Tottenham: Social life

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 5, Hendon, Kingsbury, Great Stanmore, Little Stanmore, Edmonton Enfield, Monken Hadley, South Mimms, Tottenham. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.

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'Tottenham: Social life', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 5, Hendon, Kingsbury, Great Stanmore, Little Stanmore, Edmonton Enfield, Monken Hadley, South Mimms, Tottenham, (London, 1976) pp. 339-342. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]


Throughout the early 16th century the manorial court levied fines for illegal games, which included cards and dice, from 1517, and bowls, from 1528. Hunting over the lord's manor was also punished by fines. (fn. 1) In 1567 the butts were defective and it was ordered that new ones should be set up near the high cross. (fn. 2)

Many half-timbered buildings which survived in the 19th century were thought to have been medieval inns. (fn. 3) In 1455-6 mention was made of the Hart, the Tabard, the Crown, the George, the Bell, and the Swan. (fn. 4) Two inn-keepers were accused of obstructing the highway before their houses with ale-booths and benches in 1517 (fn. 5) and another landlord was ordered to take down his sign for refusing hospitality to strangers in 1560. (fn. 6) The Swan at High Cross was often illustrated in Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler as the 'sweet shady arbour' where Piscator took his friend Venator, although the author's 17th-century riverside haunts can no longer be identified. (fn. 7)

There were 15 inns licensed in 1716 (fn. 8) and 22 in 1759. Those in 1759 included two called the White Hart, one on the east side of High Road and one at Tottenham Hale, and the George and Vulture. (fn. 9) The White Hart in High Road had taken the place of an earlier inn called the Horns, presumably the Hart's Horn of 1585, (fn. 10) which stood nearly opposite at the north corner of White Hart Lane and was divided before its partial demolition in 1824. The George and Vulture, in High Road almost facing the later junction with Bruce Grove, contained a banqueting room and a bowling green, popular with Londoners; (fn. 11) the old building had become a school by c. 1807 and was pulled down in 1829, although the banqueting room had been restored by 1840. (fn. 12) A new George and Vulture, almost facing Bruce Grove, survived in 1890, when there were 19 public houses in Tottenham and 8 in Wood Green. (fn. 13)

Local benefactors, often incumbents or rich Quakers, supported many societies in the early 19th century. The Charitable bank, the first district bank to offer a safe deposit for small savings of 1s. and upwards, was established in 1804 by Mrs. Powell, of the Chestnuts, with the vicar among its 9 trustees; it was renamed the Savings bank in 1829, opening weekly at the grammar school, and increased the number of its depositors from 111 to 517 within ten years. (fn. 14) Thrift was also encouraged by the Provident District society, formed in 1829, whose liberal subscribers enabled it to add 6d. to every 1s. saved; the society had four women visitors, one for each district of the parish, and also distributed bread tickets to casual beggars.

Tottenham penny club, founded in 1811, provided clothing from subscriptions of 1d. a week which matched those made by poor children. A Church of England clothing club also existed by 1843 and there was a charity for lying-in women by 1832. (fn. 15) A ladies' bible association distributed cheap bibles from 1818 and a local branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel opened in 1839. Tottenham temperance society first met at the Wesleyan chapel in 1831; members adopted total abstinence in 1836 and thereafter used the Lancasterian boys' school, where inn-keepers fomented a riot in 1838, or the girls' school.

Early friendly societies included the True British society, at the Plough inn from 1796 until 1815, the True Britons' benefit society at the White Hart from 1809, and the Friendly Brothers' benefit society from 1816. (fn. 16) Garden allotments behind the work-house were let by the vestry to some 40 families shortly before the establishment of the poor law union, after which the practice was continued by the trustees of the parochial charities. An allotment society was formed in 1843, with the vicar as president; part of the glebe in White Hart Lane was divided into plots and there were plans to acquire land at High Cross and the Hale. The movement owed much to James Dean, an engineer concerned with social problems, who was also active in the Stoke Newington, Tottenham and Hackney Accumulating Fund society, founded in the same year to promote savings by the lower middle class and help with house purchases. (fn. 17)

In 1829 former pupils of the Lancasterian school formed a library, which afterwards lost support but was revived in 1834 as the Tottenham and Edmonton mechanics' library. It was called the Tottenham and Edmonton mechanics' literary and scientific institution by 1840, when some 140 subscribers could use 500 books at the school and also hear lectures there. (fn. 18) After a second decline it reopened as Tottenham public library in the new lecture hall, where it finally closed in 1879. (fn. 19) The Church of England in 1840 had a lending library of S.P.C.K. publications at the house of the parish clerk. (fn. 20) The first public lecture hall was built by William Janson on the west side of High Road, north of Bruce Grove. (fn. 21) It was used by Presbyterians and then by Congregationalists in the 1860s and was renamed Bruce Grove hall c. 1880, when the Brethren began to worship there. (fn. 22) After 1903 it became the Conservative club and later served the Klinger clothing company and, in 1923, the Ministry of Labour; (fn. 23) it survived in 1939. (fn. 24)

Tottenham attracted many Sunday visitors by 1860, when there were complaints of young men from London lounging offensively in the churchyard and impeding worshippers. (fn. 25) Swimming in the Lea, once a poor man's pastime, had become so popular that in the summer of 1861 over 100 persons a day bathed at a place called the May Bush, where they paid for the use of a field. (fn. 26) The Ferry Boat inn was popular in the 1870s, when it had a boat-house and tea-gardens, (fn. 27) and survived in 1973.

A want of amenities was deplored in the press in 1873, particularly the poor state of the literary institution and the lack of baths, clubs, and recreation grounds. (fn. 28) The Y.M.C.A. had opened a branch in High Road in 1872, (fn. 29) however, and many groups provided social evenings: Tottenham choral society had existed since c. 1860, when there had also been an Edmonton and Tottenham Tonic Sol-Fa club; the lecture hall had been used for some years by the Pickwick histrionic club, which aimed to 'amuse and elevate the working classes'; and the Tuesday Evening Entertainments and the Tottenham and Edmonton working men's temperance society, presumably the former temperance association, also held concerts. Church halls or chapels served for many events, including St. Paul's penny readings in the 1870s; St. John's literary society functioned by 1873, (fn. 30) Coleraine Park literary society by 1880, (fn. 31) and Tottenham musical society by 1883. Debates were held at the Tottenham House of Commons, which in 1883 moved from High Cross to a larger room at the Red House in High Road. (fn. 32)

A local militia, the Tottenham Loyal Association, had been formed in 1792 and lasted for about four years. (fn. 33) In 1859 prominent residents subscribed towards a volunteer unit, which was raised in 1860 as the 33rd Mdx. (Tottenham) Volunteer Rifle Corps. (fn. 34) The corps paraded at the National school in Park Lane until a near-by drill-hall, formerly part of the Coombes Croft estate, (fn. 35) was ready in 1863. A rifle range of 1,000 yards (fn. 36) was opened in 1861 on Wild marsh, between Pymme's brook and the Lea. The butts, close to the Edmonton boundary, were burnt down three times (fn. 37) but still used in the 1890s. (fn. 38) Under reorganization, started in 1877, the corps became the Tottenham detachment ('G' Company) of the 3rd Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, although with control of its own finances, and from 1907 it formed a territorial battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. The hall and drill-ground in Park Lane still belonged to Tottenham (U.D.) charity in 1968. (fn. 39)

From 1873 Wood Green has possessed a famous amusement centre, the Alexandra Palace, crowning Muswell Hill. In 1860 representatives of the Great Northern Palace Co. explained their plans at Tottenham's lecture hall (fn. 40) and in 1863 a pleasure ground was opened as a commercial venture. (fn. 41) The first palace, built of materials from the buildings of the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862, was burnt down within a few days of its opening. (fn. 42) The second, designed for Lucas Bros. by John Johnson, was opened on the same site in 1875 and, like its predecessor, intended as north London's counterpart of the Crystal Palace. It was a sprawling brick building of nearly 8 a., with two glass-domed conservatories among the many halls and galleries extending east and west of the great hall, which contained Europe's largest concert organ, by Henry Willis. (fn. 43) In 1900, after contributions from the local authorities towards their purchase, the park and palace were vested in trustees representing the county council and the urban districts of Hornsey, Wood Green, Islington, Tottenham, Friern Barnet, Finchley, Stoke Newington, Finsbury, and Edmonton. (fn. 44) The trustees were allowed to charge for admission on bank holidays in 1903 and to raise money by holding exhibitions in 1913. (fn. 45)

The 'Ally Pally', as it came to be called, was used for refugees and prisoners of war from 1914 to 1918 and for evacuees and as a furniture store in the Second World War. At other times plays, exhibitions, lectures, dinners, dances, and skating all took place in the palace itself; the 180-acre park contained a banqueting hall, a swimming pool and an athletics ground, as well as the most central race-course in the London area, where meetings were held from 1888. (fn. 46) Memorable events included descents by parachute in 1888, organ recitals to audiences of up to 12,000, concerts with international artists, and in 1936 the world's first television service, transmitted from the south-east corner of the palace by the B.B.C., which had a lease of studios there until 1977. In 1966 control passed to the G.L.C., which sold the Willis organ and pulled down the grandstand on the race-course. In 1973 the future of the buildings was in doubt. (fn. 47)

Tottenham and Edmonton cricket club, founded by 1860, was apparently the first of several such clubs; one at Alexandra Park, started c. 1874, claimed to have the finest ground in north London, some 2 a. larger than Lords. The marshes near Willoughby Lane became popular with sporting groups, among them Park athletic club, which held annual events there in the 1870s. (fn. 48) In 1882 members of Hotspur cricket club, so called from its links with the Northumberland Park area, decided to keep in touch during the winter by forming their own football team, with the same name. (fn. 49)

Hotspur football club, one of many local groups, started with a grant from the cricket club and at first consisted largely of boys from St. John's middle class school. (fn. 50) In 1883 the club was reformed and in 1884 it was renamed Tottenham Hotspur, to avoid confusion with a London team. Matches took place on the marshes until 1888, when a field off Northumberland Park was shared with another club and admission fees were charged. A wooden grandstand, to seat 100, was built in 1894, professionalism was adopted in 1895, and the club reorganized as a limited liability company in 1898. A more central pitch was leased from Messrs. Charrington in 1899, with accommodation for 10,000, and soon afterwards bought and enlarged; it lay behind the White Hart inn and, although east of High Road, became known as the White Hart Lane ground. Tottenham Hotspur thereafter enjoyed periods of national prestige, winning the Football Association Challenge Cup in 1901 and again twenty years later, when it was still the only professional club in the south of England to have triumphed in a final of the Cup Tie. Larger crowds necessitated improvements to the ground: the East stand, seating 5,000, replaced an older structure in 1910, roofs were later built for spectators along the north and south, and villas to the west made way for a double-decker stand in 1934, bringing the total accommodation to 78,000. In 1951 Hotspurs were champions in the first division of the Football League and in 1961 they became the first team since 1897 to win both the league championship and the F.A. Cup. Further victories in the Cup Tie in 1962 and 1967 helped to earn them a world-wide reputation. (fn. 51)

Muswell Hill golf club, with a course of 18 holes north-west of Alexandra Park, was established as a London club in 1894. (fn. 52) A club-house near the corner of Rhodes Avenue served 500 members in 1934; (fn. 53) numbers were about the same in 1973, when the course covered nearly 100 a. bordering Alexandra Park Road. (fn. 54) Employees at the gasworks, over the Edmonton boundary, formed Tottenham gas club in 1908 and built a club-house east of Willoughby Lane as a war memorial in 1924. The club had some 14 a. of sports grounds and over 1,300 members in 1973. (fn. 55) The Greyhound Racing Association built a track near Harringay station, with a stand and terraces for 50,000 spectators, in 1927. (fn. 56) Harringay Arena, a covered stadium for ice-hockey and similar games, was opened immediately to the south-west in 1936; it was designed by Oscar Faber as a plain brick octagonal building, with steel trusses for the roof and a capacity of 11,000. (fn. 57)

Forster hall, opened for the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Movement in 1885, was regularly used from the first by Tottenham orchestral society. It was advertised as the People's Palace by the Walturdaw Animated Picture Co. in 1907 and continued as a cinema until 1923. The Tottenham Palace, designed by Eylson and Long, (fn. 58) was built as a music hall in 1908 on the Drapers' Company's land north of Tottenham high school, where a skating rink was constructed in 1909; (fn. 59) the last stage performances in the hall took place in 1924, by which time the rink had become the Canadian Rink cinema; thereafter films were shown at the Tottenham Palace until its conversion to a bingo-hall c. 1970, while the former rink served as a dance-hall. (fn. 60) Another music-hall, the Wood Green Empire, still offered live shows in 1918 but was used only for television rehearsals in 1964. (fn. 61) Bruce Grove cinema, planned, with a dance hall, by the Tottenham Cinema and Entertainment Co. in 1920 on a site in Bruce Grove, (fn. 62) was still used for films in 1964 but served as a bingo and social club in 1970. The Imperial (later Essoldo) cinema, West Green Road, was an early purpose-built cinema, one of the few to survive in the 1960s, when it was used by Atlas Lighting Ltd. Other cinemas included the Gaumont, a large building of the 1930s, the Palladium, Wood Green High Road, demolished by 1964, the Corner, Seven Sisters Road, the Mayfair, Tottenham High Road, the Coliseum, Green Lanes, and the Central, Station Road, all converted to other uses by 1964, and the Rex, Station Road, converted by 1970. The Florida, Tottenham High Road, closed down after 1970, (fn. 63) leaving the Odeon, Wood Green High Road, and the ABC (formerly the Ritz), close to Turnpike Lane station, as the only cinemas open in 1973.

Tottenham U.D. opened a museum at the Chestnuts in 1905 and transferred it to Bruce Castle in 1906. After closure during the First World War the museum re-opened temporarily in the central library, before returning to Bruce Castle in 1927. From 1928 the museum also housed a collection illustrating postal history, lent by the Union of Post Office Workers. (fn. 64) Mementoes of the Middlesex Regiment were added in 1969. (fn. 65)

Tottenham local board adopted the Baths and Washhouses Act in 1893, when slipper baths were already provided commercially at High Cross. (fn. 66) In 1904 work started on Tottenham central baths, next to the new fire station, where slipper baths and two swimming baths were installed. Slipper baths were also opened at Conway Road in 1926 and, with public laundries, at Tiverton and Bromley roads in 1932. An open-air swimming bath was built near Stonebridge lock (fn. 67) and, in 1937, a 'lido' was opened. (fn. 68) At Wood Green a covered swimming bath in Western Road was opened in 1911; there was an open-air pool in Alexandra Park (fn. 69) and in 1934 another one was opened in Durnsford Road. (fn. 70)

A mid-19th-century local newspaper, Paul Pry, circulated for a short time c. 1839. (fn. 71) The Tottenham and Edmonton Advertiser was established in 1855, presumably by George Coventry, the owner and printer in 1862. (fn. 72) It acted as a monthly forum for local views and outlived all its weekly rivals except the Tottenham and Edmonton Weekly Herald, started in 1861 by George Cowing and acquired in 1864 by his manager, Edwin Herbert Crusha. Faced with competition from the Herald, the older publication became Coventry's Weekly Advertiser in 1880 and was called simply the Weekly Advertiser from 1881, when it claimed to be the oldest suburban paper in Middlesex. In 1883 it was taken over by Crusha, who by 1890 had also founded the Wood Green Weekly Herald. Both the Tottenham and Edmonton Weekly Herald and the Wood Green Weekly Herald were published in 1973. More short-lived newspapers included the North London Echo and Wood Green Chronicle, published in 1890, (fn. 73) the Tottenham Chronicle, the Star, the Stamford Hill Times, and the Weekly Standard.


  • 1. Tottenham Man. Rolls (1510-31), 25-6, 99, 126, 221 et seq.
  • 2. Ibid. (1558-82), 84.
  • 3. Robinson, Tottenham, i. 61-4.
  • 4. Bruce Castle Mus., MR/76 (TS. transl. pp. 32-3).
  • 5. Tottenham Man. Rolls (1510-31), 98.
  • 6. Ibid. (1558-82), 17.
  • 7. Fisk, Tottenham, ii. 331-3. See plate facing p. 64.
  • 8. M.R.O., L.V. 3/1.
  • 9. M.R.O., L.V. 7/36.
  • 10. Bruce Castle Mus., MR/121.
  • 11. See plate facing p. 336.
  • 12. Robinson, Tottenham, i. 61-6.
  • 13. Kelly's Dir. Essex, Herts. and Mdx. (1890).
  • 14. Except where otherwise stated, the foll. two paras. are based on Robinson, Tottenham, ii. 281-94, 311-12, and [J. Dean] Tottenham and its Institutions in 1843, 29-31.
  • 15. Pigot's Com. Dir. (1832-4).
  • 16. F.S.1/836; F.S.1/1253; F.S.1/1497.
  • 17. Tottenham and its Institutions, 1-23.
  • 18. Robinson, Tottenham, ii. 294-7.
  • 19. Fisk, Tottenham, ii. 194.
  • 20. Robinson, Tottenham, ii. 312.
  • 21. Fisk, Tottenham, ii. 194.
  • 22. See pp. 361-2.
  • 23. Fisk, Tottenham, ii. 195.
  • 24. Bruce Castle Mus., 942 [cutting].
  • 25. Tottenham and Edmonton Advertiser, 115.
  • 26. Ibid. 126, 203.
  • 27. Thorne, Environs, ii. 625.
  • 28. Tottenham and Edmonton Advertiser, 2997.
  • 29. Ibid. 2810.
  • 30. Ibid. 115-16, 3026, 3059.
  • 31. Coventry's Weekly Advertiser, 24 Dec. 1880.
  • 32. Weekly Advertiser, 12 Jan., 16 Feb. 1883.
  • 33. V.C.H. Mdx. ii. 59.
  • 34. Except where otherwise stated, the para. is based on TS. notes penes Bruce Castle Mus.
  • 35. Char. Com. files.
  • 36. O.S. Map 6", Mdx. XII. NE. (1863-9 edn.).
  • 37. Fisk, Tottenham, ii. 341.
  • 38. O.S. Map 6", Mdx. XII. NE. (1894-6 edn.).
  • 39. Char. Com. files.
  • 40. Tottenham and Edmonton Advertiser, 120.
  • 41. Except where otherwise stated, the foll. two paras. are based on booklets pub. by the trustees penes Bruce Castle Mus.
  • 42. See plate facing p. 337.
  • 43. Builder, xxxi. 687.
  • 44. Alex. Pk. and Pal. (Public Purposes) Act, 63 & 64 Vic. c. 259 (Local Act).
  • 45. Ibid. 3 Ed. VII, c. 179 (Local Act); Bruce Castle Mus., 960/1.
  • 46. V.C.H. Mdx. ii. 265.
  • 47. The Times, 9 May 1973.
  • 48. Tottenham and Edmonton Advertiser, 114, 165, 2774, 3180.
  • 49. G. Wagstaffe Simmons, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, 15; J. Holland, Spurs, 23.
  • 50. Except where otherwise stated, the para. is based on Simmons, op. cit. and Holland, op. cit. passim.
  • 51. Whitaker's Almanack (1962); ibid. (1963); ibid. (1968).
  • 52. V.C.H. Mdx. ii. 279-80.
  • 53. Kelly's Dir. Wood Grn. and Southgate (1934).
  • 54. Ex inf. the sec.
  • 55. Ex inf. the personnel director, Eastern Gas.
  • 56. Bruce Castle Mus., 963 [cuttings].
  • 57. Bruce Castle Mus., 965 [cuttings].
  • 58. Evg. Standard, 2 Aug. 1973.
  • 59. Ex inf. the clerk, Drapers' Co. of Lond.
  • 60. Bruce Castle Mus., 994 [TS. notes]; Kelly's Dir. Lond. (1970).
  • 61. Mdx. Local Hist. Council Bull. xviii. 7.
  • 62. Bruce Castle Mus., 994 [prospectus].
  • 63. Mdx. Local Hist. Council Bull. xviii. 1-21; P.O. Dirs. Lond. (1959, 1964, 1970).
  • 64. Tottenham, Official Guide [1934].
  • 65. Bruce Castle Mus., 927 BRU.
  • 66. Bruce Castle Mus., 932 [TS. notes].
  • 67. Tottenham, Official Guide [1934].
  • 68. Bruce Castle Mus., 965 [cutting].
  • 69. Kelly's Dir. Wood Grn. and Southgate (1934).
  • 70. Ibid. (1938).
  • 71. See p. 175. Except where otherwise stated, the para. is based on Couchman. Reminiscences of Tottenham, 73; Fisk, Tottenham, ii. 226; and copies of the Advertiser and the Herald penes Bruce Castle Mus.
  • 72. P.O. Dir. Mdx. (1862).
  • 73. Kelly's Dir. Mdx. (1890).