Discover London: A history of Islington

    Islington history
    The Almeida Theatre, Islington. Credit: Philip Vile

    Once frequented by farmers and founding fathers, this desirable corner of North London has plenty to offer history buffs and culture vultures alike, as Steve Pill discovers.

    For many Londoners, Islington is one of the most desirable districts in which to live. Situated in Zone 2 – that ideal first concentric circle on London’s tube map, that is neither the busy heart of the original city nor the leafy outer suburbs of Zone 4 and beyond – it has everything one might want from contemporary urban living, be it great restaurants and handsome Georgian terraces or simply enough green space to kid yourself that you aren’t in the most populous city (currently) in the EU. 

    While the quality of the local schools is hardly likely to impress a tourist and rightly so, Islington is still perhaps overlooked somewhat as a destination in favour of its West London equivalent, Notting Hill. Nevertheless, Richard Curtis could easily have set a sequel to his 1999 Hugh Grant-and-Julia Roberts romcom among the area’s handsome Georgian terraces, cafés and independent shops. (Interestingly, the Hugh Grant-starring About A Boy was based upon a book set in Islington, but the exterior shots were largely filmed in Notting Hill instead).

    Tudor Times

    Though now one of London’s most gentrified areas, if you stand on Islington Green today it is not that difficult to imagine its origins as a small hamlet some 500 years ago. It is here that Islington’s original two thoroughfares converged: Upper Street and Lower Road, the latter since renamed Essex Road. Like many settlements around the capital in Tudor times, the land that is now Islington was gifted to the aristocracy following Henry VIII’s famous dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-1540. Consisting then of mostly moated manor houses, farmland soon developed, and the area gained a reputation for its dairy herds, which supplied the capital with milk, butter and cream. 

    A statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton stands on the green today, a tribute to the Tudor architect behind the New River, which opened in 1613 and brought fresh water to the capital from the River Lea. While the New River terminates near here and still flows today, some of it now runs underground, covered by the Canonbury Gardens and housing. Another famous London waterway, the Regent’s Canal, also passes under Islington for more than half a mile – there’s no towpath, but the trail can be traced by waymarkers on the street above.

    Islington history
    Canonbury Square. Credit: Charlotte Machin/ StockimoNews / Alamy
    18th-century theatre

    Water played an important role in the early history of the local institution Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Originally opened in 1683 as a “musick house”, it took its name both from proprietor Richard Sadler and also the discovery of a mineral spring on the site, the iron-rich waters of which were rumoured to have healing properties. As the theatre’s official history notes, however, “it wasn’t long before the beer brewed from the spring waters became the primary attraction”. 

    The 1,500-capacity theatre that stands today is in fact the sixth incarnation of an institution that has had more lives than a cat and more gruesome demises than Henry VIII’s wives. Continuing the watery theme, the second incarnation of Sadler’s Wells even boasted a water tank fed by the New River, which allowed ambitious 18th century productions to include waterfalls and even sea battles. Chaotic and ambitious, it hardly encouraged a typical theatre-going crowd as we know it today. Writing in the 1830s, Charles Dickens noted Sadler’s Wells was home to “as ruffianly an audience as London could shake together”.

    The third incarnation was condemned, the fourth left to rundown and the fifth bulldozed. Over the years, misguided deviations in purpose have included staging prize fights, roller skating and cinema screenings, yet today the focus is primarily upon dance with more than 170 new productions brought to the stage since 2005, as well as tours by world-class companies. 

    Another Islington venue with an even longer history is the King’s Head Theatre. First opened as the King’s Head Tavern on the same Upper Street site in 1543, it only became a theatre a mere 50 years ago. The 110-seater space is situated out the back of an atmospheric Victorian pub and lays on more than 700 performances a year, with the aforementioned Hugh Grant and recent Oscar nominee Richard E Grant (no relation) among those A-list stars to have graced the stage early in their careers. The slightly larger Almeida Theatre around the corner on Almeida Street has also welcomed major stars in the ascendancy such as Gemma Arterton and Benedict Cumberbatch to a listed venue that was built in 1837 for the Islington Literary and Scientific Society.

    Art through the ages

    Further along Upper Street, past the various quality restaurants, cafés and delis (including the highly-rated Ottolenghi) sits the Union Chapel and, tucked behind it on a side street, one of Islington’s hidden gems: the Estorick Collection. Set in a converted Georgian townhouse and based on a portfolio of modern Italian art amassed by New York emigrant Eric Estorick and his German wife Salome Dessau, this collection regularly changes, and the garden café is a delightful oasis of calm in summer months. Just north of here is the equally relaxing Highbury Fields, the sole fragment of a much larger green space planned in 1850 that was to be known as Albert Park. 

    The Estorick Collection also sits next to Canonbury Square, a leafy residential spot that has a fascinating history that accounts for much of Islington’s artistic, middle-class reputation today. Evelyn Waugh moved to number 17a in 1928 during what was widely regarded as one of the happiest years of the author’s life, as he married Evelyn Gardner and published one of his most celebrated novels, Decline and Fall. George Orwell lived at 27b after his Kilburn flat was struck by a bomb during German air raids in 1944. He stayed here with his family for several years prior to his death in 1950, though sadly not long enough to enjoy having Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant as neighbours. Look out too for the rather higgledy-piggledy Canonbury Tower, which was originally part of a manor of the Prior and Canons of St Bartholomew’s before being gifted by Henry VIII to his first minister Thomas Cromwell.

    Exmouth Market, Islington Credit: Paolo Minoli/ Alamy
    Islington by night

    At night, head away from these quieter residential spots and back towards Islington Green and the Angel tube station to discover why the area has a reputation for vibrant nightlife. One of the first hostelries to open in the area was the original Angel Inn, an 18th-century coaching house used as the last staging post before London on routes from England’s southeast. It is believed that the English-born Thomas Paine, one of America’s founding fathers, wrote the beginnings of his influential 1791 text Rights of Man while staying at the inn. Twice rebuilt since, most recently in 1899, it now houses the Co-operative Bank.  

    On the opposite side of the crossroads sits the Old Red Lion public house, which was also rebuilt in that same year and lays claim to be one of London’s oldest drinking establishments after first opening in 1415. Thomas Paine was reportedly a regular here too, while an upstairs theatre introduced 40 years ago has ensured a steady stream of visitors more recently too. Today, Islington’s best establishments are a mix of grand Victorian pubs such as the Island Queen and The York, and more interesting modern bars, like the speakeasy-style 69 Colebrooke Row. For dinner, the Camden Passage is quaint and atmospheric at night, a car-free narrow street lined with restaurants and antiques shops. Visit in the day to catch one of three antiques and clothes markets.

    Further south lies Exmouth Market, another pedestrianised street that will leave you spoilt for choice for places to shop in the daytime and eat at any time. Look out for the punningly-named hairdressers Barber Streisand alongside award-winning restaurants like Moro and Caravan.


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