Highbury Barn – From Farm to Pleasure Gardens

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

Rural Highbury

Cattle from the rest of the country, destined for London’s Smithfield Market, graze in Highbury’s fields before the final leg of their journey. Londoners also come to rural Highbury, known for its ‘good air’ and its dairy delights. Aside from the Holloway cheesecakes hawked daily in the city, there is a farm called Cream Hall (on present-day Legard Road); Highbury Barn, in the first half of the 1700’s, becomes a Cake and Ale House, offering cakes dipped in frothing cream, custards, ale brewed on the spot, and syllabubs.

SyllabubsOriginating 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… Several sites on the internet tell of the syllabub, including history, recipes and the story of Dr Hale’s ‘syllabub pumping engine’ ( ! ):

www.historicfood.com/Syllabub Recipes.htm



Those of us alive today find it easy to take tea for granted unless we know something of its history. Once upon a time there was no tradition of tea drinking.

Diarist Samuel Pepys drinks his first cup of tea on 25 September 1660. He had been discussing foreign affairs with some friends, ‘And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before’. It has reached England by boat, sailing from Japan by way of Holland, and costs £10 a pound (£30 for the very best tea). By 1662, as the Queen now favours the drinking of tea, it is seen as fashionable. By the early 1700’s, tea is taken in the seclusion of drawing rooms or, for men only, in coffee houses.

the fashion for tea gardens

After 1750, tea gardens appear. These are places where women, too, can imbibe tea – a drink now seen as healthful and medicinal as well as refreshing. The stroll through the grounds of the garden, breathing in the fresh air, is thought to enhance the tea experience.

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

In 1833, tea is found to originate in India. By 1839, Indian tea is being auctioned in England. Before long tea has become the drink of the masses. The British Teapot, Janet Street-Porter and Tim Street-Porter, Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1981

In the early 1800’s the barn adjoining the former Cake and Ale House, ‘fitted up with a handsome exterior’, is added to the Tavern’s premises and called the Highbury Assembly House. The owner, Mr Willoughby the Younger, 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.

Highbury Barn is now a favoured meeting place for clubs and large societies, such as the Licensed Victuallers: its annual dinner in 1841 is attended by ‘as many as three thousand guests’.

pleasure gardens


Pleasure gardens, where the populace can go to take in the fresh air, play games and be entertained, appear. Opening in 1770 are Vauxhall Gardens, the most prestigious of them, with the Royal Family included in its visitors; Chelsea’s Cremorne Gardens open in 1845. Other spots which draw the public include Ranelagh Gardens, Cumberland Gardens and Bagnigge Wells, a small former spa on the River Fleet, later to become Kings Cross Road.

Highbury Barn is also famous, with Londoners now coming to rural Highbury seeking more than tea and syllabubs. Entertainments, as well as the usual banquets and bean-feasts, include a musical festival, a balloon ascent, tightrope walking, fireworks, ballet. The music-hall is converted into a theatre, The Alexandra.


Danbury final cropped


problems with the license

In 1854 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 license for dancing is refused by the magistrates. With the gardens being kept open until the wee hours, Pleasures now include drunken, riotous orgies and prostitution.

During its heyday, Highbury Barn’s late-night noise and entertainments take place well away from the local inhabitants. But, from 1860, street after street of terraced housing is built on the open countryside surrounding the Pleasure Gardens. Those living in the new houses may have to get up for work in the morning, or simply resent what Highbury Barn has become, a noisy and notorious neighbour. Each year when Highbury Barn’s license comes up for renewal, there is opposition.

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.

Find this and other details in Keith Sugden‘s ‘History of Highbury’.

Vauxhall Gardens close in July 1859, and Cremorne Gardens in 1877. One reason for Pleasure Grounds closures is the coming of the railways, with Londoners now able to get right out into the countryside…



Has anything of this once famous Highbury landmark survived? Of all the entertainments that were on offer, only the  tavern still exists. Highbury Barn began life as a cake and ale house, and food and drink have outlasted all the other pleasures.

Any historical photos in the tavern? In the library?

The current manager of 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/…/tonybedwellhighburybarn-pub-manag…19 Feb 2014


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

Other material about Bagnigge Wells: Lost Bagnigge | London Sewers & London’s Main Drainage | sub-urban.com