Benjamin Britten in Islington

John Finn explores the celebrated composer’s multiple Islington addresses. 

Benjamin Britten, publicity photo for London Records, 1968 (Public domain, Wikipedia).

English Heritage’s blue plaques mark places where significant people have lived or worked, or where historical events have taken place. But alongside them in Islington you’ll also find green plaques doing pretty much the same job. Latterly, these have been installed annually as the result of a popular vote. One of the earliest was unveiled in 1985 and records a connection that Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) had with the borough.

Britten was a composer, conductor, teacher and pianist whose most famous works include the operas Peter Grimes and Turn of the Screw, the War Requiem and the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (a film of which, featuring Britten himself conducting and narrating, I remember being shown at my – and very probably most other – secondary schools in the 1950s. You can now watch it here on YouTube). 

Born in Lowestoft in Suffolk he was something of a child prodigy and thanks to encouragement from his mother, by the time he was five, was proficient on both piano and viola and was composing music by his tenth birthday. Meanwhile his somewhat puritanical father wouldn’t permit a gramophone or radio to be brought into the house so as a child the only music Britten heard was that played live. He lived for most of his life in Suffolk (except for a period of exile in the US during World War II) at or near the coast where he established the festival at Aldeburgh and where he also lived along with his lifetime partner and musical collaborator, the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986), finally opening a world-class concert venue nearby at Snape Maltings in 1967. 

For men like Britten and his partner, deeply involved as they both were in the composition and the performance of music, it was helpful to have a settled London location when they were in town for rehearsals, concerts, recitals or teaching. (In 1972 he and Pears founded a school of music.) Until 1967 when the law was reformed, it was technically a criminal act for gay men to cohabit as a couple, so finding places to live and work discreetly while in London was a necessity. At number 8 Halliford Street, which leads east off Essex Road, you’ll find an Islington Green Plaque, marking that Britten had lived there from 1970, the final of several London addresses he had in his  lifetime. 

Britten and Pears already knew Islington – they had previously lived in Barnsbury at 99 Offord Road (pictured below), a late Georgian property Pears had purchased in 1966 while they were occupying a friend’s flat in St John’s Wood. Their new home was next door to their agent Sue Phipps, who was also Pears’ niece. In their Collected Letters, Pears described it as “warm and pretty” but it has no plaque, unlike Halliford Street which was to be Britten’s final London base until his death at Aldeburgh in 1976. Pears unveiled that plaque in 1985. Britten had been created a peer in 1976 shortly before his death, while Pears was knighted in 1978. 

99 Offord Road which Britten’s partner Peter Pears purchased in 1966

Number 8 Halliford Street is a modest corner property, smaller than their previous home, in a typical Islington Victorian semi-detached villa style built of London stock brick in 1845, on land that had been held, until Henry VIII’s dissolution of religious houses in the 16th century, by St Mary’s nunnery in Clerkenwell and which latterly had been part of the Scott estate. Halliford Street lies behind a floor-cloth factory in Essex Road whose building is still there. Certainly it’s more modest than the three-storey houses opposite and much less pretentious than the stuccoed and pilastered terraces of neighbouring Rotherfield Street. 

Number 8 Halliford Street

In a quiet and otherwise unremarkable street, it’s the sort of house that was intended by its developer to appeal to a City clerk, or maybe a well-to-do shopkeeper or tradesman, or perhaps a skilled man like a printer or engraver. Booth’s Poverty Map of 1886 shows the street to be “fairly comfortable middle class” which is confirmed with a look at the 1861 census – number 8 appears to be unoccupied on that date but its neighbours include a wholesale stationer and wine merchant among others.

Turn the corner into Morton Road where you’ll find Britten’s green plaque high on the side wall and where you will also spot that a two storey extension has been added on to the side of the house at some recent stage in its history. Maybe this addition provided Britten with studio space in which he might create and rehearse while he was in the big city, and having no adjoining property would be least likely to disturb the neighbours. 

The green plaque at 8 Halliford Street

Here, both he and Pears would only be a cab ride away from the concert halls, music schools, recording studios and publishers’ offices of the City and West End, as well as when visiting London friends and colleagues before heading back to their beloved Suffolk coast retreat. He would not be far from Islington’s Sadlers’ Wells theatre for whose opera company he had written Peter Grimes to re-open the theatre after World War II. Here some of his other operas received their first performances by the company that would later become English National Opera before it moved to the Colosseum in St Martin’s Lane.

In Humphrey Carpenter’s definitive biography of Britten he mentions the composer’s dislike of London, but of course he was obliged to stay there when he was conducting, supervising an opera production or overseeing a recording at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead. Sometimes gaps between rehearsals or recording sessions became necessary, and during these enforced stays in London, Steaurt Bedford, one of his musician collaborators recalls him “sulking in Islington:, while another remembers him there playing through his latest score on the piano, “incredibly tense” compared with his mood while in Suffolk.

However, by the time Britten had taken the house in Halliford Street he was already suffering from a serious heart condition that would require him to have a major operation in 1973, and he rarely left Aldeburgh afterwards except for the occasional holiday. During these final years he composed his last opera, Death in Venice (1973), as well as his String Quartet No 3 (1975) and a suite of English folk tunes called A Time There Was (1974). But Peter Pears continued performing and teaching and probably used the house in Islington in the years after Britten’s death in 1976, until his own death 10 years later. Who knows when the last notes from their piano at Halliford Street were heard…. 

John Finn leads numerous guided walks and is a tutor on our training course. Find out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.