Enjoy a slice of London's history by walking from Smithfield through Islington to Highbury Corner.
“He married Jane Carter,
No damsel look’d smarter;
But he caught a tartar,
John Hobbs, John Hobbs;
Yes, he caught a tartar, John Hobbs.
He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs, John Hobbs;
He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs!
To ‘scape from hot water,
To Smithfield he brought her;
But nobody bought her …”
“John Hobbs” from "Modern Street Ballads", ed. J Ashton (publ. 1888).
Clerkenwell’s St Johns Street was described in 1170 as the street: … which goeth from the bar of Smithfield towards Yseldon [i.e. Islington]” (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol46/pp203-221). It was a well-worn route from the country into town, and was lined with coaching inns for travellers and hostelries for cattle drovers bringing their animals to market. Before exploring the street, we will look at St Peters Italian Church in Clerkenwell Road just west of Farringdon Road.
This church is in the heart of what was once known as ‘Little Italy’ because of its Italian community, which was began growing rapidly at the beginning of the 19th century. St Peters, designed by the Irish Sir John Miller-Bryson, was consecrated in 1863. The congregation originated in the 18th century when Roman Catholicism was outlawed in England. Then, Catholic services were held clandestinely in the chapel of the Ambassador to the Kingdom of Sardinia (see: “La Chiesa italiana di San Pietro a Londra”, by LM Stanca, publ. 2001), which was in today’s Sardinia Street near Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Its narrow façade belies the church’s large interior. In the porch, there is a monument to Italians who died during WW1. With an inscription by Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938), the monument gives the war’s dates as 1915-1918, 1915 being the year when Italy joined the forces allied against Germany. The monument, which bears the symbol of Mussolini’s fascists is dated both as 1927 and as ‘Anno VI’, that being the 6th year since Mussolini assumed power. Above the war memorial, there is a monument to the victims of the ‘SS Arandora Star’, which was sunk in 1940 while carrying Italian internees and POWs to Canada.
Entering the spacious body of the church is like stepping out of London and into a typical late baroque church in Italy. The central aisle is flanked with polished marble pillars topped with Ionic capitals. Apart from various monuments including a list of those lost on the Arandora Star, there are many paintings, the oldest of which ‘l’Orbetto’ was painted by Alessandro Turchi (1578-1649). When not being used, this church is an oasis of peace in a busy area of London.
Descending Clerkenwell Road eastwards, we pass: Hatton Garden (of diamond-trading fame); Saffron Hill and Herbal Hill, where once there were gardens in which herbs and saffron were grown. Farringdon Road follows the course of the (now buried) Fleet River.
Well Court is in Farringdon Lane. A sign on its exterior reads “Clerks’ Well”. Through the windows, you can see a circular well lined with bricks, and some old piping. This was used to carry water from the well. Behind the well, there is brick facing that covers the mediaeval wall of the former St Mary’s Nunnery. Above it, there is a commemorative plaque that used to be located above a pump, which was formerly located in the street near the well. The notice informs that the water that supplied the well was “greatly esteemed by the Prior and Brethren of the Order of Jerusalem and the Benedictine Nuns in the Neighbourhood”. These establishments were closed by King Henry VIII. The well, which gives its name to Clerkenwell, continued to be used until the mid-19th century, when it became polluted, filled in, and built over. In 1924, it was rediscovered during building works.
Moving southwards, we pass the newly restored Middlesex Sessions House (described elsewhere), and approach Farringdon Station via Turnmill Street, an old thoroughfare which was close to mills powered by the waters of the River Fleet (before it was covered in the 19th century). Farringdon Station serves both the Underground and the Overground railways. Its Cowcross Street entrance hall, designed by Charles Walter Clark (1885–1972), who designed several other ‘tube’ stations, was opened in 1922.
Turnmill and Cowcross Streets mark the south-west boundary of the land owned by the former Priory of St John of Jerusalem (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol46/pp182-202#h2-0001). A building at the west end of Cowcross Street has a projecting bracket with three gold coloured spheres, the sign of a pawnbroker. Faulkners Alley, one of many alleys in the area, is visible through a narrow arch decorated with a pretty cast-iron metal screen.
Number 70-75 Cowcross Street is a large four-storey, glass-fronted, steel-framed building, designed by the London architects Smee & Houchin, and built in 1921. Almost opposite, is Denmark House constructed 1878-79. This building and number 70-75 were two of several buildings constructed in the area for use as warehouses or stores. At Peters Lane, Cowcross street turns southward towards to meet St Johns Street, which commences at the north side of Smithfield Market, an indoor wholesale meat marketplace.
Smithfield’s central Grand Avenue is entered through an archway flanked by two heraldic dragons and a pair of stone sculptures. The Avenue runs beneath a high roof supported by ornate painted ironwork arches. Side aisles are lined with the meat dealers’ stalls and glass-covered display cabinets. In 1852, London’s livestock market was moved from Smithfield to Copenhagen Fields in Islington (off Caledonian Road, where the Caledonian Park is now located). This cleared the area for the construction of the present meat market, which was completed by 1868. Constructed in an era before refrigerators were used, the market was designed to keep out the sun and to take advantages of prevailing breezes.
In mediaeval times, Smithfield had a bad reputation. It was known for criminal activity, violence, and public executions. In the early 19th century, when obtaining divorce was difficult, men brought their unwanted wives to Smithfield to sell them, then a legal way of ending a marriage (see: “Meat, Commerce and the City: The London Food Market, 1800–1855”, by RS Metcalfe, publ. 2015).
At the southern end of Saint Johns Street (‘SJS’), the gable of number 5 bears a bas-relief of a boar and the date 1897, when the building (used for commerce and retail) was re-built by W Harris. Just north of this, St John widens temporarily to form an oval space.
Number 16 on the east side of the oval bears a cross-keys symbol near its roof, and the intertwined letters ‘A & M’ above its central first-floor window. This building housed the ‘Cross Keys’ pub until before 1983. There had been a pub on this site, a coaching inn, since before the 18th century. Its neighbour, number 18, is a Victorian gothic building was formerly a warehouse built 1886-7. A disused crane arm can be seen projecting from between the building’s two main gothic arches. In 1889, the building was let to Oppenheimer & Co, sausage-skin manufacturers. Now, it has other uses.
The slender number 22 was already built by the early 18th century. It is the only surviving member of a row of three similar houses. Close by, number 26 was built in the early 19th century on a site once occupied by an inn called ‘The Swan with Two Necks’, which was already established by 1670. There used to be quite a cluster of inns in this part of St Johns. They catered for the coaches and the drovers who made much use of this thoroughfare.
Number 34-36, with its magnificent late Victorian stone and brick facade was once the premises of George Farmiloe & Sons, lead and glass merchants. This building and its neighbour are built on land once occupied by yet another inn and its yard. In 1999, Farmiloe’s moved their business from SJS.
Take a small detour into Peter’s Lane to see a tall brick building adorned with realistic bulls’ and cows’ heads (sculpted by Mark Merer and Lucy Glendenning) standing at its northern end. This tower was built in the late 1990s. It is attached to a boutique hotel, The Rookery, which occupies some modernised Victorian (or 18th century) buildings.
Returning to SJS, number 57 is occupied by the White Bear pub, which was rebuilt 1898-99. Nearly opposite it, number 71 has a neo-classical shopfront with Ionic pilasters. This building was built 1817-18. The shop was first leased by John Newton, a cork manufacturer. Opposite it, number 75 is a slender brick building with brick arches above its first-floor windows. It was built in the 1830s.
Passing Alley is no longer where it used to be in monastic times. The present alley is further south from its original location. On Rocque’s 1745 map and an earlier one (1676), it was named ‘Pissing Alley’. The current name first appeared on a 1790 map (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol46/pp142-163). It leads from SJS to St Johns Lane. From the latter end of the alley, there is a good view of the historic archway of the Order of St John (see elsewhere). This end of the alley emerges from a building labelled ‘Lovell and Christmas’, a former grocery built in 1897.
Further north along St Johns, there is a red brick building with a large street opening guarded by ornately decorated wooden gates. This was once the ‘Cannon Brewery’, descendant of a brewery founded in the 1670s. The Brewing Yard Offices were built in 1875, the date on the lovely clock that can be seen within the courtyard. The brewery faces a large white stone-faced building, which was designed by Malcolm Waverley Matts (1874-1960) and built 1925-27 for Pollard & Co Ltd, shopfitter suppliers (shopfronts, shelving, etc,). The company invented ‘invisible glass’, concave sheets of glass used in shopfronts.
After crossing Clerkenwell Road, take a detour along Aylesbury Street passing a new glass-fronted five-storey building with some black tiling on its facade, and then enter Woodbridge Street, where the Woodbridge Chapel stands. This was built in 1823 (architect: Thomas Porter) for a Calvinist sect. After having been used as a liquor store by Nicholsons (see below), this became a school, and then later a medical facility that is still in use. It is also still used for religious purposes.
Back on SJS at the corner of Compton Street, there is a former pub. Rebuilt in 1901, this was once ‘The George’ (already established at the beginning of the 19th century). The large building just north of this on the other side of St Johns, is decorated with eleven pilasters and has a central archway leading to an inner courtyard. This (built in the 1890s) and the building immediately to its north were part of Nicholson’s Distillery. The Nicholson’s, who had been distilling spirits in Clerkenwell since the 1730s and in Bow since the 1770s, established the origins of the present site in 1802. In 1872, the company bought the Three Mills Distillery on the River Lea at Bow (which I describe elsewhere). This supplied grain alcohol which was processed in the Clerkenwell works. The distillery has been converted into flats.
Another former factory that has been used to provide accommodation is Liberty House, number 218. Now a students’ residence, this was once Thomas Glover & Co.’s gas meter factory. This was built in 1868, designed by Alexander Peebles (1840-1891). Next door to it, there is a handsome modern glass-fronted office block, which stands where once the Scholl factory stood. The building’s current Mondriaan-like façade was created in 1989 by Brandon-Jones, Robinson, Sanders & Thorne.
Just opposite this, Sekforde Street, with its rows of 19th century terraced houses (built 1828-42), is well worth a glance. These rows are interrupted by an elegant neo-classical façade, that of the former Finsbury Savings Bank, built in 1840 (designed by Arthur Bartholomew). This institution was founded in 1816 for servants, labourers, tradesmen, and so on. In 1845, the author Charles Dickens deposited some of his money here.
North of Skinner Street, SJS changes character. It has less of a history of industry and commerce than the section south to Smithfield. Whereas the latter half was urbanised by the 17th century or earlier, the northern section remained almost rural until the late 18th century. The imposing, decorated Peasant pub was built in 1890 as the ‘George and Dragon public house and coffee tavern’.
Finsbury Library at number 245, a sweeping curved sixties’ construction (built 1967) that has a certain elegance celebrated 50 years of its existence in 2017. It was designed by the German Jewish refugee Carl Ludwig Franck (1904-1985), who collaborated on other buildings with Tecton (see below). The library houses a local history department. The Islington Museum is in the basement.
The Museum is well laid-out and interesting. Many of its exhibits tend to stress the socialistic aspects of Islington’s history. A prominently displayed bust of VI Lenin and an exhibit of local ‘radicals’ are in character with this. A recently created tapestry illustrates Islington’s many associations with socialism. One exhibit that particularly interested me was of some wooden water pipes that had once been used to convey drinking water from the New River (see below) to its consumers. I saw similar pipes, which are hollowed-out tree trunks, in a museum in Edinburgh. One end of each wooden section is carved to a taper so that it can be slotted into the uncarved end of another wooden section.
Across the road from the library, stands a grand brick and stone building of City University (completed 1898), which was designed by Edward William Mountford (1855-1908), who also designed The Old Bailey court house. This was first home to ‘The Northampton Institute’ founded in 1852 to teach a range of skills to young men and women from the less-affluent parts of the populace. In 1966, the college received its Royal Charter, and became a university. The Inns of Court School of Law, attached to the University in 2001, proudly includes amongst its alumni: ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and my wife. These people graduated before the law school joined the university.
Spa Fields is a small park at the western end of the short Lloyd’s Row. It contains a WW1 memorial (erected 1921) with a statue of a winged Victory. In the early 18th century, this was an area where various violent sports, such as prize-fighting and bull-baiting, were enjoyed. In 1815, during riots against the Corn Laws, there was a large meeting at SpaFields, where: “… a tricolor flag and a revolutionary cap had been paraded before cheering crowds who had later broken into a gunsmith’s shop and marched towards the City” (See: “George IV”, by C Hibbert, publ. 1976).
Across Roseberry Avenue, which flanks Spa Fields, there is a large brick building with white stone trimmings, now a block of flats. Completed in 1920, New River Head House was designed by Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. Above two of its windows, there are carved inscriptions. One reads “Erected MDCXIII”, and the other “MDCCLXXXII”. These dates are 1623 and 1782 respectively, which are carved in archaic lettering. The inscribed stones must have been saved from an earlier building. The land on which the house stands was formerly the ‘New River Head’.
The New River, a canal constructed to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into London ended at the reservoir called ‘New River Head’. It was high enough above what was the city of London in the 17th century to allow the flow of water from it to be ‘powered’ by gravity alone (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp165-184). The brick-lined reservoir was constructed in 1623, when the first building at the reservoir, the ‘Water House’, was also built. The architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811), surveyor to the New River Company, repaired, enlarged, and refaced it in the 18th century. The refacing was done in 1782. So, the two inscriptions on the present building derive from Mylne’s time. The old building, which had been enlarged many times, was demolished by 1915.
New River Head House is close to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, where my parents used to take me to see opera during the 1960s. One of the first operas I saw was ‘La Traviata’. I remember finding it very tedious watching the heroine taking ages to die. This was performed by ‘The Sadler’s Wells Opera’, which moved to the larger capacity Coliseum Theatre in 1968, and later changed its name to ‘The English National Opera’. Standing between the theatre New River Head House, is an elegantly curved brick building, the former ‘Water-Testing Laboratory’. This was built 1936-38, and designed by John Murray Easton (1889-1975).
Returning to SJS via Lloyds Row, we pass a distinctive block of council flats with balconies punctuated by a semi-circular tower containing a staircase. This is part of Spa Green Estate (built after WW2), which was designed by the architectural firm Tecton, which was under the direction of Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) and other leading architects. Incidentally, this firm also designed the private block of flats, High Point, in Highgate. The estate was built on land that had been covered with slum-dwellings. Across SJS, older buildings face the newer ones.
The Old Red Lion Theatre Pub stands on SJS near its northern end at Pentonville Road. The pub has a long ancestry. It was first established in what was the tiny village of Islington in 1415. The present building decorated with lions painted in a lurid red was built in 1899. In 1979, a small theatre opened on its first floor. I have seen several plays well-performed in this very intimate little space.
SJS becomes ‘Upper Street’ after it crosses Pentonville Road at The Angel. There is a grand salmon-pink stone building with pilasters and an elaborately decorated dome at the corner of Upper Street and Pentonville Road. This was designed by Frederick James Eedle and Sydney Herbert Meyers, and completed in 1903 as the ‘Angel Hotel’. It stands where in the 17th century (by 1614) there was an inn called ‘The Angel’. By the 18th century, this had become an important staging post for coaches. The present building stands at the southern end of Upper Street, which, with no shortage of eateries, is one of London’s most popular places of refreshment. The street was so-named to distinguish it from the former ‘Lower Street’, now named Essex Road.
A long, single-storey building (on the east side of the street) built with yellow bricks and trimmed with white stonework was once an electrical sub-station for the London County Council Tramways This was designed by Vincent Harris (1876-1971), and built 1905-06 (see: “London 4: North”, by B Cherry and N Pevsner, publ. 1998). The pavement across the road from this is elevated, and lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. Prior to the building of the substation and other buildings close to it, the southern section of Upper Street, which used to be part of the ‘High Street’, was wider than the rest of Upper Street to its north. This widening, such as was seen earlier at the southern section of SJS, and is also evident in Hampstead’s High Street, is typical of the widened sections of High Streets where markets were/are held in country towns.
Just north of the substation, a single two-storey cottage stands on a short road linking Upper Street and the Islington High Street. Dated 1838, this is Phelps Cottage, a solitary reminder of earlier times when Islington was a small town, rapidly becoming absorbed into the spreading city.
Camden Passage, with its many antiques dealers, is the northern continuation of the narrow High Street. There is a shop on the Passage, which has a first-floor terrace enclosed within a pretty wall of glass panes framed by interlocking gothic arches. This shop forms part of a terrace of 18th century buildings, which were present before Islington became a part of London.
The contemporary-looking Business Design Centre on the western side of Upper Street, designed by Frederick Peck (c1827-1875), was opened in 1862 as the ‘Royal Agricultural Hall’. Its vast glass-covered hall was used for a variety of shows and exhibitions until 1943, when it was used temporarily as a postal parcels’ office, the nearby Mount Pleasant postal centre having been damaged by bombing. Between the 1970, when the Post Office stopped using it, and 1986, the building stood empty. In ’86, it was bought by the businessman Sam Morris (1917-1991), who converted it to its present reincarnation, which is still used for exhibitions - I attended a contemporary art fair there not long ago - and for offices and conference usage.
At the triangular Islington Green (which was already on 18th century maps), Essex Road branches off from Upper Street at an acute angle. At the apex of the triangle, there is a statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631) sculpted by John Thomas (1813–1862). He stands bare-footed, wearing a ruff and breeches, which stop short of his uncovered knees and lower legs. Below his plinth, two carved children sit or kneel with pitchers between their legs. Once, they issued water, but no longer. Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur, was the driving force behind the creation of the New River water supply project (see above). The 38-mile-long canal, which he helped to finance, was constructed between 1608 and 1613. The statue was presented by Sir Morton Peto (1809-1889), a politician and civil engineer. Local financing paid for the fountain and the pedestal, dated 1862.
Islington Green is often filled with people relaxing on park benches. At its western edge, there is a circular sculpture resembling a three-dimensional Möbius Strip. This is Islington’s War Memorial designed by John Maine, and completed in 2007. It replaced an earlier memorial (an obelisk), which had fallen into disrepair. The ring was carved in China using stone from Fujian Province before being shipped to England. Today where there is a branch of Waterstones bookshops (numbers 10-11 Islington Green), there used to be a music hall, ‘Collin’s Music Hall’. This staggered on until it was damaged by fire in 1958 (see: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Collins.htm). In 2008, there was a plan to build another theatre on the site, which was already occupied by the bookshop, but this has not happened.
The Screen-on-the-Green cinema with its distinctive façade, surmounted by a semi-circular pediment the width of the building, faces the memorial across Upper Street. Built in 1911 as ‘The Picture Theatre’, this has survived (unlike the music hall). Modernised in 1981, this establishment is now part of the Everyman group of cinemas.
The distinctive brick building with triangular gables (one of them bearing the date 1888) and large upper storey windows at the corner of Gaskin Street was once the ‘Congregational Chapel’. This was the last building to be designed by the architect HJ Paull. It is no longer used for religious purposes.
Further north, is the Victorian King’s Head. I have visited this pub often, not so much to drink but, instead, to enjoy dramatic performances in the tiny theatre behind the bar-room. This theatre was founded by theatre producer Dan Crawford (1942-2005) in 1970. I have seen several great performances there. One, which I remember, was “Phallacy” by Carl Djerassi (1923-2005), a playwright and scientist who helped to develop the contraceptive pill. On that occasion, we took advantage of a service which used to be offered by the theatre. That was to eat a meal in the auditorium before the show. Although the play was wonderful, the food was disappointing. In 2018, the theatre is moving from behind the pub to a new location.
St Marys Church is opposite the pub. Its façade and steeple were built in the early 1750s to designs by Launcelot Dowbiggin (1685-1759). The rest of the church, having been destroyed by bombs in WW2, was rebuilt in a newer style designed by John Seely (1900-1963) and Paul Paget (1901-1985) in the early 1950s. The church’s post-war interior is worth visiting to enjoy its feeling of spaciousness and some paintings by Brian Thomas, who specialised in paintings for churches. Next to the church, is its large red brick vicarage, which was built when William Barlow (1833-1908) was the church’s vicar (from 1886-1902).
North of the church, there are two former pubs. The ‘Mitre’, which was already in existence by the mid-1850s, closed in about 2002. The ‘Old Parrs Head’, a Victorian pub, on the corner of Cross Street, now being used as a shop, retains its original ground floor tiling and lettering. It stopped serving drinks in 2007.
Almeida Street, named after a town in Portugal that featured in the Napoleonic Wars, is just north of Cross Street. It has become famous for its theatre, The Almeida. Formerly, the ‘Literary and Scientific Institute’ built 1837-38 by architects RL Roumieu (1814-1877) and AD Gough (1804-1871), this later became a music hall, then a Salvation Army ‘citadel’, and later a warehouse. In 1982, Burrell Foley and his colleagues converted this neo-classical building back into a theatre. Since then, it has undergone other ‘improvements’. Although it has a great reputation amongst its audiences and theatre critics, I do not like attending plays there. The auditorium is full of supporting pillars, and it is difficult to find a seat which does not have at least one of these in the line of sight between audience and stage.
Opposite the theatre there is a brick building with arched doorways and brick pilasters. This was formerly Myddelton Hall. It bears the date 1891. It contained an auditorium and a stage, and in 1892 it was licensed for musical performances (see: https://database.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/2194-myddelton-hall). Part of its ground-floor now houses a restaurant.
Highbury Mansions on Upper Street is faced with decorative brickwork and stucco. The stucco is decorated with some terra-cotta coloured panels. Some of these bear the motto ‘labor omnia vincit’. For what reason, I cannot say. Nearby, on the corner of Upper Street and Waterloo Terrace, Waterloo House has its main entrance surmounted by a picturesque ogival arch.
The next major building on Upper Street is Islington Town hall, with its neo-classical stone façade. This was built in 1923 to the designs of Edward Monson (1872-1941), who also designed the nearby Tyndale Mansions (1926) with 102 flats. Almost opposite this residential complex, there is another one, a block of flats called Sutton Dwellings, which was built in 1917. This building was financed by The Sutton Model Dwellings Trust set up by William Sutton (1833-1900), the founder of Britain’s first door-to-door long-distance parcel delivery service.
The eastern side of the northern end of the road that began at Smithfield has a long thin garden, a pleasant shady strip with trees and planting beds called Compton Terrace Gardens. The facades of Compton Terrace (built from 1806 onwards) are interrupted midway by a gap that contains the Union Chapel.
The present Chapel, a fine, imposing Victorian gothic structure in brick and stone, was designed in the late 1870s by James Cubitt (1836-1912). His building replaced one of a series of earlier buildings (i.e. chapels), the first of which was built in 1806. The name ‘Union’ refers to the fact that the congregation was founded by a union of Anglicans and non-Conformists in 1799. The large church is also used for concerts. Sometime before 1993, I attended a concert at the Union Chapel. I was fortunate to see the minimalist composer Steve Reich (born 1936) performing music with his ensemble.
The northern end of Compton Terrace Gardens ends abruptly above a large, busy traffic roundabout at Highbury Corner. A plaque on the north facing wall of Compton Terrace recalls that on the 27th of June 1944 a German V1 flying bomb destroyed Highbury Corner, injured 150 people, and killed 26.
Our exploration ends at Highbury and Islington Station. Its present entrance was built in the 1960s. Opposite, there is a disused station entrance to ‘Highbury Station’ dated 1904, but closed in the late 1960s following the construction of the Victoria Line. Here we end a stroll that began in a part of London that was already developed in the 12th century, and end in another part, which was barely inhabited in the early 19th century. St Johns Street and its northern continuation, Upper Street, resemble the historical equivalent of a geological core sample, displaying different phases of London’s long history along its length.