Highbury – Commuter or Football Fan?
Do you pass through Highbury as a commuter or as a football fan? If you are interested in the history, growth and development of the area, come on our walk through Highbury on 12th November.
The village of Highbury in the Borough of Islington is today probably most famous as the home of Arsenal Football Club. In previous centuries it was more infamous – for the destruction of a palatial manor in the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and for the high jinks at Highbury Barn in the 1800s. Once peaceful pastureland, famous for its dairy herds, the arrival of the railway in 1849 made it possible for people to live in clean air and commute into the City, and for city-dwellers to escape the noise and smoke and travel to rural Islington on Sunday excursions. By 1854 the line was carrying over 8 million passengers a year and in 1872 a huge neo-Gothic railway station, complete with tower, was built at Highbury corner – it was a rival to the great St Pancras in its imposing architecture but it was badly damaged in the Second World War and subsequently demolished.
Many of the Sunday excursionists were heading for Highbury Barn – in the 1700s and early 1800s it was a popular place to take cakes and ale, but after the railway brought increasing numbers of people the musical performances and firework displays were extended to include evening dancing with acrobatic displays. In its heyday you would have seen Blondin, the famous tight-rope walker, and Leotard, the great acrobat and daring ascents by hot-air balloonists. Gradually, however, it degenerated into a drunken and riotous venue and ultimately it was closed down after an exhibition of scandalous French dancing!
The arrival of the railway and subsequent development of Highbury were part of the “relentless march of bricks and mortar” portrayed by Islington resident and cartoonist, George Cruickshank, who was dismayed to see the fields disappearing under rows of houses. And Highbury is lucky to have retained an area of open space – the largest park in the Borough of Islington is here at Highbury Fields. By the early 1800s the fields on the outskirts of the City of London, which for many centuries had been places for open-air recreation, had been built over and there was an attempt to preserve 500 acres in Islington as a park to be the “lungs of London”. The developers had other ideas and eventually these plans for a grand park were reduced to 115 acres in Finsbury Park and a small remnant of 27.5 acres here in Highbury. These are protected by an Act of Parliament and preserved “to the perpetual use by the public for exercise and recreation”.
Other Eighteenth Century playing fields are still used for recreation, but perhaps not in a way that the developers might have imagined – the playing fields of the Theological College based in Highbury became the hallowed turf of Arsenal Football Club!