Blackstock Road in the 1870s – robbers, trout fishing and aristocrats

9 Nov

Everyone in Islington’s got a story. Jenny Scarbrough, 63, was about 20 when she met a 96-year-old man who knocked on her door (in N4) asking if he could have a look at his old home. She recalls his amazing story of robbers on Blackstock Road, aristocrats at the top of Highbury Hill and fishing for trout in the Hackney Brook (just by the Arsenal Tavern pub)…

“I was 20 or 21 when this man turned up and said his dad had been born here. He was taking his father to live in Cornwall and the old man – I don’t think I ever knew his name – was desperate to see the garden again.  He was 96, so we virtually carried him into it. I’d only just moved in and didn’t have children so he saw a beautiful rose garden with a pond. He liked it, but he said ‘It didn’t look like this when I used to play in this garden!’


Pix above of (l-r) 1 – Searching for lost rivers at Brownswood Road; 2 – a surviving pump house (here on the New River canal at the East Reservoir off Green Lanes) and 3 – a converted pump house at the edge of Clissold Park near Mountgrove Road/Riversdale Road and Green Lanes. All these spots were rural danger zones after dusk in the 1870s.

Fishing in N4
“He told me lots of things. The Hackney Brook used to flow through here. He could remember as a child that the Arsenal Tavern pub was a sluice gate. When the sluice gate was down it was a wonderful place to catch brown trout, all the fish would pool there. He said he’d just wander over there and catch a fish and bring it home for dinner. Isn’t it lovely to think of that happening: a pool of fish on Blackstock Road?

This was the civilised side
“I wasn’t sure if Blackstock Road had houses or shops on this side (Islington’s border) but this was the civilised side. The other side was just fields and bushes over to Clissold Park. He maintained you could walk along by the fields in daylight, but if you did it at night time robbers would jump from behind the bushes, kosh you on the head and strip you of goodies. At dusk everyone walked this side, but it was lawless, the robbers would cross the road.

“It became so bad that’s why the police station was built. That little road directly opposite the police station, Hurlock Street, was a den of iniquity. There was prostitution, gambling and drinking. It’s where everyone went! Building that police station there sent out a very strong message – and was the beginning of moving all the prostitutes to Kings Cross. After that the shops and houses were developed.”

Class and church
“There’s a church next door to this house* but he wasn’t allowed in it because it was for aristocrats – Lord and Lady Aubert. It was all wooden pews carved with people’s names. You only went in if you had your own seat. There was a specific pecking order for aristos. And if your name wasn’t there you had to tramp up the hill if you wanted to go to church. In icy weather local children were paid by Lady Aubert’s household on Sunday to go up to her house and collect bales of hay* and lay it on Highbury Hill down to where the tube is so the horses wouldn’t slip.”

A note from Nicola –  Jenny said that the old man  mentioned that he could only go to church (at Christ Church up the hill) if he had a penny. But churches have free admission. I asked the church adminstrator, Jenny Gilbert, if she knew the answer. This is her reply: “This question about paying for church… I asked the person who knows most about local history concerning the church, and she is most emphatic that there never has been any instance where people would have to pay to go to Christ Church. She thinks there’s probably a confusion here with the practice of giving regular money to the church – maybe with someone being told by their parents, “you have to save a penny of your money and put it in the collection plate when you go to church” or something along those lines. The church certainly never imposed an entry fee!”

Janet Gilbert, Administrator, Christ Church Highbury,
Office hours: Wed-Thurs 8.30am-4.30pm

Nell looking for signs of London’s lost rivers. This manhole possibly hides the Hackney Brook.

Jenny’s stories inspired my family to go looking for some of London’s old rivers. Here is a pic of my daughter Nell, 11, trying to see if she can hear the Hackney Brook under this manhole cover.

Also see the interview here with Jenny’s family that reveals their passion for collecting historic Highbury postcards – and following pop twins Jedward. Jenny’s husband runs A Buckenham (locksmiths) at 158 Blackstock Road, N5. Tel: 020 7226 8734


  • Jenny’s home is Victorian, and was built in 1863 the year of Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee
  • Gillespie Road Mission Chapel (Wesleyan) has been converted into flats – it’s just by Gillespie School. The old chapel is above the course of the now buried Hackney Brook.
  • Hay is a livestock feed, and much more expensive than straw – which is more usually used as bedding.
  • Christ Church at Highbury N5 was consecrated in 1848, see the history here.
  • See here for an agrarian history of Highbury, taken from A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 8: Islington and Stoke Newington parishes by T F T Baker, C R Elrington (Editors), A P Baggs, Diane K Bolton, Patricia E C Croot (1985)
  • For more about the Hackney Brook, see . Also see here.  A very similar map is here.
  • This is a fascinating google map with a blue line drawn on showing the approximate Hackney Brook route.

Over to you
Can you imagine trout fishing off Blackstock Road? Do you have any good stories of the old ways in Islington? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. And yes, this islington people blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.


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