Things You Might Not Know About The Borough Of Islington

By Zoe Craig Last edited 16 months ago
Things You Might Not Know About The Borough Of Islington

From a small medieval manor, to lawless brothel district, to today's confused and confusing uber-gentrified conglomeration, Islington has seen and heard it all.

Photo by John Kumar.

1. It's really popular

Do you live in Islington? You're in good company: Islington is the most densely populated borough in the UK according to the 2011 census, with 138.7 people per hectare, compared to an average of 52.0 for London as a whole.

Hundreds of well-known people call or have called Islington their home: Thomas Cromwell, George Orwell, Zaha Hadid, Lenin, Gillian Anderson, Daniel Defoe, Naomi Harris, Jeremy Corbyn, Minnie Driver, Douglas Adams, Tessa Jowell, Clive James and Laura Carmichael, to name but a few.

Daniel Defoe: Islington man

2. It used to be, well, dodgy

As Islington lay outside the confines of the London Wall, it was outside the jurisdiction of the somewhat puritanical City elders, much like the area south of the river.

Thus it became an area for entertainments and amusements, with theatres, inns, alehouses, taverns, bowling alleys and, of course, brothels.

Clerkenwell, in particular during the Elizabethan era, contained a notorious brothel quarter.

So famous, in fact, it was immortalised by Shakespeare: In Henry IV, Part 2, Falstaff complains about Shallow boasting of 'the wildness of his youth, and the feats he has done about Turnbull Street'.

Known now as Turnmill Street and adjoining Farringdon station, the road had a reputation for brothel-keeping and was described in Sugden's Topographical Dictionary as 'the most disreputable street in London, a haunt of thieves and loose women'.

These days, Turnmill Street is more like this:

Image: Zoopla

3. It's home to London's oldest brick terraces...

You'll find all kinds of architectural delights in the borough of Islington, from beautiful curving Georgian terraces, to 1930s art deco ex-cinemas and modern student accommodation.

52-55 Newington Green. Photo by David Holt.

But three unassuming Islington homes have the honour of being Grade I listed by Historic England: 52 to 55 Newington Green are London's oldest brick terraced houses, predating the Great Fire of London, built in 1658.

4. ...and a secret Tudor tower

Even older is the relatively demure Islington landmark of Canonbury Tower.

Canonbury Tower by Matt Brown.

Built sometime in the 1590s by Sir John Spencer, the then Lord Mayor of the City of London, the tower has been occupied by various historical figures including Thomas Cromwell, Francis Bacon and Oliver Goldsmith.

You can take a tour of the intriguing building by booking here.

(Or you can read what we thought of the tour here.)

5. It boasts an aqueduct

The New River is an artificial waterway, or aqueduct, built by Hugh Myddelton in 1613 to supply fresh water to London.

New River by Andrew Hughey.

The New River ran from Ware and Hertford, collecting water from springs and wells along its course.

Its original termination point was at New River Head near Clerkenwell in Islington, close to the current location of Sadler's Wells theatre.

In 1946 the water supply to New River Head was truncated at Stoke Newington; the New River now ends at the East Reservoir. You can now walk along the river's route, on a walk called the New River Path.

(Or you can put your feet up and read about when we did the walk instead...)

6. It's home to Little Italy and Little Ireland

In the 1850s, the south-western part of Clerkenwell in Islington was known as London's "Little Italy".

Around 2,000 Italians had settled in the area, along with Italian businesses like organ builders Chiappa Ltd and the Terroni deli (both still in the area). St Peter's Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road was consecrated in 1863.

St Peter's Italian Church in Little Italy.

The community had mostly dispersed by the 1960s, but the area remains the 'spiritual home' of London's Italians, and the Italian Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Sagra takes place each July in the streets surrounding the church.

Islington has the second highest proportion of Irish people in the country, behind the London Borough of Brent.

There's a significant Irish community in and around Finsbury Park, which has hosted the London Fleadh / London Feis on several occasions.

7. Malicious Damage at Islington Library

In 1959, playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell moved into 25 Noel Road, Islington, and spent three years sneaking books from Islington library, cutting out pictures, and creating bizarre photo collages on their covers before returning the tomes to the library shelves.

A volume of poems by John Betjeman, for example, was returned with a new dustjacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed, middle-aged man.

Joe Orton was no stranger to controversy. © The Stage Media Company Limited

The pair were finally caught in 1963, and each sentenced to six months imprisonment for malicious damage to Islington Public Library books.

No. 25 Noel Road now bears a plaque to the playwright, stating Joe Orton lived there until 1967. It doesn't mention that Orton and Halliwell both also died there; the latter bludgeoned the 34-year-old Orton to death before taking his own life.

8. It is the site of London's first gastropub

London's first gastropub, The Eagle, opened in Clerkenwell in Islington in 1991.

Restaurateurs Michael Belben and David Eyre were eager to open their own place, but found the rents and premiums prohibitive.

The Eagle.

Instead, they got a lease on a pub, and from an 8ft by 5ft kitchen served a soup, sausages, crostini, a steak sandwich, a salad of some kind, and — from the cooker in the flat — a casserole and an oven dish.

Three months after opening, they were expanding; and nearly three decades later, the evolution of gastropubs across the country shows no sign of stopping.

9. It has plenty of literary connections

Zoe Heller's book Notes on a Scandal is set in Islington; as is Nick Hornby's novel and subsequent film, About A Boy.

Both Douglas Adams and Charlie Higson use Islington as a location in their books too.

In JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, the Order of the Phoenix has its headquarters at Number 12 Grimmauld Place, a fictitious street in Islington. The house belongs to Sirius Black; Harry, Ron, and Hermione use it as a hideout in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Last Updated 31 January 2017