The recent opening of Room 89 in Union Street reminds us how this modest and somewhat neglected old thoroughfare offers an interesting glimpse of Barnet’s past.
Strolling along from the High Street the old shop fronts, commercial premises and handful of businesses lining the top end of modern day Union Street suggest it has seen busier and more significant times. This is further confirmed as you pass the old town hall about half way along on the left at number 29 (currently enveloped in tarpaulin due to building works). Continuing along the road past the modern Roman Catholic church set back on the right and then a little parade of (empty) shops on the left just before the junction with Stapylton Road on the right and Coe’s Alley tucked round to the left. Union Street comes to an end at the rear of the Black Horse pub. The street also features a range of attractive cottages, some dating back to the early 19th century and the almshouses and gardens, Leathersellers Close, at the junction with The Avenue. Currently there’s a lot of construction work going on which will have a big impact on the street.
Union Street dates from 1837 and was originally called Hartshorn Street after the Hartshorn pub on the corner of the High Street, but it gradually became known as Union Street because it was the main route to the Barnet Union Workhouse from the High Street. The Barnet Poor Law Union (of ten parishes) was formed in July 1835 to collectively finance workhouses and, in 1837, a new workhouse was built on Barnet Common at the end of West End Lane, backing on to Well House Lane. The workhouse closed in 1939, but the infirmary wing continued to be used, evolving into what is now Barnet General Hospital.
The Barnet workhouse is said to have been the inspiration for the workhouse in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist apparently after a friend of the author paid a visit to the establishment and heard a young boy at dinner asking for more. In 2002 the hospital authorities demolished the workhouse to use the site as a car park.
As Union Street linked the High Street with Wood Street and the workhouse, it was a useful bypass for carriages avoiding the narrow junction near the church, “the squeeze”, made more awkward by Middle Row, the little island of shops just south of the church, which was still standing at the time. Union Street started to become important in its own right and its modest scale was in real contrast to Wood Street. Pamela Taylor in Barnet and Hadley Past explains how Union Street “developed into something of a new town centre, with a significant concentration of churches and schools, a meeting room and, from 1889–1912, Barnet Town Hall.”
Archives at the Barnet Museum (Kelly’s Directory of Barnet) reveal a healthy number businesses and services in Union Street in 1891–92: Barnet Free School (number 1), Catholic school (3), decorator (15), cab proprietor (17), curriers (25), Congregational Church Sunday Schools (27), Barnet Town Hall and County Court (29), general shop (33), gardener (43), corn merchant (47), The Black Horse Inn (65); greengrocer (2), tutor (4), boot maker (8), coachbuilder (14), tailors (20 and 48), insurance agent (22), Barnet Young Men’s Christian Association and Literary Institute (38), dairyman (42), plumber (44), accountant (46), baker (58), The Albion Inn (60), printer (62–64), bricklayer (68), tripe dresser (78), mason (82) and the Leathersellers’ Company’s Almshouses.
Nearly 50 years later in 1939 some of the street numbers have changed (eg The Black Horse is at number 75 instead of 65 and The Albion Inn 74 instead of 60), but the range of shops and services was just as broad: Barnet Auction Rooms (number 1a), ironmongers (1), hairdressers (5 and 33), cabinet maker and tailor (23), printers (29–31, the former Town Hall), greengrocers (63), newsagent (73) The Black Horse Inn with garage alongside (75); confectioner (2), laundry (4), sports outfitter (6), boot maker (8), saddler (16), Barnet Conservative and Unionist Working Men’s Club (22), Barnet PSA Brotherhood (50), Barnet Assembly Hall (70), watchmaker (72), The Albion Inn (74), French polisher (76), cake maker (94) and the Leathersellers’ Company’s Almshouses.
The Assembly Hall continued being used as a venue through the 20th century and local residents at the time recall it hosting the Barnet Jazz Club on Tuesdays in the late 1950s and early 60s and even Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. The Assembly Hall was demolished around 2000 and The Albion Inn was converted into flats in 2012.
Maybe now that commercial rents are so high on the High Street, businesses are seeking out more modest options. It will be interesting to see if more traders follow Room 89’s example and continue giving Union Street a new lease of life.