There’s no such neighbourhood as Finsbury, right?
We’re talking Finsbury here, not Finsbury Park. No-one ever says they live in Finsbury. Local residents might call the area Clerkenwell, or Islington, or Mount Pleasant or Farringdon or King’s Cross. But no-one ever calls it Finsbury, and if they did, people would think they meant Finsbury Park.
And yet there is a Finsbury. Before 1965, there was a whole metropolitan borough of it. There’s still a Finsbury Town Hall on Rosebery Avenue, and Emily Thornberry’s parliamentary constituency is not just Islington South, but Islington South and Finsbury, if you please. So Finsbury is no mythical entity but a real place. Just to confuse matters however, Finsbury Square and Finsbury Pavement are in it, but Finsbury Circus is not, and nor is Finsbury Park.
It all goes back to the twelfth century, when the area north of the City walls at Cripplegate, and to its east, was a boggy moor, with some dry bits that could be used for grazing animals or playing sport. It seems there was a manor there, and as it originally belonged to someone named Finn (possibly an official at St Paul’s), the manor was called Finsbury. By the fouteenth century it had a full-on manor house, with a moat and everything, located where Chiswell Street now meets Finsbury Pavement.
As the City expanded its jurisdiction beyond the old wall however, it gobbled up a bit of Finsbury – the very bit in fact where Finsbury Circus was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Just up the road, Finsbury Square is beyond the City boundary so, unlike Finsbury Circus, it is within the old borough of Finsbury. It’s also older, dating from 1777, so it was Georgian rather than just Regency. Sadly not a single Georgian building survives there today. Its south side does however play a part in eighteenth-century London’s LGBT history, as a gay cruising ground known as “Sodomites’ Walk”, while its southeast corner has a monument to Martha Smith, whose husband Tom Smith invented Christmas crackers, and the monument has what seem to be cracker motifs on it.
The metropolitan borough of Finsbury stretched up the west side of the City Road (and a bit of the east side too) all the way to the Angel. It even crossed over the Pentonville Road to take in Pentonville on the north side. It included the ancient parish of Clerkenwell, and spread west to the River Fleet (now King’s Cross Road and Farringdon Road), crossing over that in places too. Its Town Hall on Rosebery Avenue was opened in 1896 by the eponymous prime minister Lord Rosebery. Though usually Conservative, Finsbury Central had in 1892 backed Rosebery’s Liberal Party, returning Britain’s first Asian MP, Bombay-born Dadabhai Naoroji, who wrested it from the Tories by just five votes.
Finsbury Park, meanwhile, was originally an out-of-town park for the people of Finsbury, who started petitioning for it in 1841. It opened in 1869. Between Finsbury and its Park was the metropolitan borough of Islington, with which Finsbury was formally joined in 1965 to form the modern-day borough of Islington.
Quite a history for a place that doesn’t exist, eh?
Our Independently London entries on London's former metropolitan boroughs:
Coming soon: Hammersmith (7 Dec) – Hampstead (11 Dec)
Still to come: Holborn, Islington, Kensington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Marylebone, Paddington, Poplar, St Pancras, Shoreditch, Southwark, Stepney, Stoke Newington, Wandsworth, Westminster, Woolwich, and The City