In population terms, Stoke Newington (“Stokey” to its friends) was London’s smallest metropolitan borough.
Why it’s called Stoke Newington is a bit of mystery, but Stoke is very common in English place names (Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire is one of many). It seems to have originally meant a tree stump or timber, but it came to mean a small hamlet, usually dependent on a larger settlement. Newington, or Neutone, as it originally was, simply means “new town”. So Stoke Newington could possibly mean “New town in the wood”, but more likely they called it Stoke Newington to distinguish it from the manor of Newington Barrow to its south, which was presumably the larger settlement on which the stoke depended. Calling it Stoke Newington also helped to distinguish it from south London’s rival Newington, which is the area around the Elephant and Castle.
It seems there was some kind of paleolithic settlement where Stoke Newington now is, but it probably only became a village in late Anglo-Saxon times. By the seventeenth century, it was a swinging enough place: ale and cakes at any rate were apparently there in plenty. The parish boundary was a bit strange, with the old Palatine ward in its southeast corner (the western continuation of Shacklewell, basically) forming an exclave, cut off from the rest of the parish by an exclave of South Hornsey. That rather odd situation was remedied when the metropolitan borough was formed in 1900, by just annexing the whole of South Hornsey, complete with enclaves, exclaves, and any other claves they had knocking about. Palatine ward, Palatine Road and Palatine Avenue are so called for the Protestant refugees who came to live here at the beginning of the eighteenth century after fleeing religious persecution in the Palatinate region of Germany.
Still, the boundaries of the borough of Stoke Newington are a bit of a conundrum. Stoke Newington station wasn’t in the borough, and nor was Stoke Newington Common. Only one side of Stoke Newington High Street was in it, and just the northern edge of Newington Green. In the case of the Green, that can be explained by the fact that all bar the northern edge had been in the old manor of Newington Barrow, now part of Islington. As for the High Street, it was part of Ermine Street, the Roman Road to York. Ermine Street formed the Western border of the metropolitan borough of Hackney, Stoke Newington's larger neighbour, which in 1965 absorbed Stoke Newington, along with Shoreditch, to form the modern-day London Borough of Hackney.
Local Stokey history buff Amir Dotan has posted a route on his blog for a walk around the boundaries of the old metropolitan borough. As he points out, there are two historic rock n’ roll pubs along its edge. The Manor House Tavern, now unfortunately defunct, and just the wrong side of Seven Sisters Road, was a venue in the 1960s for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Jimi Hendrix Experience when they were unknown enough to still be playing in pubs. And in the 1970s, the Rochester Castle on Stoke Newington High Street, still in existence but no longer a music venue, hosted the likes of Ian Dury, the Stranglers, The Jam and The Damned.
The neighbourhood’s true main street, Stoke Newington Church Street has been called Church Street since the sixteenth century, making it the street with the oldest name in London. The church in question was St Mary’s, of which there are now two. The older one was Anglo-Saxon or Norman, but was rebuilt in 1553. The newer one, dating from 1858, was designed by gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott (who also designed the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras).
Among notable local residents was the novelist and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe, who lived at 95 Church Street. Defoe got into hot water with the authorities as a non-conformist Protestant for satirizing the Anglican church, Stokey being a bit of a hotbed for non-conformists at the time. Defoe was pilloried and jailed, but lived to tell the tale, and many others besides, including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Other literary local residents included Edgar Allan Poe, who also lived on Church Street, at number 172, and Polish immigrant Joseph Conrad, who lived at 6 Dynevor Road, and who managed, despite only learning English in his twenties, to become one of our greatest novelists.