In 1902 Charles Jones, Ealing’s borough surveyor, published a book. In it he referred to Ealing as the ‘Queen of Suburbs’. His aim of course was to promote the area as a place to live.
Ealing, he said, could claim to be the best of all worlds. It was near London and easily reached by excellent railway facilities, but it was also close to the countryside.
The phrase was adopted by the council and of course by estate agents. Even today you may hear it occasionally. And even today it is regarded as a good place to live, still with many of the benefits of being near the centre of London but not in it. Although today it can hardly claim to be close to countryside!
I have lived here all my married life, and knew it even before then as it was a favourite shopping area for my mother. Let me show you around, as my belated contribution to Terri’s Sunday Stills ‘My Little Town’ theme.
The story of Ealing
But first, a little more history. The name Ealing comes from the Saxon place-name Gillingas. There is known to have been a settlement here in the 12th century, surrounded by the great forest that covered all this area west of London.
By the 16th century settlements were scattered throughout the area. Many of them were along what is now called St. Mary’s Road, near to the parish church of St. Mary’s, which dates back to the early 12th century. The centre of the parish was thus in present-day South Ealing where I now live. That’s about a mile south of the modern centre, Ealing Broadway.
Back then the parish was divided into manors, such as Gunnersbury and Pitshanger. These were farmed, the crops being mostly rye, but also wheat. There were also animals such as cows, sheep and chickens. Its produce helped to supply the needs of the expanding metropolis six miles to the east. In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries it became increasingly a place of fashionable residence: agreeably rural but conveniently near to town.
The main route from London to Oxford ran from west to east through the centre of the parish. Many inns were situated along it, where horses could be changed and travellers refresh themselves. And of course like all such roads at that time, it was an infamous haunt for highwaymen.
The building of the Great Western Railway in the 1830s led to the opening of a railway station in 1879. The scattered villages began to grow into towns and to merge into unbroken residential areas. At the heart of the suburb was the station near that main road, by now known as the Broadway.
This was boom-time for Ealing, the period when Charles Jones crowned it Queen of the Suburbs. In the next few decades, much of the town was rebuilt. In the centre this was predominantly semi-detached housing designed for the rising middle class. And to the south and west cheaper terraced housing was built, aimed at the lower middle classes. We live in one of the latter today, although they are no longer ‘cheap’.
At the same time, better transport links were established, including horse buses as well as trains. These enabled people to more easily travel to work in London and return home each evening to what was still considered to be the countryside. Much of this countryside was rapidly disappearing; however parts of it were preserved as public parks.
The building of a new shopping centre in 1984 drastically altered the centre of Ealing. It led to a property price boom, which we were lucky enough to benefit from. It is still, as it was in Victorian times, considered a desirable (though no longer fashionable) place for commuters to live. And it still continues to combine something of the best of both worlds as it strives to live up to its other billing as one of London’s leafiest boroughs.
I won’t have time to show everything, just a few favourite spots. We’ll start our tour just south of the Broadway, on Ealing Green. There are a few notable buildings near here I’d like you to see. This is a relic of the old village that once straddled St Mary’s Road which linked the main east-west road with South Ealing. It’s a long thin green with several lovely old chestnut trees and some beautiful brick houses from the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Pitzhanger Manor is easily the grandest of the old houses that still remain in Ealing from its pre-suburban days. It was originally the home of the architect John Soane. He demolished the original manor house on this site and set about building his own home. This he saw as a sort of advertisement for his own idiosyncratic architectural style with its stripped classical detail, radical colour schemes and inventive use of space and light. Soane used Pitzhanger Manor as a weekend retreat and a place of entertainment. It also housed his collection of paintings, books, architectural drawings and fragments.
In 1810 he sold the house and it passed through a succession of owners, with remarkably little alteration. In 1843 it became home to the daughters of Britain’s only assassinated Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval. And in 1899 it was sold by the then owner, Spencer Horatio Walpole (three times Home Secretary), to Ealing District Council for £40,000, with the proviso that the last of the Perceval sisters, Frederika, should be allowed to remain there until her death. When she died in 1900 the house was extended to become a Public Library, with a Reading Room on its south side and a Lending Library on the north. This northern extension was demolished and replaced by a larger library building in 1940. At the same time Soane’s ornamental gardens and parkland, including his bridge, entrance arch and lodge, became Walpole Park, opening to the public in 1901.
The library moved to the Ealing Broadway Shopping Centre in 1985. Its 1940s extension is now an art gallery, with a programme of contemporary art exhibitions. The interiors of the main part of the house have been restored to the style of décor that they would have had during Sir John Soane’s time.
Ealing Film Studios
Mention Ealing to most English people of a certain age, and they will think of the Ealing Film Studios. These claim to be the oldest in the world, having been established in 1902. But they are best known for the incredible period of success from the late 1930s to the end of the 1950s. This golden age, with Michael Balcon as Head of Production, produced what became known collectively as the ‘Ealing Comedies’ including Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob.
The BBC bought the studios in 1959 and they spent the next 20 years shooting television productions here, such as Colditz, The Singing Detective and Fortunes of War. Many Ealing locations were used for BBC productions, ranging from Doctor Who to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In 2000 the studios reverted to private ownership. Today they are used both for movie production (films made here include Notting Hill, The Theory of Everything, The Darkest Hour and Bridget Jones), and for TV, most famously perhaps many of Downton Abbey’s interior scenes.
Unfortunately the studios aren’t open to the public. But they’re a must-see for any film buff even if you can only look at the outside.
Parks and open spaces
We may only have a handful of ‘big sights’ but what makes Ealing such a pleasant place to live is as the combination of proximity to the big city with plenty of local green spaces and facilities. My favourite is the aforementioned Walpole Park which has been featured many times in my photo galleries. We also have nearby Lammas Park, the larger Ealing Common to the east and a couple of remnants of former village greens.
Walpole Park is home to a series of festivals every summer. There’s a week-long comedy festival, a weekend beer festival and other weekends for blues music and for jazz. There’s a great community feel at all these events. We also have regular farmers’ markets and a small Christmas market in the shopping centre, with live music performances. We’ve got a repertory theatre company, a community cinema has just opened, and after far too many years it seems the refurbished 1930s cinema in the town centre may soon reopen.
Did you know?
The Londonist website has an interesting list of ‘12 Things You Never Knew About Ealing’ so I’ve pulled out a handful to share:
A Hollywood superstar lived here as a destitute child
As a seven-year-old, Charlie Chaplin became a pupil at a school for destitute children in Ealing, the Cuckoo Schools, in Hanwell. He never forgot the school, on one occasion organising coaches to take all the pupils to see one of his films.
The Vietnamese leader who worked in an Ealing kitchen
The revolutionary and Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh worked in the kitchens at the Drayton Court Hotel in The Avenue, West Ealing, in 1914. As a young man, Ho (1890-1969) travelled the world, working on ships and in hotels. He shovelled coal as a stoker on the ship that brought him to England. He then worked for a short stint at the Drayton Court, where he lived in a small staff bedroom in the attic.
And a little bit of North Korea in London
A discreet sign, and national flag on its flagpole, identify the seven-bedroom detached house at 73 Gunnersbury Avenue as the North Korean Embassy. My husband Chris went there to get our visas before our 2019 visit to that country.
An assassinated prime minister
The only British Prime Minister to be assassinated lived alongside Ealing Common. Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) was shot dead in the House of Commons, aged 49, by a bankrupt Liverpool businessman, John Bellingham, who held the government responsible for a failed business venture in Russia. All Saints church was built on the site of the Perceval family home. It today bears a plaque recording the connection with Spencer Perceval.
Cradle of the Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones formed after the members met at the Ealing Club, a pioneering early-Sixties venue in a cellar beneath a café opposite Ealing Broadway station.
Some Ealing wildlife
We may not live in the country, but we do have wildlife aplenty. We have squirrels and field-mice and urban foxes (who can be a real nuisance at times). Our birds include robins, sparrows, magpies, blackbirds, crows, jays, wood pigeons and the much less appealing feral pigeons, blue tits, chaffinches, thrushes and more. In recent years we have started to see more and more parakeets as their numbers swell. Excitingly I’ve also twice seen a red kite overhead, as their numbers in the UK recover. Water birds include various ducks such as mallards, moorhens and coots, Egyptian and Canada geese, herons and gulls. So I’ll finish with a gallery of favourite wildlife shots all taken within a mile of my suburban home.
There’s plenty more I could show you if we had more time. We haven’t seen the parish church in Ealing Broadway or the Roman Catholic Abbey. We haven’t walked on Ealing Common or in Gunnersbury Park. I haven’t taken you to my favourite pubs or coffee shops either. Maybe you can come back for another visit one day soon?
The above photos were taken between 2007 and 2022