Why visit this area?
Islington is a borough of contrasts, both in the prosperity of its residents and the environment they inhabit, and if there’s one area that could be said to express this most, it is Canonbury and Mildmay Park. From Highbury New Park across to Southgate Road, and south to the Regent’s Canal, within this area can be found some of the finest (and valuable) preserved late Georgian terraces alongside Islington’s earliest social housing provision, and, dotted here and there, such delights as the medieval Canonbury Tower, the New River walk and Canonbury Square with its literary connections. Meanwhile, Mildmay ward, which is to the northeast and bordering on Hackney, has a reputation for edgier, more political and religious radical roots and a history more closely aligned to the Victorian population boom and development of the railways.
Canonbury gets its name from the house and surrounding manor holdings of the canons of St Bartholomew’s Priory at Smithfield. This was both a rural retreat and a source of income for the priory who had received the manor in the 14th century. Prior William Bolton rebuilt parts of it, and sometime in the 16th century, the curiously square tower was added to the house, for what purpose is now unclear. The building belongs, like much of the surrounding area, to the Northampton family estate trust, currently headed by the Marquess of Northampton.
Many of the roads in the northern part of the ward have names connected with the Northampton estate – apart from Northampton itself, you’ll spot Compton, Spencer, Alwyne and Ashby, all Compton family names or locations. In the south, below Essex Road, the houses here were built in the late 19th century on various smaller estates. Along Essex Road’s west side are council estates built at various times since WW2. Built in 1966-7 the Marquess Estate, was an innovative low-rise development of maisonettes and flats designed by Darbourne and Darke, architects of the much-admired LIllington Gardens in Pimlico. Unloved by the residents, the estate has since been redeveloped into more conventional blocks of flats, although a few of the original residences can be seen along St Paul’s Road.
The land in the Mildmay area was in Tudor times the property of the Mildmays, a family who had been diplomats and officials in Elizabeth I’s government. In 1645 Sir Henry Mildmay, an MP who had supported the Parliamentary cause during the civil war, was later humiliated by Charles II after the restoration of the monarchy. The Mildmay family continued to own the estate until the 1840s when they started to sell off parcels of land for house building, linked to the development of the railways. However, the area also gained a reputation for innovative and radical thinking within religion and politics, particularly around Newington Green, with the establishment of a non-conformist chapel attended by the American Founding Fathers; a school for girls founded by the feminist, Mary Wollenstonecraft; and the establishment of new directions in the field of missionary work, both within east London and as far afield as China. Its current MP, Jeremy Corbyn, now sitting as an Independent, may be said to follow in that radical tradition.
Places to visit
Canonbury Tower dates from the early 16th century, with later additions and alterations. There are a couple of fine timber-panelled rooms off from the central staircase and a great view from the top. 18th century owners of the property added ranges of houses to the west and south. For some years, part of Canonbury Tower was home to the Tower Theatre Company, a semi-amateur drama company, where many actors began their careers (like Tom Courtenay, Siân Phillips, Michael Gambon, and Alfred Molina). The company now has a new residence in Stoke Newington. Part of the building is currently home to the North Bridge Academy school. Tours of the Tower by Islington Walks guides are published on Islington Guided Walks website when they are available (and can be commissioned by groups)
Canonbury Tavern in Canonbury Place was a favourite haunt of George Grossmith (1847-1912), author of the hilarious comic novel, The Diary of a Nobody. Grossmith who was also a leading performer in the Gilbert & Sullivan operas staged by the D’Oyly Carte company, met with his friends at the pub’s private room upstairs, where they performed and recited as well as drank and smoked the night away. Many years later author and journalist George Orwell sat under the ‘spreading chestnut tree’ in the pub’s garden writing his pieces for publication – a scene that found an echo in the closing pages of his dystopian novel 1984. The garden is still there, where on a summer’s evening, you can enjoy craft ales, wine and food. https://www.thecanonbury.co.uk
New River Walk is a landscaped path following the course of the New River, The River, a remarkable piece of 17th century civil engineering, was designed to bring much-needed fresh water to London from Hertfordshire, and flowed for part of its route through Islington to a reservoir near Sadler’s Wells. In 1946 the River was truncated at the Stoke Newington pumping house in Green Lanes, but the line of the water course through Canonbury was preserved for some of its route as a landscaped walk, from Canonbury Road to St Paul’s Road. Information boards are provided along the way, and you can trace the route of the River along paths and roads, north and south of the Walk.
Newington Green was a hamlet across the fields from Kingsland and St Mary’s Stoke Newington. A number of the surrounding buildings are listed, including the fine range of 17th century Jacobean brick houses (nos 52-55), said to be some of the oldest surviving residential properties in London. In the 18th century the area attracted many Dissenters and radicals, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, 18th century author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women, a pioneering tract on the subject of gender equality. Recently, a memorial to her has been erected on the Green, the work of artist Maggi Hambling. https://newingtongreen.org
The Rosemary Branch Southgate Road was first opened as a tea garden in the 18th century, later becoming a pub, with entertainment, including a large pond on which patrons could boat in the summer, and skate in the winter. Marie Lloyd was an early entertainer there. It has a small theatre with a current programme of events: https://www.rosemarybranchtheatre.co.uk/shows
King Henry’s Walk, N1 It is believed Henry VIII had a hunting lodge in this area and a path marked on an early map is identified as ‘King Henry’s Walk’, the line of which the modern road follows. There were also links with the Howard and Boleyn families. Nearby was the hamlet of Kingsland. The Community Garden of King Henry’s Walk was established on the derelict land of a former timber yard in 2005. https://khwgarden.org.uk
Almshouses The area originally had a number of adjacent almshouses in the area founded by various Worshipful companies of the City of London: the Bookbinders’, the Dyers’, the Cutlers’, and the Tilers’. None of these remain although the Metropolitan Benefit Society almshouses still exist in Balls Pond Road and give a flavour of what the others might have looked like.
Highbury New Park N4 is an area of very grand mansions in individual styles developed in the 1850s which attracted rich professionals. Nearby is Petherton Road with its wide strip of green space down the middle, which many will not realise was the former course of the New River.
Jewish Cemetery, Kingsbury Road, N1. Opened in the 1840s, originally for the Sephardic Reformed congregation. Burials here include Joseph Levy (d. 1888), founder of the Daily Telegraph and the ashes of the Victorian poet and novelist, Amy Levy (d.1889). (Not currently open to the public. Access enquiries to the West London Synagogue http://www.wls.org.uk)
Union Chapel, 19b Compton Terrace, N1 A non-conformist church, this imposing building near Highbury Corner was built in 1877 to replace a much smaller chapel on the same site. The architect was James Cubitt, and the church was furnished with an organ by the famed maker Henry ‘Father’ Willis, and curiously, a piece of the Plymouth Rock from the USA, donated in 1883. Today the chapel is still a religious building but is now one of London’s premier music venues, as well as the home to a charity, The Margins. More information at https://unionchapel.org.uk
Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, is focused on art from the Italian Futurist movement, which were collected by founders Eric and Salome Estorick before WW2. Apart from the core collection, there are frequent exhibitions of related work. There is also a new cafe and bookshop. Opening times and details at https://www.estorickcollection.com/visitor-information
Apart from those named above, others of note with a connection to the area include:
Sir John Spencer, a rich Tudor magnate, who owned Canonbury Tower in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, and whose daughter eloped from there with Lord Compton. Spencer was persuaded, allegedly by the Queen herself, to a reconciliation with his daughter, who eventually inherited the property and so passed it into the Compton family, its owners today.
18th century Irish playwright and essayist Oliver Goldsmith lived at Canonbury Tower for a time, as did the Tudor philosopher-diplomat Sir Francis Bacon. Tudor bureaucrat Thomas Cromwell leased the Tower by Henry VIII but probably never lived there – he owned other similar former monastic properties in southern England. American writer Washington Irving (of Rip Van Winkle fame, and an admirer of Goldsmith) was also a tenant for a while. 20th century Irish poet Louis McNiece lived in Canonbury Park South. Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited was a resident in Canonbury Square, as were Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, artist emigrés from the Bloomsbury set in the 1950s, who lived next door to where author George Orwell had lived a few years before.
Composer Benjamin Britten and his partner the tenor Peter Pears lived in Halliford Road in the seventies, and their house now carries a plaque. Nearby, also with marked with a plaque is the former home of George Leybourne, Victorian music hall artist whose stage name was Champagne Charlie and who lived in Englefield Road, at no136. Another music hall performer who lived in the area was singer Nellie Power, a mentor to a very young Marie Lloyd. But Nellie discovered that the younger woman had ‘stolen’ a song especially written for her – The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery – and made it a hit for herself. She died at the very early age of 33. Her former home at 97 Southgate Road has a blue plaque.
Revd. William Pennefather, vicar of St Jude’s from 1864 and his wife Catherine. St Jude’s was well known for being a lively church with over 1,000 parishioners. The Pennefathers were involved in numerous projects known as the Mildmay Institutions which cared for the poor and for many sick people.
Mary Wollstonecraft A pioneering feminist writer (b.1759) who ran a school in Islington in 1784. In 1792, Wollstonecraft responded to educational and political theorists of the 18th century who believed that women should not receive a rational education with the publication of her book Vindication of the Rights of Women. Although seen by some as a public moralist, she was someone who loved life, enjoyed the theatre and music by Handel and Purcell and loved nature. She died in 1797 after the birth of her second daughter, aged 38. A statue dedicated to her, by Maggi Hambling, was unveiled on Newington Green in November 2020.
Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty lived near Newington Green as a child c1820s
Amy Levy, feminist writer and poet (1861 – 1889). Her ashes are interred at the Jewish Cemetery, just down the road from Newington Green. Only the second Jewish woman to be admitted to Cambridge University, she was a talented writer of novels, essays and poetry, such as’ A London Plane Tree and other verse’. She died young in tragic circumstances and her work was described by Oscar Wilde ‘ as admirable as it is unique’.
John Stuart Mill, philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament and civil servant lived in the area. Born 1806 in Pentonville, he was an advocate of the individual’s rights and pursuit of happiness. Died 1873 in Avignon, France.
Year-long programme of concerts and events at the Union Chapel, plays and productions at the Rosemary Branch, and temporary exhibitions at the Estorick Collection (see links above).
- B Cherry, N Pevsner, Buildings of England, London 4: North (1999);
- M Cosh, A History of Islington (2005);
- M Cosh, Squares of Islington: Part II (1993);
- M Cosh, An historical walk along the New River (2001);
- J Richardson, Islington Past (2000);
- S Tomaselli, Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion and Politics (Princeton Press)
- British History Online www.british-history.ac.uk (accessed 2022);
- British Music Hall Society, www.britishmusichallsociety.com (accessed 2022);
- English Heritage www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/ (accessed 2022);
- Tower Theatre www.towertheatre.org (accessed 2022)
- Canonbury Society https://canonburysociety.org.uk
or Contact John Finn or Bob Atkinson who produced this page