First published in 1986, Streets with a Story: The Book of Islington, is an A-Z of Islington and Finsbury’s roads, streets, buildings and open spaces – both old and new. (Above: Angel and Islington High Street, 1920s).
An invaluable resource for all those discovering and researching the fascinating history of Islington’s past, it was researched and complied by former Islington librarian, the late Eric A Willats (left, 1987).
Set out in alphabetical order under the name of a street, square, place, terrace, block of flats or tenement, followed by the date of first occupancy, if known, Streets with a Story was dated using rate books and other items in the local history collections now found at Islington Local History Centre.
Not only have present day streets been included, but also the courts, alleyways, terraces, and vanished backwaters of the past – some with intriguing names like Frog Lane, The Land of Nod and Cupid’s Alley.
Architectural features, buildings of interest, and residents worthy of mention in that street also feature, so that an overview of the street is ‘at a glance’. (Right: Streets with a Story, original cover).
We’re all witnessing a different kind of Christmas in 2020. One without the usual carol services, Christmas fairs, pantomime outings and no spending ‘real time’ with family and friends. As a diversion, we thought we’d take a brief look at some of the Christmas ‘goings-on’ of Islington past.
Read on with a cup of spiced tea and a mince pie!
Have Yourself an Aggie Little Christmas!
You can learn all about the Christmas fun fairs filled with pageants, fairground rides, music and wild animals at the Agricultural Hall or ‘Aggie’ in our presentation Meet Me at the Aggie. However, the Smithfield Club Show (first established in 1798) was the most enduring annual event at the Aggie. It took place between 1862 and 1938 and was usually held a week or two before Christmas. The first livestock fair held at the Aggie attracted almost 135,000 visitors. Members of the royal family frequently attended these showcases of Britain as a leading meat-producing nation. The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) took a particular interest and regularly entered specimens from the royal farms.
There was no better place to see all the finest varieties of cattle, as well as pigs and sheep. In 1864, the Islington Gazette commented that “We would not want to exaggerate the effect of the Smithfield Show but we do regard it as a triumph of principles that has almost infinite outgoings” and observed that livestock shows were a fitting event for the lead-up to Christmas, traditionally a season of abundance. Press coverage also indicates a habit of complaints about the most recent show not being as good as those in previous years!
The Pleasure of Pantomime and Performance
Christmas really isn’t Christmas without theatre, and especially the tradition of pantomime. We can usually expect delightful and hilarious Christmas shows at Sadler’s Wells, the King’s Head, the Rosemary Branch, the Little Angel and others (do check out what’s available to watch online). Islingtonians of the past would have sought festive entertainments filled with uproarious dames, dashing principal boys and lines of dancing girls at venues including Collins Music Hall, the Finsbury Park Empire and the Grand Theatre, Islington High Street.
A notable figure in the world of Islington pantomime was Geoffrey Thorne, who by day was chief registrar of births and deaths (as Charles Townley) and a contributor to the Islington Gazette and other publications. Thorne was best known for his comic song Who Killed Cock Warren? (satirising the resignation of police chief Sir Charles Warren in 1888 when he failed to catch Jack the Ripper). He was also closely associated with pantomimes at the Grand Theatre (located where the Royal Bank of Scotland building now stands, adjacent to Angel Station). The 1904 production of The Babes in the Wood, penned by Thorne, was praised by the London Daily News for its “transformation scene in which no fewer than three tons of glass featured prominently […] a fitting climax to the performance, and praise is due to the management for its efforts in upholding the reputation for good pantomimes so long enjoyed by the ‘Adelphi of the Suburbs’”. Sounds spectacular indeed!
Christmas Day in Cornwallis Road Workhouse
The workhouse system was established in 1834 under the New Poor Law in order to centralise poverty relief, which was previously administered on a case-by-case basis by local parishes, in order to deter all but the most destitute from applying. The harrowing conditions featured in many works of Victorian art and fiction, most notably Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837-9). The campaigning journalist George Robert Sims’ impassioned ballad Christmas Day in the Workhouse was first published in 1877 and became hugely popular and was frequently parodied.
A version of the workhouse system continued into the twentieth century. Cornwallis Road Workhouse, Upper Holloway was established in 1864-5 by the West London Union and by 1882 was taken over by the Board of Guardians of St Mary’s, Islington. The quantities in this recipe for Christmas pudding for the inmates (over 900 of them) of 1904, handwritten by workhouse cook Clara Dyer, certainly are extraordinary. The Islington Gazette depicted the Cornwallis Road Workhouse Christmas as a jolly affair with copious amounts of food and a dining hall decorated with “a fairylike appearance with its embellishment of flowers, greenery, various coloured rosettes and Chinese lanterns”. However, it’s unlikely that the rosy treatment in the press reflected the reality.
A Twixmas* Read
If you are a fan of vintage crime fiction, it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly (1958), recently reissued as part of the British Library Crime classics series: Shortly before Christmas, White Russian émigré Princess Olga Karukhina is found dead in suspicious circumstances in her seedy bedsit off Islington High Street and her priceless Fabergé egg has been stolen… will the mystery be solved by Christmas Day? Kelly was an amateur opera singer who knew Islington through her visits to Sadler’s Wells and she bestowed her love of music on her sleuth, the aptly named Inspector Nightingale.
The book contains evocative descriptions of Islington High Street in the aftermath of the Second World War:
“[Nightingale] had only seen it before in daylight; by night it appeared to be even more a survival from the past. Its narrow curving course and pavements sloping to a central runnel recalled the village long engulfed by the city. The high, flat-faced buildings crowded on either side, their ground floors of tiny shops bedizened at this time with dusty Christmas decorations, belonged unmistakably to London; but to the last century.”
Quite different to today but the sense of economic depression strikes a chord.
[* Twixmas is the word given to the ‘relaxed’ days (27-30 December) between Christmas and New Year’s Eve]
As well as curling up with a good book, such as The Christmas Egg, one activity that we can still indulge in is a good walk. Admittedly, there hasn’t been much else that we can do outside the home since March but Islington has so much handsome architecture and walking around in wintry sunshine is one of the best ways in which to enjoy it. I especially like Canonbury House (built 1795), which must be full of the ghosts of the most gloriously Dickensian Christmas memories. I wish I could have attended a Christmas party there in days gone by!
What do you enjoy most about Christmas in Islington? Do you have any special traditions and what are you doing differently this year?
All at Islington Museum and Local History Centre wish you a safe and peaceful festive season and a happy (and better) New Year!
Researched and written by Julia Rank
Islington Museum | Islington Local History Centre (December 2020)
These fairs were aimed at a growing middle class who enjoyed increased amounts of leisure time and disposable income. From the 1860s, the pictorial poster became an artistic form in its own right as the development of affordable colour lithography became increasingly widespread.
While posters for legitimate theatre remained text based, circus, burlesque and pantomime featured all manner of flamboyant imagery in order to convey excitement and novelty. As this online presentation shows, the posters selected set high expectations in their promotion of events, providing a raucous yet respectable experience filled with multi-sensory thrills for the entire family, and especially at Christmas! Find out more about Islington’s Christmas in our seasonal blog: Pantos, Pageants and Puddings: Islington’s Christmas Past
Islington Daily Gazette and North London Tribune 7th October 2015
Warfare in Gallipoli
Finsbury Park man’s experience ~~~~
We recently published extracts from a letter written by Trooper E.V. Balsom, of the machine Gun Section of the City of London Yeomanry Rough Riders, whose father – the proprietor of a well-known laundry- resides at Hermitage-road, Finsbury Park. To-day we quote from a letter received from Trooper H. J. Balsom, who is attached to the same regiment.
After being at the base for two or three days, the writer states: “We were forced to go forward to do our bit. The forced march was very trying. We were on the ‘go’ for seven hours in all, carrying by hand everything we usually have the horses carrying. We were told it would be only a 48 hours’ ‘stunt.’ Consequently we took only essentials, including emergency rations. Every Jack man left his shaving gear behind, and if you could only see me now you would not recognise me.
In the forced march five of us got separated from the section and did not join up until a day after. It was two days before Ern found us. It is a long story how we got separated and not particularly interesting to us.
I found another Machine Gun Section I know very well, and stuck to them until I got unexpected information as to where our section was. It did my heart good, and made me feel a different chap when I saw the old faces again.
The 48 hours’ stunt has turned out up to the present to be ten days. Last night we were relieved after having nine days off the real in the fighting-line. We are now at the base, having a rest, and Great Scott! It is a mental relief, I can tell you. We have no idea how long we shall remain here.”
Trooper Balsom heart has a word respecting the feeding of the men. “The grub we are having is simply marvellous. Fancy! Bacon- and good stuff at that – under such conditions. Each man did his own. During those nine days we were a happy little party. Alongside of us we had some Irish gentlemen and we soon became great pals. They were indeed really excellent chaps. I found myself talking as much as they did. I like their accent very much. They were sports enough to give us some of their bread. It was like eating cake.
My beard is ever so long, and as I have not had a wash for twelve days, you can just imagine how I look.
One thing in the trenches impressed me very much. One morning, just as we had orders, ‘Stand to your trenches,’ a communion service was held. A number of men knelt in the trenches while everything was going on around. Again this morning I saw another service, and I thought it fine. I have not come across a Wesleyan chaplain yet, but I think Mr. Chaddock can’t be far off.”
The writer goes on to refer to other experiences.
“We are all getting like rabbits,” he writes. “ Whenever we move and settle down for the night we dig ourselves from shrapnel. It’s nearly four feet deep, and at the bottom we have dug inwards for special protection for our heads. As I write shrapnel is bursting on my right. We have plenty of water to drinl, but there’s a lot of red tape in getting it. I suppose this is necessary. In the trenches or quite near there are wells, and we draw our water from them.”
As regards the snipers, Trooper Balsom states that they are very treacherous, “and one has to be a bit careful.”
“They make a mark of the wells, and so it is necessary that too many do not hang round at a time. Everything here seems to have, come as a matter of course, but I shall be very glad when it is all over.”
“If we could only get down to the beach about two miles from here we could have a lovely bath.
“We are working entirely separately from our regiment.
“Machine guns are very much appreciated here, and are very much respected. We have a division of guns now, and we all work together.
“We get an issue of cigarettes about twice a week, and about once a week we get a small issue of tobacco. All this is very cheering and comforting. It is a very funny thing that whenever firing is going on I just get a fag going, and then I’m all right.
“It will interest you to know that my baptism of fire was shrapnel, not rifle bullets. It seems so strange here to be able to stand up straight and fire without being hit by bullets Of course, when shrapnel burst here occasionally the ‘rabbits’ fly to their holes.
“You will be very surprised when I tell you I have broken my pledge. The Army issues a very small amount of rum to the men about three times a week. The nights in the trenches are very cold indeed, and for five days we simply laid down as we slept. Naturally, one used to wake up perished.
“I don’t like the stuff, but it’s warming effect is marvellous. The first time I had three sips, and the effect was wonderful, and what it more it has a lasting effect. Under such conditions it was beneficial and good.
“We have now our great-cloaks and two blankets. Last night we were very ‘comfy’ and slept well.”
We have received a copy of a letter from Mr. R. A. Jordan, the Canonbury rate collector, who is serving “somewhere in Gallipoli.” He writes:-
I have landed at last. We arrived at Alexandria and embarked to his point to effect a new landing.
I was on one ship with about 100 others and we were put into small boats and were towed in a line shorewards. Every chap was merry and bright, but Mr. Turk was not in the mood to let us have a fair sailing.
He had our range, and boom, a whistle and a splash; and we knew that after all these months we had struck war.
It was no good. Though the shells went all round he did not get a bull’s eye.
When we landed the boys marched off and I had to stop for all the stores to come from the other ships.
All the day the shells came all over the place, but I had the good luck to escape. One shell caught a poor fellow and wiped him out and also wounded four others.
It had turned twelve at night ere I left and found the others, and I can tell you I was absolutely tired out.
In the morning I took a party to the beach to draw rations. All the other quartermaster-sergeants did the same, and when we met we numbered and looked a big party.
Mr. Turk soon sent a message that we should scatter. I can tell you that at the first message we did very quickly, and all the time we dodged out and got the stuff on to the carts the pumped shells into us.
In less than an hour he put twenty-two out of action. We do not go there now in parties.
Yesterday we advanced towards him with the battleships in the bay covering the advance. The ships threw shells at half-minute intervals, with what effect I cannot say.
All the scrub caught fire and at night all along the Turks’ ground was one mass of flames.
Then we realised what it must be for the wounded lying about. Good God, it must have been awful! I trust that they were soon out of their misery.
Our regiment had forty-six casualties, including Sergeant McGloston, of my troop, who was killed. He was shot through the head by a sniper. He would not takes his stripes off and pencil them on his tunic as we have done.
I have heard that it is much better, as Kipling says, to roll on to your rifle and put yourself out of the way rather than fall into the Turks’ hands. I have not seen any case myself, but the tales we are told as to what has happened to prisoners, wounded or otherwise is terrible.
Grub is good, but the water is awful and dysentry is very rife. Well, I suppose it will all end in due course, but am afraid that the loss of life must be totalled up in thousands are the job is over.
There is one thing asked for here, and that is cake. We would go through the whole Turkish line if we knew we could get a feed of it there. It seems rather strange, and it is an extraordinary taste.
Do not worry: we shall, with luck, pull through all right.
Islington Daily Gazette and North London Tribune 14th September 1915
Holloway man who was killed in action
Chaplain’s letter to bereaved mother
Mr. W. B. Parker who has already written in regard to the death of Mr. Alfred Jones – a Holloway man who was killed in Gallipoli – adds us the following further particulars:
Alfred S. Jones was the mounted orderly to General Baring, and was exceedingly popular with his brother yeomen of the Hertfordshire Yeomanry…
The Chaplain (the Rev. C. Colin Hamilton) sends the following letter to the bereaved mother: –
H.M. Hospital Ship “Nevasa,”
23rd August, 1915
Dear Mrs. Jones / I am very sorry to have to tell you that your son Alfred Jones was very badly wounded in battle on August 21st. He was brought on board this ship that night, and died this afternoon.
He was quite conscious, and not suffering much, and talked to me for a long time this morning. His thoughts were all with you, and he was longing to be able to see you again, but he felt that it was not to be so, and he was content to leave it to God to do as He might see best.
I read him the 23rd Psalm and prayed with him; and he seemed at rest in his mind.
I was with him again when he died – there was no suffering or struggle then at all – and the nurse and I knelt by his side and commended his soul into God’s keeping.
You will be thankful to know that his last hour were so peaceful, and that everything possible was done for him: he was so patient and so graeful for all that was done for him. Almost the last thing he said to the nurse was to tell her that I had prayed with him, and how nice it was.
We buried his body to/night at sea, about five miles from Mudros Bay in the Island of Lemnos. A little group of us gathered on deck and committed his body to the deep, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection of the Body ( when the sea shall give up her dead) … through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
May He and His infinite pity and mercy give you and yours His comfort and strength in your great sorrow. – Yours very sincerely.