Bunhill is a ward in the southernmost part of the London Borough of Islington, bordering Hackney and the City of London. It is an area with a unique history, where nestled amongst new high-rise developments are historic buildings, cultural community hubs and a significant amount of private and social housing. The name Bunhill comes from a derivation of ‘Bone Hill’, referring to Bunhill Fields, a burial ground in the ward. Bunhill Fields is a historic burial ground for religious non-conformists, dissenters and intellectuals. The name ‘Bone Hill’ indicates the site’s use as a depository for dried human bone from the charnel house in St Paul’s Cathedral in the 16th century. In 1665, the City of London prepared the field as a burial ground for plague victims but it was never consecrated nor used for this purpose. It subsequently became the main burial ground for non-comformists in London.
Bunhill Fields was in use from 1665 – 1854, at which point it became a public garden. It is the resting place for over 120,000 people, including many radical and dissenting figures such as artist William Blake, writer Daniel Defoe, writer and preacher John Bunyan, sculptor and businesswoman Eleanor Coade, and many others such as Susanna Wesley, known for being the ‘Mother of Methodism.’ Following WWII, the site was redesigned as a modern park, with the surviving tombstones protected behind high railings. Behind the railings the grass has been allowed to grow naturally, creating an area of biodiversity. Bunhill Fields is one of only a few large green spaces in the ward, but is underused by its residents.
Bunhill (the ward) is now a densely populated area of South Islington, with a mix of public and private homes. Within the ward is a large number of new developments, stretching into the City of London. At one point in Bunhill’s history, prior to WWII, it was the most densely populated area anywhere in the UK, along with neighbouring Clerkenwell. While the population has increased significantly, it remains less populated than it was at other points in its history.
Bunhill Fields, while located in Islington, is owned and managed by the City of London.
Bunhill Heritage is a community development project. Islington Heritage Service works to support the lives of residents, creating opportunities for inclusion and development, while improving wellbeing and reducing social isolation. We work with demographics such as families and under-5s, young people, over-55s as well as the general community in Islington.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought home the need for the local authority to help residents safely access community services and outdoor green spaces.
Using the history of Bunhill Fields as an anchor, Islington Heritage Service’s new heritage project encompasses the history of the whole ward of Bunhill. We will do this in part by partnering with the St. Luke’s Community Centre, Central Street.
Bunhill (and neighbouring Clerkenwell) have a unique radical and non-conformist history. Many of the people interred in Bunhill had radical ideas which were often not well received during their lifetimes. For example, John Bunyan wrote much of The Pilgrim’s Progress in prison, as he faced religious intolerance throughout his life for his non-conformist views.
Amongst the many thousands of people interred at Bunhill Fields include notable preachers, clergy, writers, theologians, engravers and artists. Hynmist Issac Watts, writer of “Joy to the World”, is buried in Bunhill Fields.
Community Engagement – Artist-Educator-in-Residence
Islington Heritage Service wish to engage 3 local artist-educators to work with the community in order to create 3 works of public art, exploring the radical history of Bunhill as the inspiration for the artwork.
All three completed artworks are intended to be on display in Bunhill Fields for one year of the project, with the agreement and cooperation of the City of London.
Each work of art will be created by an artist-educator: an artist with the ability to lead a number of workshops with different community groups. The outcomes of those creative workshops will help inspire the creation of a work of public art. The art will draw on the history of Bunhill, the ward and the burial ground, with focus on some of the notable figures interred at Bunhill Fields, for example, the life and work of William Blake.
There will be three artist residencies during the project. Each residency will last 1 year.
Residency 1: January 2022 – January 2023
Residency 2: January 2023 – January 2024
Residency 3: January 2024 – January 2025
Artists will be contracted and paid a set fee of £10,000, to be paid at set points throughout the year.
As part of the agreement, each artist-educator will:
Receive access to a 24-hour studio based at the St. Luke’s Centre, Central Street, EC1 where they can undertake their own work as well as work related to the project
Receive the costs of materials used to create the main artwork
Receive appropriate guidance to effectively lead activities with different community groups
Lead approximately 10 workshops with different key demographics of the community (families, over 55s, mixed age groups)
Agree to contribute 6 hours per month of ad hoc support at the St. Luke’s Centre
Agree to be responsible for the care and maintenance of their studio space and to tidy and repaint the studio at the end of the year
Explore the history of Bunhill as the inspiration for the artwork
The artist-educators will work closely with the Bunhill Heritage Project Manager, supported by the Heritage Learning Manager.
We seek applications from art practitioners who are experienced in leading workshops and educational activities with a range of different community groups. Candidates will gain support and guidance in the methodologies, but it is essential that candidates have some experience in leading workshops/classes
Artists from a range of creative disciplines are encouraged to apply
It is desirable that candidates with a connection to Bunhill and/or Islington apply
We look forward to receiving applications from all candidates who feel they fit the requirements, and encourage candidates from diverse backgrounds (race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class background) to apply, as well as a variety of art practises.
Details of your preferred art form and why this would work for this heritage project
An aspect of the heritage of Bunhill and how you would use this as an inspiration for a work of public art
An outline of a proposed workshop with one of the following groups (over-55s, children and families, mixed adults including young people aged 16+)
We are recruiting 3 artist-educators over 3 years. If you are unsuccessful this time, we encourage you to reapply when applications open the following year.
Applications close at midnight on Sunday 5 December. Interviews will take place during the week commencing 13 December. The duration of the appointment will run from the end of January 2022 to the end of January 2023.
For more information on the project, please contact:
The ward of Bunhill, located in South Islington, is an area of London full of the most fascinating history. Just outside the City Walls, this part of Finsbury was once an area for the ill and destitute. Long gone is St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and instead exists a thriving ward full of shops, restaurants, businesses, schools, community hubs and housing in this populated part of Islington.
Nestled within the ward is Bunhill Fields, a Nonconformist burial ground opened in 1665, the final resting place of William Blake, John Bunyan, Susanna Wesley, Eleanor Coade and Daniel Defoe among its more than 120,000 inhabitants. Bunhill Fields houses the graves of radical figures with pioneering minds.
The history of Bunhill is being explored in a new community heritage project from Islington Council. Partnering with the St. Luke’s Centre, we’re celebrating the many aspects of Bunhill that make it a unique part of London. We will do this in the form of a community-led public art project.
Over three years, Islington Heritage Services will commission three artists to work with community members, residents and service users of the St. Luke’s Centre to create a unique work of public art that represents the heritage of Bunhill. Artists will receive a fee, and in the process will receive their own studio in the St. Luke’s Centre for a whole year, free of charge. This studio will be a place where artists can also work on their own practice, with Islington Council supporting the skills of local artists, and help further opportunities in the future.
More information including the Artist-Educator Brief and how to apply will be live in November 2021, with interviews to take place in January 2022.
Where three residential roads in Archway, Islington, north London, meet is the site of a tragic loss of civilian life during the Second World War (1939-45). A plaque commemorating the event can be seen at Giesbach Road Open Space, Giesbach Road, Islington N19 3EH.
The aftermath of the V2 Rocket attack in Archway, Islington, 5 November 1944. (Image: Mirrorpix)
Wartime strike A little after 5pm on Sunday 5 November 1944, a V2 rocket was launched from its site in the Hague, Netherlands – its target was London. Just minutes later, at 5.13pm, it exploded at the junction of Boothby, Giesbach and Grovedale Roads; nearby St John’s Way was also caught in the strike. This was the first enemy long-range V2 rocket to hit Islington.
Over 250 people were casualties of this wartime attack, which included 35 deaths and 219 suffering from injuries. The oldest person to die as a result of the explosion was aged 92 years, who passed away four months later, and the youngest was just five months old. Many houses were also destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
Vergeltungswaffe 2 The V2 (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2 or ‘Retribution Weapon 2’) was a long-range single stage missile or rocket, which used advanced technology to cause destruction and devastation. Standing at 14 metres on end, with a 1-ton warhead of high explosive, it travelled at 3,500 mph and could reach an altitude of 50-60 miles before arcing in a 120-mile trajectory. The V2 had a flying time of 10-30 minutes before crashing, exploding and usually causing a large crater. There was no indication or noise of its approach, as it could travel at supersonic speed at over six times the speed of sound.
The first V2 Rocket to hit London , causing three deaths, occurred on Friday 8 September 1944, falling on Staveley Road, Chiswick. This was the first of over 500 V2 rockets to strike the capital between September 1944 and March 1945.
Diabolical weapon In his unique and fascinating account of Islington during the Second World War, Civil Defence in Islington 1938 – 1945: an account of passive defence and certain aspects of the war as it affected the borough (1946), Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller W. Eric Adams recalls the attack:
The enemy had in preparation an even more fearsome weapon in the shape of the long-range rocket. The first two of these heard in Islington was on the 8th September 1944. Although they fell at Chiswick and North Weald respectively, they sounded quite near. They were kept very hush hush and were facetiously referred to as “exploding gas mains”. The explosions were never acknowledged throughout the attack, as to do so would have given valuable information to the enemy for use at the launching sites in Holland. In sharp contrast to normal high explosive and [V1] Flying Bombs no warning at all was possible with rockets, in consequence of which the difficulties of the Rescue Service were greatly increased.
The first rocket to fall in Islington was at Boothby Road on a Sunday afternoon in November 1944. It was a ‘diabolical weapon’. At the moment of impact it was travelling at possibly 3000 miles an hour, which is much faster than the speed of sound; consequently, the first intimation of its arrival was the impact explosion. This was followed sometime after by the characteristic rumbling noise of its passage through the earth’s atmosphere. In some cases the effect was of a double explosion. The rocket, like the fly bomb, carried the high explosive in the nose, the remainder of its 40 ft. length being occupied by means of its propulsion.
Mr Adams continues:
Heavy rain The Boothby Road incident occurred on a Sunday and the heavy rain which fell rendered the widespread clay, resulting from the explosion, very greasy and difficult to negotiate with casualties and heavy equipment. The work of the services was, however, eased to some extent by the employment for the first time in the Borough of an Army searchlight which proved invaluable. Although this incident which had occurred at 5.30 pm on the 5th, the last casualty was actually recovered on the morning of the 6th, the remaining time being spent in searching for persons whose whereabouts had not until that time been established. During this period the specially trained dogs made available to the Civil Defence Services were used in order to try to locate the persons believed missing.
The aftermath of the V2 Rocket attack in Archway, Islington, 5 November 1944. This photograph was taken the following morning and shows rescue workers searching for survivors buried in the rubble. Nearby Archway Central Hall was used as a temporary mortuary. (Image: Mirrorpix)
Survivors W. Eric Adam’s account has, more recently, been supplemented by a number of eyewitness or secondary accounts from those who experienced the attack or who had members of their immediate family recount the incident:
Gillian Joel (née Stephens)
Mrs Joel’s account was published in the Islington Gazette in February 2020. She was six when her mother Sybil and brother James were killed after the rocket hit their home at 32 Grovedale Road, Upper Holloway, in 1944.
Mrs Joel in Grovedale Road, c.2019. (Image: Islington Gazette)
Her father, John Stephens, thinking Gillian dead, had gone so far as ordering her a coffin. However, she was in hospital after being saved from the rubble by Islington-based rescuers:
I remember going to the underground when the sirens started, it must have been Archway Underground. There was a green case at the door that dad would pick up. It had an eiderdown blanket in it and I would sleep with another blanket over me. It was our emergency pack, and I remember dad would carry me to the station. I don’t really remember anything from the bomb, except I was playing downstairs with my brother, James. I still have shrapnel and glass in me and only a few years ago a bit of glass came out of my head.
Read the full Islington Gazette interview with Mrs Joel here.
I am somewhat familiar with this episode since I lived in one of the houses destroyed by that V2. I was just approaching my ninth birthday (December 44) at the time.
The V2 hit at about 5.30 pm on a Sunday in November 1944 … I do remember my mother saying something about “Hitler’s Guy Fawkes Day surprise” … I was in the Electric cinema at the Archway with my elder brother (aged 10) at the instant the rocket hit. In those days the first film showings on a Sunday was after 4.00pm (mustn’t clash with church going I suppose!). The film was Dive Bomber with Errol Flynn starring; Sundays films were always repeats of earlier releases; this one was first shown in 1942.
… Suddenly there was an almighty thump and dust drifted down from the ceiling. That was close, everybody thought – the cinema is actually about a half-mile from the impact – and carried on watching the film. A little while later we became aware that the usherette was flashing her torch down the row where we were sitting. “There they are” somebody said, and we were beckoned to come out of our seats … When we got to the foyer we discovered that one of my elder sisters and her boyfriend had come to fetch us. I was amazed to see that they were covered in dust and dirt from head to toe! We were told that our home had been hit by a bomb/rocket and we were then to be taken to the boyfriends (parents) home somewhere not too far away.
At that time we had no idea whether any of the rest of our family were alive or dead … Eventually we discovered that all the family had survived although my parents had been cut about by flying glass. My baby sister was asleep in her pram in the front room of the house, and a tiny splinter of glass landed in the middle of one of her cheeks! Thankfully it never affected her eye but left her with a small scar . Not so fortunate was one of my playmates and his younger sister and parents. They lived in the house whose rear garden was the point of impact of the rocket.
The corner of Giesbach Road and Boothby Road, Archway, after the V2 rocket attack. The corner and destroyed houses are now covered by Giesbach Road Open Space. (Image: Islington Local History Centre)
We lived in number 38 Giesbach Rd, which is the second house from the end on the south side [now gone, replaced with Giesbach Road Open Space]. The family who died (whose name unfortunately I have forgotten) lived in the corner house on the north side of Grovedale Rd. I am fairly certain that the rocket impacted in the rear garden of their house. Thus this house took the brunt of the blast as well as the back of the house in St John’s Way and the sides of the end houses on both sides of Giesbach Road. All adjacent house were also heavily damaged of course. Our house being the second from the corner was a little protected, and also the blast must have dissipated to some extent up the middle of Giesbach Rd and across the front of our house rather than directly at it.
We obviously never went back to the house which was pulled down along with many of the other houses round about. Eventually new blocks of flats were built over the site of the bomb damage and also the top half of Boothby Rd so that it no longer intersects with St Johns Way. I never got to see the conclusion of the filmDive Bomberuntil about thirty years later when it turned up on television!
Read the full Archway Revisited posting with Ray Hardiman here.
Islington V2 rocket attacks There was a lull of 11 days before the second V2 landed in Islington at 2.46am on Thursday 16 November at Mayville Road, killing seven and injuring 53 people. During this second stage of the Third Reich’s V-rocket campaign, nine V2 rockets exploded in the borough killing 288 and injuring over 1000 people. The worst of these attacks were Mackenzie Road (26 December 1944) and Smithfield Market (8 March 1945) which, combined, witnessed 183 deaths.
The devastation to buildings in Islington (not including Finsbury) due to the V2 rocket explosions was immense. Serious damage, sometimes beyond repair, was caused to 18,000 houses, 72 public houses, 55 factories, 28 churches and 10 schools.
Islington remembers Islington remembers all those who suffered in the tragic Archway incident, as well as everyone who died and were injured in countless other V rocket attacks and enemy air raids across Islington and beyond during the Second World War. They will not be forgotten.
Memorial to the civilian dead of Islington (1939-1945), Islington and Camden Cemetery, East Finchley, 2018: “This memorial has been erected to perpetuate the memory of those citizens who lost their lives as a result of enemy action during the Second World War, and whose remains lie buried in this cemetery.”
Islington Memorial Plaque unveiling on 23 July 2021 to commemorate the loss of lives and those injured in the first V2 rocket attack on Islington, 5 November 1944. L-R: Revd Nigel Williams, Islington Mayor Troy Gallagher, John Williams (whose lost his first family in the blast), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Cllr Janet Burgess. (Photograph: Copyright Em Fitzgerald Photography)
Mark Aston Islington Museum | Islington Local History Centre October 2020, revised July 2021
The 80th anniversary of the start of the London Blitz (7 September 1940 – 10/11 May 1941), during the Second World War, is being remembered nationally from Monday 7 September 2020.
On ‘Black Saturday’ 7 September 1940, at around 4pm, and lasting for two hours, nearly 1000 German bombers and fighter escorts of Hitler’s Luftwaffe were seen attacking from the skies over London. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning. On this first day, 430 were killed and 1,600 injured in the capital. This was the start of what became known as the ‘Blitz’ (‘Lightning’ in German), a term was first used by the British press. The enemy’s intense bombing campaign of London and other cities continued until the following May and, for the next consecutive 57 days, the capital was bombed each day or night.
London was bombed significantly at night, but daytime attacks were frequent too. In October 1940, Islington’s rescue service attended 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. Records show that 206 people were recovered alive, with 83 deceased. Rescue operations to retrieve casualties could take several hours or even days to complete and were sometimes performed whilst raids were still in progress.
Battle of Britain During the previous two months, the Battle of Britain had taken place in a fight for daylight air superiority between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) over the United Kingdom. The Luftwaffe had attempted to destroy RAF airfields and radar stations in preparation for German invasion. This campaign had failed and, instead, Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralise and destabilise the population and force the British to come to terms.
While Londoners, including the residents of Islington and Finsbury, had experienced German aerial bombardment during the First World World, nothing had prepared them for the sheer devastation that was to come. Fires from incendiary bombs consumed many portions of the city. Residents and workers sought shelter in many places, including their own back-garden ‘Andersen’ shelters, communal shelters, underground stations, school basements and church crypts.
Under seige Nearly 30,000 London civilians were killed in the Blitz and later raids during the Second World War; nearly two-thirds of this figure during the London Blitz. From 7 September 1940 onwards, businesses, churches, public houses, schools, housing estates and residences were reduced to rubble. The blackout cast well-lit streets into darkness, and local anti-aircraft guns and searchlights brought the war firmly home to the capital’s citizens. As the Luftwaffe’s Blitz raids of 1940 spread to other cities, including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool and Southampton, the civilian population of Britain found itself under siege as never before. In just nine months they, along with Londoners, witnessed the landscape and the character of their cities change beyond all recognition.
A few weeks before the official start of the Blitz, Islington had, in fact, witnessed a random air attack when bombs fell on Canonbury Park North and vicinity during the late evening of Saturday 24 August 1940. Fortunately, only one casualty was reported, a Warden who was wounded by bomb fragments in the left shoulder. Another bomb fell at the rear of the house at the corner of Willowbridge Road but without much effect. In opposition, the first raid by the RAF on Berlin took place the following night. However, from September onwards, the Blitz was to turn the Islington and Finsbury Home Front into a battlefield.
Preparations for likely air bombardment began prior to the Second World War, with the British government providing air-raid shelters to families for free or for a small fee, depending on their income. Over the course of the war, shelters would take a number of forms and provide security for the citizens of Islington and Finsbury. Read more …
Bomb damage and destruction
The Second World War turned the home front into a battlefront. On 7 September 1940, Dornier and Heinkel bombers, escorted by Messerschmidt fighter planes, began bombarding London. Islington and Finsbury would come under fire … Read more…
Islington and Finsbury swing into action
As part of war preparations, volunteers were trained in civil defence duties to warn or respond to attacks. Many Islington and Finsbury civilians became members of the Heavy Rescue Service, Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard members, firefighters, first-aiders and ambulance drivers, who would provide invaluable assistance to their community once war began. Read more…
Finsbury Under Attack (1939-45)
Like many parts of inner London, Finsbury suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz (1940-41) and, again later, as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944 onwards. Given its proximity to the City of London, Finsbury’s residents lived with the threat of bombing and untimely death. However, in spite of fatalities, an uncertain future and much hardship, Finsburyites kept calm and carried on. The constant bombings were designed to break morale but conversely brought people together. Read more …
Just weeks after the start of the Blitz, a captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, shot down by a RAF Hurricane fighter during the Battle of Britain, was displayed outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place, in October 1940. It became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2. Read more …
While London was regularly attacked, the ferocity of some raids far exceeded others. On the night of 10/11 May 1941, London was hit by the most devastating and largest raid on London during the Blitz. In total, 711 tons of high explosive, along with 2,393 incendiary bombs, were dropped on the city, with 1,436 civilians losing their lives in that one raid alone.
On 11 May 1941, after eight months and five days of constant threat and terror, the nationwide Blitz came to an end.
Up to this point, approximately 41,000 tons of bombs had been dropped in total, with 18,291 tons falling on London alone. Around 41,000 people had been killed, 21,500 of whom were Londoners. 139,000 people had been injured and around two million homes destroyed, 60% of which were in London.
The Hardest Night
The night of 10/11 May became known as the ‘Hardest Night’ and was to be the last major raid on London for over a year; a major raid was defined as one where over 100 tons of bombs were dropped. It was to be one of the most ferocious and devastating of the entire nine-month German bombing campaign The raid on the city, carried out between 11.02pm and 5.57am, came a night illuminated by a full or ‘bombers’ moon, when the River Thames was at low-ebb tide. The low water level played havoc with the ability of firefighters to use water from the Thames to counter fires from incendiaries.
During the seven-hour raid, more than 700 tonnes of high-explosive and 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped by around 550 German aircraft. These undertook 571 sorties with some crews flying two and three missions in order to maintain numbers required to sustain the attack. Luftwaffe numbers were, by this time, depleted as many had been lost over Britain during the Blitz and other units had been moved east in preparation for the assault on Russia.
Of the high explosive dropped, 167 tons were recorded as unexploded the following day, along with 86,173 incendiaries. The London Fire Brigade reported 2,136 fires. Of these, nine were conflagration level, eight ‘major’ outbreaks (requiring 30-plus pumps), 43 serious outbreaks (up to 30 pumps), 280 medium (up to 10 pumps) and at least 1,796 small outbreaks. 1,436 Londoners were killed, with around 1,800 seriously injured. 700 acres of the city was destroyed – double the area lost in The Great Fire of 1666 – causing damage valued at £20 million in 1941.
Anti-aircraft guns fired 4,510 rounds with two bombers claimed destroyed. RAF Fighter Command dispatched a total of 325 aircraft and claimed 28 enemy aircraft in return, although one Hurricane and one Beaufighter were badly damaged. Surprisingly, the Luftwaffe lost only twelve aircraft that night: ten Heinkel He111s, one Junkers Ju88 and one Messerschmitt Bf110*.
*[This single aircraft crashed at Floors Farm, Bonnyton Moor, Glasgow at 11.05pm. It was flown from Augsburg by Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess on an mis-guided peace mission. Find out more about another Messerschmitt Bf110 that was displayed in Islington during the Blitz: The German Destroyer in Finsbury].
Islington and the Last Day of The Blitz While enemy bombers concentrated on attacking the docks and East End, many other parts of the capital were to receive the full force of the Luftwaffe, including Islington and Finsbury. In Islington, the night found the rescue services once again fully extended, with the boroughs’ rescue services operating at several major incidents. Islington was hit by 38 high-explosive bombs, of which three did not explode, and 16 incendiary devices.
On Saturday 10 May, 24 people were killed when bombs hit Corsica Street, Elia Street, Liverpool Road, Errol Street and Roman Way. An 18-month-old boy, Ronald Kenkerdine, was one of the six people killed at Liverpool Road, and three teenage sisters from the Smith family were among ten killed in Roman Way.
Sunday 11 May brought 62 further deaths. The victims came from Barbara Street, Charlotte Terrace, Essex Road, Gerrard Road, Halton Mansions, HMP Pentonville, Hanley Road, Holford Square, Old Street, Percy Circus and Whitecross Street. Ernest and Robert Westbrook, 11-year-old twin brothers, were two of the 18 people killed at Holford Square in King’s Cross and, nearby, three-month-old baby girl Mary Coyne was one of eight victims at Percy Circus.
Of the nine major incidents covered that night by Islington’s rescue services, the bombing of HMP Pentonville Prison in Caledonian Road was one of the largest. C-Wing of the prison was hit by a string of high-explosive bombs that reduced the four-storey building to rubble, killing 13 people. It was closed after the bombing and didn’t reopen until 1946; the wing was eventually rebuilt to three storeys in 1958 becoming the prison’s education block.
Total London casualties for the raid on 10/11 May were the highest for any night of the Blitz: 1,436 people died and 1792 were seriously injured. More than 5,000 houses were destroyed, making approximately 12,000 people homeless. Many famous and public buildings suffered damage, including the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum where 250,000 books were ruined.
The capital, including Islington and Finsbury, would continue to suffer sporadic bombing raids and through the use of the V-weapons. Other cities and regions of England would also continue to suffer. The smaller ‘Baedeker Blitz’, which targeted historic/tourist locations, Exeter, Bath and Norwich and the Steinbock or ‘Baby Blitz’ affected southern England from January through to May 1944.
However, Hitler and the German Third Reich’s initial, great strategic bombing campaign to crush the British war industries and civilian morale was ultimately a failure. A combination of the Luftwaffe’s inability to agree on tactics, the British ‘Blitz Spirit’ reaction and the need for Hitler to divert resources for Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union brought the Blitz to a close.
Article written by Johnny Baird, Islington Museum volunteer
[All images Islington Local History Centre, except where stated]
By W. Eric Adams (Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller)
The 80th anniversary of the start of the London Blitz (7 September 1940 – 10/11 May 1941), during the Second World War, is being remembered nationally from Monday 7 September 2020.
This contemporary account of the Blitz period in Islington was taken from:
Adams. W. Eric. Civil Defence in Islington 1938 – 1945: an account of passive defence and certain aspects of the war as it affected the borough. October 1946
The Blitz Period
When the attack started on Islington it was very intensive, in fact the first two months were never again equalled in the number of incidents to which the [Air Raid Precaution / Heavy Rescue] Service was called. Fortunately, however, some of the bombs were of small calibre and operations were often concluded after only a few hours work.
The movement of parties was directed from the Report and Control Centre by the Controller or his representative on duty. The number of parties likely to be required to deal with an incident was estimated from details give on the air raid damage report received from the Warden and these were dispatched by telephone message to the depot most conveniently situated in relation to the incident. Reinforcements, if required, were obtained by the Party Leader of Clerk of Works by message to control through the nearest Wardens’ Post. On the completion of work the Party Leader reported the fact to Control when he would be either directed back to his depot or to another incident.
Of the more serious incidents the first to fully extend the Service was a direct hit on a trench shelter in Annette Crescent, and it is no reflection upon the men that although the operation was successfully accomplished, the unpleasant task to which they were so far unaccustomed affected them considerably for some few days after. With raiding every night, however, and the necessary shoring work next day, the parties soon got into their stride and continued to successfully answer all calls made upon them, including at times moving as reinforcements to other Boroughs. Their task was a strenuous one and so far as work permitted parties were rested for short periods during daylight hours in readiness for the inevitable stand-to when darkness fell – in fact, it was 24 hours service in the full sense of the term.
Typical of the work during these early days were rescue operations at Petherton Road* and Bryan Street**, at both of which Rescue personnel received awards for gallantry. At Petherton Road, where a large calibre bomb had demolished a five-storey building, a tunnel 5 feet horizontally was cut into the debris to release two casualties. The whole operation took seven hours to complete and was performed whilst the raid was still in progress, in the presence of coal gas and in wreckage which was in imminent danger of collapse. The Party Leader in charge of the work was awarded the George Medal and three of his colleagues were commended.
[*The awards for gallantry were made after the incident in Petherton Road on the night of 15/16 September 1940 all relating to members of the Heavy Rescue Service: Frederick A. Bashom (George Medal), J. Williams, C.D. Southam, A.H. Thomas (all three received Commendations)]
At Bryan Street, off Carnegie Street/Caledonian Road, on the night of 21/22 September 1940, two boys were trapped in the basement of a demolished house and a tunnel 12 feet long was required to reach them. It was formed about 2 feet square by men working in succession lying prone, throwing back the debris and fixing struts and bearers (converted from the debris) as they advanced – a risky operation cleverly performed. After 3 hours the boys were safely released uninjured over men lying flat in the tunnel and passing the boys hand over hand. For this operation two members of the personnel were awarded the British Empire Medal and a third commended.
[**The awards for gallantry were made after the incident in Bryan Street on the night of 21/22 September 1940 all relating to members of the Heavy Rescue Service: George Turner and Frederick B. McQuillan (British Empire Medals) and C E Hollis (Commendation)]
To fully appreciate the fine work the Service was doing during this period it must be remembered that raiding invariably continued throughout the night which necessitated the men working with the minimum of light. The operation, therefore, of entering badly damaged buildings and tunnelling into masses of debris was necessarily coupled with an even greater element of risk than would otherwise have existed.
Mid-September heralded the advent of a very serious complication in the shape of parachute mines. The first in Islington – dropped at Poole’s Park – fortunately failed to explode and was successfully defused, by a Naval Officer. To allow of its removal, the Rescue Service was called upon to demolish certain garden walls and to erect a covering of corrugated iron to protect it from incendiary bombs pending removal. The local ‘Spitfire Fund’* collectors, however, saw in this a heaven-sent opportunity to raise their total, so promptly remove the covering and charged a penny a time to view the unusual exhibit. When at night this was discovered, the Rescue Service was called out once more to replace the covering.
A few days later, two other mines fell which failed to explode on landing, one in Wright Road, the other in Leigh Road. Both exploded while being worked upon by the naval Party. The first unfortunately killed the naval Officer, who was attempting to defuse it. This was the only casualty as the area had been evacuated.
On the night of September 26/27th however, there were two further mines, one at Camden Road and the other at Cornwallis Road and in both cases they exploded on impact with the result that the Service was fully extended. During the month the Service attended at some 130 incidents and was responsible for rescuing 100 persons alive and recovering 81 dead.
At an incident at College Cross in October*, the Service did good work and showed great devotion to duty. The night was very dark and it was raining heavily; in addition there was a delayed action bomb of unknown calibre only 70 feet away. Parties worked through the night until exhausted but returned after a short break and insisted on working until 11 a.m., two hours after the change of shift. After consideration it was deemed inadvisable to expose parties to the danger of the adjacent delayed action bomb and volunteers were called from whom 12 were selected. Unfortunately the trapped persons were dead when recovered.
*[One of those who died in the College Cross attack, on 9 October 1940, was 96-year-old Emma Henesey of 42 College Cross. Emily was Islington’s oldest casualty on the Home Front during the Second World War]
Isledon Road and Market Road Gardens
At Isledon Road, rescue work was proceeding at an incident which had occurred on the previous night when a second high explosive bomb fell in the near vicinity killing one Rescue man and injuring four. In spite of the physical and mental shock to the men, work continued with very little interruption.
An incident which might have proved disastrous but for prompt and gallant action occurred on 15 October. Two high explosive bombs fell adjacent to trench shelters in Market Road Gardens blocking both the normal exits. The Leaders of the two parties called to the incident entered the shelter by means of the emergency escape hatches and found that an overpowering atmosphere – which was later found to be the result of carbon monoxide due to the explosion – had rendered most of the occupants practically helpless. All escape hatches were immediately opened and the work of raising the shelterers from the floor some feet below through the escape hatches by means of rope with “chair” knots was commenced. Several of the Rescue men were overcome and had themselves to be rescued before they continued after treatment. When the last visible shelterer had been removed, in all approximately 100, it was found that two were still missing. These were eventually recovered after two days buried under debris from the bomb explosion. To add to this excitement on the night of this incident, a parachute mine exploded in Caledonian Market 150 yards away.
War Debris Clearance Scheme
Two other mines fell on the same night at Queen Margaret’s Grove and Britannia Row. During the month, the Service attended at 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. 206 persons were recovered alive and 83 dead. By this time the Borough was showing marked signs of its ordeal and it was in October that the War Debris Clearance Scheme under the direction of Sir Warren Fisher was instituted, and work commenced in Islington on several of the most badly damaged areas. The Rescue Service was called upon to attend fewer incidents in November but amongst these were Radford House (London County Council housing estate) and 26 Highbury Grove an R.A.F. billet, both of which were of a serious character.
Under the influence
Another incident in November occurred in Huntingdon Street where four members of the Rescue personnel earned British Empire Medals for gallantry. A heavy high explosive bomb had demolished three 4-storey buildings and to reach the trapped persons a tunnel had to be formed through the debris, 20 feet long, which filled with a heavy concentration of escaping coal gas. The four men, working in pairs, took turns in the tunnel but all were at some stage of the work overcome and had themselves to be assisted out. The operation was successfully accomplished but three of the Rescue men had to be taken to Hospital for treatment. The effect of the gas they had inhaled badly affected their gait with the ironic result that a report was received suggesting that the men had been under the influence of drink. Remote breathing apparatus was devised later to cope with such cases as this.
“There’ll always be an England”
Whilst generally the rescue workers were directed to trapped persons by their cries of help, or in bad cases from information of their possible location given by Wardens and neighbours, it is worthy of note that on one occasion in Petherton Road a definite clue to the position of a trapped man was provided by his lusty rendering of “There’ll always be an England”. Such spirit typified the defiance of the public at that time as did the Union Jacks which were invariably planted on the highest point of the ruins. The Rescue men unofficially adopted the Union Jack as their standard and there were few lorries which did not prominently display a good specimen of the National flag.
December 1940 and January 1941 were quieter months, the Rescue Service being called upon to attend at only 14 incidents, whilst in February their services were not required at all for rescue work. It was during this period that the enemy changed to incendiary raids.
The Thatched House
In March, 12 incidents were attended, including the serious parachute mine incident in Kelvin Road where in the course of four days the Service rescued 15 persons alive and recovered 19 dead. The amount of debris created at parachute mine incidents necessitated revised technique and it was here that the principle of removing debris completely away from the scene was first introduced. A fleet of lorries was acquired and members of the Pioneer Corps worked in conjunction with the Rescue Service in removing the debris to a temporary dump in Petherton Road.
Other serious incidents during the month were direct hits on the “Thatched House” Public House in Essex and the Police Station in Hornsey Road. At the “Thatched House” where the bomb penetrated the building to explode in the bar, the Service rescued six persons alive and recovered 17 dead, whilst at Hornsey Road Police Station two were rescued alive and 10 recovered dead.
Islington enjoyed a comparative lull in the early part of April, but on the night of 16th/17th was badly hit once more, including parachute mines in Pembroke Street and Carnegie Street. At Pembroke Street lorries were again utilised to clear away the debris and although the majority of the casualties were accounted for in two days it was not until 29th that the Rescue Service was able to finally leave the incident. Other serious incidents in the same night were at Stroud Green Road and Foxham Road whilst later in the month a large calibre bomb fell in Poets Road where the Service was responsible for rescuing 3 persons alive and recovering 15 dead.
The night of May 10th 1941 found the Service once again fully extended with what proved to be the last bad night of the “blitz” for Islington. The Rescue Service operated at 9 major incidents including that at Pentonville Prison where one of a string of bombs scored a direct hit on a wing of the prison.
The final incidents of this phase of the attack occurred in July when Mildmay Park was hit by several high explosive bombs, resulting in 5 persons being rescued alive and 6 recovered dead.
Over the whole period, September 1940 to July 1941, the Rescue Service attended at 404 incidents and were responsible for rescuing 479 persons alive and recovering 411 dead. In addition to the rescue work no less than 575 individuals jobs of removal of danger and salvage of furniture were carried out during the same period.
By this time the Rescue Service had by its work at numerous incidents earned the respect and confidence of the general public. By its very nature, however, much of its work remained unobserved and received little publicity. Few realised that the Rescue man often worked alone for hours tunnelling his solitary way through shifting debris and suffocating dust, risking dangerous walls above, the collapse of which might bury him and the trapped casualties he was seeking, and able to hear little but the creak of sagging timber or trickle of slipping debris.
All who were privileged to witness this work at close quarters, however, were struck by the amazing skill, gentleness, and sympathetic considerations displayed to casualties during the rescue operations which seemed to be unexpected from men normally employed in the building industry.
Testimonials: gentle and humane
The following extracts from letters received by the Service bear eloquent testimony to their work:
From a man rescued from the Arsenal Shelter, November 1940
“Two drainpipes being joined together over my head keeping the concrete from crushing me, and the way you men worked to get me out without disturbing those pipes (and saving my life) I shall never forget. May all your efforts be as successful as mine were”.
Camden Road, September 1940
“Not only for the hard work but their sympathy and encouragement”
Brecknock Road, December 1940
“Will you please convey my thanks to the demolition squad who came to the above address…and excavated my dog and buried him in my garden. It was the most gentle and humane piece of work my mother has witnessed…”
Nor by any means did work end with the recovery of the last casualty, in fact, there was often much hazardous work to perform even at incidents where no trapped casualties had been involved. Buildings seldom collapsed completely and where dangerous walls remained these had to be demolished or shored without the the aid of scaffolding, etc. The work was of a very urgent nature by reason of the fact that the resumption of normal traffic often depended upon its completion to finish quickly to be in readiness to deal with new incidents.
On the lighter side of the Rescue man’s work mention might be made of one case where a lady in night attire who, although reached, at first refused to be removed by him, and of another lady for whom the Service was searching apparently considered that the celebration of her escape was more important than reporting herself to the authorities and who eventually returned to the incident in an advanced state of inebriation.
To find out more about people who died during the Blitz, and later raids on Islington and Finsbury, visit the Islington Online Book of Remembrance. You may also leave a personal tribute to all individuals associated with Islington who fell as a result of conflict (1899-1950).
The 75th anniversary of VJ Day (Victory over Japan), marking the end of the Second World War, is being commemorated nationally on Saturday 15 August 2020.
Millions of people across the world celebrated the Allied victory over Japan in August and September 1945, including Londoners and the residents of Islington and Finsbury. It was peace at last!
How Islington greeted VJ Day
The Islington Gazette (17 August 1945) captures the mood of Islington’s citizens in reporting how the borough greeted the event, along side other local news:
“Islington Town Hall was gaily bedecked with flags of the Allied Nations for VJ Day and after dark the building was flood lit. One of the first effects of the Victory announcements was bigger queues, which began forming outside bakers’ shops before 7am. Crowds also besieged grocers, butchers and food shops generally to get what they could for the holiday.
VJ Day Food Problem: Housewives don’t like V-days
The two-day holiday celebrating the momentous occasion was all singing and dancing but, for a number of housewives, it also signalled a time of stress, as this article taken from the North London Press (Friday 17 August 1945) highlighted:
“The midnight announcement of peace, on Tuesday, brought a new flock of troubles to the housewife that were fully realised on Wednesday morning. Wherever our reporter went, he met tired housewives who had been queuing for food from the early hours. “We mustn’t be caught out was the remark of one St Pancras woman, and her example was followed by several thousand others.
Bakers, grocers, fruiterers and fish shops were all besieged before opening time by irate housewives in their frantic search for food. One shopkeeper complained to the North London Press of the unnecessary repetition of the VE Day mistake. “I think it’s ridiculous that the Government did not realise the shoppers’ difficulties,” he said. “This is not a happy celebration for them.”
Dancing, music, fireworks and bonfires all played their part in festivities. While no official, local programme of celebrations was announced, the mood in both Islington and Finsbury was jubilant and residents took to the streets to celebrate.
It was, indeed, a joyous occasion for many, as the examples below taken from the North London Press (Friday 17 August 1945) and the Islington Gazette (Friday 24 August 1945) bear witness:
Caledonian Road: Youngsters were given a victory tea and what a spread it was – with cakes, lemonade, jellies, blancmanges and all those goodies dear to the hearts of children. Wynford Road, Halfmoon Crescent, Balmoral Grove and many of the other turnings off Caledonian Road, from Holloway to King’s Cross, also celebrated in grand style.
Chapel Market: There were many celebrations in the side streets, and in the famous market there were scenes of real revelry. People brought their glasses of beer out into the roadway and danced and sang with abandon. In Parkville Street, the return home of two soldier-friends were being celebrated by another large crowd of children and their parents. The lilting sounds of music mingled with the crackling sounds of the bonfire. The soldiers, next-door neighbours, are Privates Thomas Bartram and Thomas Bown – D-Day veterans. At the end of Chapel Market and, into Barnsbury, fires were everywhere, including Penton Street, Culpepper Street and Carnegie Street. In Culpepper Street, flood lighting and loud speakers providing dance music added to the attractions.
Finsbury Town Hall: Finsbury Borough Council minutes, September 1945 records, ‘VJ celebrations – Town Hall banner. “The Town Clerk reported that in accordance with the instructions given at a conference of party leaders with the Mayor, a banner had been prepared and placed across the Town Hall , at a cost of £14. The Borough Engineer, in consultation with the chairman and town clerk, endeavoured to arrange for the banner to be more prominently displayed.”
Liverpool Road: The road’s residents lived up to their reputation for “doing things well.” From nearly every side street, the scenes of merriment were repeated while the glow of the fires merged into one huge vivid red glow which, at times, transformed the night into scintillating brilliance. The night air echoed to a chorus of happy voices, while fireworks added to the din. Kiddies, who had never known a world without war, joined in the revels with awe and wonder.
Thorpedale Road: In Thorpedale Road, scene of one of the worst bombing incidents in the district, a great crowd, in full victory spirit, sang and danced round a bonfire which illuminated the site of the new prefabricated houses.
Wilmington Square: ‘Thanksgiving for final victory: Open air service in Finsbury’. “In accordance with the King’s expressed wish that Sunday should be observed as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, an open-air thanksgiving service to mark the end of the World War was held in Wilmington Square, Finsbury, on Saturday.”
The Wilmington Square service was conducted by the Rural Dean, the Revd H Brewer, assisted by local clergy and ministers. The Hornsey British Legion led the singing. The Mayor and Mayoress of Finsbury (F.J and Mrs Barrett) and members of the Borough Council walked in procession from Finsbury Town Hall to Wilmington Square. The service witnessed lessons being read, thanksgiving prayers offered and addresses by dignitaries given, involving the themes of liberation and loss and peace and security.
“Victory in itself does not bring peace”
The Islington Gazette’s V J Day edition (17 August 1945) editorial, following the announcement of the Japanese surrender, as well as aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, issued a concerned statement about humanity’s future:
One hundred years ago, in November 1920, Islington film studios trade-screened its first movie, The Great Day. While the film was not a critical success, it marked the beginning of a distinguished 30-year production run. For those three decades Islington Studios, and then as Gainsborough Studios, produced some of Britain’s best-known early films, such as The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Man in Grey(1943) and Fanny by Gaslight(1944), as well as launching the careers of the many of the country’s cinema stars. Above all, one of the world’s greatest film directors learned his trade at the studios, east London-born Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).
Islington Studios opened in 1919, converted from an old railway power station on Poole Street, a quiet road on the border between Islington and Shoreditch (now Hackney), on the south side of the Regent’s Canal. The building became the home of American film company the Famous Players-Lasky and was hailed as the biggest, most technically advanced film studios in the country. It boasted three stages, workshops and offices, as well as a sunken concrete tank with windows for water scenes. Poole Street was now rising from obscurity to become known as ‘Hollywood by the Canal’!
Most local people welcomed the opening of the studios and the accompanying glamour. They often looked out for the arrival of the film stars in their chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce’s and limousines. However, the young of the area missed the old power station. It poured hot water into the canal and had provided them with a free, heated swimming pool!
Between 1920 and 1922 Famous Players made 11 films but none were judged a success by the critics or the public so, instead, studio space was hired to other production companies. By January 1924 Players decided to call it a day and return home to the States. Some of the independent films made enjoyed some success, including Flames of Passion (1922) and Paddy-the Next-Big Thing (1923), both under the direction of Graham Cutts and producer Michael Balcon. The two film makers set up their own production company, whose name was to become synonymous with Islington Studios, namely Gainsborough Pictures with its well-known introductory sequence.
Gainsborough Pictures acquired Islington Studios for the much-reduced price of £14,000 and this to be paid in instalments. The first Gainsborough film was The Passionate Adventure (1924) but it was with its second film, The Rat (1925), that the company was to enjoy huge success. Written by and starring Ivor Novello, The Rat was a romance feature set in the Paris underworld. Gainsborough placed Novello under contract and he proved a key figure in establishing the its reputation with two more ‘Rats’ (Triumph and Return) and other various dramas and romances.
In 1919 a young man who was passionate about films, replied to an advertisement placed by Famous Players to design and write subtitles for silent films. In 1924, when the studios changed hands, he stayed on to work for Gainsborough, keen to learn all aspects of the business. He was soon given the opportunity to work with Graham Cutts as assistant director. After working on a couple of ordinary pictures, the young man was allowed to direct a subject of his own choosing. The Lodger: A story of the London fog (1927), a disturbing adaptation of the Jack the Ripper story and starring Ivor Novello, was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. The young Alfred Hitchcock had arrived!
Local residents and scenes
In the film’s final scene, the titular character is pursued by a violent mob of Poole Street residents, who each received half-a-crown (12.5p) for 30 minutes filming. In fact, local people made up most of the studio’s workforce of extras, carpenters, plasterers, labourers and secretaries. It took a lot of skill to transform a disused power station into a royal palace, an alpine village or a desert island! On occasion, films were made using the canal with, for example, ordinary rowing boats altered to look like gondolas. Unfortunately, in January 1930 while shooting a film called Balaclava, the studios caught fire. Some melted wax ignited the highly inflammable wooden studio walls, resulting in sixty-foot high flames engulfing the building. One person died in the fire, which also caused the closure of the studios for almost 12 months.
The Lady Vanishes
Now under the control of the Gaumont British Group, film production continued throughout the 1930s. Gainsborough Pictures was now concentrating on producing films for the home market rather than trying to break into America. A variety of film genres were tackled, including comedies, musicals and thrillers. Popular comedians such as Will Hay, Arthur Askey, and the Crazy Gang, and singers including Gracie Fields and Jessie Matthews all appeared in successful productions. However, the biggest success came with Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery thriller The Lady Vanishes in 1938. The story follows the disappearance of an elderly woman from a train – a passenger that everyone denies ever having seen. The plot thickens as the travellers speed their way across Europe, although in reality the whole film was shot at Gainsborough Studios.
The war years
The following year, when war broke out in September 1939, there was a fear that enemy air raids could halt production, with exploding bombs potentially causing the building’s chimney – the third tallest in London – to collapse and fall through the roof. The studios did close temporarily but, in the event, neither happened and production restarted. The Rank Organisation bought Gainsborough in 1941 and an output of period melodramas followed, bringing some welcome box-office success. Films such as The Man in Grey(1943), Fanny by Gaslight(1944) and Madonna of the Seven Moons(1945) all served to provide escapism from the rigours of life on the Home Front. Other notable releases, a mix of comedies and war films, included Shipyard Sally (1939), They Came by Night (1940), It’s That Man Again (1943), We Dive at Dawn (1943),and Waterloo Road (1945). It had been assumed that The Wicked Lady (1945) was also produced ‘by the canal’ but it was, in fact, filmed at Gainsborough Picture’s Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush.
Closure and rebirth
Despite the studio’s success in the 1940s, cinema audiences began to decline and film studios became expensive to run. After nearly 170 films, the final production at Gainsborough was Here Come the Huggetts (1948), a light-hearted drama centred around a family obtaining its first telephone. In January 1949 the closure of Islington Studios was announced. In October that year all the equipment and props were auctioned and the building put up for sale. It was bought in 1951 by James Buchanan and Co., Scotch whisky distillers for warehouse storage and, later, it was acquired by Kelaty Ltd as a store for oriental carpets, with no reminder that it was once the country’s biggest film studio.
This, however, was to change when the former power station and studios were to be incorporated and converted into waterside apartments, penthouses, workspaces and shops. Developed by Lincoln Holdings PLC, and designed by Munkenbeck and Marshall architects, the scheme was once more to be called Gainsborough Studios and, in April 2000, sales commenced. The new complex was completed in 2004.
As a last homage to the location, two Shakespearean productions by the Almeida Theatre Company were presented in the Spring and Summer of 2000, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Ralph Fiennes A final closing Hitchcock season took place in October 2003.
The chimney has now gone but the surviving redbrick frontage on Poole Street and adjoining Imber Street remains. Further reminders of its cinematic past are also present at the site in the forms of a sculpture and a plaque. The building’s courtyard features a large sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock’s head by Antony Donaldson, which was installed in 2003. And, a plaque commemorating Gainsborough Studios was unveiled a few years ago on the Poole Street façade by Hackney Council.
Celebrating the bi-centenary of its opening in 2020, Regent’s Canal has witnessed many and varied businesses and trades operate along is waterside. Perhaps, though, the most unique and historic of all these was the Islington/Gainsborough Studios and, although production has long since finished and the ‘lady now vanished’, the location will always be remembered as ‘Hollywood by the canal’!
Prior to refrigeration, ice from the Regent’s Canal was integral to Islington’s businesses for food preservation, particularly to meat, fish and dairy merchants. Ice also played and important role in hospitals where it was in use to relieve inflammation. It was a difficult product to gather and store in the quantities required by Britons, thus its quality was often poor. This meant that innovation was required. The Regent’s Canal was home to developments that meant that ice could go from a scare luxury to product available to most: imports and artificial manufacture.
During the 19th Century, demand for ice in London far exceeded what could be collected locally. A way of combatting this shortage was importation from countries with much colder climates. This began in the 1840’s, with ice trade commencing with America. The Wenham Lake Ice Company in Massachusetts, USA, was one of the most prominent American exporters of ice and received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria to import their product.
Andrew Wynter, in Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, published in 1865, the mystical ice imported by the Wenham Lake Ice Company, “A very long way off, in the New World, there is a great cup, hundreds of feet deep, made in the mountains. This cup is always full of crystal water, which in the winter season gets so cold that great ships come and carry it all over the world, so that every person, when he is heated as you are, can, if he likes, have a draught of its delicious icy contents.”
In 1844, the Wenham Lake Ice Company opened a storefront in The Strand, London where they would put on display a large block of ice in the window every day. A newspaper was placed on the other side of the block of ice so that passers-by could read the print through the ice, from outside the store looking into the window. It was a truly unique site to the people of London, many of which had never had the opportunity to see proper chunks of ice before.
The Wenham Lake Ice Harvest destined for London
The ice harvesting season generally commenced when the ice was approximately 30cm thick on the lake. It was imperative that no recent snow had fallen and melted on the ice. A line 5-7cm deep was ruled across the surface by a small, sharp hand-plough, which served as a guide to a horse-plough called the marker. The marker cut two parallel lines, about 45cm apart, and then repeated at a right angle the frozen surface to make perfect squares. About 15cm deep after the horse-ploughing the lines were sawn off individually and floated over to be transported into the ice house via a ramp out of the water and sledge.
To get these blocks of ice to London still frozen was quiet the feat. The real reason Wenham Lake ice was so popular in England was not necessarily due to the lake being of better purity than others that also produced ice, but largely due to its location. Just 29km north-east of Boston, Wenham Lake was in close proximity to the sea, provided a shorter route to the ship it would cross the Atlantic on, and therefore maintain its frozen state better. The ice was packed as tightly as possible into a train car which could reach the port within an hour. The blocks were then packed into the hull surrounded by saw dust with every effort made to reduce contact with the salty sea air. In spite of best efforts, a third to half of the volume of ice could be lost during the journey. Wynter talks of one ship that arrive in London with just 326 tonnes of ice when it left Boston 51 days earlier with 502 tonnes of ice on board. The main reason for loss was accounted to the salt air and poor drainage meaning that saturated sawdust became a conductor of heat and exacerbated the problem.
Common use of ice in England
Any block of ice that was remotely tainted in colour, or presented any impurity, was immediately put aside as rough ice for freezing purposes. Consequently, those using Wenham Lake ice were always confident in the safety in using the product in direct contact with food and beverages.
Wynter rejoiced the proliferation of ice houses from the mid-19th Century, with a new portable refrigeration method developed by the Wenham Lake Ice Company that meant ice was no longer a luxury for the rich, but one that could be shared by anybody with £10 a year to spare: “Henceforth, no decent householder need tolerate swimming butter or lukewarm drinking water in the dog-days. Neither should tough joints, warm from the slaughter-house, be suffered to pass as heretofore, on the plea that “there is no keeping meat this hot weather.” We have invented a shield that the arrows of Apollo cannot penetrate, and the iced larder will, without doubt, soon become as much a universal comfort among us as the bright fireside.”
A Swiss Italian in Islington
Carlo Gatti (1817-1878) was born in Ticino, Switzerland. He was one of the many migrants who left in search of a better life elsewhere during a period of extreme hardship. He would go on to become a hugely successful entrepreneur, making a big impact both here in Islington and across the capital.
In 1847, Gatti moved to London, settling in Little Italy, and started selling waffles from a stall in Greville Street. In 1849 he went into business with a fellow Swiss countryman, Battista Bolla, opening a café and restaurant in Little Italy specialising in chocolate and ice cream. The same year, Gatti established a stand in Hungerford Market, near Charing Cross, selling pastries and ice cream in little shells. The ices sold for one penny, gaining them the nickname ‘penny licks’. The cost of these penny licks allowed the masses to enjoy ice cream, a luxury that was previously only afforded by the wealthy. There are claims that he sold up to 10,000 penny ices per day by 1858.
The Regent’s Canal was integral to Gatti’s ice cream business, but he also to other local businesses that he supplied ice to. As the local demand for ice grew, there was a pressing need to find additional supply of ice. Carlo Gatti’s solution was not to jump aboard the America ice trade, but to look to Norway.
Norwegian Ice and Gatti’s Ice Wells
Gatti began importing ice from Norway in 1857, with 400 tonnes of imported Norwegian natural ice brought to Islington in that first year. The ice was shipped to London via the Thames and transferred onto barges in Limehouse. The barges took the ice up the Regent’s Canal to Gatti’s ice warehouses. One of these warehouses was located on Battlebridge Basin, the first well established in 1857 and the second in 1863, and there was another ice warehouse on Caledonian Road established in 1862.
Prior to refrigeration, the best way of storing ice was away from sunlight, underground in circular brick-lined ice wells. These wells were approximately 9 metres in diameter and 12 metres deep, therefore able to store vast amounts of ice. To minimises melting, the ice was packed closely together, just as on the transport ships; The larger the volume of ice stored together the colder it stays. The ice could remain for many months, losing only about a quarter of its weight between Norway and the customer in London. The ice would periodically be cut and distributed across the city on Gatti’s distinctive yellow and brown wagons to ice cream makers, though the bulk was bought by merchants.
By 1900, as a direct result of having far more ice available locally, selling ice cream had become the dominant trade for Italians in London. With some 900 ice cream vendors living in Little Italy, the Ice-Cream Man or ‘okey-Pokey Man was a common sight. This colloquial name came from the cry of Ecco un poco! meaning ‘Here’s a little (taste)!’ in Italian.
By the end of the 19th Century, artificial ice manufacturing was taking off. In the Islington area of Regent’s Canal, Barnett and Foster, as well as G.J. Worssam in Wenlock Road, manufactured ice making and brewing equipment. With the rapid advance of technology in the Victorian Era, these businesses and many more would begin replacing the natural ice trade that was the backbone of businesses like Gatti’s with widespread availability of artificial ice made locally.
Carlo Gatti’s ice wells remained in use until 1904. The natural ice trade declined swiftly and Gatti’s company converted the building into a horse and cart depot, installing new floors and making extensive alterations. The company United Carlo Gatti and Stephenson used the building until 1926, after which it was used by a number of different occupiers for warehousing and light engineering.
The London Canal Museum has occupied the site from 1992. Carlo Gatti’s original ice wells in Battlebridge Basin are understood to be the only such wells to have survived in London. With other wells throughout Britain and Europe buried and inaccessible, these are also the only known ice wells available to visit in Europe.