Grand houses of Highbury are revealed in new tour
- Credit: Archant
A Jack the Ripper suspect and a film character played by Hugh Grant are just a few of Highbury’s eccentric alumni featured in a new tour, as the Gazette discovers
Anyone who walks down the roads surrounding Highbury Fields will be struck by the Georgian terraced houses and plentiful greenery. But there’s more here of interest than most people realise.
A walk organised by Islington tour guide Philip Nelkon delves into the colourful past of some of the area’s best-known former residents, from the 18th Century onwards.
Back then, the streets around Highbury Fields were in fact in the middle of the countryside – and had become a gated community for rich professionals.
“In the 1860s, the health expert John Coull said living in this elevated position in London meant the air was very good,” says Mr Nelkon.
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“This meant you were thought to be much less likely to catch diseases like cholera and typhoid, which were prevalent at the time.”
One of the privileged residents was the impressionist painter Walter Sickert (1860-1942), who lived at 1, Highbury Place, where he is now remembered with a green plaque.
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Influenced by the impressionist painter Edgar Degas, who he met in Paris, Sickert was one of the founding members of the post-impressionist Camden Town Group.
He’s also said to have inspired the wartime prime minister and keen artist Winston Churchill, who he painted in 1927. Afterwards, Sickert reportedly said the portrait gave him “a new lease of life as a painter”.
One of his most famous works is a painting entitled “What shall we do for the rent?”, which depicts a man sitting on a bed with his head in his hands by the body of his wife – whom he has just murdered.
But he isn’t just remembered for the dark subject matters of his paintings: a recent book has suggested he may be one of the most infamous killers in British history.
“Although his paintings are not so well known, he found new fame in 2002 through crime novelist Patricia Cornwell’s non-fiction book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, where she alleged Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper,” says Mr Nelkon.
As part of her research, Cornwell reportedly purchased 31 of Sickert’s paintings and apparently even destroyed one of them while trying to extract DNA – much to the anger of the Sickert family.
“Undoubtedly, there was a macabre side to Sickert, but recent findings indicate that there are other people who are much more likely to be involved in the Ripper murders than him,” says Mr Nelkon.
Down the road at 1, Highbury Terrace, another green plaque pays tribute to a man whose reputation has never been in doubt. Sir Francis Ronalds (1788-1873), the inventor of the electric telegraph – from which the nearby Ronalds Road also takes its name – lived there with his family between 1796 and 1813.
“He actually started off in the family trade of cheese-making but was always a scientist at heart,” says Mr Nelkon.
It was during Ronalds’ time in Highbury that he developed an interest in chemistry and began his groundbreaking work in the field of electricity – conducting various experiments at his home.
In 1860, the inventor wrote: “Very early in life, chemistry was my chief amusement and my most memorable performance in this science then was the blowing up of a large hydrogen gasometer in the breakfast room of No 1 Highbury Terrace.”
Film boffins may also be interested to know that one of Britain’s cheesiest romcoms Four Weddings and a Funeral was partially filmed just a few doors down at number 22.
It’s outside this stunning four-storey Georgian terraced house that Charles – played by Hugh Grant – declares his love for Carrie (Andie McDowell).
“I realised I totally and utterly love one person, and it wasn’t the person standing next to me in the aisle. It’s the person standing opposite me now in the rain,” he tells her.
“Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed,” she replies, rather unconvincingly.
It’s since become known as one of the worst movie lines in history.
These locations will feature in a tour led by Philip Nelkon, “Highbury – Grand Houses and Grander Stadiums”, on Sunday. It will begin at 2pm outside Highbury & Islington station.