting in the urbanisation of the borough, and some of the art-deco structures that can be found across the area, most notably at Rayners Lane. Harrow, as with suburbia elsewhere, became an ideal location for workers needing access to the city centre yet didn’t want to live there – and this is an identity that in many ways remains with the borough in the present.
Yet the twentieth century was also an era of war – war on a scale far greater than anything seen before – and in this, Harrow was not left unscathed. The First World War saw the emergence of a local hero in Leefe Robinson – the pilot living in Harrow who shot down one of the first German air ships terrorising London at the time – and also his eventual death in 1918 after years of torment in a German prison. Then, with the Second World War, the borough took on an even greater importance – with RAF Fighter Command setting up at Bentley Priory, and from it waging a battle that would decide the course of the war. Likewise, Grim’s Dyke – a deeply historical location in its own right – also became an important location in this time, with rumours persisting that the estate was a back-up site for Bletchley Park, the famous headquarters of British intelligence during the conflict. In many ways, then, the war was fought and won from the Harrow suburbs – and indeed, let us not forget that Churchill himself, monumentally important in inspiring the nation at its darkest hour, was shaped by Harrow too.
By comparison, it could be seen that Harrow in the decades that followed the war became less significant – yet this would only be so true. A number of famous faces now known the world over were raised in the borough during this time – from Elton John to Screaming Lord Sutch, Claire Rayner to Philip Glenister; and then, more recently, the likes of Dev Patel. This list is not even including the many famous figures to have gone through Harrow School. A number of the nation’s – in some cases, the world’s – most famous and influential people have come from this little piece of the suburbs, and in this, have been irreversibly shaped by it.
That brings us, mostly, up to the present – where the story of this borough carries on; being changed by larger events and then changing them in significant, if small, ways. It’s all-too easy to slate your home as something mundane, as something boring – especially when the larger events of human history scream out from TVs and film and every other major medium. Yet everything has a story, and Harrow is no different. Indeed, there is still more that this grand narrative left out – be it the network of tunnels beneath Pinner or the various, strange landmarks across the borough – Harrow’s history is one in many ways too vast to fit cleanly into one article.
From Anglo-Saxon rituals to massive industrialisation; civil war to world wars; queens and kings to pop icons and beloved actors, the story of the borough is one that spans centuries, peace and war, and all walks of life.
It is a story still being told, and one worth celebrating by all who have lived, now live, and will live, in it.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: TR Apartments