Finsbury Park’s Musical Heritage 3: New communities, new music

In my final post about music in Finsbury Park we’re looking at how the area’s diverse communities have contributed to its rich culture.

Statue of suffragette Edith Garrud, Manor Gardens health centre founder Florence Keen and Soul II Soul founder Jazzie B.

Many migrant communities found their home in Finsbury Park after World War II. From being an Irish area, it became an Afro-Caribbean one in the 1940s and 50s. As time went on, Greek and later Turkish Cypriots became established, developing the rag trade centred on Fonthill Road. As the Cypriot populations began to move on, Turkish and Kurdish communities made the area their home, particularly to the north in neighbouring Green Lanes. 

By the 1980s and 1990s, Somali refugees had began to settle, often south of Seven Sisters. The area can now be called ‘superdiverse’, meaning the migration has become more complex, and is no longer in the form of post-war waves of people coming for specific jobs, but communities interconnecting at will.

Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island gives a vivid picture of West Indian life in the 1950s – facing desperate discrimination at work and in housing. The novel ends with Hortense and Gilbert buying a house in Finsbury Park, at the time an area where housing was very cheap, especially as much of the area was covered in rubble from bomb sites. The photographer Don Cullin, who grew up in Fonthill Road, took some vivid photos of the half ruined houses inhabited there. Andrea grew up just south of Finsbury Park in an Islington council estate, Twyford House on Elwood Street, where there is now a plaque recognising her literary legacy.

Trinidadian John La Rose was a longtime resident of Stroud Green whose legacy lives on at New Beacon Bookshop, founded in 1966. It was the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop and international book service. Publishing gave people from former colonies their voice, enabling them to understand and validate their own culture, history and politics. John and his wife Sarah White helped with the original Notting Hill carnivals.

The musical heritage of black Britons in Finsbury Park is huge. There is a statue of Jazzie B (Trevor Beresford Romeo) OBE DJ, music producer, entrepreneur and founding member of Soul II Soul in Finsbury Park bus station, next to two female pioneers of Islington, Edith Garrud the suffragette and Florence Keen founder of Manor Gardens health centre in Holloway.

Jazzie was born to parents of Antiguan descent in Ormond Road, Hornsey Rise, the ninth of ten children, several of whom began to run sound systems in the 1960s and 1970s. As a young teenager he went skating at Ally Pally. Older brothers introduced him to a whole range of sounds, and he was able to develop from Jamaican reggae heritage to a new  authentically London sound.  Jazzie built his first double deck as a school project for woodwork.

Starting out in Dougie’s Hideaway on Junction Road, Tufnell Park, he had his first gig in 1977  but changed his band name to Soul II Soul in 1982. It was originally an umbrella name for several of his projects including clothing and a record shop. From 1985-1989, Jazzie and  Soul II  Soul held what would be regarded as legendary nights at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. We should not forget Alex Pascall, an Afro-Caribbean broadcaster who lives in Crouch Hill. Alex was the first Black broadcaster in 1974 with a regular show Black London and his influence in the arts community has been huge. 

Jazzie B was brought up round the corner from George Power in Grenville Road who founded Kiss FM in the 1980s as a pirate radio station. Power, a Greek Cypriot, helped Jazzie to gain success at Crackers Club in Wardour Street. George Power was born in Famagusta in 1952, his real name Akis Eracleous. He came to London as a small child, like so many of his fellow Cypriots. As well as popularising soul music as an iconic DJ with Kiss Radio, he founded London Greek Radio in 1983. This gave a voice to the Greek Cypriot diaspora.

Cypriots began to emigrate to London from the 1930s, facing poverty at home. They arrived either by boat – at the peak there were three ships a week docking at Southampton, or by train via Athens, arriving with just £5 in their pockets. Many just knew to ask for Victoria Station – from there they could catch the 29 bus to Camden Town.  The lack of housing following the destruction of World War II meant many Cypriots began to move north of Camden to Islington and eventually in the early 60s, Haringey. There were also Turkish Cypriots but by the 1960s Greek Cypriots outnumbered the Turkish Cypriots by four to one. In 1961 half the pupils of Pooles Park primary school were of Cypriot origin.

The Turkish invasion and occupation in 1974 changed everything for Cypriots around the world. A third of Cypriots were now refugees, and had lost everything. Many decided to move to the UK to join family members. By 1972 Haringey had the highest concentration of Cypriots in the UK – approximately 40,000 out of 200,000 Cypriot emigrants. Many found jobs in catering, then opened their own cafes. Women worked as machinists, all helped by tight knit family connections. Stroud Green still has many Cypriot businesses, from hairdressers to accountants. 

The Irish have been present in London for centuries. and Irish music has always been an important element in Finsbury Park. There were Irish centres across North London, from parish halls to professional dance halls where traditional music could be heard and importantly played. In the 1950s in particular, the Irish emigrants headed to London, to nurse, to dig the roads, and to do the jobs that immigrants have always done. Finsbury Park remained an Irish area, not least due to the influx of labourers to build  the Victoria Line underground line in the 1960s and 70s. Now 4% of Islington’s population is Irish born but it was twice as high as that 50 years ago.

As a generation of London-born Irish grew up, they made their own particular contribution to popular music. Johnny Rotten for example was born John Lydon, of Irish parents in Holloway and lived in the Seven Acres estate in Lennox Road. He formed the Sex Pistols in 1975. Other London Irish groups included the Pogues, with Shane McGowan.

We have lost a major Irish pub in Sir George Robey pub, on Isledon Road.  This was a haunt of roadies from across the road at the Rainbow Theatre and also began doing gigs. During the late 1980s this place was the venue for any up-and-coming band with a Ford Transit on the ‘toilet circuit’ up and down the country. Folk musician Joe Giltrap ran the Robey in the early 1980s and Christy Moore, the Pogues were some of the acts that he hosted before leaving in 1987. Nick Hornby is said to have based the Harry Lauder music venue in his novel High Fidelity on the Sir George Robey. 

From 1990 Finsbury Park became a major venue for Irish rock music, hosting the Fleadh. This tradition ended in 2004 with the apparent decline of Irish rock music. Bands that played included Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor Pogues, Corrs, U2, Cranberries and Christy Moore.

New communities have moved into Finsbury Park, including Somalians and Ethiopians, and new musical trends are likely to develop further. But let us hope enough live music venues remain for us to enjoy the rhythm!

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.

Read Oonagh’s previous blog posts on Finsbury’s Park’s musical heritage: Part 1: Pianos, organs and pop and Part 2: Cinemas and the Rainbow.

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.