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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Islington's transformed transformer, based on Newgate Prison

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Originally an electricity sub-station, the Islington landmark has been an antiques mall and home to several retailers.

The Mall, Upper Street, Islington

The building generally known today as the Mall or the Tramshed, between Upper Street and Islington High Street, was built in 1905-6 by the Architect's Department of the London County Council (a forerunner of today's Greater London Authority).


It was built to house an electricity sub-station for the LCC's tram network, transforming the voltage of the supply generated in the council's own power station at Greenwich for use in its tramlines. Although often referred to as the Tramshed, it almost certainly never housed the trams themselves.

 

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The LCC architects were strongly influenced in their design for the substation by Newgate Prison, which had been demolished in 1902. The prison had stood where the Central Criminal Court stands today on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey since 1188.


It was rebuilt many times and the most recent version had been completed in 1782 to a design by the City of London architect George Dance the Younger.


It is not clear why the LCC chose to adopt the 'architecture terrible' style - advocated by French architect Jacques-Francois Blondel and used by Dance for Newgate Prison - for its transformer station.


The style, designed to serve as a deterrent with reinforced walls and few windows, was described by Blondel as "a style where the principles of art seem to be crushed under the weight of the Artist's ignorance".


Perhaps the LCC architects saw a parallel between the sub-station's role in transforming the voltage of electricity and the prison's role in transforming criminals? (However, Newgate was notorious for not transforming, or reforming, prisoners at all.)


The west elevation of the building, facing onto Upper Street, has the most obvious similarities to the former Newgate Prison building. In particular, the arched niches contain architectural features known as aedicules, which consist of a triangular stone pediment supported by a pair of stone columns. These are almost exact copies of similar features in Newgate Prison.


Below is a photo of the west elevation of The Mall in 2023, next to an image of Newgate Prison in 1810 by George Shepherd (public domain, source: Wikipedia),

London's last tram lines ceased to operate in 1952, since when the former electricity sub-station in Islington has transformed itself several times.


In 1979 the building became an antiques mall, with premises for more than 35 antiques dealers. This was, in effect, overspill from the successful transformation of nearby Camden Passage into one of London's most important areas for antiques shops.


Rising rents forced many of these traders out of the area and, in 2009, clothing retailer Jack Wills moved into the Mall (taking out the internal partitions that had been built to separate the antiques shops, thanks to a government inspector overruling Islington Council's planning department).


It later became a branch of another clothes shop, Superdry, and then a furniture shop run by sofa.com. Since 2022, is has been an outlet of Amazon Fresh, the high street food retail business of on-line retailer Amazon.


Today, people waiting for a bus on Upper Street opposite the Mall may not realise that they are looking at replicas of architectural features that were once the backdrop to public hangings outside Newgate (second photo below, public domain, source: Wikipedia).

 

The Mall is one of the many buildings on Upper Street that can be seen on my Up and Down Upper Street walking tour (next available date is 26 February 2023).

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground tours, please click here.

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