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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

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 street sign near junction with Popham Street
Britannia Row street sign near junction with Popham Street

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.

Islington 2022, map showing location of Britannia Row relative to Essex Road, Upper Street and St Mary's Church
Islington 2022, map showing location of Britannia Row. Source: Layers of London

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.

Islington 1746, map by John Rocque
Islington 1746, map by John Rocque. Source: Layers 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.

Islington 1828, map by C & J Greenwood
Islington 1828, map by C & J Greenwood. Source: Layers of London

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).

Britannia Row from Windsor Street, soon after WWII bomb damage. Most of Windsor Street and the south side of Britannia Row are destroyed
Britannia Row from Windsor Street in 1940, soon after WWII bomb damage. Source:

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).

The entrance to Britannia Row from Essex Road, the building at 70 Essex Road on the left dates from the early 1700s and the building on the right at 68 Essex Road is from the late 1700s/early 1800s