St Luke’s

St Luke’s, Islington

A little-used name for the area surrounding the western half of Old Street

After the marsh­es here were drained in the 16th cen­tu­ry, a hos­pi­tal was built for plague vic­tims, which stood until 1736. To the south, the Grey­coat char­i­ty school was found­ed on Gold­en Lane in 1698. It became the St Luke’s char­i­ty school in 1732 and moved to Old Street in 1870. After a fire in 1881 the school relo­cat­ed to Rad­nor Street, where it remains today.

From medieval times until the slum clear­ance pro­gramme of the 1870s its posi­tion on the edge of the City made the St Luke’s local­i­ty a haven for all kinds of pro­hib­it­ed activ­i­ties, from astrol­o­gy and wiz­ardry to bear-bait­ing and pros­ti­tu­tion. Thieves and pick­pock­ets could make reg­u­lar for­ays into the City and then lose any pur­suer in the maze of courts and alley­ways around White­cross Street, which nowa­days has a more respectable week­day mar­ket. The rep­u­ta­tion of St Luke’s as a ‘rook­ery’ – a zone of crim­i­nal­i­ty – reached a peak in the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry. ‘Flash hous­es’ – drink­ing dens and lodg­ing hous­es where crim­i­nal plans were laid and stolen goods fenced – were more numer­ous here than any­where else in Lon­don.

By 1900 south­ern St Luke’s had become a dis­trict of work­shops and ware­hous­es, with new ten­e­ment blocks pro­vid­ing homes for law-abid­ing cit­i­zens. How­ev­er, many of the worst ele­ments sim­ply decamped to the oth­er side of Old Street and this part remained dis­rep­utable until the 1930s.

Com­plet­ed in 1733, St Luke’s church is attrib­uted to Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James. Its tow­er is a flut­ed obelisk topped by a gold­en drag­on that cock­neys to this day insist is real­ly a plague flea. Sub­si­dence prob­lems led to the church’s clo­sure in 1959, and the removal of its roof. It lay derelict until 2003, when an edu­ca­tion cen­tre and rehearsal hall (shown in the pho­to above) for the Lon­don Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra were built in its shell. The grade I list­ed exte­ri­or has been faith­ful­ly restored and a new exten­sion added.

Postal district: EC1
Website: LSO St Luke’s


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