Highbury Barn – From Farm to Pleasure Gardens

When Highbury’s Manor House was destroyed in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, its adjoining farm was spared. In the years that follow, what had been the grange of the Knights of St John comes to be called Highbury Barn. It becomes well-known to Londoners.

Rural Highbury

Watercolour of Highbury Barn farm, over the road from site of burned Manor House, (called  Jack Straw’s Castle Yard). From Keith Sugden’s ‘History of Highbury’

The land all round the one-time Manor House farm remains rural countryside for hundreds of years after the Peasants’ Revolt. Cattle from the rest of the country, destined for London’s Smithfield Market, graze in the fields of Highbury before the final leg of their journey.

Londoners also come to rural Highbury, known for its ‘good air’ and its dairy delights. As well as the Holloway cheesecakes hawked daily in the city, dairy delights are available from a farm called Cream Hall (on present-day Legard Road) and Highbury Barn. In 1740, a small Cake and Ale House is opened in the barn, offering cakes dipped in frothing cream, custards, ale brewed on the spot, and syllabubs.


Originating in Tudor times, syllabubs were a mixture of milk fresh from the cow, ale and cider. By the time of Mrs Beeton (1861) they consist of sugar, lightly curdled with wine, put in a bowl and placed under a cow; milking the cow creates froth on top.

For syllabub details, recipes and the story of Dr Hale’s ‘syllabub pumping engine’ :

www.historicfood.com/Syllabub Recipes.htm



In the great entertainment given at Kenilworth by the Earl of Leicester to Queen Elizabeth in 1575, a minstrel, reflecting on the Islington dairies, proposed that the arms of Islington should be

‘three milk tankards proper on a field of clouted cream, three green cheeses upon a shelf of cake bread, a furmenty bowl, stuck with horn spoons, and, for supporters, a  grey mare (used to carry the milk tankards) and her silly foal; the motto, “Lac caseus infans,” or “Fresh cheese and cream”, the milkwives cry in London streets.

British History Online . http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp251-268


Tea has quite a role to play in the history of  Highbury Barn. The availability of tea today is largely taken for granted, but there was a time when it had yet to be introduced to the western world.

Samuel Pepys portrait by John Hayls

On 25 September 1660, noted diarist Samuel Pepys drinks his first cup of tea. He has been discussing foreign affairs in the Navy Office with a group that includes Sir Richard Ford, former Commissioner in The East India Company, who

“.. afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before”.

Coffeehouse print, Pepys era. Dr Matthew Green’s London walks include The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse.

Sam Pepys is a coffee drinker. He is a habitue of London Coffeehouses, where one early sampler likened the drink of the time to a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes”.


The national beverage for the Britons is ale, but coffee is becoming more and more popular. This China drink, Tee, is a novelty to Pepys, as it will have been for most of his countrymen. China tea has been introduced to other parts of Europe – Venice, Holland, Portugal & France…

“It was remarkably expensive: advertisements in the press in 1660 give prices for ‘tea or tay’ from two to six pounds a pound. This is ten times the cost of coffee, making it a very expensive drink indeed. To illustrate how expensive this was, compare the price of tea with that of sherry. In 1660 Pepys spent a shilling to buy a dozen bottles of sack (sherry or other white wine from Spain). At this rate, a pound of tea was worth the same as 1440 bottles of sherry. Cheap sherry costs about £7 in my local supermarket, making a pound of tea over £10,000 in today’s money.”


“Pepys didn’t much like tea. It isn’t clear what sort he drank, though it was likely to be a green tea from China. In any case, every subsequent mention of tea in the Diary is deeply suspicious of it…’




Change of Government

Oliver Cromwell statue, Palace of Westminster

There has been a change of Government. Pepys’ cup of tea is drunk as the country recovers from decades of repression following two civil wars & the execution of King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell has now died and the populace is emerging from the enforced Puritanism of his regime, when

“…pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.

Sunday became a very special day under the Puritans. Most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.


Cromwell believed that women and girls should dress in a proper manner. Make-up was banned. Puritan leaders and soldiers would roam the streets of towns and scrub off any make-up found on unsuspecting women. Too colourful dresses were banned.

Cromwell banned Christmas as people would have known it then. In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. ”



King Charles II

After Cromwell’s death as Lord Protector in 1658, & his son Richard leaving in May 1659, the exiled Charles II is asked to return as King of England. Charles’ approach to life is as different as chalk and cheese to Cromwell’s.

Charles II entering London after restoration of the monarchy, 1660, Encyclopedia Britannica


”  The Royal Court was notorious for its wine, women and song, and Charles became known as the “Merry Monarch” for his indulgence in hedonistic pleasures. ” 




Queen Catherine

Catherine of Braganza

In 1662 the newly crowned King marries a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. Tea is the favourite drink at the Portuguese court, & dowry gifts to King Charles from Catherine’s father for their wedding include a chest of tea. The young queen’s influence has much to do with tea becoming the fashionable drink at the English court.

” Queen Catharine was responsible for popularising tea-drinking in England. When she first arrived in Portsmouth on 13 May 1662, she asked for a cup of tea. This baffled the English as the drink was barely known at this time; the national beverage was ale. “


UK Tea & Infusions Association  .  https://www.tea.co.uk/catherine-of-braganza

Elizabeth Pepys

Samuel Pepys


By June 1667, tea is not only considered fashionable, but healthful and medicinal as well.

‘I went away and by coach home, and there find my wife making of tea, a drink which Mr. Pelling, the Potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions.’

Samuel Pepys

 By the early 1700’s, tea is being consumed in this country in the privacy of drawing rooms or drunk – by men only – in coffeehouses.

The Fashion for Tea Gardens

Around 1730, Tea Gardens Appear in Britain.

Definition of A Tea Garden: A tea garden was a place to drink tea and stroll around lawns, ponds and view statues. These smaller versions of pleasure gardens flourished in the late 18th century. Examples were Cuper’s Gardens (1691-1753) and the area that became the Caledonian Cattle Market in London, England.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_garden

 These are places where women, too, can come to imbibe tea. A stroll through the gardens, breathing in the fresh air, is thought to enhance the tea experience.

“…it was the advent and popularity of tea gardens that most transformed British society. Women were first allowed to mingle with men there, and they enjoyed tea, conversations, strolls through beautiful gardens, music, and dancing. Since the gardens were public, the social classes mixed freely.”




Highbury Barn, 1740-1871

Highbury has its dairy delights and that ‘good air’, which people will travel some distance to breathe. Highbury Barn, an Islington dairy farm with a small cake and ale house, takes on the mantle of the tea garden by offering tea as well as syllabubs.

Highbury Barn

Highbury Barn is visited by members of the non-conformist Highbury Society, who walk to it ‘from all parts of London and its surroundings. ‘ ”                             

Keith Sugden, History of Highbury

“Highbury Barn started as a tea garden around 1740. However, its popularity was its downfall.”
 ~ A seven-mile bicycle ride round Islington using safe cycle lanes, with fascinating facts about the borough ~

Islington itself has many wells and spas to draw the public – Clerkenwell, Sadler’s Wells, Mus-well, St Pancras Well & others, including one just to the southeast of Highbury Barn, reachable by boat via The River Fleet, (now King’s Cross Road) –

Bagnigge Wells, 1757 – 1842

Nell Gwynn

”  There were two springs at Bagnigge wells, which became a very fashionable spa in the 18th century. The original site of the spa, Bagnigge House, was claimed to have been owned by Nell Gwynne the mistress of Charles II.

In the rear garden ran the Fleet river, known as the river of “wells” because of the number of wells associated with it. Two wells were originally sunk around 1757 and had chalybeate properties. The wells became a very popular resort for taking “the waters” and for tea drinking, where the fashionable of London were wont to gather. “


Commemorative statuary, brick wall on Kings Cross Rd (the River Fleet) at site of Bagnigge Wells







“Food and entertainments depended on the time of day. In Bagnigge Wells, for example, morning visitors tended to be invalids who would drink the mineral waters and partake of an early breakfast. The restorative qualities of the waters were much praised…

“Ye gouty old souls and rheumatics crawl on,

Here taste these blest springs, and your tortures are gone;”

The citizens, their wives and daughters, came for their afternoon outing; the long room if the weather threatened, and the arbours if the sun shone, were filled with sober parties of shopkeepers or with boys and their sweet hearts, drinking tea and eating the bread and butter and the buns baked on the ground for which the place was famous. Negus was another of the products of Bagnigge held in much favour, and cider and ale for the more jovial spirits who smoked under the shade of the Fleet willows and watched games of skittles and Dutch pins which were played in the eastern part of the gardens during the long summer evenings. “


https://venturesintopography.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/the-lost-pleasure-gardens-of-finsbury-and-pentonville/    The walk by John Rogers and Nick Papadimitriou to some of the area’s historic spas, baths and wells is on a Resonance FM podcast which you can download at the end of this piece.


The Tea Garden as a Social Institution

Over 200 outdoor pleasure gardens and tea gardens proliferated in London from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. Primarily frequented by working class people who lived in the city, they were located in the pleasanter parts of London’s suburbs. In days of yore, the countryside was only a walk (or short carriage drive or ferry ride) away from the city center. Tea and pleasure gardens afforded the populace a respite from the sights, smells, and congestion of city life.

“18th & 19th Century Pleasure and Tea Gardens in London.”    Jane Austen’s World.


“A great deal of company, and the weather and garden pleasant and it is very cheap and pleasant going thither. . . . But to hear the nightingale and the birds, and here fiddles and there a harp, and here a Jew’s trump, and here laughing and there fine people walking is mighty divertising.”— Samuel Pepys. 

It is difficult now to imagine a tea garden on Kings Cross Road (The River Fleet), & another beyond it in Highbury, both surrounded largely by open countryside. But fewer than 300 years ago, the fresh air and greenery of these & other tea gardens are a draw for Londoners. They will take the trouble to put on their finest clothes (no ‘smart/casual’) & travel some distance to enjoy what is on offer.


Inns and Taverns of Old London by Henry C. Shelley

Part IV: Pleasure Gardens of Old London

White Conduit House, 1730 – 1820s

This redoubtable venue is halfway between Highbury Barn & Bagnigge Wells, in Pentonville.

” The Charterhouse Monastery used the spring at Clerkenwell and later in 1641 it was enclosed with an arched structure of flint and brick known as White Conduit. It was much later, in 1730, that a pleasure gardens and tearooms opened called the White Conduit; this resort was patronised by the genteel together with their servants into the 1820s.

It provided entertainment such as balloon flights, fireworks, singing and dancing. It had a cricket ground where Thomas Lord, of Lord’s cricket ground fame, was groundsman. This was why during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Islington was considered an invigorating pleasure resort. ”

” Here again is an example of a pleasure resort developing partially from an ale-house, for the legend is that the White Conduit House was at first a small tavern, the finishing touches to which were given, to the accompaniment of much hard drinking, on the day Charles I lost his head….the whole property was reconstructed somewhere about 1745… its popularity seems to date from the tenure of its new proprietor, Robert Bartholomew, who acquired it in 1754, and to have continued unabated till nearly the end of the century.” On taking over the property, Mr Bartholomew announced:

” For the better accommodation of ladies and gentlemen, I have completed a long walk, with a handsome circular fish-pond, a number of shady pleasant arbours, inclosed with a fence seven feet high to prevent being the least incommoded from people in the fields; hot loaves and butter every day, milk directly from the cows, coffee, tea, and all manner of liquors in the greatest perfection; also a handsome long room, from whence is the most copious prospects and airy situation of any now in vogue. I humbly hope the continuance of my friends’ favours, as I make it my chief study to have the best accommodations, and am, ladies and gentlemen, your obliged humble servant, Robert Bartholomew. Note. My cows eat no grains, neither any adulteration in milk or cream. “

http://www.buildinghistory.org/primary/inns/gardens.shtml  Inns and Taverns of Old London by Henry C. Shelley

Part IV: Pleasure Gardens of Old London

Oliver Goldsmith statue, Trinity College, Dublin.

Oliver Goldsmith at Highbury Barn & White Conduit House

Oliver Goldsmith, Irish poet, novelist and author of ‘She Stoops to Conquer’, lodged at Canonbury Tower in the 1760s. ” Goldsmith had written ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ while hiding from his creditors in London. It was at this time that he often took lunch at nearby Highbury Barn, a haunt of the non-conformist Highbury Society, whose members would walk there from all over London. “


“Three or four of his intimate friends rendezvoused at his chambers, to breakfast, about ten o’clock in the morning; at eleven they proceeded by the City-Road, and through the fields to Highbury Barn to dinner; about six o’clock in the evening they adjourned to White Conduit House to drink tea; and concluded the evening by supping at the Grecian or Temple Exchange Coffeehouses, or at the Globe, in Fleet Street. There was a very good ordinary of two dishes and pastry kept at Highbury Barn about this time (five-and-twenty years ago, in 1796) at 10d per head, including a penny to the waiter, and the company generally consisted of literary characters, a few Templars, and some citizens who had left off trade. The whole expenses of this day’s fete never exceeded a crown, and oftener from three-and-six-pence to four shillings, for which the party obtained good air and exercise, good living, the example of simple manners, and good conversation.”

History of Highbury, Keith Sugden


Washington Irving, in his “Life of Goldsmith,” says:“Oliver Goldsmith, towards the close of 1762, removed to ‘Merry Islington,’ then a country village, though now swallowed up in omnivorous London. In this neighbourhood he used to take his solitary rambles, sometimes extending his walks to the gardens of the ‘White Conduit House,’ so famous among the essayists of the last century. “

Oliver Goldsmith : “After having surveyed the curiosities of this fair and beautiful town (Islington), I proceeded forward, leaving a fair stone building on my right. Here the inhabitants of London often assemble to celebrate a feast of hot rolls and butter. Seeing such numbers, each with their little tables before them, employed on this occasion, must no doubt be a very amusing sight to the looker-on, but still more so to those who perform in the solemnity.”

White Conduit Loaves” was one of the common London street-cries, before the French war raised the price of bread.”

British History Online   .   http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp279-289


More to See and Do at Highbury Barn


In 1770 the owner of Highbury Barn, Mr Willoughby the Younger, adds to its attractions. He lays out a bowling-green, trap-ball ground and garden, with a small plantation of hops at one end for a recently erected ‘ale and table-beer brewery’. By 1814, trade has increased so much that a larger brewery is built in Lower Holloway. The barn adjoining the former Cake and Ale House is ‘fitted up with a handsome exterior’ in the early 1800’s. It is added to the Tavern’s premises & called the Highbury Assembly House.

Highbury Barn across road from ex-Manor House moat

Highbury Barn









Highbury Barn has become a favoured meeting place for clubs & large societies, such as the Licensed Victuallers. Its annual dinner in 1841 is attended by ‘as many as three thousand guests’. Feeding & entertaining so many people at such a venue is an enormous operation.     Keith Sugden, History of Highbury

Charles Dickens captures the feel of being in the midst of a tea garden crowd, this one assembling on a summer Sunday, possibly at Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead  It is illustrated by George Cruikshank:


Cruikshank’s sketch of Sunday tea gardens

‘Sketches by Boz’

London tea garden, Sunday pleasurers

”  The heat is intense this afternoon, and the people, of whom there are additional parties arriving every moment, look as warm as the tables which have been recently painted, and have the appearance of being red-hot. What a dust and noise!

Men and women — boys and girls — sweethearts and married people — babies in arms, and children in chaises — pipes and shrimps​— cigars and periwinkles — tea and tobacco.

Gentlemen, in alarming ​waistcoats, and steel watch-guards, promenading about, three abreast, with surprising​ dignity (or as the gentleman in the next box facetiously observes, “cutting it uncommon​ fat!”) — ladies, with great, long, white pocket-handkerchiefs like small ​table-cloths, in their hands, chasing one another on the grass in the most playful and ​interesting manner, with the view of attracting the attention of the aforesaid gentlemen​—

husbands in perspective ordering bottles of ginger-beer for the objects of their ​affections, with a lavish disregard of expense; and the said objects washing down huge​ quantities of “shrimps” and “winkles,” with an equal disregard of their own bodily health​ and subsequent comfort — boys, with great silk hats just balanced on the top of ​their heads, smoking cigars, and trying to look as if they liked them — gentlemen​ in pink shirts and blue waistcoats, occasionally upsetting either themselves, or somebody ​else, with their own canes. “

Pleasure Gardens

New outdoor venues – Pleasure Gardens – appear in the late 1700s. These Pleasure Gardens offer various amenities; guests enjoy the invigorating air of the counryside, eat, drink, play games & are entertained. Opening in 1770 are Vauxhall Gardens (1661 – 1859), the grandest & most prestigious of all.

Canaletto, The Grand Walk at Vauxhall Gardens, 1770.

James Wale, Vauxhall Gardens, 1751.

They are in Kennington, South London, reachable by boat until the building of Vauxhall Bridge. They become an elegant backdrop for the marking of national events, such as the fete held in 1813 to celebrate the victory at Vittoria by Wellington & Allies. Guests include The Duke of Wellington & most of the Royal Family; the evening’s illuminations include a transparency of the King, a mammoth picture of Wellington, a supply of rockets that rise to a “superior height” & many bands, some playing from the forest part of the gardens.

Rotunda at Ranelagh, T Bowles

Chelsea’s Ranelagh Gardens open in 1745, and Cremorne Gardens in 1845. Other Pleasure Garden venues include Cumberland Gardens & Bagnigge Wells, which has evolved from its previous existence as a small spa & tea gardens.

The painting of the Long Room at Bagnigge Wells below shows what a showcase for fashion it has become, with male guests wearing the current macaroni designs. Great care was taken to contrive one’s look, and the trendsetters would have sought the most auspicious surroundings in which to display themselves.

Bagnigge Wells : Long Room of Bagnigge, tea drinkers in macaroni fashion, Trustees of the British Museum

Phoebus Levin, The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens, 1784

“The trend of the macaroni grew out of the tradition of those who partook of the Grand Tour. Elite men in the 18th century would travel abroad across Europe, namely Italy, to broaden their cultural depth. These men adopted foreign fashions and tastes and brought them back to England where they interpreted them further. The original macaroni of the 1760s was characterized by elaborate dress consisting of short and tight trousers, large wigs, delicate shoes and small hats. As the general population of English males became exposed to the luxurious appeal of the macaroni trend, they began to adopt and replicate the trends they saw. By the 1770s, any man could appear as if they themselves had been on the Grand Tour based solely on their outward appearance.”  Wikipedia

Wellington’s Vittoria Fete at Vauxhall Gardens – George Cruikshank

Pleasure Gardens at Highbury Barn

Highbury Barn has also evolved, with new pleasures added to what it offers.

Tightrope walker, fireworks, al fresco dining  at Highbury Barn, C.H.Matthews watercolour, 1850. (GLC Print Collection)

Londoners now come to rural Highbury seeking more than tea & syllabubs. Events staged at the annual balls in the grounds of the Barn include, in 1854, a balloon ascent by Charles Green, Britain’s most celebrated aeronaut. By 1865 entertainments, as well as the usual banquets & bean-feasts, include a huge dancing platform, a musical festival, tightrope walking, pantomime, fireworks, ballet & the original Siamese twins.





The following are the principal (tea gardens and pleasure gardens) in the vicinity of the metropolis: ​ — New Bagnigge Wells, Bayswater; New Bayswater Tea Gardens; Bull and Bush, Hampstead; Camberwell Grove House; Canonbury House, Islington; Chalk Farm, Primrose Hill; Copenhagen House, Holloway Fields; Eel-pie House, or Sluice House, on the New River, near Hornsey: St. Helena Gardens, near the Lower Road, Deptford ; Highbury Barn ; Hornsey Wood House, the grounds of which include a fine wood and an extensive piece of water; Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead Heath; Kilburn Wells, Edgeware Road; Mermaid, Hackney; Montpelier, Walworth; Mount Pleasant, Clapton; the Eagle, City Road; the Red House, Battersea Fields; Southampton Arms, Camden Town; Union Gardens, Chelsea; White Conduit House, Islington; and Yorkshire Stingo, Lisson Green. “




Balloon Ascensions

A number of pleasure grounds are the favoured lift-off points for balloon ascensions. These are early days in the history of flight, and a small number of brave souls put themselves at risk to ascend in baskets dangling from balloons. The balloon ascensions are visual events that draw crowds – as popular with spectators in those days as they are to the present day.

Liftoff from Mermaid Tavern, ‘Prime Bang Up at Hackney or a peep at the Balloon’, William Elmes, 1834, V&A Collection.

Cremorne Gardens balloon ascent.

Balloon Ascent at Vauxhall Gardens, Charles Green’s Royal Victoria Balloon, 1849, engraving, V&A collection.

Charles Green, Stipple engraving, 1839 – Pubd by G.P. Harding, Lambeth, Day & Haghe, Lithrs. to the Queen.

Charles Green, Balloonist

On 16 August 1828 world-famous British aeronaut Charles Green, seated on his pony, ascends from The Eagle Tavern, City Road. After half an hour aloft, he descends at Beckenham in Kent.

This is one of 500 ascents he makes in his lifetime, one of which is from the grounds of Highbury Barn on the evening of 10th July 1854. Some of his other exploits are detailed in the website below.



M Godard’s Montgolfier Balloon, Ascension at Cremorne Gardens 1864.

Highbury Barn: Problems with the License

In 1854, the year of Green’s balloon ascent from Highbury Barn, the band of the Grenadier Guards is engaged to play, with dancing every evening from seven until half-past ten. At the end of the season the renewal of the dancing license is refused by the magistrates.

The much-contested license for dancing is again granted in October 1956; from this date there is a decline in the reputation of Highbury Barn – as with other pleasure gardens, the lateness of the opening hours brought more opportunities for drunkenness, pickpockets & prostitution. In these days of bouncers and security, we can only imagine how difficult it was at the time to maintain the good reputation of a place such as this, The Pride of Merrie Islington, without such protection.

The first modern police force, The Bow Street Runners, are created in 1829. By 1856, even rural communities are compelled to   have    their own police force. Highbury Barn is a former dairy farm whose surrounding rural land is being bought up and built on, and it remains a large noisy and notorious neighbour. Any law enforcement would have had to spend an inordinate amount of its time policing the late night pleasure grounds…


During its heyday, Highbury Barn’s late-night noise and entertainments take place well away from people’s homes, as it is surrounded by its own five acres of farmland& surrounding fields. But, from 1860, street after street of terraced housing is built on land around the Pleasure Gardens. Those living in the new houses may have to get up for work in the morning…


In May 1861, Mr Edward Giovanelli takes over the lease. He constructs a new music hall. The famous gymnast Leotard is engaged for the whole of the season of 1862.  In 1865 the music hall is converted into a theatre, the Alexandra. Mr Giovanelli himself takes part in performances such as ‘The Lottery Ticket’ and ‘Mother Goose’. In 1868 Blondin, French daredevil acrobat & tightrope walker, performs at Highbury Barn.


In June 1870 the Colonna troupe of dancers


 Highbury Barn has become a noisy and notorious neighbour. Each year when Highbury Barn’s license comes up for renewal, there is opposition from the neighbours.

Keith Sugden, Highbury History




 Highbury Barn on the Decline

The Barn becomes a victim of its own success. . ” After a riot led by students from Bart’s Hospital in 1869, locals complain about the Barn’s increasingly riotous and bawdy clientele. This leads to a court case and in 1871 authorities revoke the Barn’s dancing licence….  ”   Wikipedia


‘Sketches by Alan Moore’

The Highbury Working Transcribed (Part 3): ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ (2001).

This is part of an online website, a blog of an audio recording by British author & comic book writer (Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Watchmen) Alan Moore, done in 2001 & translated by Jody Macgregor. It takes you into the declining years of the Pleasure Grounds Era: you are there at Highbury Barn in the midst of it all. Compare & contrast with Dickens‘ ‘Sketches by Boz’ above, set in a Sunday afternoon Tea Garden.

” Rising from the Priory’s ash; the Highbury Barn, a tavern in five acre
grounds with bowling greens and trap-ball<?> alleys, haunt for Walter
Raleigh<?>, for Oliver Goldsmith on his walks to Islington. In 1861 a
defrocked clown, Giovanelli, buys the barn, imports a freakshow,
builds the Alexandra Theatre and crams the fog with lamps and voices.

Giovanelli launches eel-pie fairs, sewer scampy<?> served on croot<?>,
rat killing contests, ballrooms, and the magical perfume of quim upon
the breeze.

A million lights.

His freakshow opens 1869, the city’s dreams and visions are
precipitated in an eerie haze…

Highbury becomes a high-risk borderland, a mauve zone, a condition
that could spread, infect the city.

The venue is closed down as an intolerable
nuisance, as a danger to the health and safety of the young. The
luscious creepiness is dissipated and the area becomes a void, invites
untested energies
a new
miasma. “


Highbury Barn is Closed

Highbury Barn loses its license as an entertainment venue in 1870. The scandalous dancing of the Colonna Troupe appears to have been the last straw. The owner, Mr Edward Giovanelli,  is ruined, having reportedly spent £35,000 on the Pride of Merrie Islington.  Mr E B Smith attempts to keep the franchise open, without the objectionable dancing, but the license is refused in October 1871, and all the various venues boarded up. The Pleasure Gardens are history.

“The exact nature of the ‘objectionable dancing’ of the Colonna Troupe which so outraged the new respectable Victorian residents, forming the last straw that broke the camel’s back, can only for want of evidence be left to the reader’s imagination.”

 Keith Sugden, ‘History of Highbury’.


 Tea Gardens, Pleasure Gardens Losing Custom

Other Pleasure Grounds are also in decline.  Vauxhall Gardens, the grandest of them all, has problems with its ‘dark walks’ and …

‘ Before shuttering Vauxhall’s gates for good in 1859, the owners even used pyrotechnics and troupes of actors to stage large-scale reenactments of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Roman chariot races and a crusader attack on the city of Acre. ‘                           https://www.history.com/news/history-lists/6-early-amusement-parks

 Cremorne Gardens close in 1877. Bagnigge House & The White Conduit are falling out of favour. One reason for Pleasure Ground closures is the coming of the railways, with Londoners now able to get right out into the countryside.




    The anonymous writer of the “Sunday Ramble”  describes The White Conduit, no longer the venue it once had been :

In 1826 a “Minor Vauxhall” was established here, and the place became somewhat disreputable. Mr. Chabert, the fire-eater, after a collation of phosphorus, arsenic, and oxalic acid, with a sauce of boiling oil and molten lead, walked into an oven, preceded by a leg of lamb and a rump-steak, and eventually emerged with them completely baked, after which the spectators dined with him. Graham also ascended from these gardens in his balloon. In this year Hone talks of the gardens as “just above the very lowest,” though the fireworks were as good as usual.

About 1827 archery was much practised; and in 1828 the house was rebuilt with a great ball-room and many architectural vagaries. A writer in the Mirror of 1833 says, on the decline of The White Conduit (Pentonville) :—

“Never mind Pentonville, it is not now what it was, a place of some rural beauty. The fields behind it were, in my time, as wild and picturesque, with their deep-green lanes, richly hedged and studded with flowers, which have taken fright and moved off miles away— and their ‘stately elms and hillocks green,’ as they are now melancholy and cut up with unfurnished, and, of course, unoccupied rows of houses… The march of town innovation upon the suburbs has driven before it all that was green, silent, and fitted for meditation.

Thirty years ago this place was better frequented—that is, there was a larger number of respectable adults, fathers and mothers, with their children, and a smaller moiety of shop-lads, and such-like Sunday bucks, who were awed into decency by their elders. The manners, perhaps, are much upon a par with what they were. The ball-room gentlemen then went through country dances with their hats on and their coats off. Hats are now taken off, but coats are still unfashionable on these gala nights. The belles of that day wore long trains to their gowns. It was a favourite mode of introduction to a lady there to tread on the train, and then apologising handsomely, acquaintance was begun, and soon ripened into an invitation to tea and the hot loaves for which these gardens were once celebrated.

Being now a popular haunt, those who hang on the rear of the march of human nature, the sutlers, camp-followers, and plunderers, know that where large numbers of men or boys are in pursuit of pleasure, there is a sprinkling of the number to whom vice and debauchery are ever welcome; they have, therefore, supplied what these wanted, and Pentonville may now hold up its head, and boast of its depravities before any other part of London.”



Bagnigge Wells…  “became a threepenny concert hall, attracting the lower end of the spectrum. And then it fell out of fashion altogether. Maybe because the public found that the Fleet River was no more than a public cess-pit, or wondered if the cholera epidemics were in some way linked to drinking the putrid waters…

It spent a while as an area notorious for assignations and unseemly conduct – and then it disappeared from view altogether.”  Its owner was bankrupted when developers of nearby housing contrived to use the health-giving spring waters as a cesspit.

Mike Rendell, The Rise and Rise and the Decline and Fall of Bagnigge Wells… From a blog taken from research for his book Journal of a Georgian Gentleman



Today’s Highbury Barn, 1860s to date

Has anything of this once famous landmark survived? The Highbury Barn, the pub that stands on part of the original (five acre?) site, retains the name of its famous predecessor. Highbury Barn began life as a cake and ale house on a farm… of all the entertainments that came to be on offer here, it is food & drink that have outlasted all other pleasures.

So much history has been lost in Highbury & in the Islington area… and we came close to losing this pub, with all its associations as well.  In 2010, the existing Highbury Barn Tavern was put up for sale by Punch Taverns, who were said to be minded to sell to Sainsbury’s. These are the words of Tony Miller, proprietor of the Barn at the time, in the Highbury Community Association News, issue 67, in June 2010 :

” Towards the end of April it leaked out that Punch Taverns had put the Highbury Barn Tavern up for sale. Then the rumours started flying. It was revealed that Sainsbury’s wanted to convert it into a local supermarket. When an article appeared in the Islington Gazette, Sainsbury’s backed off, but admitted they were “still looking for opportunities” to find premises in the Barn. At the time of writing, the rumour is that a property company is doing a deal to redevelop the Taven. They might create a retail outlet, giving outside interests an “opportunity” to move in.

William Willoughby opened the Highbury Barn in 1770 as a place of entertainment and it flourished for more than a century. The present Highbury Barn Tavern was built on the same site in the 1860s and continued the tradition of hospitality. It’s fair to say that Highbury has grown up around this landmark building. A pub on this site defines Highbury Barn. We can argue about what sort of pub it should be, but we must keep a pub on the site. Nobody refers to this little stretch of road as Highbury Park – though that’s its proper name. We all know it as Highbury Barn.

One of the good things about living in Highbury is the feeling that you are living in a village. At the heart of a village are the village shops. Highbury Barn is mostly composed of owner run, independent shops. We know the owners – and they know us, their customers. We are all part of the community.

.. Any prospective purchaser should be aware that the Highbury Barn Tavern has a special place in the geography, the history and the affections of our community. We will not take kindly to any developer’s attempt to turn Highbury Barn into a carbon copy of every other high street. We will resist that…. most strongly.          Tony Miller

The HCA represents over 900 residents & businesses on all aspects of living & working in Highbury, Lower Holloway & Finsbury Park.   email hcanews@hotmail.com or write to PO Box 43396, N5 9AD.

The current manager of The Highbury Barn, Tony Bedwell, was interviewed by blogger Nicola Baird in February 2014. Worth a read, perhaps followed by a visit to the pub.

islingtonfacesblog.com/2014/…/tony-bedwell-highbury-barn-pub-manag…19 Feb 2014




Prints and watercolours, esp. of Vauxhall and Bagnigge Wells, included in: Early British & American Public Gardens & Grounds: August 2013

More on Bagnigge Wells: Lost Bagnigge | London Sewers & London’s Main Drainage | sub-urban.com


  • Look into the history of your own neighbourhood and local area. We have discovered so much that happened here, in our bit of North London; now thanks to the internet many untold stories can be shared. When you walk out onto your high street, knowing some of what has gone before, you look at it differently.