Islington is a neighbourhood in Greater London, England, and forms the central district of the London Borough of Islington. It is a desirable residential district of Inner London, extending from Islington High Street to Highbury Fields, encompassing the area around the busy Upper Street and Essex Road. The name is often applied to the areas of the borough close to Upper Street such as St Mary's, St Peter's, Barnsbury, and Canonbury, which were developed in the Georgian era.
Islington was originally named by the Saxons Giseldone (1005), then Gislandune (1062). The name means "Gīsla's hill" from the Old English personal name Gīsla and dun ("hill", "down"). The name later mutated to Isledon, which remained in use well into the 17th century when the modern form arose. In medieval times, Islington was just one of many small manors thereabouts, along with Bernersbury, Neweton Berewe or Hey-bury and Canonesbury (Barnsbury, Highbury and Canonbury – names first recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries).
Some roads on the edge of the area, including Essex Road, were known as streets by the medieval period, possibly indicating a Roman origin, but little physical evidence remains. What is known is that the Great North Road from Aldersgate came into use in the 14th century, connecting with a new turnpike (toll road) up Highgate Hill. This was along the line of modern Upper Street, with a toll gate at The Angel defining the extent of the village. The Back Road, the modern Liverpool Road, was primarily a drovers' road where cattle would be rested before the final leg of their journey to Smithfield. Pens and sheds were erected along this road to accommodate the animals.
The first recorded church, St Mary's, was erected in the twelfth century and was replaced in the fifteenth century. Islington lay on the estates of the Bishop of London and the Dean and Chapter of St Pauls. There were substantial medieval moated manor houses in the area, principally at Canonbury and Highbury. In 1548, there were 440 communicants listed and the rural atmosphere, with access to the City and Westminster, made it a popular residence for the rich and eminent. The local inns, however, harboured many fugitives and recursants.
The Royal Agricultural Hall was built in 1862 on the Liverpool Road site of William Dixon's Cattle Layers. The hall was 75 ft high and the arched glass roof spanned 125 ft. It was built for the annual Smithfield Show in December of that year but was popular for other purposes, including recitals and the Royal Tournament. It was the primary exhibition site for London until the 20th century and the largest building of its kind, holding up to 50,000 people. It was requisitioned for use by the Mount Pleasant sorting office during World War II and never re-opened. The main hall has now been incorporated into the Business Design Centre.
The hill on which Islington stands has long supplied the City of London with water, the first projects drawing water through wooden pipes from the many springs that lay at its foot, in Finsbury. These included Sadler's Wells, London Spa and Clerkenwell.
By the 17th century these traditional sources were inadequate to supply the growing population and plans were laid to construct a waterway, the New River, to bring fresh water from the source of the River Lea, in Hertfordshire to New River Head, below Islington in Finsbury. The river was opened on 29 September 1613 by Sir Hugh Myddleton, the constructor of the project. His statue still stands where Upper Street meets Essex Road. The course of the river ran to the east of Upper Street, and much of its course is now covered and forms a linear park through the area.
The Regent's Canal passes through Islington. For much of its length it travels through an tunnel that runs from Colebrook Row, just east of the Angel, to emerge at Muriel Street not far from Caledonian Road. The subterranean stretch is marked with a series of pavement plaques so that canal walkers may find their way from one entrance to the other above ground. The area of the canal east of the tunnel and north of the City Road was once dominated by much warehousing and industry surrounding the large City Road Basin and Wenlock Basin. Those old buildings that survive here are now largely residential or small creative work units. This stretch boasts one of the few old canal pubs with an entrance actually on the tow-path, The Narrowboat.
The canal was constructed in 1820 to carry cargo from Limehouse into the canal system. There is no tow-path in the tunnel so bargees had to walk their barges through, braced against the roof. Commercial use of the canal has declined since the 1960s.
Market gardens and entertainments
In the 17th and 18th centuries the availability of water made Islington a good place for growing vegetables to feed London. The manor became a popular resort for Londoners due to this rural aspect and many public houses were founded to serve the needs of both visitors and travellers on the turnpike. By 1716, there were 56 ale-house keepers in Upper Street, also offering pleasure and tea gardens and activities such as archery, skittle alleys and bowling. By the 18th century music and dancing were offered, together with billiards, firework displays and balloon ascents. The King's Head Tavern, now a Victorian building with a theatre, has remained on the same site, opposite the parish church, since 1543. The founder of the theatre, Dan Crawford, who died in 2005, disagreed with the introduction of decimal coinage. For twenty-plus years after decimalisation (on 15 February 1971) the bar continued to show prices and charge for drinks in pre-decimalisation currency.
By the 19th century many music halls and theatres were established around Islington Green. One such was Collins' Music Hall, the remains of which are now partly incorporated into a bookshop. The remainder of the Hall has been redeveloped into a new theatre, with its entrance at the bottom of Essex Road. It stood on the site of the Landsdowne Tavern, where the landlord had built an entertainment room for customers who wanted to sing (and later for professional entertainers). It was founded in 1862 by Samuel Thomas Collins Vagg and by 1897 had become a 1,800 seat theatre with 10 bars. The theatre suffered damage in a fire in 1958 and has not reopened. Between 92 and 162 acts were put on each evening and performers who started there included Marie Lloyd, George Robey, Harry Lauder, Harry Tate, George Formby, Vesta Tilley, Tommy Trinder, Gracie Fields, Tommy Handley and Norman Wisdom.