Municipal madness: Whatever happened to Finsbury?

WHENEVER I launch into a monologue about the iniquities of the 1963 London Government Act, my live-in carer rolls her eyes and reaches for my medication.

But then she, like many, is too young to recall the vandalism of the faceless bureaucrats and soulless politicians who ripped up the municipal map to replace it with the amorphous boundaries of so-called Greater London.

Until the legislation came into force in 1965, appropriately perhaps on April 1, London had ended at Stoke Newington in the north, Hammersmith in the west, Lewisham in the south and eastwards at the line of the River Lea in Poplar. Beyond that was terra incognita.

This ancient delineation had held sway since 1900 when 28 independent boroughs, linked to historically definable neighbourhoods, were established under the leadership of the London County Council.

In the subsequent half century or so, the tentacles of the Great Wen had spread further in all directions to envelop previously rural areas of the surrounding counties.

The response in the 1960s was the creation of 20 new boroughs in parts of what had been Kent, Essex, Surrey and Hertfordshire – Middlesex disappeared completely – to form what would henceforth be known as Outer London.

It might as well have been Outer Space for most Londoners, who now had to adjust to living in a city that included places like Croydon or others bearing unfamiliar names such as Havering, Waltham Forest and Brent.

So far, so good. But then the politicians ditched earlier plans to preserve the inner London boroughs and forced the old 28 fiefdoms to amalgamate into 12 new administrative units.

Out went the municipal independence of the likes of Holborn and Shoreditch, Bermondsey and Bethnal Green, and of historic Finsbury, London’s smallest borough, of which more later.

Keith Joseph, the local government minister of the day before he became known as Margaret Thatcher’s Rasputin, said he didn’t much care what the amalgamated boroughs called themselves as long as they kept it to the name of a single location.

Thus historic Deptford, with a royal naval connection stretching back half a millenium, was subsumed into its once rustic neighbour to become henceforth part of Lewisham.

Gritty Bethnal Green, Stepney and Poplar emerged as Tower Hamlets.

It could have been worse. There was talk of renaming Lewisham, now enlarged, as Ravensbourne. Greenwich with its palace, museum and observatory – not to mention the meridian – almost ended up with the name of its more sleepy next door neighbour, Charlton.

There was one exception to Joseph’s golden rule. Over in that part of west London where a lot of MPs and rich people lived, two boroughs were combined but were considered so venerable they got to keep both their names in the new Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Funny, that.

You might ask, what’s in a name? Well quite a lot actually if your identity is eclipsed in a forced marriage to an overbearing neighbour.

Which brings me back to Finsbury. Where is it, even? Ask a cabbie and he’s sure to ask: “D’you mean Finsbury Park, pal?’, referring to a suburb three miles to the north.

The real Finsbury, however, is hard by the northern edge of the City and was first built on by the 12th century Empress Mathilda, daughter of Henry I and arguably London’s first suburban property developer.

Nothing much happened for the next 300 years until someone had the bright idea of building a gate in the nearby Roman wall, thereby encouraging Londoners to move to Finsbury.

It developed as, and remains, not quite part of the City but not of the suburbs either. John Wesley built his chapel there and the Honourable Artillery Company moved in just before the outbreak of the Civil War and has been there ever since.

It was once London’s medical district with hospitals for, among others, lunatics and French Huguenots. Only the Moorfields Eye Hospital survives. It also boasts one of those creepy 18th century Hawksmoor churches, St Luke’s. Post-1963, Finsbury’s redundant and derelict town hall was turned into a dance studio.

For much of its modern history Finsbury was a mix of residential, light industrial and street markets, a mix that has to some extent been preserved. There are housing estates built post-war by the long defunct Finsbury Borough Council.

If Finsbury is now almost forgotten as a distinctive neighbourhood, it is largely because it was absorbed into the much larger Islington to the north.

The conquest came just at the time when what estate agents call “young, urban professionals” were deciding that Islington was THE place to be. Flexing its muscles, the newly enlarged council played up the trendy Islington angle and proceeded to wipe neglected Finsbury off the map.

These days, as even Finsbury has become a bit chintzier, it’s regarded as just an overlooked bit of Islington, the latter an unpopulated cow pat when the former was already a jewel in Empress Mathilda’s crown.

One sign of the occupation is a billboard at St Luke’s Gardens describing them as being “in the heart of Islington”. Even if Islington had a heart, you wouldn’t find it there.

Happily, in their haste to establish their rule, the Islington bureaucrats failed to renew all the street signs. In the backstreets you can still find rusting signs that proudly bear the name of the Borough of Finsbury (today’s picture).

Sorry to bang on for so long, but perhaps you’ll now understand why the injustices of the accursed 1963 Act get me going.

And don’t get me started on the horrors of the 1969 Greater London Development Plan, mercifully trimmed down before its execution!

Nurse! Where did you put my pills?

Red alert for London: Is the City sinking?

SUCH was the dire economic news from the City that it was with some trepidation that I crossed the Thames, half-expecting to find the starving orphans of futures traders begging for pennies on the Guildhall cobbles.

The remoaning Financial Times had set the ball rolling by gleefully reporting that the Square Mile had been overtaken as Europe’s top share trading hub by Amsterdam.

That set off a spate of grim prophecies of the end of the City’s financial supremacy as a result of the UK’s liberating departure from the EU.

It was small consolation that Dominic Raab, the government’s minister for dealing with Johnny foreigner, assured us that as an inevitable consequence of the Brexit Bounce the Europeans could be expected “to nick a bit of business here and there”.

To be fair to Dom, there were few signs of the coming Apocalyse among the lanes and alleys around the Royal Exchange and the Bank, no weeds sprouting in the cracks of Eastcheap or of Bevis Marks, no begging children.

The streets have already been pretty dead for a year and a Friday is now more like a pre-pandemic City Sunday. Most of its half million regular workforce is staying at home and virtually no one actually lives there.

Just a little over 8,000 people can technically call it home and more than half of them are at the Barbican, a brutalist estate built in the 1970s to offer banking fat cats a pied-à-terre near the office.

That’s less than one in a thousand Londoners and not much more than the 6,000 who lived in Londinium when the Romans were still around. In other words, it’s an ideal spot for the urban rambler to get away from it all and revel in London’s most historic quarter without the distraction of other people.

Frankly, nobody else bothers to go unless they have to. The City of London Corporation maintains a what-to-do site that reveals that there’s really not much to do. Even tourists, when there are any, tend to give it a wide berth apart from the A-list sites on the fringes such as St Paul’s or the Tower.

It’s certainly not party central. Look at it this way: if the lockdown ever ends, no one is going to suggest celebrating with an all-night piss-up in Throgmorton Street or Poultry.

We Londoners sometimes forget that, until about 1800, the square mile was all there was. Outside the mostly invisible line of the Roman wall, there was mainly farmland and marsh and the occasional hamlet.

The journey to rustic settlements such as Peckham was so perilous that stagecoaches would only venture there with an armed guard. Some things don’t change!

The old City had yet to become synonymous with high finance. The money dealers of the day lived above the shop, alongside the drapers and tailors and skinners and scriveners and all the other trades whose memory survives in the livery companies that still bear their names.

All human life was there. Well, almost. The prostitutes and actors and bear-baiters were kept across the river in Southwark which was incorporated into London for four centuries as the Ward of Bridge Without.

The City took a hammering in the blitz and the post-war population dropped to 5,000. St Paul’s Cathedral was its tallest building until 1980 when the NatWest Tower went up. That was followed by a dozen more with increasingly esoteric nicknames such as the gherkin. (Today’s pic features the walkie-talkie, a building that’s better in than out).

What’s to become of them, now that London’s entire financial system is said to be threatened with collapse because Boris Johnson failed to read the small print in his world-beating deal with Brussels?

Already there were questions about how many bond traders, hedge funders, and dealers in invisibles or intangibles or whatever they’re called, would actually return to their desks after Covid. It’s probably cheaper to keep them working from home until robots finally replace them. The survivors can always decamp to Frankfurt.

As for the City and its highrises, we could knock them down or turn them into workers’ flats or make the whole square mile into a Brexit theme park. How about a novelty mechanical treadmill for the kids to teach them about the good old money-making days? You could charge in Bitcoin and call the ride The March of Folly.

Join the campaign: Death to London’s ugliest station!

I WALKED over to Euston on Friday to see if I could catch up with Swampy.

It inevitably turned out to be a bit of a wild goose chase since the veteran environmental campaigner’s latest protest is taking place mainly out of sight and underground.

Eco warrior Swampy, a.k.a Dan Hooper, was more visible in an earlier protest when he occupied the top of a tree to prevent it being chopped down to make way for the HS2 high-speed rail link from London to the north.

Presently he’s the front-man for a dedicated band of urban burrowers dug in beneath the fenced-in lawn in front of Euston Station as bailiffs try to dig them out. One 20-year-old called Lazer concreted his arm into the ground inside a metal tube. He successfully made a break for it when the bailiffs came to get him.

The protestors, who dug a warren of tunnels beneath the lawn last month without anyone apparently noticing, are once again trying to halt HS2 because of the environmental damage they say it will cause.

Above ground, there was little evidence of the subterranean standoff apart from a large “NHS not HS2” banner hanging from the portico of St Pancras New Church.

The two press snappers sunning themselves at the foot of the war memorial almost outnumbered the street-level Swampy acolytes, who were so desperate to get themselves nicked that they were doing press-ups on the pavement.

They were certainly outnumbered by the squads of hi-viz coppers whose expressions of combined suspicion and boredom must surely be part of the Met police training course. It was somewhat more unsettling to see the black-uniformed private bailiffs, who were kitted out like the SAS.

The police are staking out the station entrance, questioning everyone in order to weed out Swampy followers who might be planning to chain themselves to the tracks.

I’m not sure what to think about the HS2 demos. If you’re worried about climate change, surely rail must be better than road. Then again, you can already get to Birmingham and beyond pretty quickly by train. If you absolutely have to.

Our friends in the North complain, meanwhile, that they need more local trains for local people, not soom looxury service aimed at metropolitan businessmen heading up their way to plunder the last widow’s mite.

Politicians have been wrestling with the HS2 plan for years and appear to have settled on a “well, we’ve started so we might as well finish” solution. The price tag has already tripled since the plan was first mooted in 1996 and the first train to Manchester won’t run till at least 2040, so don’t try booking just yet.

It involves chopping down a lot of trees, which has upset Swampy’s lot, and ploughing through a bunch of pristine villages, which has roused rural Tory voters from their customary slumbers.

Hence the anti-HS2 movement has drawn support not only from Swampy’s crusties but also from a familiar crop of backbench Tory swivel-eyed loons.

But that’s enough national news. What does it mean for us Londoners, particularly those of us who have no intention of venturing anywhere north of Watford?

For a start, it will mean a big revamp for Euston Station. There’s already a lot of digging going on around the back, as an argument continues to rage over how many platforms it needs.

Euston is unquestionably London’s ugliest mainline station, having been rebuilt in the 1960s after its Victorian predecessor was torn down and its Great Hall and majestic entrance arch removed by the planning vandals.

The government of the day, obsessed with cutting the ribbon on the latest stretch of motorway even us it was shutting down half the railways, wouldn’t even cough up the cash to have the arch moved elsewhere.

What stands in the place of the former neo-classical gem is something resembling a retail park in Chorleywood, wherever that is. “Even by the bleak standards of Sixties architecture, Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London,” according to one critic writing in The Times.

For Monty Python star and trainspotter Michael Palin it is “a great bath, full of smooth, slippery surfaces where people can be sloshed about efficiently”.

Fortunately, the campaigners who failed to save the Euston arch did succeed in saving St Pancras, a soaring Gothic Revival masterpiece down the road that looks more like a medieval castle than a railway station. The striking but less flamboyant King’s Cross Station next door has also since undergone a tasteful regeneration.

And then there’s Euston, an alien carbuncle that continues to scar one of London’s most stately thoroughfares. It’s a blot on a landscape that includes the imposing Wellcome Institute opposite and St Pancras Church nearby with its pagan caryatids, a group of upright maidens copied from the Acropolis.

There’s a lot of other good stuff nearby, but I’ll save it for a future trip.

Suffice it to say, if there were a campaign to rid us of the urban eyesore that is Euston Station, I’d be down in the hole with Swampy.