What we call Islington today stretches a lot further than it used to, and it’s the church’s fault.
Nowadays Islington is spread out along Upper Street, all the way from the Angel to Highbury Corner, but the original village of Islington covered only the southern end, from the City Road to Islington Green – still Islington’s High Street to this day. As well as Upper Street, there was a Lower Street, now known as the Essex Road (although it doesn’t particularly go to Essex). Then again, in Islington, almost every street has a story.
As in most places ending with “-ington”, the name is Anglo-Saxon, but originally it was Gislandune, meaning “Gisla’s Hill”. Unfortunately we don’t know who Gisla was. What first drew the village out along Upper Street was the siting there of its parish church, St Mary’s, which was outside of Islington itself when it was originally put there in the twelfth century.
Upper Street was part of the Great North Road, and it had inns all the way along it, from the Angel, at the junction that’s still named after it, up to the Cock at Highbury Corner. The Angel was right where the High Street meets Pentonville Road, and had to be rebuilt when Pentonville Road was first laid out in 1756. It then occupied the building on the corner, which was itself rebuilt in 1902. The pub closed twenty years later, when it was turned into a Lyons Café (not actually one of their famous Lyons Corner Houses, even though it was on a corner). The original Angel Inn has nothing to do with the chain pub now named after it in the building next door, nor with any other Islington angels.
Like the Angel, the Cock Inn at Highbury Corner (now called the Famous Cock) was already established by 1614, and probably dates from the previous century. It stands next to Highbury and Islington station, which at one time had a grand façade. That, along with the 1872 pub building, was badly damaged by a V1 rocket in World War Two, which landed just across the way at the corner of Compton Terrace. Twenty-six people died in the attack and a plaque now marks the spot. The station and pub had to be pulled down and rebuilt. Just one pillar from the original station building survives (but there’s a movement to rebuild the whole shebang). The Great Northern & City Railway (the Moorgate line) previously had its own station entrance across the Holloway Road (in Highbury N5 as opposed to Islington N1), whose façade you can still see.
Highbury, complete with its corner, its fields, its barn and its clock tower, was part of the old metropolitan borough of Islington, as were Canonbury and Barnsbury – all of them once separate villages – and also Holloway, all the way up to the Archway Roundabout (which, like Highbury Corner, is no longer a roundabout). Strangely though, the Angel pub, and that side of Islington High Street at its southern end, weren’t part of the borough of Islington, but of neighbouring Finsbury, until Islington and Finsbury were amalgamated in 1965 to form the London Borough of Islington that we know today.
A working-class neighbourhood when Alexander Baron set his novel Rosie Hogarth there in 1951, Islington has become quite twee since then, and at least two prime ministers (Tony Blair and Boris Johnson) have lived there. Indeed, Blair and Gordon Brown are supposed to have made their famous 1994 power-sharing Granita pact in the (now closed) Granita restaurant at 127 Upper Street. Today, Islington is widely reviled by right-wing Londophobes for being a hub of the hated metropolitan elite, but those who scorn its residents as “Islington remainers” include at least one who lived here himself.