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Upper Street, Islington - A brief (and remarkable) history

Islington High Street c.1934. Source: Islington Local History Centre

Once known as ‘The Devil’s Mile’ (on account of crime levels, drunkenness and prostitution), Upper Street has seen it all.

Originally a hilltop village serving local farmland, Upper Street and Lower Street (as Essex Road was once known) have been in existence since the 12th century. Henry VIII (1491-1547) used to hunt for ducks in the ponds just off Upper Street and writer and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) is said to have owned a pub on Essex Road.

Upper Street Islington 1840

(Upper St, looking north c.1840. With permission from Islington Local History Centre)

There was a sprinkling of public houses by the early 17th century alongside tradesmen’s cottages but as the gentry began to depart, so many of their houses were converted to inns. Redevelopment really got underway in the 18th century – the first houses were built where Islington Town Hall now stands.

At that time Upper Street and Liverpool Road were well trodden routes by farmers and animals accessing the nearby Royal Agricultural Hall (now the Business Design Centre). That’s why the pavements are high (1m above the road at some points) – to stop pedestrians being splashed by the large numbers of passing animals.

Charles Dickens described the area in 1870 as: “amongst the noisiest and most disagreeable thoroughfares in London."

Islington is home to some distinctive Grade II Listed buildings and many have had various incarnations:

Tram shed Islington High Street

This distinctive building near Camden Passage was constructed in 1850 as a tram shed for commuter service to the City. By the 1940s it had been converted to an electricity substation, in 1979 it became The Mall Antiques Arcade, which housed over 35 dealers. Before its current occupier ( it was a restaurant, a Jack Wills store and then a Superdry store. English Heritage described this severe windowless brick building as “influenced by and a tribute to Newgate Prison.”

Angel recording studios

(Angel Recording Studios)

Angel Recording Studios, on the corner of Gaskin Street and Upper Street, was built as Islington Chapel in 1888 and ran as a congregational chapel until 1979 when it was acquired by De Wolfe Music. Since the early 80s this Grade II Listed building has been providing recording space for commercial and classical recordings for artists such as Adele, One Direction, Seal, Liza Minnelli, Florence and the Machine, Kylie and Robbie Williams.

Business design centre

(Business Design Centre, was the Royal Agricultural Hall)

The Business Design Centre. This opened as the Royal Agricultural Hall in 1862 and hosted major agricultural shows, military tournaments and the first ever Crufts dog show. It was commandeered by the Government during the Second World War and, when Mount Pleasant sorting office was destroyed during an air raid it became the interim parcels depot. It opened as an exhibition venue and conference centre in 1986 and is now home to more than 100 businesses, including clothing retailer Barbour, electronics manufacturer Samsung and coffee maker Illy.

Camden Passage

(Camden Passage)

Originally built as an alley along the back of houses, Camden Passage was built in 1797. Its antiques market was founded in the 1960s and attracted over 350 traders. But the rapid regeneration of Islington has brought demand for higher rents when leases come up for renewal and the number of antiques traders has dwindled.

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The area was devastated by the Second World War. According to Bomb Sight, a World War II mapping website, 685 high explosive bombs were dropped on Islington between October 1940 and June 1941.

On June 27, 1944 a V1 (doodlebug) bomb fell on Highbury Corner killing 26 people and injuring 150. It destroyed and damaged houses on Compton Terrace as well as shops, houses, a pub and train station at the northern end of Upper Street.

958 people were killed in Islington as a result of enemy action in World War II and 2090 were seriously injured. An estimated 3,097 houses were destroyed beyond repair.

Upper Street has long been a focal point for change – in the 1970s and 80s it was home to Sisterwrite (Britain’s first feminist bookshop) and to the squatter-run Molly’s Café (a focal point for the anarchist and squatting movement).

It was here that, while dining at a restaurant called Granita in 1994, Gordon Brown agreed to step aside and let his friend Tony Blair become leader of the Labour party.

Did you know?

  • The King’s Head Theatre (founded in 1970) was the UK’s first ever pub theatre.

  • The UK’s first same-sex marriage took place in Islington Town Hall (March 2014)

  • Islington was the first London Borough to receive fresh water via the New River Head reservoir (via a 40-mile canal leading from Hertfordshore to Clerkenwell). It supplied London with fresh water until 1990 when the Metropolitan Water Board replaced it with deep mains.

  • In 2003 the Royal Mail sold its former North London Mail Centre (off Upper Street) for £30 million to Sager. The 500,000 sq ft Islington Square Development is well underway and will feature 263 homes, shops, restaurants, public walkways and leisure facilities. Prices start at £685,000 for a studio flat, a three-bed penthouse will set you back over £6 million!

Special thanks to Islington Local History Centre for providing the historical images in this article and being very helpful. Find out more about this great local resource here.

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