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Islington Burning: ‘Firefighters face same issues as they did 100 years ago’

PUBLISHED: 12:44 26 September 2016 | UPDATED: 13:26 26 September 2016

Firefighters from Clerkenwell fire station, c.1900. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Firefighters from Clerkenwell fire station, c.1900. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Archant

A superb new exhibition tells the story of firefighting in Islington since 1381. There were plenty of surprises for James Morris, who attended the opening on Thursday.

Crews using a horse-drawn cart deal with a fire at 128, Tufnell Park Road in 1907. Picture: London Fire Brigade/Mary EvansCrews using a horse-drawn cart deal with a fire at 128, Tufnell Park Road in 1907. Picture: London Fire Brigade/Mary Evans

Three years ago, Islington lost a key part of its heritage when Clerkenwell fire station closed. The station, in Rosebery Avenue, was the oldest in the UK.

Only two remain in Islington: in Upper Street and Hornsey Road. To this day, firefighters and unions – concerned at response times – bemoan the loss of Clerkenwell.

How they must long for the early 20th century. As well as Upper Street and Rosebery Avenue, Islington had stations in Seven Sisters Road, Caledonian Road, Essex Road, Blackstock Road. Mayton Street and Hornsey Rise.

The majority of these closed in 1920, though that time it wasn’t because of mayoral cuts – as was the case with Clerkenwell in January 2014.

Caledonian fire station in Copenhagen Street, closed in 1920. Picture: London Fire Brigade/Mary EvansCaledonian fire station in Copenhagen Street, closed in 1920. Picture: London Fire Brigade/Mary Evans

“It’s because they all used engines which were pulled by horses,” explains Roz Currie.

“Obviously not being the fastest, they had to have lots of stations across the borough so crews wouldn’t have to travel so far. But mechanisation of fire engines in 1920 meant not as many stations were needed.”

On Thursday, Roz launched “Islington Burning”, a fascinating exhibition at Islington Museum telling the history of firefighting in the borough.

The earliest recorded fire in Islington was during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. It was sparked by people aged 15 and over being expected to pay poll tax. St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell was set alight by a mob as the Prior, Robert Hales, was treasurer of England.

Upper Street fire station stables in the early 20th century. Picture: Islington Local History CentreUpper Street fire station stables in the early 20th century. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Before the formation of London Fire Brigade 150 years ago, the church was responsible for fires: documents at the exhibition tell how Islington Vestry bought 40 feet of leather pipe in 1747.

Meanwhile, the Great Fire of London in 1666 had a direct impact on Islington – even though the blaze stopped on the edges of the borough. Refugees from the City camped out in Bunhill Fields, while markets were set up in Clerkenwell, Islington and Finsbury Fields for the homeless to buy bread.

This presented challenges that lasted hundreds of years, Roz says.

“Islington is today the most densely populated borough [about 220,000 in 15 square kilometres] in the country. Because of that, fire is a big issue, yet it has been this way through its entire history.

Fire engines at Mayton Street fire station, which closed in 1975. Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn now holds constituency surgeries here. Picture: London Fire Brigade/Mary EvansFire engines at Mayton Street fire station, which closed in 1975. Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn now holds constituency surgeries here. Picture: London Fire Brigade/Mary Evans

“The population was 400,000 in 1901, which is insanely dense. It was because the slums of Finsbury, with its multi-occupancy buildings, were untouched by the Great Fire. It meant they carried on.

“It has always been high density so a lot of the challenges remain the same today for Islington firefighters.

“The difference is they are much better equipped today. With every high-rise, for example, they know the layout of each flat.”

The exhibition also tells stories from unbelievable (Grand Theatre in Islington High Street burning down four times in 1883, 1887 and twice in 1900) to tragic (11 men died after Dream City, an unlicensed gay porn cinema in St John Street, was set alight by an arsonist in 1994).

The second Grand Theatre fire in Islington High Street, 1887. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe second Grand Theatre fire in Islington High Street, 1887. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Roz, who has previously curated exhibitions in the Jewish and Military Museums, gathered artefacts and pictures throughout the summer for Islington Burning. It marks 350 years since the Great Fire of London and 150 years since the formation of London Fire Brigade.

The free exhibition runs at Islington Museum, St John Street, until November 26


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