Another great walk with Old Map Man Ken Titmuss. Ken’s walks are an exploration of what is, what was and what remains, a form of divining, or urban archaeology. This one was centred on St Luke’s parish, in what is now the London borough of Islington.
The asylum below was once a dominating feature in the north eastern corner of the district, between Old Street and City Road. Now, the area by the Old Street roundabout is occupied by a block of local authority housing, with a routine selection of shops underneath it. But the 1830s map shows an early maternity, or lying-in, hospital tucked in next to the forbiddingly large St Luke’s Hospital, with its 500-feet long brick frontage. The asylum was built in the 1780s, designed by George Dance the Younger, and initially took in those termed ‘incurable pauper lunatics’. See Lee Jackson’s Victorian London for more.
The Burial Ground for St Luke’s Poor was immediately behind the hospital and beyond that, incongruously, were two ponds. One, the Peerless Pool, was a fish pond, the other a Bathing Pond, apparently enjoyed by the wealthy.
The area teemed with need, with the sharp end of urban life. Cries floated over the walls from the inmates of the hospital, held in unheated cells, with straw to sleep on. A stench of vinegar, from the Manufactory on the northern eastern corner of the crossroads, must have pervaded the area. To the south of the hospital was, and is, Bunhill Fields burial ground. The name derives from Bone Hill and both Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, and William Blake, visionary poet and painter, have gravestones there.
Immediately to the west of the hospital, and predating it, was a place to which plague sufferers were consigned. The site of the Pest House is now occupied by a car park with an easy-to-miss plaque on one exterior wall. The site was later taken over by Huegenots and subsequently rebuilt as the French Hospital. Pesthouse Row was renamed Bath Street, and remains so.
To the east was a huge workhouse, of which traces remain in the old wall of yet another car park. These grilles were to ventilate rooms in the workhouse.
When the workhouse infirmary was taken over by London County Council in 1930 and turned into a hospital, local people had an enduring dread of the place. Many were reluctant to go there. The LCC in 1936 renamed the hospital St Matthew’s. These gates still display the initials SM and although the hospital is now gone, a part of the workhouse infirmary dedicated to ‘female imbeciles’ endured, and is visible on the left in the background. It’s now a nurses’ home.
St Luke’s church endures too, its Hawksmoor spire as distinctive a landmark now as it must have been in the 1800s to the inmates of the asylum, the workers at the vinegar factory and the pupils of the school set up opposite the asylum, moved from its original home in Golden Lane.
As in the nineteenth century, wealth and poverty exist side by side here. Desirable apartments, gentrified Georgian and Victorian houses, stand next to large blocks of local authority or housing association flats.
Although the workhouse has mainly disappeared, destitution has not.
Much of the area is even now in visible flux.
The old Ironmonger Row baths are due to reopen this summer after a major refurbishment of the 1930s building.
A small footnote. St Luke’s Asylum closed early in the 1900s. The vast building became a printing works for the Bank of England and was later demolished altogether.
The original asylum was replaced, in altered form, by St Luke’s Nerve Hospital in Muswell Hill, which opened in 1930. The large, leafy site, with its pleasant red brick buildings and their wooden verandahs, covered walkways through the shrubberies, is now being sold by Camden and Islington Health Trust. Although an adolescent unit will remain, most of the rest of the site will be used for housing.
Details of Old Map Man walks can be seen here.