Refugee Week

The Victoria

Over the past three centuries Islington became a new home for thousands of Irish economic migrants, who brought with them many cultural traditions and the melodic sounds of Irish music. In the 20th Century, it was common to hear the sound of the Irish fiddle wafting out of windows and into the street from pubs such as The Favourite and The Victoria. Jimmy Power was one of the finest Irish fiddle players on the London-Irish music scene, bringing the sounds of his homeland to these Islington pubs in the 1960’s – 1980’s. Over time, many of the pubs that hosted Irish musicians have shut down or been revamped for the modern day, but The Victoria in Holloway still physically stands tall as a symbol of what once was.

Stop 6: Victoria Tavern, 203 Holloway Rd, N7 8DL

The arrival of the Irish into Islington began in the 1700s, mainly as agricultural labourers. The early part of the 19th Century attracted large numbers of Irish migrants, drawn by London’s rapid economic growth. This increased when many from Ireland fled the effects of the Irish potato famine during the 1840s.

Clerkenwell tunnel, Farringdon Road, in 1868 – the work of the navvies.

By 1851 there were over 6000 Irish people in Islington and Finsbury. Many found work in domestic service, in the construction business and as navigators or ‘navvies’ building canals, railways and roads. Irish navvies along with farmers from Scotland and tin miners from Cornwall’s contributions can be seen in the construction of Farringdon station and the new Metropolitan line, which opened in 1863. Their lives were difficult, working long hours on physically demanding construction sites, and poverty as a result of precarious employment meant that they often lived in squalid conditions. Laid out in 2017, Navigator Square in Archway pays tribute to the navvies. The Pogues, who were founded locally at Kings Cross, tell of the lives and hardships endured by the navvies in their 1985 song Navigator:

Many of Islington’s Irish settled around the Angel and City Road, Archway and Upper Holloway, often experiencing poor and overcrowded living conditions. Although most Irish shared much of the poverty and deprivation of the English working class, they suffered considerable animosity on the basis that they were undercutting wages and taking jobs and houses.

Following the Second World War (1939-45) the British economy boomed and a new wave of Irish migrants arrived in Islington, especially to Archway and Holloway. Almost unlimited work was available in the construction industry and the new National Health Service was to depend heavily on young Irish women; at times, over 85% of the Whittington Hospital’s nursing staff were Irish. In the decade between 1951 and 1961 the Irish-born population of the borough doubled to a record 15,473. 

With an increasing population from the 1950s, members of Islington’s Irish community would come together in large numbers to enjoy their culture and heritage. Irish dancing schools were set up and dancehalls provided space where young Irish people could socialise and exchange news from home, such as the Gresham Ballroom in Upper Holloway. Live Irish music was played in pubs in north Islington. Among these venues were The Favourite on Queensland Road and The Victoria on Holloway Road, where musicians regularly performed traditional Irish music. The Archway Tavern was another well-known location for Irish music and bands.

The Favourite, 1973

It was at these pubs that Jimmy Power spent many hours enjoying Irish music and entertaining Islingtonians with his skill on the fiddle. Jimmy Power was born in Ballyduff, County Waterford, Ireland in 1918. His long-time piano accompanist Reg Hall, recalled, “His father, a fiddle-player himself, had died a few weeks earlier during an influenza epidemic leaving Jimmy a musical reputation to live up to and a string-less fiddle hanging by the fireplace.” Regarded now as one of the finest Irish fiddle players, Power learnt his art from violin lesson from the age of ten. His music was heavily influenced by him grandmother and uncle, but he was otherwise self-taught as a fiddler.

Leaving home in his teens under orders from the local priest, Power enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, playing uilleann and war pipes in its band, but deserted prior to the outbreak of World War Two. He moved to Glasgow, before working in Leeds and Sheffield and then settling in London in 1947. A carpenter by trade, in the 1950’s Power would enter the London-Irish music scene. By the mid-1950’s, he was playing fiddle for London County Council dance classes and Irish dancing competitions. He formed The Four Courts Ceilidhe Band, which toured Irish dance halls of London and the Midlands, and went on to make records with the Four Courts and on his own. He was noted to be “a very individual player with a unique style embracing short, sharp bowing and plenty of trebling.”

Jimmy Power, left, with his fiddle. Image from Paddy Fahey Collection, courtesy of Brent Museum & Archives

In 1965 Power and his long-time piano accompanist Reg Hall began a session at the McManamon’s The Mulberry Tree pub, in Bromley-by-Bow. When the McManamon’s moved to The Favourite in Holloway, Jimmy Power and Reg Hall followed. Between the McManamon’s and a healthy range of Irish musicians, they would establish one of London’s most famous traditional music sessions. Geoff Wallis recalls these details about Power and the Islington pubs with great detail here.

To be frank, The Favourite was not exactly the most physically welcoming of pubs and sometimes the smell from the nearby Islington Council Refuse HQ was a little overpowering, but socially it was one of London’s friendliest bars and was advantageously placed not far from the Holloway Road tube station. That geographical position meant that it was easy for other musicians to reach and take part in what was not so much a session as a Sunday lunchtime show, choreographed by Jimmy Power from the pub’s small stage (constructed by Jimmy himself and equipped with a basic amplification system consisting of one microphone, an amplifier and a speaker hung on the far wall).

Geoff Wallis

Originally the Favourite sessions took place on Sundays. With a license to open from noon until 2pm Power was the MC, also played regularly as a duo with his right-hand man, Hall, on piano. Hall described how the licence restrictions were pushed to their limits with the local constabulary, “it was usually well on the way to half-past when the last tune was played and Jimmy would lean into the mike and tell everyone to “go home and have your dinner!”.

The Jolly Tinker Reel, with Jimmy Power on fiddle. ‘Paddy in the Smoke’ was recorded live at The Favourite in 1968

The sessions were popular and subsequently expanded to take place on other nights of the week. In 1968, Paddy in the Smoke was recorded at The Favourite by Bill Leader, showcasing the range of musical talent that could be hear at the pub. Hall played piano on all bar one song and Jimmy Power features on the fiddle in 5 of the recordings. In the 1980’s, Power retired from the sessions at The Favourite and they transferred nearby to The Victoria. Wallis describes The Victoria as “a bar with even worse toilets than The Favourite and, believe me, that’s saying something.”

The Victoria in 1982

The Victoria in Holloway had existed as a public house from the 19th Century. Originally the address of the pub was 1 Queens Place Holloway Road, prior to street renumbering – The Victoria still resides in the same location, but the current address is 203 Holloway Road, N7 8DL. The pub has seen a number or reincarnations in recent years, as Phibbers in 2008, 12 Bar Club in 2015, Beer Kat in 2016 and Liquor Works in 2017. Back again as the Victoria Tavern, the architecture of the building remains, but now sports viewings, quiz and pizza nights make it a very different pub to the one that Jimmy Power frequented and played at in decades gone by.

The sessions at The Favourite and The Victoria were part of the essence of London for almost twenty years. The exceptional skill and vigour that Jimmy Power, Reg Hall and so many others brought to Islington’s pubs enlivened the borough and captured the spirit Irish culture.

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

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