Barnsbury, Islington

A pioneering gentrified locality consisting of a mix of older terraces and squares (plus some council blocks) in north-west Islington

College Cross - geograph-3295421-by-Oxfordian-Kissuth

The 13th-century Berners family gave their name to a large manor, of which present day Barnsbury covers just a small part. Legal obstacles prevented building on the land until the 1820s, signif­i­cantly later than nearby districts such as Canonbury.

In the 1830s an eccentric Frenchman named Baume set up the short-lived Barnsbury Park Community, a co-operative project with a farm and a college, settled by radical tailors and shoe­makers. Elsewhere, the rows of narrow-fronted terraces were destined to house a lower class of occupant than its devel­opers intended, espe­cially when the building of the railways prompted the better-off to flee to more distant suburbs. Many larger houses were subdi­vided for multiple occupancy, or even turned into factories.

From the early 1960s (or the late 1950s, if you count a handful of trail­blazers) Islington began to regain its appeal to the middle classes and Barnsbury’s protracted decline was reversed. During the 1970s some of the most run-down sets of buildings were demol­ished and the council and Barnsbury Housing Asso­ci­a­tion put up new homes. The latter also restored some older prop­er­ties, which often retained their original archi­tec­tural features because spec­u­la­tors hadn’t hitherto deemed the area worthy of rede­vel­op­ment. Young profes­sionals flocked in and the district became known for its ‘liberal intel­li­gentsia’ – including numerous writers and jour­nal­ists, as well as Tony Blair before he became prime minister.

Prices here subse­quently escalated to the detriment of the sense of community fostered by the first wave of well-inten­tioned gentri­fiers, “pioneering among the crumbling Georgian cliffs of Barnsbury,” with household incomes now typically in six figures.

Barnsbury is sometimes identified as the first London locality to have undergone gentrification. However, when the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term ‘gentrification’ in the context of urban renewal (in London: Aspects of Change, 1964), Barnsbury was still an overwhelmingly working-class area, while she pointed out that the upper-middle class takeover of the poorer enclaves of Hampstead and Chelsea had already been “consolidated some time ago.” It’s truer to say that Barnsbury was a pioneer of post-war gentrification.

Postal districts: N1 and N7
Population: 12,201 (2011 census)
Station: London Overground (Caledonian Road & Barnsbury, zone 2)
Further reading: Mary Cash, An Historical Walk Through Barnsbury, Islington Archaeology and History Society, 1981
and Gentrification in Islington: The Return of the Middle Classes to an Inner London Borough and the Subsequent Effects on Housing, James Pitt, Barnsbury People’s Forum, 1977
See also: Caledonian Road
The picture of College Cross on this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Oxfordian Kissuth, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.