Wall to wall: Britannia Row, Pink Floyd & the City of London
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
A quiet Islington side street tells of urbanisation, social history, post war reconstruction - and two walls.
Britannia Row is a quiet side street off Essex Road in Islington, North London. Not even 300 yards long, it takes less than three minutes to walk the full length of the street. Yet it illustrates a number of themes in the story of Islington and many other former rural areas swallowed by London: the 18th century beginnings of urbanisation, 19th century philanthropic and social developments and the impact of World War II bomb damage on 20th century townscapes.
It also provides an unexpected link between the rock group Pink Floyd and a City of London chapel with 12th century origins. More on that later.
Britannia Row runs roughly east-west between Essex Road (at its western end) and Popham Street (at its eastern end). On the other side of Essex Road, Dagmar Terrace continues the line of Britannia Row and leads to St Mary's, Islington's oldest and principal Anglican church.
Until the 1770s, the area to the east/south east of Essex Road consisted of open fields a mile or two outside London. Islington was little more than a country village, a half hour walk north of the City, with buildings almost exclusively only along Islington High Street, Upper Street and Lower Street. The latter was the old name for Essex Road, since the land slopes west to east down from Upper Street to Lower Street/Essex Road (it continues to slope down Britannia Row).
The area was a stopping place for travellers into London, particularly drovers taking cattle and other animals to market at Smithfield. It was known for its pastures and its pleasure gardens.
John Rocque, an 18th century cartographer born to French Huguenot immigrant parents, mapped London and the area 10 miles around the City in 1746. Part of his map, showing St Mary's Church, Upper Street and Lower Street (now Essex Road) is reproduced below.
Rocque's 1746 map shows countryside where the future Britannia Row will pass: roughly from the space between the 'S' and the 't' of Lower Street to the top of the first 'l' of the wonderfully named Frog Hall (an inn, long gone). The fields to the east of Frog Hall were owned by the Clothworkers' Company, one of the Great 12 livery companies of the City of London.
An 1828 map by C & J Greenwood shows considerable development of the area east/southeast of Essex Road. Not only is Britannia Row now built, with buildings along its full length on both sides, but also a number of other parallel streets, including Popham Street to the north of Britannia Row and Windsor Street to the south.
There is also more development between Lower Street and Upper Street and to the west of Upper Street. Nevertheless, fields and green space are still very much in evidence. Frog Hall has disappeared in the 1828 map and the country lane on which it had stood, which used to be called Frog Lane, is now called Popham Terrace.
Britannia Row's history as a named street starts in 1773; its name reflecting a revived interest in classicism and growing pride in Britain's imperial power at that time.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, 'Britannia' became a popular name for both streets and inns (to read more on the origins of Britannia, click here). Britannia Row certainly had a pub called The Britannia by the 1820s, at the Essex Road end, but it is unclear whether the pub or the street was named first. A second pub, The Britannia Arms, stood at the other end of the street by 1870 or earlier.
Throughout the 1800s, Britannia Row had mixed residential and commercial use. In the 1820s factories had been established for making cut glass and watch springs; there are also records of furniture and cabinet makers in the early decades of the 1800s. A William Ballard, who was at 7 Britannia Row in the 1830s, was described as a chair maker and undertaker (a great example of the use of transferable skills).
A number of religious, social and community organisations were present in Britannia Row in the 1800s. A group of Baptist church members met in rooms on the street in the 1830s and had a chapel in the street in the 1870s.
Britannia Row Congregational Chapel was built in 1872 and it was here that the 58th London Company Boys' Brigade was founded in 1892. The Boys' Brigade remains one of the biggest Christian youth organisations in the UK.
Two schools were established on the street in the 1860s and 1870s. One of these was the Britannia Row (Islington) Ragged School for the education of poor children. It was described in a contemporary report as "efficient, but overcrowded" (click here for more about the Ragged School Union).
Another charitable organisation, the Islington Medical Mission, had premises on Britannia Row from 1872 until they were destroyed by World War II bombs in 1940. Its purpose was to provide free medical care to the poor, long before the creation of the National Health Service.
The Ragged School and the Medical Mission illustrates that Britannia Row was an area of poverty and deprivation in the 19th century. In addition to overcrowding with people, pigs were commonly kept in Britannia Row and the alleys off Essex Road.
The medical officer for Islington reported on living conditions in the parish in 1874, highlighting the vicinity between Greenman Street and Britannia Row as one of three particularly bad areas. This led to the clearing of the area in 1882 by the Metropolitan Board of Works for new housing schemes.
Nevertheless, in 1897 the Charles Booth Poverty Maps still classified most of Britannia Row as 'Poor: 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family' and parts of it as 'Very Poor, Casual: Chronic Want'. This was not as bad as 'Lowest Class: Vicious or Semi-Criminal', but Britannia Row and a few parallel streets stood out as the poorest of the surrounding area.
In 1940 Britannia Row suffered significant damage from a German aerial bombing raid. The bomb damage maps of 1945 show that most of the southern side of the street and a large part of the eastern end of the north side of the street were effectively obliterated. Most of Windsor Street, to the south of Britannia Row, and parts of Popham Street to its north, were also destroyed.
The photograph below shows Britannia Row from Windsor Street after the bomb damage was inflicted. In the foreground only rubble remains where Windsor Street and the south side of Britannia Row once stood, while buildings on the north side of Britannia Row still stand. The two buildings with large windows on the right of the photo, on the north side of Britannia Row, survive to this day (we will return to these buildings later).
After World War II, rather than rebuild Britannia Row with its very narrow pre-war dimensions, new housing blocks were built with much greater space around them.
Only at the Essex Road end of Britannia Row, relatively undamaged by bombing, does the street retain its pre-war dimensions and some much older buildings.
As you look at Britannia Row from Essex Road, the building on the right at 68 Essex Road is from the late 1700s/early 1800s - roughly the period when Britannia Row was first developed.
The house at 70 Essex Road, to the left, was built in the early 1700s, when Britannia Row was still fields. Now an estate agents' shop on the ground floor, this building is Grade II listed by English Heritage, mainly because of interior wooden panelling and other fittings (click here to read more about 70 Essex Road and its history as an ironmongers' shop for John C Aston Ltd).
Walking past 70 Essex Road into Britannia Row, the two storey brick building on the left was once a warehouse for the iron mongers'. It now houses The Life Centre, which offers yoga, Pilates and natural therapies.
Across the road from the Life Centre, on the south side of Britannia Row, is the London Art Centre. This is a conference and events venue operating from a former printing and reprographics works.
Past the London Art Centre and the junction with Windsor Street, the eastern part of Britannia Row opens out from its narrow western section to reveal post-war housing blocks on the south side set well back from the road and surrounded by green space.
On the north side of the street is Denham Lodge, a housing block built in 1963 for Day Flats Residents Ltd (read more about Day Flats here). It replaced properties damaged beyond repair in World War II, immediately to the east of the two surviving buildings shown on the right of the war damage photo shown above.
Five housing blocks make up the Cumming Estate, built in the 1950s and 1960s and operated by Islington Council. Three of them (Price House, Strang House and Turnbull House) stand on the south side of Britannia Row, also occupying much of what was Windsor Street, while one (Finnemore House) is on the north side of the street at the junction with Popham Street. The fifth (Gough House) is at the corner of Essex Road and Packington Street, with access from what remains of Windsor Street.
Just beyond the eastern end of Britannia Row, across Popham Street, is St James' Church. Although not strictly on Britannia Row, its entrance is in line with the north side of the street and visible from Britannia Row along its full length.
St James' was built in 1875 by the Clothworkers' Company on part of the land it had owned in Islington since the 16th century, next to almshouses it had already built.
St James' Church in Islington replaced an earlier Clothworkers chapel in the City of London, also dedicated to St James, which was demolished in 1873.
The earlier chapel was built against, and inside, the ancient northern wall of the City (read about the history of the original St James' chapel on London Wall and its connection with philanthropist and Master Clothworker William Lambe here).
On the southern part of today's Barbican estate, part of the ancient City wall of London can still be seen. The gap in the wall opposite the church of St Giles Cripplegate corresponds to the location of the chapel of St James in the Wall.
The Clothworkers decided to build their new St James' on their Islington estate and the church was completed in 1875, to the design of the Company Surveyor Frederick William Porter (see below left, picture source: Clothworkers' Company).
With external walls clad in Kentish rag stone and interior walls of Bath stone, it reflects the Gothic revival style popular at the time. The church was built by Dove Brothers, an Islington firm of builders that later rebuilt the bombed St Mary's on Upper Street in 1956.
St James' Church is located just beyond Britannia Row, but it had a presence in the street in the form of a mission hall and church hall. St James' Mission Hall was built in the neo-Gothic style by the Clothworkers in 1884 at 35 Britannia Row.
In 1915, the church expanded its presence into the adjacent Victorian warehouse building, once used by bookbinders, to create St James' Church Hall.
These are the two buildings visible in the earlier photo showing World War II bomb damage and which still stand today to the right of Denham Lodge on the north side of Britannia Row.
In 1945 the Clothworkers' Company sold most of its Islington Estate, apart from the almshouses and the church properties. In the later decades of the 20th century, the Company sought first to reduce and then to end its involvement with St James' Church, while the church itself for a while faced the threat of closure due to dwindling congregations.
The Mission Hall and Church Hall were sold in 1974. The new owners were the rock group Pink Floyd, who built a recording studio in the property in 1975 (it was not far from the Haggerston home of the band's main songwriter Roger Waters).
Pink Floyd only made one complete album at Britannia Row Studios, Animals, released in 1977 (the album cover famously had a picture of a pig flying over Battersea Power Station, but it is not known if the band was aware that pigs were once kept in Britannia Row).
In 1979 Pink Floyd recorded parts of their next album, The Wall, at Britannia Row - most notably the verse of Another Brick In the Wall (Part 2) that was sung by children. Roger Waters wanted the sound of London kids, so the band's production team approached the music teacher at the nearby Islington Green Comprehensive School (now the City of London Academy Islington).
The teacher, Alun Renshaw, took a group of fourth form pupils to Britannia Row in November 1979 to sing "We don't need no education". The head teacher was not pleased, but the single reached number one in the UK early in 1980 and the school soon boasted a plaque commemorating its involvement.
The video for Another Brick In the Wall (Part 2) includes brief shots of both Strang House and Turnbull House, the two Cumming estate housing blocks that are opposite the studio building on Britannia Row. (The video opens with a historic panorama from St Paul's Cathedral to King Square, off Goswell Road).
Pink Floyd recorded parts of the albums The Final Cut and A Momentary Lapse of Reason at Britannia Row and used it for the jam sessions that led to The Division Bell.
Britannia Row Studios also recorded other bands, including Joy Division, New Order, Steve Winwood, Squeeze and Jeff Beck. In addition it was used for solo projects by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, who became the sole owner after the other band members sold their shares to him.
The recording studio company left Islington in the 1990s, moving to Fulham under new ownership, but retained the name Britannia Row Studios. Britannia Row Productions, a spin-off company with origins as Pink Floyd's road crew, now based in Twickenham, is one of the UK's largest providers of audio equipment to events and productions.
The former Pink Floyd studio building, once a church hall, was converted into office space for creative businesses. In 2016, Islington Council approved plans to convert the building into combined luxury office rental and residential use. In 2022, this conversion has still not taken place and the building does not look to be in use.
The Pink Floyd interlude has given Britannia Row's story an added sheen. Nevertheless, in spite of substantial physical changes since World War II, the street's character remains consistent with much of its history. Britannia Row still has a mix of residential and commercial use, just as it did in its earliest days.
The industries associated with the street in the past - furniture making, glass making, watch making, printing - were for generations very important in nearby Clerkenwell and Finsbury (but have all but disappeared from those areas now, as they have from Britannia Row).
Situated closer to the City, Clerkenwell and Finsbury were built-up London suburbs when most of Islington was still a country village. When Britannia Row became one of the first areas in Islington away from Upper Street and Lower Street (Essex Road) to be urbanised, it is not surprising that Clerkenwell and Finsbury's trades spread to it.
Britannia Row's history - particularly in the 1800s, but also since then - highlights key challenges associated with urbanisation (and post-war reconstruction of the urban environment): housing, education, employment, health and the role played by churches of various denominations.
Britannia Row also provides a link between Pink Floyd's album The Wall and the City of London's ancient wall.
If you have time: bonus features
Origins of Britannia and its use as a street name
Britannia had been the Latin name for the island of Great Britain since the first century CE, when the Romans occupied this land, although the word has much earlier origins in the ancient Greek word for the island in the fourth century BCE. Coins from the second century CE, during the Roman occupation of Britain, depict a goddess figure with a shield, spear and helmet. The use of Britannia as a name for the island declined after the Romans left and when Anglo Saxon kings unified England.
The union of England and Scotland under one king (James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England) in 1603 led to a revival of the idea of Britannia in the 17th and 18th centuries. King James held a pageant where "a fair and beautiful nymph" portrayed the island under the name Britannia. When King Charles II became king in 1660 after the demise of the republic created by the English Civil War, Britannia appeared on English coins for the first time. She continued on coins until 2008, when the last 50p pieces depicting Britannia were minted (although many remain in circulation).
The 18th century saw the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, which united the two kingdoms into one (with a single Parliament), and the growth of British maritime power. By this time Britannia still looked much like she had in the classical era, but now she held the trident associated with the sea god Neptune, reflecting Britain's maritime heritage. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britannia became a popular name for both streets and inns.
The Ragged School Union was a charitable organisation founded in 1844 to provide a free education to the most destitute children, although its origins and individual schools date from the late 18th century. Its name derives from the ragged clothing that was all their parents could afford. Such children were often excluded from Sunday Schools because of their appearance and behaviour.
The Field Lane Ragged School in Clerkenwell had helped to inspire Charles Dickens' to write A Christmas Carol in 1843 to highlight the plight of poor children. The movement also had connections with Thomas Barnardo, who established Dr Barnardo's Homes for poor children.
John C Aston Ltd at 70 Essex Road
The building at 70 Essex Road, at the junction with Britannia Row, was originally a residential house and was built in the early 1700s. It was for a long time the shop of ironmongers and builders' merchants John C Aston, established in Essex Road in 1823. Its name and address can be seen in many nearby streets on the coal hole covers that it once manufactured.
In 1966 John C Aston Ltd merged with HP Matthews Ltd, a builders' merchant founded in 1839 in Euston Road, to form Aston Matthews. The new firm moved to 141-147a Essex Road in 1972, where it still operates today. Since the late 1970s, Aston Matthews has concentrated on bathroom products.
When its shop was at 70 Essex Road, the warehouse of John C Aston stretched out behind the shop into Britannia Row, as depicted (in a somewhat sylised manner) on the cover of an old brochure reproduced on the Aston Matthews website (below right). The former warehouse building, with post-war modifications, is now a yoga and Pilates centre. The ground floor shop is now an estate agents (with residential accommodation above)
Day Flats Residents Ltd is a post-war organisation aimed at facilitating owner-occupation of affordable residential property through the collective ownership of freeholds by leaseholders. The company is the freeholder of 17 blocks of flats in north London, built by Day Brothers, and is owned by its leaseholders. In 2019, members voted to devolve the freeholds to individual blocks, effectively splitting the company into 17 new companies.
The Clothworkers' Almshouses on Bishop Street