Oonagh Gay: inspiring London walks

27 Jan

Everyone has a story. Oonagh Gay may have retired in June 2015 from running the Parliament & Constitution Centre, which she set up at the House of Commons Library 15 years ago, but she’s now able to focus on her passion for local history and run some great weekend walks – many starting in Islington. Interview by Nicola Baird

Oonagh Gay xxx

Oonagh Gay runs weekend walking tours – several start in Islington. Try her Stroud Green walk, or Angel or Holloway Road. Info at crouchendwalks and inspiring london walks.

Oonagh Gay, OBE, claims she’s always been immersed in local history. Her father Ken Gay, who recently died aged 91, was president of the Hornsey Historical Society and had a huge local history collection. “We’ve just had to clear 11,000 books,” says Oonagh surprisingly calmly considering she’s spent the past two years winding up the job she’s had for 30 years, packing up and selling her father’s home as well as dispersing his huge collection of books.

“My father was an obsessive book buyer,” she admits. “He came from a modest East London background where the only book at home was the family Bible so he was over compensating. My husband and I threw out all our novels but there still wasn’t enough space.”

She has kept an accounts book which her grandfather used as he cycled round East London collecting Pearl life insurance payments. “Archives are very stuck for space – storage is a big problem. I gave some books and prints to Haringey, the British Film Institute and the Poetry Society, but people don’t like looking at accounts much, even if it tells you the price of everything. What they like is artefacts and diaries. I’ve still got my father’s war diary. At 17 it’s full of the girls at school he’d like to be brave enough to talk to, rather than the bombing all around him!”

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In preparation for retirement she trained as a Clerkenwell and Islington Walking Tour guide at the University of Westminster in 2014. “The diploma takes a year and is harder than you think,” admits the unflappable Oonagh. “ It’s a real challenge to write a good walk that’s entertaining and informative and to learn to speak for five minutes at each stop without looking at your watch.”

Having enjoyed one of Oonagh’s guided tours around Angel, Islington and one following the Suffragettes in central London I can assure you that she’s a fabulous guide – easy to hear, exhaustively knowledgeable and good at finding interesting routes. Indeed her newest walk (East End working women) is to be launched on Saturday 30 January.

Walkers on crouchendx

Rapt attention from participants during a Crouch End Walk. (c) crouchendwalks

Oonagh teamed up with Westminster course mate Paul Sinclair, who like Oonagh has also had a long career closely associated with politics, to set up crouchendwalks – naming it after the area they live. But as time passed they realised that apart from their popular Hornsey Town Hall tour most of their newer walks are in Islington, with a couple starting in central London and the East End. Soon they plan to rename the business Inspiring London Walks to reflect how Crouch End Walks cover a much larger geographical area.

“Learning something new and doing something different everyday is very empowering,” says Oonagh who is volunteering at Islington Museum. Her current task is to edit its Streets with a Story (classic 1980s book) for uploading to the web. It gives the history of every Islington road – an invaluable resource.

It’s certainly not the most challenging task she’s had during her career. She tells me about the Parliamentary strengthening work she’s been involved with in Jordan. “I worked with the Iraqis to help write a code of conduct – you can’t transplant the UK version. Parliamentary behaviour is very ritualised, but like a lot of new democracies Iraqis had a lot of problems with basic behaviour and disruptive groups. You have to decide how to treat every political party with basic courtesy. If you know how, it helps a Parliament grow and become independent-minded.”

St Paul's Church, Myddleton Square - just off Amwell Street - has a memorial to the Finsbury Rifles who fought in WW1.

St Paul’s Church, Myddleton Square – just off Amwell Street – has a memorial to the Finsbury Rifles who fought in WW1.

Oonagh Gay picks the best of Islington

  • Finsbury Park bike lock up is good. I’ve got an electric bike so use the lock up if I want to go on the tube. It’s brilliant for commuting. And if it’s raining I can leave it over night and go home by bus. I wish we had Islington’s segregated bike lanes in Haringey where I live.
  • xx

    At Finsbury Park bus/train/tube station the cut out sculpture on the right shows the jujitsu teaching suffragette Edith Garrud, one of Oonagh Gay’s heroines.

    Islington People’s Plaques are a really great idea. I like the way they involve the public in the honouring. There’s one for Edith Garrud, the jujitsu suffragette, one of my heroines, and Marie Stopes who opened Britain’s first birth control clinic on Marlborough Road, N19. There is virtually no recognition of suffragettes in central London but it was transformative for half the population.

  • Wonderful Islington Museum does fantastic outreach work and makes local history really relevant to all sorts of cultural backgrounds. The Education Officer is doing work on Gallipoli (site of fierce World War One battles) talking about what it was like to be a Turkish soldier – not just telling stories about the Finsbury Rifles, who have a beautiful memorial in St Mark’s Church, Myddleton Square.
  • Islington’s town halls in Finsbury and Upper Street are architectural landmarks whichI would love to show to visitors. Local government has a rich history.
Oonagh Gay's Hornsey Town Hall tour. (c) crouchendwalk/inspiringlondonwalks

Oonagh Gay (third from the left) on her popular Hornsey Town Hall tour.                         (c) crouchendwalk/inspiringlondonwalks

“I like to synthesise knowledge across disciplines,” says Oonagh explaining how pleased she felt at being able to make Parliamentary Research publicly available on its website. “It’s taxpayers’ money – so people should benefit. But as a result I’ve been contacted by people from all over the world, including people doing Politics degrees, saying thank you for making this research available.”

As is clear on Oonagh’s Suffragette walk – from the Embankment to St George’s Church in Holborn where Emily Wilding Davis’ funeral was held – she is passionate about making sure people know more about the Suffragettes who helped women get the vote. So it is good news that she’s also been asked to work on an app for Parliament to celebrate the history of the Suffragettes Centenary in February 2018. Her task is to write the individual life stories of the first women MPs, “but it’s hard to do in only 100 words,” she adds. See UK Vote100 project.

Aware that women are still under-represented as MPs, Oonagh is looking at some of the unexpected reasons this might be so. “I’ve been involved in a project about women, ceremony and ritual. Anthropology is a very new discipline in Parliament, but there is a lot of ritualised behaviour there, like the state opening of Parliament, and PMQs, even the Lords in their ermine robes. This all works against women’s involvement because they can feel excluded by ceremony. Men love wearing uniforms and being part of the club – just look at our Arsenal fans.”

Considering the years Oonagh’s spent in Parliament she’s a remarkably candid thinker about women’s political suffrage. For anyone curious about the people who lived and worked in Islington – and other parts of London – do go on one of Oonagh and Paul’s inspiring London walks or arrange your own with them. It’s a fun way to get to know an area better and a very easy way to improve your historical knowledge. See you on the next walk.

Upcoming walks (turn up and pay approx £8 and/or email in advance using Oonagh & Paul’s websites above). 

  • Saturday 30 Jan, East End working women, meet Bow church DLR, 1.30pm. Cost: £8 (pay on the day, ideally let Oonagh or Paul know you plan to join, using their contact details on their website).
  • Saturday 13 Feb, From Hay to houses: Stroud Green discovered. Meet World’s End Pub, 23 Stroud Green Road, 1.30pm. Cost £8 (pay on the day, ideally let Oonagh or Paul know you plan to join, using their contact details on their website).
  • Also see http://crouchendwalks.com/walks-coming-up/ 
  • Local businesses and groups can arrange for Oonagh or Paul to give a private tour at lunchtimes or evenings.

 

Enjoyed this interview?
Read more interviews with people who love local history, see

Mark Aston, Islington local history centre manager

Andy Gardner, historian and George Orwell walking tour leader

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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3 Responses to “Oonagh Gay: inspiring London walks”

  1. capitalwalks January 29, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    Reblogged this on Capital Walks in London and commented:
    Great interview here with Oonagh Gay of Crouch End Walks

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  1. Islington Faces Interview with Oonagh Gay | crouchendwalks - January 31, 2016

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