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From Arsenal parades to nuclear bunkers, new tour shares history of Islington Town Hall

PUBLISHED: 12:22 23 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:23 23 November 2016

Legendary Arsenal midfielder David Rocastle does a victory dance on the Islington Town Hall balcony in 1989. The parade was celebrating the Gunners' dramatic league title win. Picture:  John Stillwell/PA

Legendary Arsenal midfielder David Rocastle does a victory dance on the Islington Town Hall balcony in 1989. The parade was celebrating the Gunners' dramatic league title win. Picture: John Stillwell/PA

PA Archive/PA Images

When people think of Islington landmarks, the town hall is at the top of most lists. Built in 1922, the Gazette finds it has defined power in the borough ever since.

Historian Oonagh Gay stands outside the original main entrance to Islington Town Hall, facing Richmond Grove. Picture: Polly HancockHistorian Oonagh Gay stands outside the original main entrance to Islington Town Hall, facing Richmond Grove. Picture: Polly Hancock

From council meetings and Arsenal celebrations to political rallies and weddings, Islington Town Hall is the symbolic building of our borough.

But, as history tour guide Oonagh Gay recalls, this landmark of Upper Street could quite easily have been sold off in 1965, when Islington and Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Councils merged into one authority.

“The two councils, with their separate town halls and separate councillors, fought each other,” Oonagh says.

“There was a lot of rivalry, but it was eventually Finsbury that moved to Islington, and Finsbury Town Hall was sold off.

Thousands of Arsenal fans pack the streets outside Islington Town Hall to greet the 1930 FA Cup winners in Upper Street. Picture: PA ArchiveThousands of Arsenal fans pack the streets outside Islington Town Hall to greet the 1930 FA Cup winners in Upper Street. Picture: PA Archive

“It marked a power shift from Finsbury and Clerkenwell towards Upper Street.”

On Sunday morning, Oonagh, from Clerkenwell and Islington Guides, is hosting a walking history tour around the town hall.

First opened in 1922, it was built in three stages, finishing with the Assembly Hall in 1929.

“Before that, there was a magnificent vestry hall that Islington Council used,” Oonagh says. It was 30 yards from the current town hall in Upper Street.

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson at a Greater London Region meeting in the Islington Town Hall council chamber in 1971. Picture: PA ArchiveFormer Prime Minister Harold Wilson at a Greater London Region meeting in the Islington Town Hall council chamber in 1971. Picture: PA Archive

“But the controlling Labour Party realised more space was needed. It proposed a town hall in 1919, but the Conservatives opposed it. Soon after, the Conservatives took control – if you can believe that ever happened in Islington – and realised Labour was right.

“This was the beginning of metropolitan government in London, where local authorities started taking control of services like housing, health and recreation.

“So the Conservatives, needing more space, went ahead with building it while claiming to have scaled back on Labour’s plans. This was to appease rate payers unhappy at having to fund it.”

Inside and outside, Oonagh says the town hall has stayed true to its 1920s design: “It has kept most of its original Art Deco-style fixtures and fittings.

Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn at protest outside Islington Town Hall in 2002 as council parking attendants began industrial action over pay. Picture: Andy Zakeli/PAIslington North MP Jeremy Corbyn at protest outside Islington Town Hall in 2002 as council parking attendants began industrial action over pay. Picture: Andy Zakeli/PA

“Many UK town halls were built in the 1920s but many also lost these features when they were refurbished in the 1970s.

“Islington is lucky this never happened, and that’s what we’re hoping to show off in the walking tour on Sunday.”

One rather less desirable feature is only partially intact. Remains of a nuclear bunker, built in the 1980s, are in the basement.

It was constructed at the height of fears over the nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union.

Historian and tour guide Oonagh Gay inside Islington Town Hall, where much of the original architecture has been left completely intact. Picture: Polly HancockHistorian and tour guide Oonagh Gay inside Islington Town Hall, where much of the original architecture has been left completely intact. Picture: Polly Hancock

After it wasn’t needed, the council tried to promote the bunker as a “peace room”. But that didn’t catch on.

Meanwhile, the town hall has always been a symbol of Arsenal’s trophy success: “It’s a gathering point for Arsenal parades,” Oonagh says, “from trophy celebrations to Arsene Wenger being made a freeman of Islington.

“Arsenal is a symbol of our community and that is always something we have been proud of here.

“It’s appropriate because in Upper Street, the town hall is a very imposing building and remains a very definite footprint of municipal power.”

Sunday’s town hall history tour, where Oonagh will look at its social and architectural importance, begins at 11am and lasts for an hour. Tickets are £7. For more information, email oonagh.gay@islington.gov.uk

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