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Islington - Brief History

The London Borough of Islington is less than 40 years old. It came into being in 1965, when the former Metropolitan Boroughs of Islington and Finsbury united as part of a London-wide reorganisation but Islington's history is one of the oldest in London. Islington's origins are in the distant past. It is mentioned in Domesday Book in the 11th century, and in an earlier Anglo-Saxon charter. According to one early writer it was a savage place, a forest "full of the lairs of wild beasts", where bears and wild bulls roamed. On the edges of the forest was a pasture for hogs.

A dormitory village on the fringe of the City from medieval times, it had one specific function - to be an overnight stop for cattle on their way to Smithfield. In these Middle Ages (approx 5th to 15th century KF), most of the land belonged to religious institutions. After the dissolutions of the monasteries, much of it was given to aristocratic families, often friends of the Tudor monarchs. Islington grew slowly from a hamlet to a village, spreading along Upper Street and Lower Road, which later became Essex Road.

The fields between Upper Street and Liverpool Road not only housed one of the largest farms in the neighbourhood but provided forage and shelter for these passing herds. Humans were looked after by the numerous pubs along the High Street and Upper Street - in fact, there were nine clustered in the area by 1590.

In time it became famous for its dairy herds and produce, supplying London with butter, cream and milk. As London grew, brick terraces began to take over the agricultural land. Local farmers turned to manufacturing bricks and developing property.

The proper development of Islington began at the end of the eighteenth century, by which time the High Street and some terraces were built. But the main building period began in the 1820s as progressively the squares and terraces of Barnsbury appeared.

With the advent of the railways came industrial development and corresponding social decline. Eventually many big houses and once elegant squares fell into disrepair. For much of the last century, Islington was a poor, down at heel area.

Post-war rebuilding and later gentrification improved both housing standards and the appearance of local streets. In recent years, though some significant social problems remain, Islington has become a desirable residential area.

Islington did slump, as did many of the inner London suburbs, into slum conditions. People who could afford to moved out of central Islington to better-class suburbs or well out of town altogether, leaving the old houses to short-let tenancies. Even by 1967 nearly 60% of Islington's housing stock was in multi-occupation - the highest figure in London - with many of the houses having outside WCs but no baths. Run down establishments have given way to smart restaurants, galleries and shops, whilst new shopping centres have grown up at the Angel and Nag's Head.

The transformation in recent years has been rapid and sometimes fraught with controversy. It is now common for central Islington houses to be priced at 1 million. Upper Street and the High Street are thronged with restaurants, bars and entertainment. So many are central Islingtons attractions that on mild evenings there is an air of a boulevard, with people walking up and down just to take in the atmosphere. Those who remember the streets in the 1980s are amazed at the metamorphosis.

Famous People in Islington
slington has also been at the heart of political change. Oft recounted has been the historical meeting of Tony Blair - then living in Richmond Crescent, Islington - and Gordon Brown at the Granita restaurant in Upper Street at which, after the death of John Smith, it was decided who should be prime minister in the event of a Labour victory at the next election, and who Chancellor.

Numerous other famous names have lived in Islington. Canonbury Square and other streets nearby have been homes to various artists. The tragedian, Samuel Phelps (1804-78), who so successfully transformed Islington's Sadler's Wells theatre into a reputable drama venue, lived from 1844 to 1867 at 8 Canonbury Square.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) occupied 17a Canonbury Square 1928-30 and later let it out to fellow writer Nancy Mitford. The composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76) shared a studio with his partner, the singer Peter Pears, at 8 Halliford Street from 1970 to 1976.

The playwright Joe Orton (1933-67) lived at 25 Noel Road from 1960 where he had a stormy relationship with his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton was celebrated for anarchic plays such as Loot and What the Butler Saw, but his personal life was fraught with the jealousy of Halliwell at his success and of Orton's promiscuous relations elsewhere. In August 1967 Halliwell battered Orton to death and then took his own life.

Sources: Islington Past. Written by John Richardson. Published by Historical Publications. and other documents

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