Skip to content

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

35 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

  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.

  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 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!

  22. Bill Arbuckle permalink
    May 13, 2017

    To Philip Markham, we were in the same class I think at Hughmyd, Mr Swanns class.
    I was told back then that Charlie Peace some notorious villain in the 1800s was hanged
    In the school yard of the secondary school when it was a prison.
    I think you done a project once called 1066 and all that.

  23. Mike Volsing permalink
    August 30, 2017

    I lived in Margery St WC1 from end of ’52 to end of ’64. It was a great area to be young in. Seeing all the photos brought back fund memories. Went to school in Sir Christopher Hatton junior Rosebury Ave. Then to Chartesy in Wenlock Rd. opp. the Wenlock Brewery. Worked in Exmouth Mkt for Anthony Jacksons went to the big church in the market. It was a vibrant place. There was a small colony of budgies round the back of the church, a good football pitch and playground there as well. It was the time of the great slum clearance period. The local council offered us £50 for our end of terrace house, eventually we got a lot more. The house would be worth a couple of million today. We never forgave the council. 45 years later my son ended up living in a flat above Exmouth Market for a few months, then just a couple of 100 metres from Wenlock Rd. Small world. There was a Rownton House on Kings X Rd now a hotel.
    Once more Finsbury was a wonderful Place.

  24. Leon Perdoni permalink
    March 8, 2019

    I was swearching for pictures of old Finsbury and came across tis marvellous selection of photographs.I spent the first 12 years of my life in Lloyd Baker Street at no 37. Things have changed so much but now the street looks and feels loved rather than neglected as it once was.
    I often return for a wander. The angles from which you have taken many of the photos on such a bright and beautiful day infuse the whole area with a joyfulness that is part of my memory of growing up there. I am sad to see Lloyds Dairy passing from being a grocer’s, but then apart from the chemist, there is nothing from those 50s times that has survived.
    I was searching for old Finsbury as I have written a novel about being a child in the area… not an autobiography, and I was looking for inspiration for illustration.
    Plum Pudding Steps and the Square with its monkeyclimb from the top of which you could see the clock on St Pancras station were my childhood playground. I love the memory you quiote of the lamplighter. I recall watching him from my bedroom window over the porch of no 37. There were no trees in the street in my day: how they make a lovely difference to the scene now !
    Thank you.

  25. myk geary permalink
    August 30, 2019

    Searching for pictures of Clerkenwell Porochial school in Amwell Street. Lived in Calthorpe Street from after the second world war until we moved out of London in 1952. My mother was the school cleaner from 1947, Mr Oxford was the caretaker and Ms Mann was the Head Mistress. I used to stop behind after school and take the empty coal buckets down to the cellar and fill them with coal for Mr Oxford to carry back up to the classrooms. Remember tearing my short trousers on the flip up desk seats from the seam on one leg to the other ,looked like a skirt in the end. To earn pocket money in those days would knock on houses for empty jam jars, 1 lb and 2 lb jars and take them to the cockle and whelk shop in Grays Inn Road opposite Mount Pleasant Post Office and get a penny for the 1 lb jar and 2 pence for the 2 lb jar. How times have changed.

  26. Ron Bird permalink
    August 31, 2019

    I lived at Central Street in the 50s above a grocery shop called Morris, I remember having to go through the shop to get to the flat above, only a few rooms really, I also remember playing with my mate from along the road called Simon, it was very run down and poor, but had some good times there.

  27. Carole permalink
    September 27, 2019

    These fabulous photographs remind me of my grandmother Alice Sheate who lived in Peabody Buildings, Clerkenwell Close from about 1934 to about 1981, with her husband Arthur (died 1947) who was a milkman (possibly Lloyds Dairies?) and my mother Vera Sheate who later married Jim Griffiths. I used to love playing in the square, listening to the shouts of children echoing around the buildings! We used to go to Chapel and Exmouth Markets and I used to love walking around Clerkenwell with my Mum (who died 3 weeks ago aged 90) and looking at Hugh Middleton School, where she was a pupil and St James’s church, where her and my Dad were married and The Horse- Shoe pub, where they had their wedding reception in 1951. Clerkenwell and Finsbury are unique area’s of London that will always hold a special place in my heart.

  28. June 28, 2020

    I lived in lever street. Went to Moreland street primary school and onto Hugh mid in 1960
    Yes I went down the dungeons a couple of times. The first time to be nosey on my own. Scared the life out of me , could still see the dingy dungeons and strange noises And then took friends down. Very scary. Pottery class was down the dungeon and very creepy .
    Ironmonger row swimming. Explored the bombed out Barbican .

  29. Derek kenward permalink
    November 23, 2020

    I knew the area very well, I was a GPO telephone engineer from 1963- 68 in that area out from Terminus telephone exchange on maintenance, if my memory serves me right the Switchboard operator in the town hall was blind. Brivatis was at the end of Exmouth market, the chop house was around the corner in Farringdon rd great food. Happy days.

  30. Thelma Hobden permalink
    February 26, 2021

    I too was brought up in Finsbury in the 1950’s. I lived in Compton Buildings off Goswell Road, two rooms, a scullery and a toilet. It’s lovely reading all these reminiscenses. It’s just as I remember all these places. It was a time when there was still a close community in London.

  31. Paul Garcia permalink
    July 6, 2021

    I lived in Wharton Street no 14 1951-1973. The photos also bought back memories long forgotten. my playground was old bomb sites, Granville square, Percy Circus, so many place to get up to mischief. Many a day a Sargent Robinson would deposit me back to my Dad with stern warnings. But great days none the less. My primary school was St Peter and St Paul’s in Amwell Street.
    I remember Exmouth Market so well and practically lived in Solly’s Toy Shop. Everyone was so friendly, days you could leave your door on the latch and never make appointment’s to see anyone. I was fortunate enough to be raised in the Italian community, Never hungry that’s for sure.

    Thank you for the Memory Jog

  32. John Lipnicki permalink
    January 18, 2023

    Mu sister had a bedsit in Wilmington Square in the 70s Pushed out by the landlord who refused to repair the leaking butterfly roof. Lovely square open to all which most London squares are not.

  33. Sue Cox (nee Casey) permalink
    July 21, 2023

    Lived at No 72 Myddelton Square from 2 weeks to 17 years of age, in 3 rented rooms, no heating other than coal fires. Roller skated round most of this district. Received “Sunlight Treatment” at the modern art deco Finsbury Health Centre prior to going to Clerkenwell Parochial School. Living conditions all round were appalling by today’s standards but we knew no different and had no alternative. Attended Dame Alice Owen’s Girles” school, which thankfully set me up for the rest of my Life. Thank you Mr Attlee and your Labour Government, you raised us all eventually from permanent poverty. I have a wealth of memories of Finsbury from those times, too many for this space.

  34. Rosa permalink
    December 7, 2023

    Wonderful to read all these accounts from former residents!
    I lived there in the 80’s & early 90’s & feel lucky to have done so – a truly magical area with a human scale, layers & layers of history & interest, it had a mix & balance of people & elements that made it such a great place to live, as others here have said (waves cheerily at former residents).
    I still have a towel from Merlin street Baths – you could have a steaming hot bath in a (mahongany)? panelled cubicle with a huge cast iron tub. I remember the lovely warm lady who dispensed said sturdy towels with ‘Islington Baths’ in blue which you’d deposit in a ginormous hamper after you were done bathing to the accompaniment of her singing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”. I half inched the towel when the baths were sadly to close & have it as a cherished relic today.
    I miss so much about it all & want the access, good sense, variety, ordinariness & sense of community back. Being poor etc… was better when neoliberalism was in it’s destructive infancy. Much now is unreachable, sterile & lacking soul.
    So many good things to look back on & build forward with.

  35. robert cash permalink
    February 13, 2024

    Born in Finsbury Middleton Place off Leaver street 1938 . After the war we lived in a Prefab down Topham Street off Farringdon Road , Exmouth Market , Chapel Market, the Bombed ruins , the water tank that they built to fight the fire,s during the war . Angel my old hunting ground we would call it in the old days . Lovely times ,thank you very much. Bob Cash.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS