What's The Oldest Building In Islington?

By M@ Last edited 63 months ago
What's The Oldest Building In Islington?

Series exploring the most venerable buildings in each London borough.

Islington boasts at least four structures that might vie for the title of 'oldest building', depending on how you define 'oldest' and 'building'.

Various stuff of St John in Clerkenwell

Gateway of St John's Priory, Clerkenwell, London

One leading contender is St John's Gate, the familiar Clerkenwell landmark which has stood here since 1504. It once served as the entrance to the Priory of the Knights of St John but, of course, all that was swept away with Henry VIII's Reformation.

The gate today contains a free and lively museum which sets out the history of the building (top fact — William Hogarth lived in the gatehouse as a child). Sadly, much of what we see from the outside is Victorian restoration. Like the proverbial broom that has first its handle and then its brush replaced, it might be a stretch to consider St John's Gate an original 16th century structure.

Church of St John, Clerkenwell.
Church of St John

The nearby church buildings of St John conceal a more complex story. A church has stood here since the 12th century. Substantial remains of the crypt still survive, and might be considered an intact building. However, most of the surface structures date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Tours are available on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The Clerk's Well

Where is the well of Clerkenwell? It still survives, hiding within a modern building to the west of Clerkenwell Green. This relic of the 12th century can be visited by appointment and on special occasions. It's quite possibly the oldest bit of civic infrastructure in central London, but to call it a building is pushing things.


The Charterhouse in London

We'd always assumed this former monastic enclave in Smithfield was part of the City of London, but it falls under the wing of Islington. The Charterhouse was founded in 1371, and medieval fragments do survive. However, most of the historic buildings on the site date from Tudor times, and most of these were heavily restored following severe damage in the Blitz. The upshot is that Charterhouse, while containing ancient stones, is too much of a temporal mongrel to be definitively declared Islington's oldest building. Even so, we'd thoroughly recommend the museum and tours.

Canonbury Tower

Canonbury Tower in Islington

And so we come to a building of undisputed antiquity, still gaily sporting its original fabric. The Canonbury Tower can be found, quite logically, in the district of Canonbury to the east of Upper Street. This is proper Tudor stuff, from the early 16th century and the start of Henry VIII's reign. Its impressive roll-call of former residents includes Francis Bacon, Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Goldsmith.

Canonbury Tower view of the City.
View from the top.

The tower could be visited courtesy of the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association, though these tours are on indefinite hold while some kind of structural problem is corrected (here's what we found). The adjacent 6-9 Canonbury Place are also from the 16th century, though a little later. Somewhat surprisingly, these venerable buildings do not have Grade I listing, though are still strongly protected with a Grade II*.

See also: Camden. All images by the author.

Explore more of London's history with our Londonist Memory Machine Facebook group.

Last Updated 17 September 2018