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The Cally In The Eighties

April 26, 2021
by Alan Dein

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Today Alan Dein enjoys a stroll along the Caledonian Rd forty years ago.

40 Caledonian Rd, 1983

The fascia of a clock repair shop has a clockface without hands, a seller of second-hand television sets advertises ‘The Bent TV Shop’, a stagnant canal basin slumbers in a post-industrial haze and a shady-looking sauna calls itself ‘KINGS X’ – yes, this is King’s Cross forty years ago.

Last November, when I heard of the passing of Leo Giordani whose Italian delicatessen ‘KC Continental Stores’ had been a much-loved King’s Cross institution for half a century, I was reminded of a fascinating collection of photographs that had been taken in the neighbourhood during the early eighties.

I came across these images while working on King’s Cross Voices, an oral history study that was conducted between 2004 to 2008. During these years, myself, my colleague Leslie McCartney and a group of volunteers collected some three hundred interviews accompanied by photographs and ephemera – all now held at the Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre.

The first decade of the new millennium proved to be a significant moment to interview people about their memories of living and working in a place that was in the early throes of massive redevelopment. Up to that point, King’s Cross had been locked in a twilight zone as a series of ill-thought-out development proposals had been thwarted by local residents and campaigners.

So the physical landscape of ‘the Cross’ just stagnated and, during the eighties and nineties, King’s Cross’ became synonymous with vice, sleaze and decay. It was depicted in the press as a bleak post-industrial wasteland, complete with seedy sex shops, dingy backstreets, and peppered with boarded-up Victorian houses. Yet many businesses like Leo’s KC Continental Stores kept going through this time when King’s Cross also offered low-rent creative spaces, social housing and squats, as well as headquarters for charities, trades unions and community projects.

The photographs had been languishing in the files of the planning team at Islington Council which administered the eastern section of King’s Cross. These images document the southernmost part of the mile-and-a-half long Caledonian Rd, affectionally dubbed by locals as ‘The Cally’. It links the eastern slopes of Camden Rd with Pentonville Rd in the south and was originally known as Chalk Rd. The name changed after the ‘Royal Caledonian Asylum’ was built in 1828, schooling children of exiled Scots who had been orphaned in the Napoleonic Wars. The asylum moved to Bushey in 1902 but the Caledonian name stuck. Today its former site is occupied by the Caledonian Housing Estate that neighbours Pentonville Prison.

While I was gathering memories of working and community life around the Cally – especially the King’s Cross end – I became fascinated by the geography, architecture and social history of the area. Contributors included landlords and publicans, shopkeepers and artists, street workers and community activists, and residents both former and current.

These photographs taken by Islington Council forty years ago document a world that was preserved in people’s memories but mostly disappeared by the time I was doing my interviews. It was vital these pictures should be archived as an evocative legacy, taken at what was a difficult time for this beloved King’s Cross neighbourhood.

The Bent TV Shop is now a Tesco

At Battlebridge Basin, the stagnant canal slumbers in a post-industrial haze

At the junction of Northdown St, a shady-looking sauna calls itself ‘KINGS X’

Albion Yard

North end of Balfe St

South end of Balfe St

Corner of Balfe St

Looking south down Caledonian Rd

76 & 78 Caledonian Rd

32 York Way

Keystone Crescent

KC Continental Stores

Bravington Block and the Lighthouse Building

King’s Cross Cinema, 1980 – it reopened as the Scala a year later

Images courtesy Islington Local History CentreCamden Archives

You may also like to take a look at

At KC Continental Stores

Bob Mazzer’s Porn Pilgrimage

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Tony permalink
    April 26, 2021

    I used to live here as a kid, I went to Winton primary school

    I remember taking clothes for my mum to Maudes ” bagwash ” we used to buy great sausage rolls and bread from “Bessies” and really good fruit and veg from “Wally” in Northdown St.

    I always remember going into the butchers ( I think it was called Mortimers) with my nan and she always used to say to the butcher ” cut that fat off before you weigh it I ain’t paying for that”

  2. April 26, 2021

    Very nostalgic. My parents owned Stokecroft Arts (eighth photo down), which he founded in the seventies. It was one of the first custom made pine furniture businesses of that time and made beds to order.

  3. April 26, 2021

    Wonderful photos. Does anyone know the original function of the lighthouse building/why it was built with the faux lighthouse on top?

  4. April 26, 2021

    Oh my goodness, how evocative and nostalgic! I walked along the Cally Road regularly in the early nineties, visiting the Urania Trust at number 392 for astrology lectures of mindblowing scholarship. The Midheaven Bookshop was downstairs then with the erudite John Etherington guiding our enthusiastic studies. I was always physically chilled and tense and suddenly glum walking past the prison, feeling the pain radiating from inside the Victorian walls so much that I had to cross the street. Then there was the hairy ‘Down in a Tube Station at Midnight’ episode on the platform at Caledonian Road where I escaped but without my boots and made my way back to Shadwell in my socks! Must have always been there after KC stores closed, because I missed those delights.

  5. Cherub permalink
    April 26, 2021

    I moved to London in ‘84, Kings Cross felt very sleazy and dangerous to a young woman from a backwater in Scotland back then. Prior to moving to London I used to make trips to visit my sister and always hated alighting at Kings Cross station – I moved away from London in 2004, making a brief visit back in 2013 and felt the same about it (not helped by the fact a member of underground staff was getting really bad racist abuse from a passenger with no ticket).

    I can remember the Scala cinema being a bit controversial as they decided to do a midnight showing of A Clockwork Orange when it was still banned in Britain. Think it was leaked to the Evening Standard and the police became involved. A college friend of mines had a clandestine VHS copy he’d smuggled in from a trip to Amsterdam, he used to make a few bob from renting it out.

  6. April 26, 2021

    Re Josephine’s question about ‘the lighthouse’. The main building itself pre-dates the original lighthouse structure that was added at the end of the nineteenth century. No paperwork exists anywhere to confirm why and who may have erected it. Some believe that a prominent local businessman who hailed from the South coast constructed the ‘lighthouse’ as a memory of home. Others reckon it was built to advertise the ground floor oyster shop (when they were a popular and affordable fast food). Also known locally as the ‘pepperpot’, it’s a King’s Cross mystery – and a classic King’s Cross landmark. It’s been battered by lightning, and more recently rebuilt and replaced by the present day version.

  7. paul loften permalink
    April 26, 2021

    I knew the Cally so well from 1979 . I remember the shops and the deli and the flats and houses and businesses and the back yards that I used to visit whilst working for Camden for 30 years . If you visit the Kings Cross Voices please enter a search for two of my work colleagues Adam Schwartz and Malcolm Holmes both of whom I knew very well . Dear Adam lived there for years and worked with me at Swiss Cottage Library. His contribution to this project is so valuable and interesting . Malcolm was Camden’s local historian and is also a fantastic treasure of information and interest . It’s well worth listening to this oral history project

  8. Anne Williams permalink
    April 26, 2021

    Fascinating. I was visited, I think by Leslie, as part of the oral history project. Leslie brought a lady to our Barnsbury house who had lived in it during the war, and into the 1950s. I learned so much, and she sent me pics of our house as it once was, as well as a print she’d made of the street outside. A really lovely encounter, I think for her as well as me. I’d love to see the Camden archive once it’s opened up – I presume it’s not open to public access at the moment?

  9. April 26, 2021

    I was raised there as a kid, I went to Winton Primary School.

    My my used to send me to Maudes “bagwash ” with our washing.

    We also went to “Bessies” for here sausage rolls and fresh and not forgetting “Wallys” for some fantastic fruit and veg in Northdown Street.

    I remember my Nan at the butchers she always said to him ” cut that fat off before you weigh that meat I ain’t paying for that ”

    A special treat on Fridays was to cross “The canal bridge ” and get fish and chips from “Dorrells”

    Happy Days.

  10. April 26, 2021

    Love how clear the streets were of rubbish! Roads looked spotless in many of the pics, but also pleased to see a road sweeper who I remember seeing regularly from my childhood.

  11. Ms Mischief permalink
    April 27, 2021

    A friend of mine in the British Library was from a local family on the Cally, and told me that his mother – when she was a little girl – and grandfather had been walking together up the Cally when a Zeppelin went over – realising the danger he threw her down & laid on top of her trying to protect her if they were hit. That unforgettable moment was retold by my friend, who might never have existed. Luckily it passed over, and they got up and continued their walk.

  12. Delisia (and Chris) Price permalink
    April 27, 2021

    Wonderful pictures.. We lived in Kings Cross (Wharfedale Road) between 1975 and 1986 and were very involved in saving the triangle of streets with Balfe and Northdown street from demolition… I was secretary of the Community Association and we gave speeches in the Council.. Our last action was designing the garden behind (had been a bomb site). We were the first people to buy a house there since long before the war… No Building Society would give us a mortgage so we had a private one from the previous owner… We remember all the things in the photos – in fact we did a few ourselves for Time Out at the time… The International Stores must have been the cheapest Italian deli in the whole of London.. I went back just before it closed and the chap who ran it hadn’t aged at all ! Many thanks (Delisia and Chris Price)

  13. May 3, 2021

    We moved to this area in 1977. As often as I could with a young family,I walked along the Cally to
    the Regents Canal to draw and paint. There was a fascinating atmosphere which I found inspiring .
    Later on,having started recording the dramatic changes from 2001 , for instance the demolition of the Culross Buildings,I was also interviewed for King’s Cross Voices . Some of this material is included in ‘The King’s Cross Story’, among them two reproductions of the Culross woodcuts.
    I was interviewed for this excellent oral history by Sue Kinder. The book is still available. A predecessor, also mentioned with several of her pictures is Kathe Strenitz , who recorded and sketched the area some 20 years before me. She was a fascinating person, arriving in England from Sudeten Czechoslovakia on the kindertransport.

  14. May 4, 2021

    The author of” The King’s Cross Story” Peter Darley, found me through King’s Cross Voices.,the oral history study.
    The book, published in 2018 ,is full of interesting photographs and reproductions of artists’work .
    When I first started drawing in the area,it was very run down and didn’t feel safe.

    Later ,in 2001,hoardings went up and seeing a bar being lifted from a gasholder, I decided to make it my project to record the dramatic changes to the King’s Cross St Pancras area.

  15. VALERIE REES permalink
    May 10, 2021

    These wonderful photos brought back many memories. I moved to the Cally in 1965. Coming from suburban south London it felt a bit dangerous but exciting. I lived in the flat before opening the Trident Pottery in 1978 when the West London Mission moved out of the shop below. There were three of us in a studio in Victoria to start with, hence the Trident, nothing to do with missiles! I brought the pottery here and ran it on my own.

    Although there were many drug dealers and prostitutes around I didn’t have any problems. If you didn’t get involved they left you alone, and pottery isn’t worth stealing!

    All the shop keepers knew and supported each other, and in spite of it’s reputation it felt like a real community with many families in the area, more than it does now, although that may just be our age.

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