The oldest building in Islington
Canonbury Tower is by quite a comfortable margin the oldest building in Islington.
It's early Tudor and was constructed by 1532 - though bits of it are a little later. The building was designed as a rural retreat for the canons of St Bartholomew's priory in Smithfield (hence Canons' Burgh from which comes Canonbury).
I had the privilege today of a tour round, organised by Islington Guided Walks. The building is privately owned - by the Marquess of Northampton - and I couldn't photograph the two splendid, wood panelled rooms which are the highlights of the interior (though there are some photos on the Wikipedia page).
But the outside is the real joy - once part of a much bigger suite of buildings and designed with quasi-regal panache.
At the rear, you get a glimpse of what would have been the courtyard, complete with a mulberry tree planted, so we're told, by Sir Francis Bacon 400 years ago. That may be a bit of a tale, but it's certainly true that Bacon lived here.
The gardens of Canonbury Tower were long since built on - and very stylishly too. But the two octagonal pavilions at the end of the grounds survive - and have been adapted as part of later structures.
You can see one of them here - the ground floor brickwork is quite probably the original sixteenth century construction.
The tower itself is basically a staircase, leading to a small flat roof which commands spectacular views. Take a look!
This is facing south towards the City, with the Shard in the distance ...
... and here we're looking out west towards Islington's Upper Street ...
... this view is looking to the north-west. You have Union Chapel on the left of the photo, and on the skyline to the right is Hampstead Heath and Highgate hill ...
... and to the east, you have on the right, an adjoining building which is in part of Tudor construction and is now a school.
But it's the view overlooking central London which is the most striking, especially with the sky as it was this morning!
Richmond Avenue is one of the swishest streets in Islington, and a dozen or so of the houses there feature an architectural embellishment that even the difficult-to-astonish Nikolaus Pevsner describes as 'astonishing'.
They have marvellous black obelisks and sphinxes either side of the porch. I can't think of any residential street in London with anything which remotely matches this.
These Egyptian flourishes celebrate the Battle of the Nile of 1798, when the British navy won a decisive victory over the French at Aboukir Bay, close to the Nile delta.
Richmond Avenue wasn't built, however, until 1841 - and these splendid touches of the desert were the work of the architect Joseph Kay. He is remembered not so much for this eccentricity but for his work on the lay-out of Greenwich and of the centre of Hastings.
Not all the originals are still in place. Some houses have lost the obelisks but kept the sphinxes. One or two have installed replicas of the originals. And a neighbour vouchsafed to me that the sphinx with the painted eyes is not as Kay intended - though it does look, well, eye-catching, doesn't it?
At various times, there has been almost an Egypto-mania in architecture, most obviously expressed in the Carreras (or Black Cat) factory in Camden. But it's not often that residential architecture gets caught up in such passing enthusiasms. Richmond Avenue is something special!
UPDATE Dec 2020: The Charlotte Despard could still be brought back to life - there's a Crowdfunder page here to support this indie pub, please do give it your backing!
If you haven't raised a glass to Charlotte Despard in the Islington pub that bears her name, you've missed your chance. It's closed! Part of the winnowing out of London's pubs. A pity to lose it - not least because there aren't many pubs named after women suffragists, communists and republicans (not even in Islington).
The pub was on Archway Road, not all that far from the Whittington hospital and from Archway tube station. Its website gives the impression of business as usual - but I guess it shut quite a while ago. It looks as if (I hope I'm wrong here) a row of properties are destined for the bulldozer.
Charlotte French, born in 1844, married a wealthy Anglo-Irish banker, Maximilian Despard, who died at sea in 1890. It was only when a widow that Charlotte Despard got involved in politics.
She was an active opponent of the Boer War and at various times supported the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party, the Women's Social and Political Union, the Women's Freedom League, Sinn Fein, the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
She was a prominent suffragist and pacifist and remained active into her nineties. She died in 1939.
There are two London streets named after Despard - one in Battersea, and the other adjoining the Despard Arms in Archway. So it's reasonable to assume that the pub took its name from the street. Though it's just possible that the pub is a direct successor to the (alcohol free) Despard Arms in Cumberland Market, set up during the First World War in the building which had housed Mary Neal's Esperance Club (more details in Curious Camden Town).
The pub signboard captures something - something - of Charlotte Despard's toughness, though even by the modest standards of this art form, it's not exactly stand-out. Still, for a while at least she still gazes out onto Jeremy Corbyn's backyard.
I had the great pleasure a few days ago - courtesy of the St Pancras Cruising Club - of travelling by narrowboat through the two-centuries-old Islington Tunnel. What a thrill!
A cavalcade of three narrowboats set off from close to St Pancras Basin, now the home of the wonderful transplanted Victorian Waterpoint which serves as the clubhouse, and headed east along the Regent's Canal.
The Islington Tunnel opened in 1818 and runs for 960 yards. There's no towpath, so initially boats had to be 'legged' through the tunnel - the boatmen would lie on their backs and use their legs to push against the tunnel walls to propel the barge along. From 1826, a steam tug attached to a chain on the canal bed would heave the barges through.
Nowadays, although there's room in the tunnel for narrow boats to pass, the convention is that it's one direction at a time - the tunnel is absolutely straight so it's easy to see if another boat is heading towards you.
Sometimes kayakers and canoeists use the tunnel too, but that must be really scary. There is no lighting - narrowboats have their own lights, but kayakers head through in complete darkness with just a pinprick of light at the end to offer any orientation.
The tunnel interrupts the towpath walk along the Regent's Canal but there are waymarkers to guide you from one tunnel mouth to the other. So if you are heading east to west you would go along Duncan Street, on to and across Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road, on to Chapel Market, right into Penton Street, left into Maygood Street and along Muriel Street and, hey presto, there's the canal again!
You do wonder whether a ferry service through the tunnel might be a worthwhile venture. Any takers?
A big thank you to Liz, the SPCC's vice-president, whose special invitee I was on this wonderful excursion, and to the skipper of the narrowboat I travelled on, Sally, not forgetting her faithful assistant, Flapjack ...
Hyndman and Islington
This is the wonderful inscription in a first edition of Henry Mayers Hyndman's The Historical Basis of Socialism in England, published in 1883. Hyndman - a Tory and a toff by background - was the key figure in the socialist revival in England in the 1880s. He popularised (and bowdlerised) some of Marx's writings and was the swashbuckling key figure in the establishment in 1883 of the Social Democratic Federation.
Hyndman was a flawed and controversial figure - a jingoist (his support for Britain's involvement in the First World War split the party he led, by then renamed the British Socialist Party) and an anti-semite. But he was crucially important in the development of a socialist political party.
One of the SDF's areas of strength was Islington. This book was presented to Hyndman (I assume by 1906 the first edition was difficult to come across) by the SDF's four Islington branches.The inscription was signed on the branches' behalf by A.P. Hazell, a printer who joined the SDF in the mid-1880s and who sometimes signed letters in the party press as ''summat stronger of Clerkenwell".
A few years later, Hyndman gave the book to his wife, with the fond inscription you can see above.
Perhaps that's why on the Brecknock Road estate in north Isington there is, to this day, a Hyndman House -
Indeed, the names of the blocks on the estate offer homage to socialists of ages past - with buildings named after Hyndman's onetime colleagues in the SDF, H.W. Lee and Harry Quelch (or perhaps his son Tom), as well as such prominent figures in the progressive pantheon as William Morris, Edward Carpenter, William Cobbett, William Blake, Henry Hetherington, Thomas Paterson and Beatrice Potter (or perhaps the trade unionist George Potter), along with some whose names I don't recognise.
And happily, the Hyndman first edition presented to the author by the Islington branches of the SDF is once more back in Islington - where I live.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!