Following a tip-off from a Barnsbury resident visiting Thornhill Gardens, Jenny has discovered a patch of wooden paving blocks at the bottom of Penton Street, in front of Nos 90-92 Pentonville Road, where the asphalt surface has worn away - see below.  The blocks extend throughout the forecourt area right out to the road.  The story of how they came to be there is quite an interesting one - well, I think so anyway!

Jennys Photo


Up to the beginning of the 19th century the streets of London had not changed much since Roman times and were mostly in a dreadful state.  Apart from the use of stone cobbles in more salubrious areas, most streets were little more than dirt tracks with gravel-filled potholes.  When it rained they became rivers of mud and excrement, mostly horse manure.  This was a classic "Tragedy of the Commons"; in the absence of a central administration, the building and maintenance of London streets was the responsibility of innumerable small parishes, which typically they discharged in a haphazard and neglectful manner.

Then after the Napoleonic wars a Mr J L McAdam invented the "macadam" technique, "layers of carefully graded small stones,bound if necessary with clay or cement, impacted by rolling and having only a shallow camber" to quote a good summary of the history of London's streets by Hannah Renier.  At about the same time, improved transportation by rail and sea meant high quality granite became available from places like Aberdeen.  Granite "setts" - square or rectangular cobbles about 4x6 inches - became the surfacing of choice for streets which could afford them. From about 1870 onwards, there was an increasing tendency to coat both granite setts and macadam with tar, bitumen or asphalt (bitumen mixed with gravel) for an improved and longer lasting surface (in the case of macadam, this became known as "tarmacadam", from which "tarmac" is derived).

But from the mid century onwards, wooden blocks started to be used instead of granite, and wood-paved streets became surprisingly popular in the late 19th century and well into the 20th.  Throughout this time, there was a lively competition between the three types of surfacing, cobbles, macadam and wood, with suitability for horse carriages being the main criterion for choosing between them.  Granite setts were probably the most durable and best for the horses, but relatively expensive and very noisy.  Macadam was cheaper but required much maintenance and was slippery especially in the form of tarmacadam.  Wooden blocks were also slippery, but less so than asphalt, and by the end of the century were probably the most popular choice for London streets outside the City and Docklands.  Such was the demand for high quality wood that in 1898 the Jarrah Timber and Wood Company was set up specifically to grow and import Jarrah timber from Australia!

The history of London's wooden streets is documented in an excellent blog by Ian Mansfield, here.  The extraordinary popularity of wooden paving is demonstrated by the Bartholomews map of 1928, below, taken from that blog.  All the streets marked in yellow are wood!  Blue marks the use of granite setts, macadam is marked by very faint pink, and green is compressed asphalt (first introduced in 1869 on Threadneedle Street by the Val de Travers Company).  Streets without any colouring are presumably simple dirt and gravel.

london map Bartholomews 1928


As the 20th century progressed, travel by horse was increasingly displaced by the automobile, for which tarmacadam was clearly preferable.  Then after the second world war, most of the old wooden blocks were dug up for fuel, with those which were impregnated with tar apparently burning particularly well! 

For a much more detailed history of the use of wooden blocks in London, see the entertaining "Roads were not built for Cars", here

So how were the streets of Islington surfaced, particularly those of the Cloudesley Estate?  Looking closely at the Bartholomews map, above, it seems that in 1928, Pentonville Road, Liverpool Road and Essex Road were all paved with granite setts, while Upper Street, including its extensions North to Holloway Road and South along St Johns Street and Roseberry Avenue, was wooden blocks.  The rest of Barnsbury was either macadam or just dirt and gravel in the case of the Cloudesley Estate.  We have tried to confirm this last with mixed success.  Images of the area are inconclusive.  The engraving of the infants school on Cloudesley Street below might be taken as showing cobbles but this could just be artistic licence.  The lithograph of Holy Trinity Church in Cloudesley Square seems to show residents walking about on a sandy surface or even turf.  To investigate further I questionned one of the workmen digging up Cloudesley Road for laying cable fibre.  He said he'd come across layers of stone cobbles in some streets nearby (Upper Street?) but there was no such evidence in Cloudesley Road.  The rather disappointing conclusion seems to be that when the streets of the Cloudesley Estate were first laid out they were simple dirt and gravel and remained as such until tarmacadamed late into the 20th century.  By the way, don't be fooled by the patches of cobbles on the pavements of Cloudesley Road.  These were almost certainly decorative features introduced as part of gentrification in the 1970s.

Infant School Cloudesley Square


Cloudesley Church and Square 0418738 RIBA68854 600



Finally, what of Jenny's patch of wooden blocks on Pentonville Road?  According to two sources, British History Online and a wonderful blog called Jane's London, these paved the forecourt of HW Wilkins & Sons, a marble merchant at 90-92 Pentonville Road.  We have a picture below - note that Pentonville Road itself is paved with stone cobbles.  Given that Wilkins was only established in 1860, this is the earliest date for the wooden blocks, and it is possible they were laid much later.

Wilkins Marble Shop


Does anyone have any further insights into this subject?


#2 Jo Murray 2023-01-06 11:25
I saw wooden blocks exposed in Merlin St a few years ago, I had no idea they were so common. Merlin Street runs from Amwell Street to Wilmington Square.
The Merlin St Baths closed in 1988.
#1 Dirk Meerstadt 2021-12-10 15:41
An example of end grain wood block flooring in modern times can be seen in the reception areas of the Barbican Halls. It is likely the wooden blocks were laid end grain upwards as that made them more durable and perhaps soaked in tar to make them water resistant.... worth a look to confirm.