Monday 9 July 2012

Old Islington

I will neither take you abroad, nor lead you astray. Come, then, with me to Islington - not Islington of 1860 but Islington five-and-forty years ago, when the "Angel" tavern was a fine old crumbling inn, with a courtyard and galleries, with pigeon-hole bedrooms and capacious stables; when the "Peacock" was the grand rendezvous of the northern mails, and the scarlet coats of the guards and coachmen made the old king's birthday a gala in goodly Islington.
    At that time Islington as comparatively a suburban village; old "White Conduit House" and "Highbury Barn" were landmarks for cockney adventurers; and so, indeed, was "Copenhagen House" where now stands the Cattle Market, and where the water to make tea for the company was dipped from a proximate pond and blackberries were plentiful in the vicinity where now costly edifices, termed villa residences, have been erected, and adorn the neighbourhood by their architectural good taste and beauty. "Canonbury House" was then in existence, and the pond opposite the old tower abounded in gold and silver fish; and just beyond that spot the schoolboys, now grown old men like myself, went to bathe in that part of the New River called the "Sisters", where, at the present time, terraces of well-built houses with grassy slopes grace the river bank.
    The oldest public-house in the vicinage of London bowed its venerable head in the Lower Road; and ancient chronicles tell us that in that hostelry Izaak Walton, the poet and angler, had often rested and related his sport to the assembled guests. A modern gin-shop now desecrates that hallowed spot; and the native antiquary sheds a tear as he passes over old recollections, and, if not a very pious man, is apt to give way to an anti-benediction against modern Vandalism.
    Close to the old "Queen's Head" (for such was the sign of the antiquated public-house reverted to) in Colebroke Row, dwelt that accomplished, though simple essayist, Charles Lamb. There, in the cottage now dedicated to the manufacture of double soda-water by one Webb, a man of great, though effervescent popularity, did the author of "Elia" ponder obver his graphic pen, and give to the world those masterly essays and criticisms which, though he has long since departed from amongst us, still live to embelish our literature, instruct our youth, and adorn our libraries.
    Just be stood Rhodes's cow-house, wherefrom I have many a good time got up early and fetched milk to boil for my breakfast, that same milk, with bread, being a great treat to me in my boyhood's days, which, by the by, I cannot say were entirely passed in Islington, but in the main entry to that ancient village, St. John's Street or Islington Road, which happens - as, indeed, also does the tavern so well known as the "Angel" of Islington - to be in the parish of Clerkenwell. Islington, however, was the Brighton, Margate, and Ramsgate of the boys of the adjoining localities; and every half-holiday country lodgings were taken and occupied in the trees and fields near to the bathing-quarters of the "Sisters", High-bank, the Sluice House and Hornsey Wood.

Renton Nicholson, The Lord Chief Baron Nicholson: An Autobiography, 1860


  1. As one who lives in Islington, I found this interesting. I noticed, however, that the writer refers to "St John's Street", an error I made myself when new to the area. It is called St John Street, without apostrophe.

    This caused me to consult the "Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller". There, the thoroughfare is named as "St John Street Road", a curious doubling, indeed, but still without apostrophe.

    I am merely being picky, of course, and the above in no way diminishes the interest of the piece which shows, inter alia, how at every age, people have tended to regard the present as inferior to the past, especially to a past illuminated in memory by the golden light of a happy childhood.

    Lamb's cottage still stands in Colebrook Row, labelled for us to recognize, but it is now a dwelling once more and the name of the soda-water producer has been (almost) forgotten.

  2. Having read this post yesterday, I thought that this morning I would take a stroll along Colebrooke Row and revisit Lamb's cottage. This alerted me to a second mistake made by Mr Nicholson.

    Lamb's dwelling is on the left (coming from City Road) and is called Colebrooke Cottage; it bears the number 64 on the door and it faces onto Colebrooke Row but it is not number 64 Colebrooke Row. That honour belongs to a rather nondescript house a 100 yards or so further on (on the right).

    Colebrooke Row runs parallel to Duncan Terrace and for much of their length these roads are separated by a narrow strip of parkland called Colebrooke Gardens. This was once a stretch of the New River which I assume still runs below, now confined to pipes.

    By the time we reach Lamb's cottage, the central garden has shrunk to a green strip which could easily be mistaken for a green verge in front of the houses. Nonetheless, it still divides Colebrook Row from Duncan Terrace.

    If we look at the house just before Lamb's cottage we see that it bears the number 63 and also has affixed to it a plate naming its road as Duncan Terrace. Lamb's cottage, or Colebrooke Cottage (currently occupied by Corvo Books), is therefore number 64 Duncan Terrace.

    Colebrooke Row carries on for a further 150 yards or so and makes a right-angled left turn to join Essex Road. Its numbering goes horse-shoe fashion, starting on the right at number 1 at the City Road end and then turning back at the Essex Road end where the numbering runs in the opposite direction and is in the 70s. It is only here that there are buildings on both sides of Colebrooke Row. Elsewhere, there is only a single row of houses, a fact that should have alerted our writer to the anomalous siting of Colebrooke Cottage.

    I can understand how Renton Nicholson could make the mistake as I expect street signage was a lot less clear in his day than it is now and the houses might not have even been numbered then. However, it is just as well to get the facts straight, I think.