Caledonian Road is an interesting place to visit because of the fascinating history provided by the Caledonian Asylum and the Caledonian Market. Today the road shows marked contrast between the western section dominated by post-war housing developments and the eastern side which was developed as fine Victorian housing. Running through the southern end of our ward is the Regent’s Canal and the mouth of the Islington Canal Tunnel. The Barnsbury area of our ward is dominated by fine middle-class late Georgian and Victorian residential streets and garden squares. We also have some very fine churches and pubs well worth a visit.
Caledonian Ward is just north of what is today the Pentonville Road. This was an early bypass opened in 1756 for the movement of live animals so that they could pass around an expanding London. All the buildings in this area date from after the establishment of the Caledonian Road. This was built as Chalk Road by the landowner, George Thornhill, in 1828 as a toll road through his fields to connect the existing Pentonville Road to Holloway Road. George’s son, also George Thornhill, began to develop the land for building with a fine residential square that took the family name, Thornhill Square. The first building on the Chalk Road was the Caledonian Asylum which was a charitable school for the children of Scots soldiers killed or wounded in the Napoleonic Wars or poor Scots living in London. In time the road was renamed after the school.
A bit further west, Barnsbury Ward, developed as mainly residential buildings in the Victorian period during what is often called ‘the march of bricks and mortar’ after an illustration by the caricaturist, George Cruickshank, who lived nearby. Today Barnsbury holds some of the finest Victorian residential squares in Islington. Barnsbury also holds some fine early roads such as Liverpool Road and Upper Street which were in use for movement of animals on their way to Smithfield Market and people coming and going from the City of London further south.
Places to visit
Caledonian Asylum and the Caledonian Estate – The first building on the road, the neoclassical school was founded for the education and maintenance of the boys and girls of Scottish soldiers who were killed or injured fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. The school was home to about 200 boys and girls aged 7 to 15. It was on this site from 1828 to about 1905 when it moved out of London. The space was cleared for the building of the Caledonian Estate. This was a ‘flatted estate’ for the housing of the local poor in 5 blocks named, in memory of the Asylum, after famous Scots.
Caledonian Market – in 1855 London’s live animal market moved to this site. The purpose-built site was surrounded by railings and held 15 acres of animal pens and supporting buildings. The clock tower at the centre with its bell to mark the opening and closing times remains today and tours are often available. The market closed in 1939 and never reopened. Prior to the construction of the market this area was known as Copenhagen Fields which was a gathering place for Londoners. Today it is known as Caledonian Park and is well used by the local population.
Thornhill Square – this is one of the earliest and best residential garden squares in the ward. Built on land used by its owner, George Thornhill, as his snipe hunting ground, it was eventually developed as middle-class housing with a private garden in the centre. The square is also home to St Andrews church built in Kentish ragstone. It was opened by the Bishop of London in 1855. Today the square is well preserved and often used for film and television production. The square holds a green Islington plaque for Edith Garrud, known in her time as the Jiu Jitsu Suffragette.
Barnsbury Wood – this very small woodland was created by George Thornhill in a void between the circular Thornhill Crescent and the straight Hemingford Road, Crescent Street and Huntingdon Street. George lived at number 7 Huntingdon Street, and this was his ‘secret garden’ of 0.3 hectares. It was not a large space but significantly larger than the gardens of the terrace houses he built. Today this is London’s smallest woodland. It is maintained by a small group of volunteers who open it regularly but for quite a limited time.
Pentonville Prison – this is arguably the world’s first penitentiary. Opened in 1842 to a new radial design and instituting the ‘separate system’ it was meant to be a place where prisoners were held as their punishment but also meant to help them in their own efforts at rehabilitation. It was designed for 560 prisoners who worked, ate, and slept in single cell accommodation. They were never allowed to see or speak to another prisoner which was meant to break their cycle of offending. Its success is a matter of debate, but it did spawn many copies throughout the country and across the world.
London Canal Museum – The museum opened around 1989 in a former ice well owned by a Swiss immigrant and hotelier, Carlo Gatti. Gatti used the building to store ice imported by sea and then canal from Norway. The museum backs on to Battlebridge Basin which was home to many different light industries supported by the Regent’s Canal. Today the museum tells the story of canals; it also operates narrowboat tours through the Islington Tunnel.
Kings Place – this is an office building with a live music venue, restaurant, café, and two art galleries. It is located on York Way and backs on to the Regent’s Canal at Battlebridge Basin. The main music venue, Hall One, is a separate acoustic box sitting on a spring-loaded base. The veneer comes from a single oak tree that the owners wanted ‘used for a major architectural project.’
Institute of Physics – the Institute of Physics opened on Caledonian Road in 2018. The Institute is just over 100 years old and was founded as the Physical Society of London (established in 1874). The IOP exists to support scientists, promote physics in the UK and across the world and to make physics accessible to people from all backgrounds. The building has a temporary exhibition space and it is well worth a visit.
Joseph Grimaldi Park – This is the former burial ground of St James’s Church often referred to as the Pentonville Chapel. The church has gone, as have most of the mourners, except those coming to worship, and dance, at the grave of Joseph Grimaldi. The small park has just one grave, that of the most famous clown of his day and father of all modern clowns, Joey Grimaldi. In 2010 the park was refurbished with the addition of two musical gravestones. If you know the song and can dance it might play Joey’s famous tune, Hot Codlins.
Cloudesley Square and Holy Trinity Church – a speculative build of good quality residential houses in the ‘New River Style’ began in 1825. Holy Trinity Church was built by the architect, Charles Barry, today better known for his work on the Houses of Parliament. The land was gifted by Richard Cloudesley, a local Tudor gentleman, to St Mary’s Islington. Initially for middle-class residents escaping to the almost rural Islington by the end of the century it has come down in class, respectability, and value. Like much of Islington gentrification, started after 1969 when local residents could benefit from a new law that allowed local government to assist people with funding to improve local housing stock. Today it is a beautiful square and well loved by its residents.
Edith Garrud (1872 – 1971) – Living at 60 Thornhill Square was Edith Garrud, often known as the Jiu Jitsu Suffragette. She and her husband learned their skills in the Japanese martial art from some of the earliest proponents in Europe. Being a suffragette, Edith used her formidable skills to protect leading members of the movement and to train others. At one point she was leading ‘The Bodyguard’ or ‘The Amazons’ a 30-strong team of trained women protecting Emily Pankhurst and others. The house has a green Islington plaque unveiled by her great-granddaughter a professional boxer.
Kenneth Williams (1926 – 1988) – Kenneth Williams is an actor, raconteur and comedian who was born in 1926 in Bingfield Street just off Caledonian Road. The family soon moved to Marchmont Street where Kenneth’s father ran his hairdresser’s shop. Kenneth is noted today as an actor famous for his outrageous roles in the Carry On series of films in the 1960s and 1970s. He was obviously gay at a time when homosexuality was still an offence. Just next to the house with the green Islington plaque you’ll see an alley called Kenneth Williams Passage who all locals know as Kenneth Williams Back Passage.
Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837) – A fourth generation entertainer Joseph Grimaldi first took to the stage at the age of two. His father died when he was just nine years old, and he started to take on paying roles to assist his family. Joseph worked at Sadlers’ Wells entertaining the working classes as well as Drury Lane theatre entertaining a wealthier class of clientele. He invented the white-faced clown with colourful clothes. Every first Sunday in February the clowns of London celebrate Joey at a memorial service.
Richard Cloudesley (died 1517) – we know very little about Richard Cloudesley but we do know that he died in 1517 two months after his wedding. What we do know about his comes almost exclusively from his will. Cloudesley left ‘two stoney fields’ to St Mary’s Church on Upper Street. The church eventually used the land to build Holy Trinity Church at the centre of the residential Cloudesley Square. The charity that bears his name still supports charitable works in Islington today.
Charles Barry (1795 – 1860) – A noted architect Barry designed Holy Trinity Cloudesley Square and the frontage to Pentonville Prison. The same time as he was building Holy Trinity in our area, Barry was also building St John’s Church (Upper Holloway) and St Paul’s Church (St Paul’s Road). All three were in his favoured Gothic style and were deemed very successful at the time.
Tolpuddle Martyrs – There is a green Islington plaque to the events of 21st April 1834 in Caledonian Park. At the time the area was known as Copenhagen Fields which was a large area that also held the tavern, Copenhagen House. This large area was often used for political demonstrations being very large and on the outskirts of London. On the day in question up to 100,000 protesters gathered to pressure the government to pardon the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Martyrs were six men convicted and sentenced to transportation for the crime of attempting to form a trade union of agricultural workers; they were agitating for an increase in wages.
Laying the Foundation Stone for the Caledonian Asylum – in May 1827 a group gathered at the Copenhagen House and went in procession across the fields to the site of the Caledonian Asylum. The Chalk Road (later renamed Caledonian Road) was still incomplete and there were no buildings between the two sites. The group sat in benches around the foundation stone which was ceremonially laid in place by His Royal Highness, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex who was the Grand Master of the United Lodge of England (later known as the Masons). Prince Frederick gave the stone three knocks with the ceremonial mall (the same too usedl by Sir Christopher Wren to lay the foundation stone of St Paul’s Cathedral), strewn the corn and poured the wine and oil over the stone. Prince Frederick was the 9th child of King George III and favourite uncle of Princess Victoria. Prince Frederick also lived in Kensington Palace and gave the young queen away at her wedding to Prince Albert.
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