Upper Street

Upper Street, Islington

The central thoroughfare of Islington, stretching for one mile between Highbury Corner and the junction with Liverpool Road at its southern end

King's Head Theatre - Upper Street, photo by terencechisholm at Flickr, released into the public domain
The King’s Head

Hon­o­rius, Arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury, estab­lished Islington’s parish of St Mary here in 628, under the aegis of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. St Mary’s church was orig­i­nal­ly called Our Lady of Isling­ton.

Upper Street was for cen­turies part of the cat­tle-drov­ing route to Smith­field and a King’s Head tav­ern is sup­posed to have exist­ed from about 1543. There used to be a Low­er Street too, but this is now Essex Road.

By the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry Upper Street had a sprin­kling of gentlemen’s hous­es and tradesmen’s cot­tages. But before the cen­tu­ry was out the gen­try had begun to depart and sev­er­al of their hous­es were con­vert­ed to inns.

Sir John Miller’s house, which stood near The­ber­ton Street, had become the Pied Bull by 1725. An unsub­stan­ti­at­ed sto­ry per­sists that this had ear­li­er been the res­i­dence of Sir Wal­ter Raleigh.

A vari­ety of devel­op­ers put up short rows of hous­es for the mid­dle class­es and by 1735 Upper Street was almost entire­ly built up, although much of the hin­ter­land remained open. Isling­ton became a pop­u­lar place for Lon­don­ers to spend a day out and the num­ber of pub­lic hous­es mul­ti­plied.

Dr William Pit­cairn estab­lished a four-acre botan­i­cal gar­den oppo­site Cross Street and in 1777 the Mar­quess of Northamp­ton, lord of the manor of Canon­bury, grant­ed Isling­ton Green to the vestry.

Dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry Upper Street’s rows of hous­es were rebuilt as com­mer­cial premis­es, at first cater­ing for the grow­ing local pop­u­la­tion and lat­er attract­ing cus­tomers from fur­ther afield. The street’s non-stop com­merce prompt­ed the rec­tor of St Mary’s church to found the Lord’s Day Obser­vance Soci­ety in 1831.

Despite Islington’s ever-dimin­ish­ing sta­tus as a res­i­den­tial dis­trict, Upper Street’s out­fit­ters and drap­ers grew in pres­tige, and their trousseaux and under­clothes were espe­cial­ly high­ly prized. A sec­tion of the street was rebuilt in widened form and lined with sub­stan­tial ter­races of shops, while smart new frontages were added to the sur­viv­ing old­er premis­es – but at night the many pub­lic hous­es catered to an increas­ing­ly dis­rep­utable clien­tele.

“Yonder is the ‘Devil’s Mile,’ which extends from here [the Angel] to the ‘Cock’ at Highbury, and along which we will steadily make our way. This is not my title; North Londoners themselves have designated it as such. It is an appropriate name, however, for the devil’s imps seem to perambulate through it, both day and night. It’s past midnight, and look at these young girls with their besotted countenances.”

Henry Vigar-Harris, London at Midnight (1885)

In the mid-1920s the Church Mis­sion­ary Soci­ety Col­lege was replaced by Sutton’s mod­el dwellings, a pleas­ing estate with Arts and Crafts details, and Isling­ton town hall was built. Mean­while, the big stores lost the bat­tle with their rivals ‘up west’ and Upper Street went into a slow decline that last­ed until Islington’s gen­tri­fi­ca­tion pre­sent­ed new oppor­tu­ni­ties from the 1960s onwards.

The King’s Head began to stage the­atri­cal per­for­mances in 1970, the Hope and Anchor became one of London’s lead­ing pub venues for the bur­geon­ing punk rock scene in 1977 and Sis­ter­write was Britain’s first fem­i­nist book­shop when it opened on Upper Street in 1978.

Upper Street’s vari­ety of restau­rants is now almost unri­valled out­side the West End and there are all kinds of spe­cial­ist shops, notably the antiques traders of Cam­den Pas­sage. The street is home to the Union Chapel, the Screen on the Green, the Busi­ness Design Cen­tre and Isling­ton Assem­bly Hall (in the south wing of the town hall build­ing). The Almei­da The­atre is just around a cor­ner. Also close by, the Lit­tle Angel The­atre spe­cialis­es in pup­petry.

Between Almei­da Street and The­ber­ton Street the four-acre site of the for­mer North Lon­don Sort­ing Cen­tre is present­ly being rede­vel­oped as Isling­ton Square. (Half the major res­i­den­tial projects in Lon­don seem to be called Some­thing Square nowa­days.) The £400m scheme includes 263 homes (at prices aver­ag­ing over a mil­lion pounds each), retail out­lets, restau­rants, leisure facil­i­ties and about a mil­lion pounds’ worth of new pub­lic art­work. Locat­ed in and around four exist­ing Edwar­dian build­ings, Isling­ton Square is set to be com­plet­ed in late 2017.

Charles Wesley wrote Hark the Herald Angels Sing while serving as assistant curate at St Mary’s church in 1738.

The illustrator Kate Greenaway came to live on Upper Street with her family in 1852.

In 1994 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dined at Upper Street restaurant Granita, where they allegedly thrashed out the deal that made Blair prime minister and Brown chancellor.

Postal district: N1
Further reading: Jim Connell, Illustrated History of Upper Street, Islington, Islington Local History Education Trust, 1989
See also: Chapel Market
Shown below in Street View: Islington town hall


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