Alex Smith: heritage assistant

12 Dec

Everyone has a story on the Islington Faces Blog. Alex Smith from Islington Local History Centre and Islington Museum helps keep many more local stories live and accessible – a hard task when you realise that there are more than 100,000 pieces of information stored on site at the Finsbury office. Interview by Nicola Baird.

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Books worth studying if you want to know about local school history.

Books worth studying if you want to know about local school history.


Alex Smith can help you unlock family history and Islington info right back to the 1600s.


Books for sale at the Islington Museum. (including top row, right, the fascinating record of a house in Cross Street getting a makeover)


More titles on sale at Islington Museum.

There’s no doubt: Alex Smith loves talking history, which is lucky as she’s working with an historic archive that includes maps dating back to the 16th century, lots of information about Hugh Myddleton (who funded the New River and has a square named after him and is splendidly ruffed up at the statue on Islington Green). There are also photos, electoral registers, census details and the archive of newspapers for the Islington Gazette (founded in 1856), the now defunct Holloway Press, and also the Islington Tribune.

“Part of the joy is the way someone remembers, but also it makes you think about what you mean by history. It’s good if people have some feeling of enjoyment as they remember.” There’s a pause as Alex, 30, adjusts a makeshift repair to her glasses which are currently held together with a pipecleaner and glue gun after they broke when she was attempting to bend them back into shape…

Even if Alex is having trouble with her specs, she can still tell that I’m puzzled by her answer, so explains it with a story. “My step-sister (who is 11 years older) is a professional oral historian. She’s worked in coal mining and woollen industries and finds you need time to interview and time to calm the person down afterwards. The past is not always a comforting memory. Some people are happy to open up, some aren’t. It is really difficult to ask people to open up a section of their life which is either very private or very sad. And then kids can’t believe it when they hear their gran used a long drop toilet, or had to wash in a tin bath in the kitchen or didn’t have electricity.”

Try looking closely at this portrait of Gee Street.

Try looking closely at this portrait of Gee Street (see below for the detail).

As you enter Islington Local History Centre look out for the giant black and white portrait of  Gee Street, just off Goswell Road, when the borough was overcrowded and a little squalid. The two-up, two-down homes with a front door opening straight on to the pavement would nowadays be a highly desirable location, as it is a stone’s throw from arty Clerkenwell and the City. But here the photographer has caught an old pram tied to a drainpipe; a man reading on his doorstep (probably because it was too dark inside without electricity); and there’s a harassed looking lady sitting on the opposite side of the street keeping watch over three or four children playing by the roadside – and it’s safe because there are no cars (or double yellow lines!).

“In 1910 just Finsbury had 100,000 people, there was a lot of overcrowding, ” she explains – now the whole borough of Isington stretching from EC1 up to Archway has close to 200,000 people. And with that she whisks off with characteristic energy to untangle the history of anyone who’s ever lived in Islington. So is she ever tempted to think about her own roots? “I’ve never looked at my family history,” answers Alex who grew up in Leeds and still has a slight northern lilt, “I spend most of the time talking about everyone else’s family history, that’s enough.” Go team Alex!

If you are interested in finding out more about your family – or just curious about Islington – do go and visit. The Local History Centre and Islington Museum are both wheelchair accessible, a 10 minute stroll from Angel tube or just by the 153 bus stop.

Islington Local History Centre, Finsbury Library, 245 St John Street, London, EC1V 4NB, tel: 020 7527 7988 or email it is open on Monday and Thursday from 9.30am-8pm; and on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 9.30am-5pm. It is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. It is also closed daily from 1-2pm.

Islington Museum with gallery, exhibitions and events is at 245 St John Street, London, EC1V 4NB, tel: 0207 527 2837.  Despite google claiming the museum has been shut, it is not. Visit on Monday to Saturday from 10am-5pm (but it is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays). Recent popular exhibitions include the Roma – but there’s always something special on and lots of hands-on activities for younger children too.

Over to you
What do you think  about finding out your own family history, do share in the comment section below? 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 faces blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.


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