Finsbury Park’s Musical Heritage 1: Pianos, organs and pop

Finsbury Park and Stroud Green have an amazing musical heritage, hidden among its back streets. It ranges from piano making and world-known pop bands to internationally famous venues. In fact there’s too much for a single blog entry! Over the course of two more blog posts this week, I’ll also look at an iconic concert hall and the diverse influences on the area’s musical makeup.

St Mellitus Roman Catholic Church, Tollington Park (Photo: Oonagh Gay)

Let’s start with St Mellitus Church on Tollington Park. It was built as New Court Congregational Church and has a newly restored church organ made by Hunters. The organ was designed in 1920 as a memorial to 221 members of the church who had served in World War I, 46 of whom died. Alfred Hunter & Son of Clapham were known for their smooth tonal design. The firm was eventually bought by Henry Willis and Sons, the most famous organ builders of all. 

The church and organ underwent significant adaptations when the Catholic parish of St Mellitus bought the building in 1959 to serve the rapidly increasing numbers of parishioners, following a wave of Irish immigration after World War II. Two tablets attached to the organ listing the soldiers’ names were feared lost some years ago, but were rediscovered and reinstalled in 2014. You can hear occasional concerts featuring the organ by checking the St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project website.

Just across the road at 106 Tollington Park there was a recording studio, used by Decca where Thin Lizzy and Moody Blues made recordings.  It was known as Decca 4 from 1972 to 1979. There were many smaller recording studios across North London set up in the 1970s, including Wessex Sound Studios on Highbury New Park where the Clash and Sex Pistols both recorded.

Swedish brothers Hans and Anders Nordmark reopened the studio as Jam Studios in 1979, where The Smiths, New Order and Spandau Ballet all made records. It closed at the end of the 1980s.

106 Tollington Park, formerly Decca 4 and Jam studios (photo: Oonagh Gay)

If you lived around Finsbury Park 120 years ago, pianos would have been a major part of your soundscape. There are two or three examples of surviving buildings that were factories. There’s one at 100 Blackstock Road, at 7 Gillespie Road and another at 45 Monsell Road. Trade directories reveal a cluster of piano makers around Finsbury Park, as the industry moved north from Camden Town. Apprentices in the art could take a four-year technical training at Northern Polytechnic on Holloway Road, now London Metropolitan University. Piano firms were important employers locally and business leaders in the community. But the arrival of record players, radio and TV killed off the family piano businesses by the end of the 1950s.

Topic Records, the oldest independent record label in the world has a long association with Stroud Green Road, with a home above the distinctive green shopfront of PAKs hair and beauty products. It began as the recording wing of the Workers’ Music Association, an educational offshoot of the British Marxist Party, founded by music professor and composer Alan Bush with support from Benjamin Britten and Paul Robeson.  Its original 1939 brief was to release “gramophone records of historical and social interest”. Its first release was a recording of The Internationale. Paul Robeson’s Message of Peace, was recorded at the 20th anniversary of the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker – held at Haringey Arena on Green Lanes in February, 1950.

Communist associations are long gone, but it was revitalised with the British folk renaissance from the late 1950s, with Ewan MacColl, and later Martin and Eliza Carthy who both recorded with Topic. Run on a shoestring, it has survived some difficult days with the decline of vinyl in the 1980s.

Topic has to have the most eclectic lineup of artists ever on one label: records by Paul Robeson, Vanessa Redgrave, the Massed Choirs of the Glasgow Socialist Singers and the Glasgow Young Communist League, and Harry H Corbett, of Steptoe and Son fame, who sang sea shanties with MacColl and AL Lloyd on an album called The Singing Sailor. It is now partnered with Proper Music Group in Dartford, leaving Stroud Green just a couple of decades ago.

In my next blog post, we’ll look at some of the cinemas and legendary music venues in the area. 

This blog is based on a podcast for the St Mellitus Organ Project I developed with fellow Islington & Clerkenwell guide Susan Hahn. You can listen to the podcast here.

You can find out about Oonagh’s upcoming guided walks via Eventbrite and can follow her on Twitter @CapitalWalks. Find out more about other upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.

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