In 18th and 19th century London the Pleasure Gardens were at the height of their popularity amongst the fashionable set. They were supplemented by the various tea-gardens that were scattered along the outskirts of the metropolis and which attracted Sunday afternoon strollers in the summer season. One of the largest and more unusual of these resorts was Highbury Barn in Islington.
This was a famous and popular place of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries. The site formed part of Highbury Fields, the 13th century country manor of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and of Malta (Knights Hospitalers or Knights of Malta) whose main Priory was at Clerkenwell. The House was burned by Jack Straw's men during the Peasant's revolt in 1381 after which the site became known as Jack Straw's Castle. In 1540, when Henry VIII suppressed the Priory, he granted the manor and the adjoining Canonbury manor to Thomas Cromwell. However, when Cromwell was executed the property reverted to the Crown. It was finally disposed of by Charles I and it passed through the hands of several families. It was to Highbury Fields that the refugees from the Great Fire fled in 1666 and watched their City being consumed by the flames. There were gathered here
"200,000 people of all ranks and degrees dispersed and lying along by their heapes of what they could save from the fire, deploring their losses and though ready to perish for hunger and destitution, yet not asking one penny for relief." The 'Barn' was, in fact, the dairy building of the original farm and by 1740 it had been converted into a cakes-and-ale house. Oliver Goldsmith and his companion often walked here from the Temple on Sundays in the 1760s and it appears to have been a fashionable resort for Londoners of Summer Sunday afternoons at this time.
In the 1770s it was acquired by the Willoughbys, a father and son partnership who developed the site by adding a bowling green and tea-gardens. The younger Willoughby converted the Barn into a "Great Room" where meals could be served. By 1818 it was renowned for club dinners. It was acquiired from the Willoughbys by John Hinton who owned the Ayre Arms in St John's Wood. Between 1835 and 1860, he and his son, Archibald, further developed the sit into a "North London Cremorne" a reference to the fashionable Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. In the 1840s, the Licensed Victullers held heir annual dinner here and the Barn catered for upwards of 3,000 guests at each of these.It began a new career in 1854 when Archibald Hinton converted the Barn into a Concert Hall. Within a couple of years he had also obtained a dancing licence and in 1858 built the famous Leviathan. This was a 4,000 foot square open-air platform for dancing. It was lit by enormous gas globes and had the orchestra at one end. Admission was sixpence and it became an extremely popular venue with Londoners on Sunday evenings.
The site was acquired from Hinton by the famous clown Edward Giovanelli. He further developed it by adding a large supper room and splendid illuminations. For the 1861 season he engaged some of the most popular singers and the gymnast and trapeze artist Jules Leotard "The Daring young Man on the Flying Trapeze", who had caused a sensation at the Alhambra in Leicester Square on his first appearance in London. In 1865, Giovanelli constructed the elaborate Alexandra Theatre on the site of the old Barn. The Times hailed its opening as the theatre "for the northern portion of the metropolis" for which London had been long in need. With the price of a box set at one guinea, it was not cheap. The entertainment included Giovanelli and his wife in comedy and pantomime. One of the star attractions was Leotard's rival, Blondin, who had become instantly famous in 1859 when he crossed Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. There was a sensation when one of his female co-performers fell to her death from the high wire. Other acts included the original siamese twins and the ever popular music-hall.
But trouble was brewing amongst the well-to-to inhabitants moving into the expanding suburb. The first developments began in the 1790s when Highbury Place and part of Highbury Terrace were built. The location was high and healthy and soon attracted wealthy residents who quickly formed the opinion that their locality was definitely superior to Islington in general. In the 1820s they installed gates tp private highways and blocked access from the Holloway Road. The sense of exclusivity became so great that they presented a petition to parliament demanding the passage of a local Act which would invest in them authority for their own lighting and security and exempt them from the general parish rate. The petition failed, but they soon became exercised about the general rowdiness and horseplay in which the crowds flocking to the Alexandra indulged themselves. A serious riot in 1869 played into their hands and the following year they successfully appealed against the renewal of Giovanelli's Licence. E T Smith attempted to revive the theatre but his application for a licence was also refused. The site became overgrown and by 1883 had been entirely built over.
The modern Highbury Fields is a small public park of twenty-seven and a half acres. It was acquired in 1865 at a cost of 600,000, half of which was contributed by the Vestry of Islington. An attempt had been made in 1850 to acquire the area north and east of the present park, when it was still open country, and to turn the entire area into a public park. The proposed park would have extended from Highbury to Green Lanes and from Stamford Hill to Holloway and would have included an ornamental lake of some fifty acres. The estimated cost was 200,000 and the project had the support of Prince Albert, Lord Grosvenor, Lord Ashley and Lord Carlisle. However, before the money could be raised the builders had moved in and the opportunity was lost. The modern Highbury Barn Tavern, at 26 Highbury Park on the junction with Kelvin Road, is a small echo of the original vast site. With its wide-screen televisions, it, too, is a place of entertainment, this time for the football fraternity and it has particular associations with the local football club.
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