How Islington became Caledonian

Iain Monaghan reveals how Islington acquired a Caledonian Road, two ‘Caledonian Road’ stations, the Caledonian Estate and Caledonian Park…

Caledonian Road station (Image: Hugh Llewelyn, flickr)

The story of how Islington has so many places named ‘Caledonian’ can be traced back to a single, long-demolished building: the Caledonian Asylum.

The Caledonian Asylum was a charitable residential school founded by wealthy Scots in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Its purpose was to provide education and care for Scottish boys (and, later, girls), resident in London, whose fathers had been killed or seriously injured while fighting in the British armed services. 

The Asylum opened in 1819 in cramped premises in Hatton Garden but was soon on the lookout for a more appropriate site and when a rural area in the west of Islington, known as Copenhagen Fields, was opened up for development by the construction of a new chalk road between Battle Bridge (which we now know as King’s Cross) and the Great North Road at Holloway, the Asylum seized the chance to construct a purpose-built home on what was  literally a green-field site. Here is its new home in 1826, soon after its construction:

The Royal Caledonian Asylum, Copenhagen Fields, London: the facade. Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0

The new Asylum was the ‘anchor tenant’ for the new area. On an 1828 map, the road across the fields is described as the ‘New Road from Battle Bridge to Holloway’ and the ‘Caledonian School’ is its only occupant. (The use of ‘School’ rather than ‘Asylum’ may have been suggested to the mapmaker by developers keen to set ‘the right tone’ for the area: the school called itself the Caledonian Asylum until 1852 and it was still being commonly referred to by that name in the 20th century.)

The Asylum’s funds came mainly from the wealthy part of society and its boy pipers and, later, girl dancers were in constant demand at high-society balls and other charitable events. With its fine architectural aspect and well-connected supporters, the Asylum was soon a well-known landmark and gradually gave its name to the road on which it stood. 

Soon after construction of the Asylum the road was being referred to in contemporary newspapers as ‘the chalk road leading to the Caledonian Asylum’ and by the early 1840s that description had been shortened to ‘Caledonian Road’. The opening in 1852 of Caledonian Road Station (the predecessor of the current overground station, Caledonian Road and Barnsbury) set the name in stone. The romantic Highland lilt of ‘Caledonian’  also served to draw attention away from the second landmark building constructed on the road: Pentonville Prison.

And the other ‘Caledonian’ names? When the Caledonian Asylum (long expanded by the addition of a girls’ school) moved to Eltham in 1902, the estate that was built on the Asylum’s former site was named the Caledonian Estate. By that time the junk market that had arisen on the edges of the Metropolitan Meat Market close to the Asylum was already known as Caledonian Market (or Cally Market), a name which gradually transferred to the meat market as well, so when the markets closed and the southern part of the site became a new park, the obvious name for the park was Caledonian Park. 

As for the Caledonian Asylum itself, it continued in Eltham (under the name the Royal Caledonian School) for many years. It finally closed in 1966 but its memory lives on in Its successor charity, the Royal Caledonian Education Trust, and in the ‘Caledonian’ sites of Islington.

Iain Monaghan leads walks in Clerkenwell and Islington, including tours of Canonbury Tower. Find out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.