Categories
International Women's Day 2021

Choosing to Challenge: Islington Women and Arts and Entertainment

International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.

The theme of IWD 2021 is ‘Choosing to Challenge’. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, and can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

We pay tribute to and celebrate inspirational Islington Women who, over many centuries and across a variety of professions, have ‘Chosen to Challenge’. The contribution from Islington women in  Arts and Entertainment has been immense. From Kate Greenaway to Andrea Levy, each has accelerated women’s equality and helped towards creating a better and inclusive world.

[Part 1 of 5 of Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021)]


Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

Book illustrator

Kate GreenawayHoxton-born children’s illustrator Kate (Catherine) Greenaway and her family moved to 147 Upper Street in 1852, Islington where her mother opened a hat shop.  Kate lived here for 21 years. She later resided at Pemberton Gardens, Holloway. As a child, she attended her first art class at Finsbury School of Art in William Street, Clerkenwell. Kate was soon promoted from this evening class to the day class at the art school at Canonbury House. 

Kate Greenaway had a prolific career as an illustrator for children’s books, designer and verse writer. Her earliest work appeared in Little Folks (1873), a widely known and very popular children’s weekly magazine. The same year saw the first of her Christmas cards produced for Marcus Ward. Her best-known books include Under the Window (1879) and Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book (1880). Kate’s last work, The April Baby’s Book of Tunes appeared in 1901.

In 1890 she became a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, and exhibited several times. She is still celebrated through the annual Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration of children’s literature.

  • An Islington Heritage plaque to Kate Greenaway can be seen outside her former Upper Street home.

Marie Lloyd (1870-1922)

Music-hall artist

Marie LloydMary Lloyd was known as the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’. Born Matilda Wood in Hoxton, London, her career spanned 40 years. As Bella Delamare, she made her debut at 15-years-old at the Eagle Tavern, off City Road. By 1885 she had become Marie Lloyd, with her hit song ‘The boy up in the gallery’; this was originally written for Islington music-hall star Nellie Power. Marie became a huge success and topped the bill at all the West End and major music halls.

Marie had many associations with Islington, both as resident and performer. As a girl she lived in Bath Place, Finsbury, and attended school in nearby Bath Street. She became a regular performer at Collins’ Music Hall on Islington Green (now Waterstones bookshop), the Grand Theatre at Angel (demolished) and the Finsbury Park Empire (now Vaudeville Court).

Marie was actively involved in the 1907 London and suburban music-hall strike organised by the Variety Artistes’ Federation. It campaigned against management contracts which stopped performers from working in any other local hall within a year of their current contract, irrespective of contract length. Well-paid stars such as Marie and ‘Little Tich’ stood alongside lesser names and refused to perform, often picketing outside theatres. Eventually the various managements were forced to give in and agreed to change the contracts.

Marie Lloyd continued performing until a few days before her death at the age of 52. More than 50,000 people turned out to pay their respects at her funeral at Hampstead Cemetery in 1922.


Lilian Baylis (1874-1937)

Theatrical producer and manager

Lilian BaylisThe eldest of six children, Lilian Baylis was born in Marylebone, London, and grew up surrounded by music and performance. Her mother was a successful singer and pianist, and Lilian’s education was grounded in the arts.

Lilian was the manager of The Old Vic theatre when she began a national campaign to save Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, Islington in 1925..

The Sadler’s Wells site had been the home to theatre and entertainment since 1683 but, by 1925, and several buildings later, the playhouse was derelict. Lilian launched a public appeal for funds to rebuild the theatre for the nation. Building work finally began in 1930 and the fifth Sadler’s Wells Theatre opened in 6 January 1931 with a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

After a long illness, Lilian died of a heart attack in November 1937, aged 63 in Lambeth, South London, the night before The Old Vic was to open a production of Macbeth starring Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson.

A new Sadler’s Wells Theatre opened in 1998 and Lilian is commemorated in a performance space named the Lilian Baylis Studio.


Dame Gracie Fields (1898-1979)

Singer and actor

Gracie FieldsDame Gracie Fields (née Stansfield) was born in Rochdale, Lancashire. She was a highly successful singer, comedian and actress, becoming a towering star of both music hall and cinema. 

Gracie made her London stage debut at Collins’ Music Hall, Islington Green, on 25 June 1915 as a singer in a revue. She later made Islington her home. From 1926 until 1929 Gracie lived close to Collins’ at 72A Upper Street. She was most famous for her song Sally (1931) and the film Sally in our Alley (1931). She was the highest paid film star in the world in 1937.

Gracie played the Finsbury Park Empire on a number of occasions in the 1920s and early 1930s. In the 1930s, when her popularity was at its peak, she was given many honours: she became an Officer of the Venerable Order of St John (OStJ) for her charity work, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to entertainment in the 1938 New Year Honours. 

Gracie had to wait another 40 years until she was invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, just seven months before her death in Capri in 1979, aged 81 years.

  • An English Heritage blue plaque to Gracie Fields can be seen outside her former Upper Street home.

Nina Bawden (1925-2012)

Author and railway safety campaigner

Nina BawdenNina Bawden CBE was born and raised in Ilford, Essex. She lived at 22 Noel Road, Islington, from 1976 until her death in 2012.

She was the author of many books for adults and children, including Carrie’s War (1973) and The Peppermint Pig (1975). For the latter she won the 1976 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of British children’s writers. Some of her writing drew on her life in Islington.

Nina was seriously injured in the Potters Bar train crash in 2002 in which her husband, Austen Kark, and six other people were killed. With others she successfully campaigned to make the railways safer and to hold those responsible for the accident to account.

  • An Islington Heritage plaque to Nina Bawden can be seen outside her former Noel Road home.

Andrea Levy (1956-2019)

Novelist and chronicler of the British Caribbean experience

Andrea LevyNovelist and chronicler of the British Caribbean experience, Andrea Levy was born at the Whittington Hospital, Islington, on 7 March 1956. Her father Winston travelled to England on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, with his wife Amy following some months later. Both her parents were Jamaican-born of mixed descent, becoming part of the boom in immigration that shaped post-war Britain.

The family home was a council flat at 105 Twyford House, Elwood Street, close to Arsenal FC’s Highbury Stadium. Andrea was youngest of four children, growing up at a time when the idea of living in multi-cultural society had yet to be accepted. She passed the 11-plus examination and, in 1968, attended the prestigious Highbury Hill Grammar School (now Highbury Fields School). 

Andrea began writing novels and her first three works drew on her own experiences of growing up black in a majority white society. These were set largely in the north London of her early years and, although sales were modest, the books were critically well received. In 2004 she had her breakthrough with her fourth novel Small Island, which dealt with the post-Second World War immigration experience of her parents’ generation. That year the book won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year and, in 2005, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Andrea’s final novel The Long Song took the British Caribbean experience back to its uncomfortable origins in the plantation slavery of the early-19th Century. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2010 and won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2011.

Andrea died on 14 February 2019, aged 62, after living with breast cancer for 15 years.

  • An Islington Heritage plaque to Andrea Levy can be seen outside her former childhood home in Elwood Street
  • Learn more about Andrea in our special Islington Histories Andrea Levy Learning Pack

Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) 

Back to Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) main page


Compiled by the Friends of Islington Museum / Islington Heritage Service (March 2021)

Categories
International Women's Day 2021

Choosing to Challenge: Islington Women and Education

International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.

The theme of IWD 2021 is ‘Choosing to Challenge’. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, and can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

We pay tribute to and celebrate inspirational Islington women who, over many centuries and across a variety of professions, have ‘Chosen to Challenge’. The contribution from Islington women in education has been immense. From Dame Alice Owen to Yvonne Conolly, each has accelerated women’s equality and helped towards creating a better and inclusive world.

[Part 2 of 5 of Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021)]


Dame Alice Owen (1547-1613)

Philanthropist

British (English) School; Dame Alice Owen (1547-1613)
(Image: Dame Alice Owen School)

Dame Alice Owen was the daughter of a rich Islington landowner, who inherited further wealth through the deaths of three husbands.

As a child, Dame Alice narrowly escaped death from an archer’s arrow and vowed to show her gratitude for her survival.

Her most lasting work was setting up a foundation in 1613 to provide almshouses for 10 poor women and a free school for 30 boys in Islington and Clerkenwell. The Dame Alice Owen Foundation continued after her death, establishing a girls’ school in 1886.

The Dame Alice Owen School is now a co-educational school in Hertfordshire and the foundation still supports educational projects in Islington.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)

Writer, teacher and advocate of women’s rights

Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797) NPG
(Image: National Portrait Gallery)

Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, lived for several years at Newington Green, Islington.

Although she had little formal education, Mary needed to earn a living and she established a school for girls at Newington Green in 1784. She wrote her first book, Thoughts on the education of Daughters (1786) based on this experience. She became known across Europe for her radical and controversial views on gender equality. Her best known work is A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

  • An Islington Heritage plaque to Mary Wollstonecraft can be seen outside Newington Green Primary School, and a  controversial sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, by artist Maggi Hambling, went on display in Newington Green Open Space in November 2020.

Matilda Sharpe (1830 – 1916)

Teacher, philanthropist and painter

Matilda SharpeMatilda Sharpe was born at 38 Canonbury Place, Islington, the second of six children of Samuel Sharpe, a successful banker, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, and Sarah Sharpe, an artist of considerable talent. In 1840 the family moved to nearby 32 Highbury Place, where she was to reside until her death 56 years later.

Matilda devoted much of her life to education, starting at Newington Green Chapel Sunday School, where she taught painting and languages to working-class students. In 1885, with support from Robert Spears, a Unitarian minister, Matilda and her sister Emily established Channing School in Highgate. A school for the daughters of Unitarian ministers, their key aim was to educate girls. They wished Channing to provide the best education possible at the lowest possible cost, enabling its pupils to go on to university or any of the professions open to women. Today, Matilda and Emily Sharpe’s motto, ‘Never forget: life is expecting much of you and me’, is still very much advocated by the school.

Matilda was also a talented painter and she exhibited at the Royal Academy. One of her oil paintings, a portrait of her father dated 1868, is held at the National Portrait Gallery.  Matilda painted views from her house and her back garden, as well as Highbury Fields.  As a writer, she wrote four books of moral maxims and poetical comments on modern times, emphasizing her love of learning and travel, her dislike of smoking, alcohol, and fripperies, and her support for education for all.

Matilda died aged 86, her sister Emily having predeceased her.

  • View Matilda Sharpe’s paintings at ART UK

[This biography is an abridged version of  Matilda Sharpe (1830-1916) written by Evelyn Thomas  / Islington U3A Local History Group, 2018]


Yvonne Conolly (1939-2021)

Teacher and first Black female headteacher in the United Kingdom

Yvonne Conolly (Evening Standard)
(Image: Evening Standard)

Cecile Yvonne Conolly CBE was a Jamaican teacher, who became the United Kingdom’s first female black headteacher in 1969, aged just 29-years-old.

Yvonne arrived in the UK from Jamaica in August 1963, as part of the Windrush generation.  She had trained for three years as a primary school teacher in Jamaica before taking the decision to come to Britain on one of the many ships that brought over thousands of workers from the Caribbean. As a relief teacher, Yvonne was very aware that there were racial tensions in a number of schools where she taught. This was to become even more evident to her as her teaching career progressed. Yvonne was appointed teacher at the George Eliot School in Swiss Cottage, north London. In January 1969, and much to her surprise, she was offered a promotion to become headteacher at Ring Cross Primary School on Eden Grove in Holloway, Islington. At just 29-years of age, Yvonne was the country’s first black female headteacher.

After being appointed to this position, Yvonne received racist abuse and required a bodyguard to accompany her to work. Her appointment to the post attracted much attention from the British media, and she was subjected to repeated attacks in some national newspapers. Yvonne did not let the reaction to her headship prevent her from delivering an effective education service to the children of her school, and much of her experience at Ring Cross was to inform her later career. Carrying the responsibility of being the first-ever female black headteacher in the country, it was the reason she gave for setting up the Caribbean Teachers Association. Yvonne spent nine years as headteacher at Ring Cross and, in 1978, she left to take up a position as a member of the multi-ethnic inspectorate created by the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority). Yvonne formally retired in 2001, after 40-years-of service in education, but remained chair of the Caribbean Teachers’ Association.

Yvonne Conolly (Islington Tribute)
(Image: Islington Tribune)

In October 2020 she was honoured for her services to education with the Honorary Fellow of Education award from the Naz Legacy Foundation. HRH Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who announced her award, said that she had “character and determination” which helped her break barriers for black educators.

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours the same year, Yvonne was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to education. In receiving the award, she said: “I am delighted, and feel profoundly honoured to be receiving a CBE for the recognition of my work in education over many years. I am most grateful to my nominees and to the Honours Committee for this prestigious award which I am proud to share with my community.“

Yvonne died of  an incurable blood cancer she had been fighting for more than 10 years, on Wednesday, 27 January 2021, at the Whittington Hospital, Islington, aged 81 years.

[This biography is an abridged version of  Yvonne Conolly’s entry on Wikipedia, written and submitted by Islington Heritage Service in February 2021]


Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) 

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Compiled by the Friends of Islington Museum / Islington Heritage Service (March 2021)

Categories
International Women's Day 2021

Choosing to Challenge: Islington Women and International Influence

International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.

The theme of IWD 2021 is ‘Choosing to Challenge’. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, and can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

We pay tribute to and celebrate inspirational Islington women who, over many centuries and across a variety of professions, have ‘Chosen to Challenge’. The contribution from Islington women in international affairs and influence been immense. From Caroline Chisholm to Zaha Hadid, each has accelerated women’s equality and helped towards creating a better and inclusive world.

[Part 4 of 5 of Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021)]


Mary Tealby (1801-1865)

Founder of the Home for Lost and Starving Dogs (later Battersea Dogs and Cats Home)

Mary TealbyMary Tealby (née Bates) was born in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire and moved to Hull with her husband Robert after their marriage in 1829. She moved to London to nurse her ill mother in the early 1850s, leaving her husband Robert in Hull, and remained with her father and her brother at 20 Victoria Road (now Chillingworth Street), Holloway, after her mother’s death.
Mary founded the Home for Lost and Starving Dogs after becoming distressed at the number of stray and abandoned dogs in London. The home was located in stables behind 15 and 16 Hollingsworth Street (now occupied by Freightliners Farm and Paradise Park) and was opened on 2 October 1860.

Mary died 3 October 1865 leaving the management of the home to her younger brother Edward, who relocated the home to Battersea, south London in 1871. The home still operates today under the name of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

An Islington Heritage plaque to Mary Tealby can be seen at Freightliners Farm in Holloway, the former site of the Home for Lost and Starving Dogs.


Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877)

The ’emigrants’ friend’

Caroline Chisholm (State Library of New South Wales)
(Image: State Library of New South Wales)

Caroline Chisholm (née Jones) was born in 1808 at Wooton, Northamptonshire. Caroline married Captain Archibald Chisholm in 1828 and accompanied him to Madras in India, where she set up a school of industry for the daughters of soldiers.

In 1838, Caroline went to Australia where her concern for the welfare of emigrants was such that she promoted a variety of projects to assist them. These included providing housing for single women who travelled to Australia under the bounty system, as well as lending money to assist in setting up businesses.

Through dedication and persistence she established a hostel in a derelict building provided by the governor of New South Wales. This served as an employment agency as well as being her headquarters. By the time she left Australia in 1846 she is said to have assisted 11,000 emigrants.

Upon her return from Australia, Caroline settled in Islington. Her house at 3 Charlton Crescent, now 32 Charlton Place, became her headquarters in England. She set up the Family Colonisation Loan Society to provide assistance to settlers. The Society’s aim was to support emigration by lending half the cost of the fare (the emigrant to provide the other half). After living two years in Australia, an emigrant would be expected to repay the loan. She also held regular meetings at Charlton Crescent to give practical advice to emigrants. In 1847, she gave evidence to the House of Lords Committee investigating the reform of the emigration systems.

A mother of six children, Caroline was a determined, generous and altruistic woman with insight into the the problems of those around her, and skilled in devising practical solutions. She died in Fulham, London in 1877.

Amelia Edwards (1831-1892)

Egyptologist and writer

Amelia Edwards (NPG)
(Image: National Portrait Gallery)

Amelia Edwards was born in Colebrook Row, Islington, in 1831. She was the only child of Thomas Edwards , an army officer who later worked for the Provincial Bank of Ireland in London, and Alicia Walpole, eldest daughter of Robert Walpole, an Irish barrister.

Amelia was a quiet child who, until eight years old, was educated at home by her mother and then by private tutors. From an early age, she was an avid reader, while writing stories and poems and developing into a proficient artist. By the age of 14 her stories were being published in periodicals. By this time she lived with her family at 19 Wharton Street, Clerkenwell (now Islington). It was here that she wrote Hand and Glove, reckoned the best of her early novels, alongside a concise history of France and short travelogues based on her later visits to the continent.

During the 1850s and 1860s Amelia travelled extensively throughout Europe, published many accounts of her journeys, as well as several novels and journal articles. She was fluent in French and Italian and described herself as ‘an insatiable traveller’. In 1873,  disappointed with the weather in central France, Amelia set off for Egypt. It was a journey that changed the course of her life. She became fascinated with Egypt and this was to dominate her work for the next two decades.

Travelling up the Nile from Cairo to Abu Simbel, she was appalled by the increasing threat directed towards the ancient monuments and artifacts by tourism and modern development. So much so that Amelia became a tireless campaigner for both the preservation and research of ancient Egypt.

She was co-founder of the influential Egypt Exploration Fund (later Egypt Exploration Society). She worked tirelessly for the society, raising funds, lecturing throughout England, and writing about the progress of the fund’s work. She raised sponsorship for the Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith to join Archaeologist Flinders Petrie in Egypt. The American branch of the Egypt Exploration Society gained momentum and, in 1886, Smith College in Massachusetts awarded Amelia an honorary LLD, ‘the first distinction of the kind ever bestowed on a woman. Amelia was also active in other areas of both classical and biblical study, and was vice-president of the Society for the Promotion of Women’s Suffrage.

In 1891, while overseeing antiquities arriving at London docks, she developed a lung infection which led to her death.  Amelia died six-months later in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, aged 60, and was buried at Henbury, near Bristol. Her grave is marked by an obelisk.

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)

Ethnologist and writer

Mary Kinsgley
(Image: Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)

Mary Kingsley was born in Tavistock Terrace, Upper Holloway, Islington in 1862. She was the eldest child of George Kingsley, a physician and traveller, and his wife Mary Bailey. The novelists Charles Kingsley and Henry Kingsley were her uncles.

As a young woman she supported her mother in household duties and assisted in her father’s anthropological work, for which she learned German. She did not attend school and read voraciously, creating her own world among the travel, natural history, and science books from her father’s library.

Despite managing to occasionally travel to Europe, Mary spend much of her early adult years nursing her sick parents. Mary was 30-years-old when both parents died and this gave her the release to see the world. Following a trip to the Canary Islands, she decided upon exploration of West Africa to further enhance her own anthropological studies. Mary reached Freetown, Sierra Leone in August 1893.

After fours months of exploration and collecting specimens, she returned to England. The following year, she sailed again to West Africa. In order to pay her way and make contact with African people, Mary learned to trade in rubber, ivory, tobacco, and other goods. She brought home a collection of insects, shells, and plants, including 18 species of reptiles and 65 species of fish, of which three were entirely new and named after her. Mary’s experiences were to inform her lectures, articles and books;  Mary’s first book, Travels in West Africa, Congo Français, Corisco and Cameroons was published in 1897.

For the next two years Mary and her work were in much demand until, in 1899, the South African War (Second |Boer War) thoughts turned again to the Continent. On one last voyage, she arrived in Cape Town in 1900 where she offered her services as a nurse. She was sent to a hospital to look after Boer prisoners of war. Sadly, she contracted the typhoid that was killing her patients and, on 3 June, she died. Mary was buried at sea, in keeping with her wishes. Her coffin was conveyed from Simon’s Town harbour on a torpedo boat with full military honours.


Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964)

English journalist (and ‘male’ soldier)

Dorothy LawrenceDorothy Lawrence was born in Hendon, London and was of unknown parentage. A budding journalist in her late teens, and with a few published articles in The Times, at the outbreak of the First World War she had hoped to be able to report for the Front Line. Dorothy was unsuccessful in obtaining an assignment but, undeterred, she travelled to France as a freelance war correspondent but was arrested by French Police near the Front Line and left for Paris.

Dorothy concluded that only in disguise could she get the story that she wanted to write, and persuaded two British Army soldiers that she met in a Parisian café to help her acquire a uniform and equipment, after which she began to transform herself into a male soldier. She changed her physical appearance by cutting her long hair, wearing a corset and darkening her face. Dorothy then learnt how to drill and march. Lastly, she obtained false identity papers and, becoming Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment, headed for the front lines.

She was befriended by coalminer-turned-soldier Tom Dunn who, with army colleagues, took her under his wing for protection and rations. In her book, she writes that Dunn found her work as a sapper with the 179 Tunnelling Company, 51st Division, Royal Engineers, specialist mine-layers involved in the digging of tunnels. However, evidence suggests that she did not undertake digging work but was free to work within the trenches.

Unfortunately, the rigours of the job and the Front Line caused Dorothy’s health to suffer. She worried that if she needed medical attention her true identity would be discovered and her colleagues would be in danger. So, after 10 days of service, she presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who placed her under military arrest. Initially, Dorothy was interrogated as a spy and declared a prisoner of war. The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security and, if her story was revealed, was fearful of more women taking on male roles during the war. Swearing not to write about her experiences or risk imprisonment, Dorothy sailed from Calais back to England. She took the same ferry as Emmeline Pankhurst, who asked her to speak at a suffragette meeting. Dorothy attempted to write articles about her experience but fell foul of the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act (1914), which could be used against her for treason.

In 1919, Dorothy moved to Canonbury, Islington, and finally published her story, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Although, heavily censored by the War Office, it was generally well received but, sadly, not the commercial success she had hoped. Her writing career was effectively over and, by 1925, her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. Upon examination, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane.

Dorothy was institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum (later Friern Hospital) in north London, where she died nearly forty years later. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery.

Many years later her story was featured in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war, and famous for being the only known English woman soldier on the Front Line during the First World War.


Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)

Architect

Zaha Hadid was born in 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq. Her father, Muhammad al-Hajj Husayn Hadid, was a wealthy industrialist and liberal politician from Mosul, and her mother was an artist also from Mosul. In the 1960s Zaha attended boarding schools in England and Switzerland. She later gained a maths degree at the American University of Beirut and, then in 1972, more importantly, studied at the Architectural Association school in London, going on to become recognised as a major figure in architecture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Zaha first opened her own office in a small room in a former Victorian school at 10 Bowling Green Lane in Clerkenwell, Islington. With her architectural partner Patrik Schumacher, she eventually built a practice of 400 staff, taking over the entire school building, as well as spreading into a second building. It was to become one of the world’s most important architectural practices. Zaha also made Clerkenwell her home, living in a penthouse apartment in Dallington Street.

From her Clerkenwell base, Zaha built an extraordinary range and scope of buildings. These included the Olympic Aquatics Centre in London, the Maxxi art museum in Rome (the RIBA Stirling prize winner in 2010), a car factory for BMW in Leipzig, Germany, a skyscraper complex in Beijing, an opera house in Guangzhou, and an exhibition centre in the middle of Seoul.

In 2004 Zaha became the first woman to win the Pritzker prize for architecture and this year the first to be awarded the RIBA royal gold medal in her own right. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002 and, in 2012, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).  At the time of her death, several of Zaha’s buildings were still under construction, such as the Daxing International Airport in Beijing, and the Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar, a venue for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. She was also was working in China, the Middle East, America and Russia.

An extraordinary architect, Zaha was described by the Guardian newspaper (26 November 2016) as the ‘Queen of the curve’, who “liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity.”


Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) 

Back to Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) main page


Compiled by the Friends of Islington Museum / Islington Heritage Service (March 2021)

Categories
Barging Through Islington

Changes Over Time: Regent’s Canal

Much of the Regent’s Canal has changed over 200 years. The following images compare scenes from around the canal at different points in history.


Horses patiently waited for boats pulled through the tunnel by a steam powered tug. A horse can carry thirty times more weight on water than over land. This made the Regent’s Canal the most efficient means of transport in 1820 when it opened. By the 1970’s the horses, tractors and tugs were no longer required to assist boats along the Canal, as industry had found transportation of goods via train and lorries more economical and practical.


At the eastern portal of Islington Tunnel stood the two roomed cottage of the Islington tunnel keeper. Built into the tunnel wall, the cottage provided a home for the tunnel keeper, where they could easily marshal the barges and blow a copper horn to signal when boats were coming through. The photo on the left from 1905 is thought to be of Mary Rockingham, who took over the job of tunnel keeper in 1902 from her husband. Later in the 20th Century, the tunnel keeper’s two room cottage disappeared, as seen in the image on the right.


Islington Tunnel took three years to build, running under the Angel area of Islington. 878 metres long, barges were assisted through the tunnel by a steam-chain tug – one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canal. Carol Noble used to swim into Islington Tunnel from the Cally end when she was younger. She recalls that “it was as black as Newgate’s knocker when you went under the tunnel. All you got was a little light at the end.”


Canal basins allow boats to dock, unload, load and turn. City Road, formerly called Regent’s Canal Basin, covered four acres. Jim Marshall explained that City Road Basin “went beyond City Road. The Basin was a big distribution point. Pickfords was moving things up and down. Barges form the north came to here, and storage as well. Buy 100 tons of grain in the Regent’s Canal Dock, transport 50 tons, store the rest and deliver when the miller needed it.”


Locks allow canals to run flat when the landscape undulates. Lock keepers worked twelve hour shifts when both lock chambers were in constant use. City Road Lock had a forge and stables for a change of horse between the large inland port at Paddington and Limehouse. The lock keeper’s cottage on the opposite bank was replaced in the 1950’s by three houses for British Waterways’ workers next to Anderson’s Timber Merchants.


Lock chambers can allow boats to go in opposite directions at the same time. This was particularly important during the busier periods of the canal’s use. In the late 1970’s, as commercial traffic declined, one chamber was made into a weir and the lock keeper job disappeared.


More photographic comparisons of the Regent’s Canal can be found here.

These photographs are from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

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Barging Through Islington

More Changes Over Time: Regent’s Canal

Much of the Regent’s Canal has changed over 200 years. The following images compare scenes from around the canal at different points in history.


Wenlock Basin was at the cutting edge of telecommunications in 1846, when the Gutta Percha (a tree gum like rubber) Company made the
twenty nine miles of underwater telegraph cable which connected England to France. Jump forward a century and when Wenlock Basin was dredged, Richard Savage found hundreds of old bottles and jars, remnants of the nearby British Drug Houses. Bernard James remembers from the 1970’s that “going east, the canal felt very unvisited and still industries there. There’d be a pipe and suddenly a great gushing sound, and this horrible coloured stuff would come out with a load of steam.”


This 1899 water pipe attracted generations of children who called it the ‘banana’, ‘sausage’ and ‘rainbow pipe’ after it was painted in 1980. ‘It was a dare to cross it.’ John Rowlinson recalls, “I fell off that a few times – small boy, short legs and no sense of balance, but could swim like a fish.” A number of adults leaving ‘The Twos’ pubs on a warm evening also took the plunge. Jumping in the canal wasn’t for everyone – some were put off by the debris, such as discarded bikes and prams, whilst others didn’t like the look of the murky water. As Steve Havens states, “if you put a cup in there and pulled it out, it would be as dark as coffee.”


Islington Boat Club on the canal’s east bank was surrounded by old industrial buildings. The new west bank base is surrounded by flats. The club was founded by Crystal Hale in 1970, who encouraged the use if the Regent’s Canal for leisure, especially for children. Hale was a key advocate for saving the City Road Basin, which faced plans to be filled in. The Save the Basin campaign, which ran throughout the mid-1970’s, was a success for Crystal and her club.


The Regent’s Canal was integral for many industries in Islington, as it provided a means of transporting materials to factories along its shores. Thorley’s Cattle Food was one such factory. Thorley’s set the international standard for animal feed. The locust or carob beans were a key ingredient in their product and were transported to their factory by canal boat. Fred Rooke recalls he “used to swim across and throw the locust over to the other boys, you heard them shout ‘Ere you are Fred’. One day, I heard a deep voice say “Ere you are Fred”, and it was my dad. I got a real good telling off.”


From circa 1900 to 1949, Negretti and Zambra engineered scientific and marine instruments in Half Moon Street, expanding into a wharf by Thornhill Bridge. Henry Negretti and Joseph Zambra, both Italian migrants, were particularly skilled manufacturers of thermometers, barometers and optical instruments, such as telescopes. Their expertise saw the pair appointed opticians and scientific instrument makers to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and King Edward VII, and even the Royal Observatory.


In 2020 Opening the Lock Gate (right) was unveiled at City Road Basin to celebrate the bicentenary of the Basin. Sculpted by Ian Rank-Broadley and commissioned by the Berkeley Group property developers, Opening the Lock Gate commemorates ‘the working people of Britain’s canals.’ The plaque at the bottom right of the sculpture reads ‘this sculpture celebrates the toil of the men and women who worked tirelessly on the barges that arrived from across the country.’


More photographic comparisons of the Regent’s Canal can be found here.

These photographs are from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

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Barging Through Islington

Regent’s Canal Photo Quiz

Test your knowledge of the Regent’s Canal with this photo quiz!


Want to know the answers? Take a peak below:

This quiz is from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

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Barging Through Islington

A Timeline of the Regent’s Canal

Since opening on 1 August 1820, the Regent’s Canal has been a waterway for industry, sport and leisure. Take a look below at how the canal has developed over its two-century history.


This timeline is from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

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Barging Through Islington

Hollywood by the Canal: A brief history of Islington and Gainsborough Studios

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).  

‘Hollywood by the canal’. Islington Studios, Poole Street N1, 1920s.
Famous Players-Lasky

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’!

Architectural section of Islington / Gainsborough Film Studios, 1920s.

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!

Gainsborough Pictures

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.

Studio no. 2 at Gainsborough Studios, 1920s.
The Rat

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.

Alfred Hitchcock

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.

On set filming of Good Morning Boys (1937) starring Will Hay.
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.

Sales flyer for the ‘new’ Gainsborough Studios complex, 2000.

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.

Hitchcock’s head

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’!


Article title and source information taken, with grateful thanks, from Chris Draper’s Islington’s cinemas and film studios (1990)

Further reading
  • Chapman, Gary. London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studios in the silent years. Edditt Publishing, 2014
  • Draper, Chris. Islington’s cinemas and film studios.  Islington Libraries / London Borough of Islington, 1990

Article by Mark Aston, from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

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Engineering Islington Tunnel

The Islington Tunnel, arguably the main architectural and engineering feature of the Regent’s Canal, was designed and engineered by James Morgan. Morgan was born on 9 March 1774 in Wales and was employed in his early 20’s as an assistant to the famous Regency architect John Nash.

In 1806 Nash and Morgan were appointed as architects to the Department of Woods and Forests and they moved to London in 1811. The Department’s Commissioner requested that Nash and Morgan draft a plan for the development of Marylebone Farm on the Crown Estate. It was a plan for a new park for the London elite, redesigning part of central London including a route from the park to Westminster. This project would later become Regent’s Park. Morgan supervised the work of planting, road making and laying out of the park, including the lake, under the direction of Nash.

Since 1802, Thomas Homer, a businessman and merchant, had been promoting the idea for a ‘London Canal’ joining the Paddington section of the Grand Junction Canal with the River Thames at Limehouse. In 1811 he contacted Nash and Morgan who reviewed the route. This led to Nash becoming a driving force in the promotion of the canal, using his association with the Prince Regent (later George IV) to help influence the project. Morgan drew up plans for the canal which, with the consent of the Prince Regent, became the Regent’s Canal. The Regent’s Canal Act, based upon these plans, was passed in Parliament in July 1812.

Regent’s Canal Act, 1812.

Morgan was appointed as the canal company’s engineer even though he had no experience in canal building. His appointment was possibly assisted by the fact Nash had become a large shareholder in the company. A competition to design the Islington Tunnel was launched in August 1812 to little response. Three eminent engineers of the time, Nicholson, Walker and Jessop were the judges and the ideas received were mostly unsuitable. The ‘winning’ entry, receiving the prize of 100 guineas, was found to be a copy of a Jessop design. The committee instead commissioned Morgan to design the tunnel. He went about building the 249 metre long Maida Hill Tunnel before tackling the much longer Islington Tunnel. Delays and unexpected problems were caused due to ingress of water in the Maida Hill Tunnel and several workers lost their lives in its construction.

The project was continually beset with financial problems. In 1815 William Agar, a landowner and King’s Council issued a writ against Morgan and others as part of a long running legal battle he’d waged against the canal. He was awarded £500 in damages. Only a month previously in May, Thomas Homer, the secretary of the Regent’s Canal Company, had been sent to debtors’ prison for embezzling an unknown amount of the company’s funds. He was tried and sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia although he was never sent.

Constructing Islington Tunnel, 1819.

By the time the Paddington to Camden stretch started to open on 12 August 1816, the Islington Tunnel had been started, but construction was forced to stop as money ran out. Only £254,100 of the estimated project cost of £400,000 had been raised and it had become obvious that more would be needed as time went on. An Act of Parliament increased the capital to £600,000 but the company couldn’t raise any more. Discussions with the Government led to the funding of the project with further loans in return for providing employment for the poor. Thomas Telford was tasked with surveying the unfinished canal and tunnel for the commissioners and an initial loan of £200,000 was promised provided the company could raise £100,000. They succeeded and work resumed in December 1817.

Islington Tunnel interior, 1987.

The tunnel was built through Islington Hill under what is now the Angel area of Islington by the experienced contractor Daniel Pritchard. It was 878 metres (960 yards) long and was excavated using explosives, wheelbarrows, horses and manual labour and brick lined throughout. On its completion in 1818 Thomas Telford was asked to report on the tunnel and remarked “materials and workmanship excellent and it’s direction perfectly straight”.

The canal opened on 1 August 1820. Morgan travelled on the lead barge of a grand procession from St Pancras to the Thames. At the Islington Tunnel bands played and the boats were met with a salute of cannon fire as they emerged at the eastern end. James Morgan remained as engineer to the canal until 1835 when he retired.

West portal of Islington Tunnel, circa 1830.

Originally, canal boats got through the tunnel by ‘legging’ as there were no towpaths on either side to allow horses to draw the vessels through. Men lay on planks on the boat and walked the vessel through the tunnel using the side walls. This was slow, hard work and caused major delays. In 1826 a steam chain tug was introduced and was one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canals. It was attached to a continuous chain on the canal floor and pulled the boats through. In 1880 it caught fire and sank, however, this system remained in place until the 1930’s. It was subsequently replaced with a diesel engine, which, itself, is no longer in use.

The Islington Tunnel is Grade-II listed and its most striking feature is the western portal. This was attributed to John Nash and was constructed of red stock bricks set in English bond with gold stock brick and stone dressings. The inner skin brickwork had started to break away in recent years and the whole tunnel was restored in 2000.

West portal of Islington Tunnel, 2020.

Article by Islington Museum volunteer Johnny Baird, from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

All images courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

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London’s Hidden Waterway: Regent’s Canal

Once described as ‘London’s Hidden Waterway’, 2020 celebrates the bicentenary of the Regent’s Canal’s full opening on 1 August 1820. The canal played an integral role in Islington, and north London, serving the local industries and businesses for nearly 150 years. Although passing through a well-populated area, much of the Regent’s Canal was hidden in an enclosed world behind wharves and waterside warehouses. In recent times, the canal emerged from its veiled existence and is now increasingly used by pleasure craft. Its towpath is enjoyed by walkers and cyclists and many historic wharves and businesses are now focal points for housing, culture, leisure and entertainment.

Beginnings

So-named after the Prince Regent (later George IV), and as a result of an act of parliament, the Regent’s Canal Company began work to construct the £772,000 waterway on 14 October 1812 and completed just eight years later. Engineered by James Morgan, the canal was to link the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington Arm with the Thames at Limehouse. Its 13.84km (8.6 mile) course would take goods to and through Islington and beyond; 120,000 tons of cargo were carried in the Canal’s first year. The Regent’s Canal boasted 40 bridges, 12 locks and a number of basins, two of which are located in Islington: City Road Basin (1820) and Battlebridge Basin (1822). The Islington portion of the canal stretches approximately 2.4km (1.5 miles) from Maiden Lane Bridge (York Way) in the west to Rosemary Branch Bridge (Southgate Road) to the east.

Western end (Battlebridge) of the Islington Tunnel by T H Shepherd, 1822

Islington Tunnel

Two major tunnels along the canal were also constructed. One of these, the Islington Tunnel, is considered to be ‘the’ major engineering work of the waterway. At 878m (960 yds) long, and running from Muriel Street to Colbrooke Row, celebrated civil engineer Thomas Telford inspected the tunnel in 1818 and, in spite of its £40,000 cost, described it as “perfect, the materials and workmanship excellent, and its direction perfectly straight.” With no internal towpath, and room for one craft only, the tunnel was at first operated by ‘legging’, with men lying on their backs on planks aboard the boat who walked the vessel through against the side walls. This was difficult work and caused a great deal of delay. In 1826 a steam-chain tug was introduced, one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canals.

City Road Basin

The main centre of trade was the Regent’s Canal Dock (now the Limehouse Basin), a point for seaborne cargo to be unloaded onto, then, horse-drawn canal boats. Goods from abroad, including ice destined for ice wells in Islington, were transferred at the dock to continue their journey west. Cargo was unloaded en-route in purpose-built warehouses constructed by canal basins, such the Horsfall Basin (renamed Battlebridge Basin). City Road Basin, close to the eastern end of Islington Tunnel, made a huge contribution to the prosperity of the canal. It soon became a distribution centre for goods into London. Due to its convenient location, several firms moved to City Road Basin, including the carriers Pickford’s. There was also growing traffic in coal, timber, bricks, sand and other building materials from the eastern end of the canal to locations west of the basin, where building development was flourishing. It is likely many residents of the St Luke’s parish area (of EC1) would have gained employment with the Regent’s Canal Company and other burgeoning businesses at City Road basin.

City Road Basin published by R. Ackermann, 1822

Coming of the railways

Unfortunately, this early success prematurely hit the ‘buffers’ when, in the 1840s, the railways had begun taking business away from the canals; the North London line was laid initially as a goods service. There were even (unsuccessful) attempts to turn the canal into a railway! The fortunes of the canal ebbed and flowed but cargo tonnage did increase between the 1850s and 1880s. Much activity still took place along the Islington section, with businesses continuing to operate by the basins and wharves. The coming of what was eventually to become the Northern underground line (1901) witnessed tunnelling underneath the City Road Basin, with the canal playing its part by removing excavated spoil.

Western end of the Islington Tunnel, c.1937

Second World War and after

During the Second World war (1939-45) traffic increased on the canal system as an alternative to the busy railways. Gates were installed near King’s Cross to limit flooding of the railway tunnel below, in the event that the canal was breached by German bombs. A number of canal side building were hit by enemy bombs, including some on City Road Basin that were beyond repair. Along with other transport systems the canal was nationalised in 1948, trading as British Waterways. The towpaths were later utilised as convenient underground conduits for electricity cables. The last horse-drawn commercial traffic was carried in 1956, motor powered barges had been commonplace since the 1930s. By the late 1960s business traffic had almost vanished and the Regent’s Canal steered towards use as a leisure facility, with increased public use of its towpath.

City Road Basin, 1980s

Regent’s Canal 2000s

The Canal and River Trust took over guardianship of the canals in England and Wales from British Waterways in 2012, along with a wide range of heritage buildings and structures. The Islington stretch of the Regent’s Canal has gradually been re-energised. While the canal continues to be an oasis of relative calm, cultural and business offers have sprung up along its historic basins. Work completed in 2009 to the City Basin has included the provision of public open space, a landscaped park, and new facilities for the Islington Boat Club. The basin is also home to the Islington’s tallest building, the 36-storey, 115m-tall Lexicon Tower, a residential building of 146 apartments.

In 2008 its Battlebridge ‘sister’ basin at King’s Cross witnessed the opening of Kings Place, a cultural venue and office development. This included the first, new-build public concert hall in central London since 1982. And, of course, the basin continues to be home to the London Canal Museum, itself born from a mid-19th century canal-side building that is an integral part of the fascinating and physical history of the Regent’s Canal, London’s now ‘not-so’ hidden waterway. Happy 200th birthday!


This article is from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.