The Ballad of Highbury Barn: A musical tribute to the former pleasure garden’s ‘rich heritage’

PUBLISHED: 17:45 28 November 2018 | UPDATED: 17:45 28 November 2018

Songwriter Richard O'Brien at Highbury Barn, with a poem that was printed in the Islington Gazette in 1870, and information about his new CD. Picture: Polly Hancock

Songwriter Richard O'Brien at Highbury Barn, with a poem that was printed in the Islington Gazette in 1870, and information about his new CD. Picture: Polly Hancock


A singer-songwriter has penned the “dramatic history” of a rowdy pub and pleasure house in Highbury – and hopes his songs can redeem its immoral past by raising money for the mayor of Islington’s chosen charities.

Songwriter Richard O'Brien at Highbury Barn, with a poem that was printed in the Islington Gazette in 1870. Picture: Polly HancockSongwriter Richard O'Brien at Highbury Barn, with a poem that was printed in the Islington Gazette in 1870. Picture: Polly Hancock

Richard O’Brien has drawn on material performed at the Highbury Barn, and pleasure garden, spanning from the 1700s to its closure in 1872, to create his album. But the Highbury Barn Taven still stands exists, albeit without a music or performance license.

The Ballad of Highbury Barn, an 18 track work, harks back to a time when the area was “milk country” and raucous musical events regularly filled the venue.

“This is a great story, which is 150 years old and I’m the narrator of it,” said Richard, who contemplated calling his voice on the “spirit of Higbury Barn” before deciding against it.

The Highbury Barn in 1775. Picture: Johnny HomerThe Highbury Barn in 1775. Picture: Johnny Homer

“I didn’t want to stop with just one CD,” he said. “It’s a fantastic story and part of the reason for doing it is its fund for children and adults to find out about Highbury’s rich cultural heritage.”

And Richard, of Liberia Road, lifted the lyrics for one track from a poem, which was written by a woman known only as Josephine and first published by the Gazette in 1871.

This came towards the end of the Barn’s pleasure garden days when neighbours, cops and the Clergy lobbied for its dance and music licenses to be revoked.

The Islington Gazette piece from 1871 where Richard found Josephine's poem. Picture: Islington GazetteThe Islington Gazette piece from 1871 where Richard found Josephine's poem. Picture: Islington Gazette

The Gazette backed this campaign, which was linked to sanitation problems and the venues perceived impropriety.

“The history of Highbury has always been interesting,” he said. “And once I started my research I came across this poem, which came at a crucial moment for Highbury Barn about what would happen to its license – you can see parallels with the recent debate about concerts in Finsbury Park,

“It’s a lovely little poem and an intriguing part of the jigsaw puzzle – the more I looked at it the surer I was it should be a song.

“In the paper the poem is juxtaposed with an article by the Gazette telling health authorities to clean up their act, otherwise a plague would hit Higbury.

“But in the poem she juxtaposes this with a moral plague.”

Richard’s rendition is called Josephine’s Blues.

“I can imagine them making the case about the naughty goings

on at the Barn to magistrates,” Richard added.

“The thing that finally killed it was St Barts’ students had a riot there –it was chaotic and on a bad night windows around Highbury Fields would have been smashed.”

William Willougby opened the barn as an entertainment venue in 1770.

His son succeeded him and set up the Highbury Brewery, in Holloway Road, which still stands as the Lamb pub.

The Willougby dynasty was then succeeded by a Mr Hinton, who was in turn brought out by Edward Giovannelli.

The latter proprietor was an actor and clown who pumped some £35,000 from his own pocket into the business.

One of Richard’s many collaborators, Reggis Tisboe, sings a song about Selina the young Female Blondin, who was a celebrated tight-rope walker whose carer ended in disaster at the Barn.

“She lost balance, fell 100 feet, broke her back and never worked again,” said Richard.

Other songs tell the story of the five hundred German sugar bakers and their wives who got merry at the bar, and honour the old balloon making factory in Memory Lane, a premises now occupied by a taxi company.

“I have always had an interest in our local history,” said Richard, who has lived in the borough for the past 40 years.

“I wrote the ballad shortly after preparing a number of presentations for the Highbury Heritage Centre set up at Christ Church Highbury.

“It has been wonderful recording them with so many friends from Highbury and further afield

“Highbury Barn had a rather notorious reputation: the drink, noise and other naughty goings on brought it down but there were huge efforts to offer great music, shows, plays and entertainment.

“But maybe Highbury Barn did sin in its time but this is a way it can give something back

His many talented collaborators on the album include Harmony Orchestra and Highbury’s Eclectic Voices choir.

The album can be brought at select Highbury shops and all proceeds go towards the mayor of Islington Cllr Dave Poyser’s charities, CARIS Islington and Freightliners Farm.


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