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?