The parish of Islington may have begun life as a place of brooding forests and burbling streams, but by the Middle Ages it was a large tract of farmland to the north of the City of London, which was divided between a number of manors (not just Tolentone, as my previous research had suggested), the southern end, bordering the city, belonging mainly to St Paul’s. By the twelfth century it had its own parish church, St Mary’s. We know some of the early history of the advowson (the legal right to appoint the vicar) pertaining to St Mary’s because it was recorded in the settlement of a twelfth-century dispute between the dean and chapter of St Paul’s (who believed they’d been given the land by the bishop) and the nuns of St Leonard’s Priory at Bromley (who seemed to feel their founder, William, Bishop of London, had given it to them). In the event, the dean and chapter won out but, but until their priory was dissolved in 1536 it was the nuns of St Leonard’s who appointed candidates to the benefice (the church “living”), on a payment of one mark per year.
Although Islington was essentially a collection of privately owned estates and farms (an important point that is key to its later development), the public seems to have taken a rather curious view about its right to use the land. Laws passed by Henry VIII required all men (bar clergymen and judges) to practise their skills at archery periodically, and nowhere were there more butts to shoot at than in Islington’s pastures. So popular did archery become during his reign that, on deciding the fields had become too enclosed to practise the sport, a turner from London led what could be described as a riot to chop down the hedges and fill in the trenches.
With its clean country air and flowing streams, the place became a favourite destination for walkers to escape the rigours of the city. The numerous dairy farms took advantage of this and diversified into offering cream teas and any number of variations on the theme of syllabub. From the mid-1600s until well into the 19th century it played host to a great many boarding schools, such as an early one run by a Mr Ezekiel Tongue (there’s a character for a future title if there ever was one!) who taught young ladies Greek and Latin. From 1838 till 1840, Wilkie Collins, aged 14, attended a school run by the Reverend Cole in Highbury, where he was bullied into telling bedtime stories to a fellow pupil: “It was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power of which but for him I might never have been aware,” he later wrote. “When I left school I continued story telling for my own pleasure.”
Quite early on, Islington became a holiday destination, too, where wealthy people might build a second home to be used as a country retreat. Inevitably the presence of rich people in a lonely, rural environment attracted a criminal element, and from the late-1600s onwards the parish became the haunt of highwaymen, not least of whom was the famous Frenchman Claude Duval. By 1739 the problem had become so acute, the parish’s Vestry committee offered a reward of £10 to anyone apprehending a robber, be he a burglar, cut-purse, or footpad.
Since the dissolution of St Leonard’s Priory in 1536, the advowson pertaining to St Mary’s—though still owned by the dean and chapter of St Paul’s—was leased to private individuals—apart, that is, from a brief interlude in the mid-1600s when it was presented to the parishioners of Islington. It was soon taken back. The church itself (the second on the site) fell into disrepair, and in 1754 it was replaced by a new one, which stands there to this day. By this point houses stood in lines along the main roads, backing on to farmland that was only just beginning to be re-purposed for residential development.
Gradually new streets, such as Colebrooke Row—which dates from 1768—were laid out behind the existing thoroughfares, and Islington, once again because of the clean air, cream teas, and the access to spas, became noted as a retirement village. Charles Lamb describes his retirement there in a letter from 1823:
“When you come Londonward, you will find me no longer in Covent Garden; I have a cottage in Colebrooke Row, Islington—a cottage, for it is detached—a white house, with six good rooms in it. The New River (rather elderly by this time) runs (if a moderate walking-pace can be so termed) close to the foot of the house; and behind is a spacious garden, with vines (I assure you), pears, strawberries, parsnips, leeks, carrots, cabbages…You enter without passage into a cheerful dining-room, all studded over and rough with old books; and above is a lightsome drawing-room, three windows, full of choice prints. I feel like a great lord, never having had a house before.”
In 1768 the land behind Lamb’s house was used as a horticultural nursery. Later it became a brick-field, supplying bricks of London clay to build the ever-spreading network of terraced housing that from the 1820s began spidering out over former farmland. Although this kind of spread was happening in all of London’s suburbs, nowhere was it more prevalent than in Islington. The influx of the middle-classes brought with it the need for some decent public transport. The short-stage coach service that was in operation by this point was soon eclipsed by the introduction of George Shillibeer’s first London omnibuses in 1829, coaches drawn by a team of three horses that were capable of carrying up to twenty passengers. By 1850, the railways had also made their presence felt, with a stretch of line passing through Highbury intended primarily for the transport of goods, but also offering a fifteen-minute passenger service to Fenchurch Street in the city.
Many of the original Elizabethan buildings and inns in the older, southern end of the parish had been pulled down by 1812, and as the century progressed the poor crowded into the yards and courts that were left in their wake—in what were often extremely squalid conditions. As for St Mary’s, the Reverend Daniel Wilson, who served as vicar there from 1824—and his son, who took over eight years later—both recognized that the church could no longer meet the needs of a rapidly-growing population. The parish was divided into districts and, between 1828 and 1850, nine new churches were built, amongst them Christ Church, Highbury, where Gooseberry and George’s next big case will be set. Quite how I’m going to apply an historically non-existent advowson to an almost brand-new church, I’m not yet sure. But trust me, I will!
Thus ends the massive amount of research I embarked upon to prepare for my next novel. It’s been a long and not-altogether-smooth journey, but it has left me with the most vivid impression of what life was like in Highbury and its environs in 1853. Far more modern than I would have expected!