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Melanie Backe-Hansen

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From country retreat to busy London neighbourhood: the history of Islington

02/27/2012

Islington housesToday, Islington is a highly sought-after address offering the shops and restaurants of Upper Street, plus boutiques, bars and cafes in the surrounding streets, and all within a short distance from the centre of town. The architectural gems of Islington, including Georgian terraced rows and Victorian semi-detached villas, are also a powerful draw-card for residents.

However, it was only a short time ago that Islington was seen as a country retreat and was in fact nicknamed ‘London’s Dairy’ because of its association with providing milk and cheese to the residents of London.

Anglo-Saxon and Tudor Islington

During the Anglo-Saxon period, the area was known as Gislandune, meaning Gisla’s Hill, and by the time of the Domesday book in 1086 it was recorded as Iseldone, or ‘lower town’ in relation to its position to today’s Highbury. Due to its location to the north of the City of London, it became a natural stopping place for those travelling from the north. By the 16th century, the area was still largely fields and it became a popular place for building large country mansions with gardens and orchards. Henry VIII used to hunt near-by and Queen Elizabeth I often visited Islington when coming to stay with Sir John Spencer at Canonbury House. Throughout the Tudor period Islington became a popular stopping point for royalty travelling in and out of London


Islington in 1780London’s Dairy

Apart from the large country houses, Islington was primarily occupied by farmers and drovers bringing their livestock and goods to the London markets, especially to Smithfield. It was due to this association with cattle that Islington became the location for a number of dairies, providing fresh milk and cheese to Londoners.

‘New Tunbridge Wells’

During the 18th century Islington also became associated with fresh water springs, with the discovery of a spring at Sadler’s Wells, previously known as The Islington Spa and also ‘New Tunbridge Wells’. The area became known for its entertainments, with theatres, tea gardens, pubs and the spas. During the 1730s George II would visit with his daughters, Princesses Amelia and Caroline, and records show that during the height of its popularity as many as 1,600 people took the waters in one day. However, by the late 18th century, the spa fell into disrepute.

19th century transport and houses

The 19th century brought about much change in Islington as the population of London began to spread further outwards and the introduction of the Regents Canal in 1820 brought more and more people to this once rural village. New houses began to appear throughout the early to mid-19th century and with the introduction of the railways in the 1860s and the underground railway at the turn of the 20th century, Islington soon became covered in streets of new houses.

Famous names

Throughout its history, Islington has been a popular address for writers and artists, with a long list of names having called it home. Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Newington Green in 1784 where she opened a school for girls; children’s author, Kate Greenaway lived on Upper Street in 1852; author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, lived in Duncan Terrace during the 1980s; and author George Gissing and playwright Joe Orton both lived along Noel Road.

Other famous residents include George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Louis MacNeice, Benjamin Britten, Thomas Carlyle and Nancy Mitford. Charles Wesley was curate at St Mary’s Church during the 1730s and his brother John Wesley spoke at the church a number of times; Charlie Chaplin lived in Arlington Way as a child; and former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli lived in Islington and went to school in Colebrook Row from 1808.

Today, Islington continues to be a very popular address with a vibrant high street, along with beautiful houses and quiet residential streets.

* Find: property for sale in Islington | homes to rent in Islington


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The name Northcote is believed to originate from politician Stafford Northcote, first Earl of Iddesleigh, who began his career as private secretary to William Gladstone, and later rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1874.

Throughout its history, Islington has been a popular address for writers and artists, with a long list of names having called it home. Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Newington Green in 1784 where she opened a school for girls; children’s author, Kate Greenaway lived on Upper Street in 1852; author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, lived in Duncan Terrace during the 1980s; and author George Gissing and playwright Joe Orton both lived along Noel Road.

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