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In Old Finsbury

May 13, 2015
by the gentle author

Does anyone know where Finsbury is anymore? If you ask people, they say “Do you mean Finsbury Park or Finsbury Sq?” It seems that the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury is as lost to us as Atlantis, El Dorado or Shangri La.

Studying Colin O’Brien’s wonderful photographs of Finsbury in the fifties in his forthcoming ‘London Life‘ brought this now-defunct Borough to mind, but it was Arnold Bennett who first led to me to Finsbury to seek the locations of his plangent novel of the booksellers of Clerkenwell, ‘Riceyman Steps.’ Thus it was that I decided to set out with my camera yesterday on a return visit in search of old Finsbury.

Finsbury occupied the site of an ancient fen that lay north of the City of London, but it only formally came into existence as a Parliamentary Borough in 1832 and by 1965 it was absorbed into Islington. Yet Finsbury may be said to be the territory west of Shoreditch, north of the City, east of Holborn and south of Islington – although, in my mind, the heart of Finsbury is around the old Finsbury town hall and it was this area that I chose to explore.

Walking up from Farringdon Station, along Turnmills St and Farringdon Lane, you encounter some of London’s earliest Peabody flats. Finsbury was well served by high quality social housing, from these handsome Victorian brick tenements to the post-war modernist Finsbury Estate on the other side of Clerkenwell – and it is the sympathetic counterpoint between these developments and the old terraces of the bourgeoise that define the personality of the place. A great many of the streets in Finsbury have not changed since Arnold Bennett’s time and the shabby old London that he wrote of may still be glimpsed by the perceptive visitor.

Crossing Rosebery Avenue and walking up Amwell St, you meet fine early-nineteenth century terraces and peaceful squares where a stillness prevails that is exceptional in central London. Major roads hem these streets and render them as backwaters without through traffic.

Willmington Sq is the first you discover, constructed around a small overgrown park and of pleasing domestic scale. Further up the hill, Myddelton Sq is the grandest in Finsbury yet you barely encounter a car there. City University fills up the lost part of Northampton Sq that was demolished, delivering students onto the lawn and encouraging an unexpected atmosphere of youthful fête champêtre.

Lastly, I would never have discovered Granville Sq, if I had not gone in search of ‘Riceyman Steps’ where the protagonist of Arnold Bennett’s novel had his bookshop. Although the bookshops of the steps are long-gone, this modestly-proportioned square paved with old flags and punctuated by manhole covers produced by local foundries is one of my favourites in the capital. Granville Sq may truly said to be part of the London nobody knows.

Looking up Farringdon Lane

Looking  along Clerkenwell Rd

Inside Three Kings, Clerkenwell Close

In Pear Tree Court

In Clerkenwell Close

Finsbury Health Centre by Berthold Lubetkin

Joseph Grimaldi lived in Exmouth Market

At the junction of Exmouth Market and Rosebery Avenue

Finsbury Town Hall

Passageway to Lloyd Baker Sq

In Great Percy St

At George Cruikshank’s house in Amwell St

Fig Tree at Clerkenwell Parochial School in Amwell St

Lloyd’s Dairy in Amwell St

In Myddleton Sq

St Mark’s, Myddleton Sq

In Myddleton Sq

In Arlington Way

City University, St John St

In Northampton Sq

In Margery St

In Lloyd Baker St

In Lloyd Baker St

In Granville Sq

Gwynne Place also known as ‘Riceyman Steps’ – leading from Granville Sq to King’s Cross Rd

‘Riceyman Steps’ in 1924

You might also like to read about

In Old Clerkenwell

At Embassy Electrics

Adam Dant’s Map of Clerkenwell

A Dead Man in Clerkenwell

Mattie Faint, Giggle Doctor

21 Responses leave one →
  1. May 13, 2015

    You must have an eye for all these special sides, like the G.A. really has!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  2. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    May 13, 2015

    I used to shop in Exmouth Market, when I was a student at the Hugh Myddleton branch of the Kingsway-Princeton College of Further Education. The main part of the college was on Sidmouth St., on the corner of Grey’s Inn Rd, and I biked cross-lots here and there to the Mount Pleasant Post Office, then along Exmouth Market, past Northampton Way (a tiny, tiny street that amused me in it’s comparison to Southampton Row) and so on. HughMyd, as we called it, was a primary (?) school built over the foundations of the Middlesex House of Detention, and some of the prison structure is/was still there. It was where I took my pottery class, and where the students had a Christmas party with a boar’s head. Very creepy.

    Exmouth Market was a market street like Queen’s Crescent, Inverness Street and others. Those are the three I knew best in my short year of living on my own for the first time ever, in a foreign city.

  3. Viv Wilson permalink
    May 13, 2015

    I know where Finsbury is because I got married in Finsbury Town Hall in 1980! Lovely to see the picture of the entrance.

  4. May 13, 2015

    Another lovely walk to start my day with!

  5. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    May 13, 2015

    I like FINSBURY, I regularly spend many an hour wandering the street’s of this area, considering it’s right in the heart of central London it always seem’s to have an unusually calm atmosphere about the place, I use to love going into LLOYD’S while it was still a dairy, before it closed down, it was like a time capsule in there, in fact in many ways it encapsulated the whole essence of Finsbury because even today the area still maintains the feel of being something of a “time capsule” amidst the tidal wave of modernization that is taking place all around, as the excellent photo’s hear have managed to convey, it is also an area with a wealth of interesting history and is to a large extent very much a “hidden gem” of London life, which is precisely why I like it.

  6. d&y permalink
    May 13, 2015

    The old entrance means a lot to us.
    Brings back a lot of happy memories of our wedding in the late 90s.

  7. Sarahc permalink
    May 13, 2015

    So very green.

  8. Anthony Medlycott permalink
    May 13, 2015

    Its lovely to see Finsbury remembered. I grew up in Whitecross St and the lovely old Compton flats (now The Triangle ) in the 70s and I’ve given up trying to explain where and what Finsbury is even to Londoners! You’ve done a great job.

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 13, 2015

    Thank you GA, your skill as a photographer takes some beating and you really do bring these areas alive to those of us who are not so familiar with them as some other readers. I was interested to see that Anthony grew up in Whitecross St and that he has given up on trying to explain where Finsbury is even to Londoners. It has always puzzled me as my grandfather was born in Foster’s Buildings on Whitecross St and his place of birth is given as Finsbury in some places and Islington in others, all very confusing!

  10. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    May 13, 2015

    What a lovely part of London!( never thought I would say that)!

  11. May 13, 2015

    Wonderful photos, GA!

    I was in Finsbury at lunchtime today, on the trail of the ‘Islington/Hoxton Murderer’, all set to take photos of my own… battery went flat straight away. Oh, well, it was a sunny walk…

    Well, another time.

  12. David Tarrant permalink
    May 13, 2015

    Another sparkling set of photos. Thank you GA. I particularly enjoyed the image of the ancient fig tree. What graceful props!

  13. May 13, 2015

    Thanks for this post today another area of the city that I still have to visit and discover. Great fig tree too!

  14. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 14, 2015

    Good & interesting Pubs in Finsbury, too!

  15. Martin permalink
    May 15, 2015

    We used to squat in 38 Lloyd Baker St in the 80′s! Many of the houses around there were squats too. Pity Merlin St swimming pool and slipper baths are no longer there. Anyone who lived round there who watched the recent film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would have recognised Smiley’s home on Lloyd square with the beautiful original interior. Lenin lived on Percy circus of course and taught at the central library on Clerkenwell Green where all the International Brigade archives are. I think my all time favorite walk would be down Roseberry ave and up and around Lloyd Baker St on a bright sharp spring morning when the Chery Blossoms are out.
    Timeless!
    http://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/lenin-percy-circus

  16. Amy Finegan permalink
    May 27, 2015

    I lived up the hill in Barnsbury for eighteen years, until last month, in fact. So these are all familiar haunts – thank you for giving me such a beautiful record of my old stomping grounds.

  17. Wendy McLaren (Nee Gale) permalink
    August 24, 2015

    I lived in Myddelton Square for many years. 1950-1960 near the church entrance. Loved to play on the swings etc. in the park opposite. I went to Clerkenwell Parochial school and then Hugh Myddelton.

    I remember when the gas man rode his bike around in the evenings lighting up the old gas street lights. And the coalman delivering the sacks of coal by horse and cart and tipping the coal down the coal holes. Even the organ grinder with his monkey.

    I remember when Dr. In the House was filmed in Myddelton Square.

    1960-1963 I lived in Cruikshank Street. I emigrated to Australia in 1964 and now living in Sydney. When in London I like to still wander around Myddelton Square and Chapel Street Market. Growing up in Finsbury has long lasting memories.

  18. John Ireland permalink
    January 13, 2016

    I was interested to read Pauline’s comment that her grandfather was born in Fosters Buildings, Whitecross St. My gt.gt.grandmother lived there for a time in the 1850′s and married a man from the Buildings. I have searched the old maps but cannot find the site – it had hundreds of tenants so must have been huge. Do we know where it was? Do any pictures survive?
    My mother and father were born a little to the North in Lever St and Rahere St.

  19. David Atkinson permalink
    April 20, 2016

    I have never heard Gwynne Place named Riceyman Steps. I have lived in Finsbury all my young life until I moved out of London. I used to live in St Helena House. Gwynne Place was still known as Plum Pudding Steps. I don’t know why but that is what they have always been known as. If you were to stand on the steps and shout you will get a really good echo.

  20. June 7, 2016

    I was born in 1930 at 24 arlington street ( arlington way now). My parents had a shop there
    which is now a beauty shop. We moved to percy circus got bombed out then moved back.
    I married & moved to myddelton square & stayed there until I moved to Essex.
    I now live in lancashire.

  21. Phil Markham permalink
    March 7, 2017

    To Ellen (In New England) – The Hugh Myddleton school on the site of the gaol was the secondary modern school. The primary school of that name (which I attended 1962-66) was in the 1870 Education Act school ( a common design all over London) in Bowling Green Lane, now the Zaha Hadid architects practice. Hugh Myddleton Primary School amalgamated with the Infants department on Woodbridge Street in the 1970s.
    Great set of photos, I was walking from Claremont Square to Bleeding Heart Yard via Exmouth Street just last weekend and there is so much heritage and history to see – you just have to stand back and look!

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