‘It will turn into a slum!’ 132 years of rows over use of Highbury Fields

PUBLISHED: 07:48 27 September 2017 | UPDATED: 07:59 27 September 2017

Queen's Walk, Highbury Fields, in 1985. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Queen's Walk, Highbury Fields, in 1985. Picture: Islington Local History Centre


For 132 years, Highbury Fields has been Islington’s biggest and most popular green space. As the barbecue row continues to smoulder, James Morris trawls through the Gazette archives – and finds the Fields’ entire history has been defined by conflict about how they should be used.

A 1909 postcard of Highbury Fields. Islington Local History CentreA 1909 postcard of Highbury Fields. Islington Local History Centre

Think the six-year row over Islington Council allowing barbecues in Highbury Fields is anything new? Think again.

In 1885, at a cost of £80,000 (£9.5million in today’s terms) the Fields were opened as a recreation ground.

And for as long as Islington’s largest green space has been open to the public, the same tension has existed: between those who use the Fields and those who live in the grand houses surrounding them.

Take this letter from Highbury Crescent homeowner J. Wagstaff to the Gazette in 1887.

“Sir – Will you kindly permit me, through your valuable column, to draw public attention to the scandalous state of affairs in front of this house. During the last few weeks, the place has been the resort of all the ‘raggedism’ of the parish.

“The yelling and screaming of countless children has been so intolerable that I, who have lived here all my life, am being driven away.

“Surely it was never intended that nearly £80,000 of public money should be spent on the ruthless destruction of the once valuable property surrounding Highbury Fields.

“Unless something is speedily done, it is quite certain that Highbury Place and Highbury Crescent will very quickly degenerate to the level of slumdom.”

It’s fair to say the Fields didn’t turn into a slum. But there were still a series of bizarre rows over its usage throughout the 20th century.

'Save the trees' campaigners in Highbury Fields in 1975 after the council said it wanted to fell 31 'dangerous' elms and a lime tree. Picture: Islington Local History Centre'Save the trees' campaigners in Highbury Fields in 1975 after the council said it wanted to fell 31 'dangerous' elms and a lime tree. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

In 1958, for example, Telkea and Hugh Shayler, of the British Sunbathing Association, petitioned London County Council to allow nude bathing at the Fields’ swimming pool.

One man, Henry Partridge, said the pool was overlooked by tall houses surrounding the Fields and told the North London Press: “It’s objectionable and not wanted. I have not met anyone in favour of the idea.”

And in 1975, there was uproar when Islington Council agreed to fell 31 elms and one lime tree on the grounds they were dangerous.

Cue a protest from the Highbury Fields Association, which said not enough evidence had been produced and called in outside experts to give their views.

The ’90s, meanwhile, were characterised by licensing rows over concerts in the Fields. When Holloway Road radio station Kiss FM organised a one-day festival in September 1990, 80,000 people came. You can imagine how that turned out.

Architect John Melvin, of Highbury Place, told the Gazette: “I have never seen such squalor and mess.” Housing warden Maggie Pearce, of Ronalds Road, said: “It was like a state of siege. There were people urinating all over the place and elderly people in the area were afraid to go out.”

It meant that a couple of weeks later, with the Waterboys in town to play a two-night marquee show on the Fields, homeowners threw themselves in front of an earth digger and brought it to a halt.

They were angry at attempts to erect the marquee a week before the concert took place – stopping “normal activities” on the Fields.

It meant that in the following years, fans were denied concerts by huge bands such as Blur, as the council bowed to public pressure.

Islington Carnival on Highbury Fields, 1983. Picture: Islington Local History CentreIslington Carnival on Highbury Fields, 1983. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Of course, the defining row of this generation has been over the council’s barbecue policy – as extensively reported in the Gazette.

At Thursday’s full council meeting, Michael Kuhn, of the Save Highbury Fields group, insisted the 1,200 people who signed the anti-barbecue petition “are not nimbys”.

But whichever camp you lie in, and however the barbecue saga pans out, history suggests Highbury Fields will always be defined by arguments over how it should be used.

It probably wasn’t what the Metropolitan Board of Works had in mind in 1885, when it declared the Fields “open to the public forever”.

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