No history of Islington would be complete without reference to the remarkable phenomenon of “Gentrification”. The term was first used by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to refer to the displacement of indigenous working class residents of run-down areas such as Barnsbury in the 1950s by more affluent middle class incomers. The “gentrifiers” refurbished the dilapidated late Georgian and early Victorian houses in a largely unplanned process which led, eventually, to the astronomical rise in property values evident today. This process was linked to distinctive styles, not just of house renovation and interior design, but also of culture, gastronomy, entertaining, politics and life-styles, which have had a huge influence on London, the UK as a whole, and indeed worldwide. The Cloudesley Estate was at the centre of this phenomenon.

Bare floorboards and Farrow and Ball paint ...Islington interior with knock-through, stripped pine flooring, period fireplace ...Georgian front door with refurbished fanlight and fittings ...

Telltale signs of gentrification - hover the cursor over images to see captions

Gentrified Barnsbury Kitchen

A gentrified Barnsbury kitchen!

Gentrification has been intensely documented and analysed. The following all contain excellent accounts:

• Joe Moran: “Early Cultures of Gentrification in London, 1955-1980”, 2007
• Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries: “The Making of Modern London”, 2007
• Jonathan Raban: “Soft City”, 2008
• Cathy Ross: “Cloudesley: 500 Years in Islington”, 2018

For a flavour of what Barnsbury was like in the 1940s and 50s, immediately prior to gentrification, have a look at "Through the Hole in the Wall", a marvellous documentary about Milner Square at the time.  As described by residents from that time, the area was undoubtedly very run down and deprived, but it was also a happy place with a great sense of community.

The first gentrifiers to move into Barnsbury were typically media professionals, architects and artists such as Glynn Boyd Harte at No 28 Cloudesley Square. They tended to have a bohemian, left-of-centre outlook and were attracted to the elegant housing and layout of the area, the proximity to the City and the West End without the need of a long commute, the edgy, “authentic” atmosphere compared to the staid middle class suburbs of their parents, and of course the low house prices at the time (the “Value Gap” – Hamnett and Randolph, 1986). These “pioneers” or “frontiersmen” (Raban, 2008) rapidly organised themselves into highly effective groups such as the Barnsbury Association, co-founded by architect Kenneth Pring, who later also co-founded the Barnsbury Housing Association.  By 1965 they had succeeded in getting Barnsbury designated as a conservation area with tree planting, attractive “Victorian” cast-iron railings and street lighting and a new traffic scheme, still evident today in the blocking off of three of the streets into Cloudesley Square and the one-way, cobblestone and granite sett layout of Cloudesley Road. Housing Acts of 1957 and 1969 accelerated this process through decontrolling rents and awarding grants for self-improvement (which, by requiring matched funding by the householder, favoured the middle classes).

Of course there was a dark side to gentrification. The rising property values attracted the attention of unscrupulous landlords who conspired with developers and estate agents to persuade or force existing working class tenants to move out of their rented properties so that they could be “done up” and sold to a new generation of gentrifiers at a huge profit, in a process known as “winkling” or “Rachmanism”. One estate agent is on record as describing Barnsbury as “a chicken ripe for plucking”. A particularly unpleasant incident in September 1973 involved the Murphy family of 16 Stonefield Street who came back one evening to find that developers had knocked down the front wall of their house! Not surprisingly, this type of activity led to a great deal of bad feeling and an atmosphere of “class war”. A Barnsbury Action Group was set up and also a Tenants Association, chaired first by Ray Spreadbury, a baker from Stonefield Street and later Danny Doolan, a grocer in Cloudesley Road.

The politics of gentrification were complex and convoluted.  The GLC, no less, were involved in a contentious scheme to modernise houses on Cloudesley Place and Cloudesley Road.  According to author Loretta Lees (2008): "the Greater London Council (GLC) eventually jumped on the improvement bandwagon, too, and developed its own brand of 'welfare winkling'".  But, conversely, according to the Civic Trust, an organisation dedicated to make better places for people to live, "This is a scheme of conservation which should set a standard for other authorities."  Jenny Tatton has recently found and transcribed press cuttings from the time which present both sides of this intriguing argument:

Download: "The Ups and Downs of Restoration and Modernisation"

This heady mix of class conflict, rocketing house prices and convoluted politics attracted a great deal of media attention and satirical humour from the likes of Mark Boxer (the “Stringalongs” Cartoon), Private Eye (“It’s Grim Up North London”), Posy Simmonds (“Mrs Weber’s Diary”), and Alexei Sayle (“It’s like f****** Norway” – referring to the gentrifiers’ predeliction for stripped pine!). In addition, a whole raft of evocative, mostly mocking, phrases were coined such as: “Conspicuous Thrift”, (Nicholas Tomalin, 1963), “the Chattering Classes” (Frank Johnson, 1980), Barnsbury as “the Spiritual Heart of New Labour” (Tony Blair moved to 1 Richmond Crescent in 1993).

Mark BoxerSociety City Country Cartoons Punch 1992 01 15 28 2 SnailsChattering ClassesSociety City Country Cartoons Punch 1978 06 07 927 1 1976

Gentrification remains a contentious subject. To quote Joe Moran: “Richard Crossman, Labour’s Housing Minister, referred to these pressure groups [eg the Barnsbury Association] when he spoke in favour of the demolition of Islington’s Packington Estate in 1965: “These rat-infested slums must be demolished. Old terraced houses may have a certain snob-appeal to members of the middle class but they are not suitable accommodation for working-class tenants.” Crossman’s comment shows how much the process of gentrification relied on contested meanings: one’s class position determined whether the same houses should be condemned as slums or admired for their “snob appeal”.

But today, Barnsbury, and the Cloudesley Estate in particular, seems to have settled down into a fairly peaceful and pleasant community. Council tenants rub along quite well with their “Servantless Middle Class” owner-occupying neighbours in what is actually quite close to the “Urban Village” dream of the original Barnsbury Association. In fact the “Battle of Barnsbury” in the 1970s may have been exaggerated. A 1972 article from The Journal on the “Middle Class Colony” in Cloudesley Road, which also features Danny Doolan, has this to say:

“But, behind the crisis lives a very definite community spirit. The road has its own shops – much frequented by all the residents – and its own pub.  I was told by teacher Simon Watson, who only moved into the road with his wife a year ago, of one evening when an elderly woman from across the road took the trouble to come over and tell him he had left the lights of his car on.

That’s the type of thing you would think could only happen in a village-type atmosphere, and it shows you that you cannot dismiss Cloudesley Road as being ‘socially divisive.’”

Download Full Article from The Journal, 1972, Here

In many ways things have come full circle. The late Georgian terraces of the Cloudesley Estate are once again supporting more or less the same sort of genteel community for which they were built 200 years ago!

Postscript: "Supergentrification"

John Scholes has drawn my attention to a 2006 article by Tim Butler and Loretta Lees entitled "Super-Gentrification in Barnsbury, London: Globalization and Gentrifying Global Elites at the Neighbourhood Level".  This is what they have to say in the article abstract:

"A new group of super wealthy professionals working in the City of London is slowly imposing its mark on this inner London housing market in a way that differentiates it and them both from traditional gentrifiers and from the traditional urban upper classes. We suggest that there is a close interaction between work in the newly globalizing industries of the financial services economy, elite forms of education, particularly Oxbridge, and residence in Barnsbury which is very different from other areas of gentrified inner London"

It's a well-written and detailed article but personally, I'm not convinced.  Firstly, Loretta Lees has an agenda - she works from the premise that gentrification is a "bad thing" and has written extensively on how to prevent it.  Secondly, there is still plenty of council housing in the Cloudesley Estate and Barnsbury generally to ensure a healthy social mix.  Thirdly, where are these "super wealthy professionals"?  I don't know any of them (although maybe that's the point!).  Anyway, I thought most hedge fund managers lived and worked in Mayfair.

Nevertheless it remains the case that most of us currently living in the area would no longer be able to afford to buy a property now at today's prices which raises the interesting question as to what will happen as we all die off - some of us sooner rather than later :-(?

Comments anyone?