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A book about the borough of Finsbury is flying off the shelf

By EC1 Echo

A photo of a group of older people, some holding copies of a book
The new book
has emerged
from the
history group
St Luke’s
History Group

Back in 2020, St Luke’s Community History Group made a film about its members lives and memories. It was so well received, with many views on national television and YouTube, that the group has now created a book called Finsbury Stories, written and edited by Derek Smith. Already the book has proved so popular that it has already been reprinted and been requested by bookseller Waterstones.

“It came out of 15 years of working together and listening to each other’s stories,” says Polly Mann of the group. “During that time, we’ve listened to each other’s stories, collected stories from community members and built up an archive of stories that we were really keen to share, both with older local residents and future generations.”

The film had encouraged the group to make the book so that current members could share it with their family and friends, as a printed legacy. With 80 pages and lots of pictures Polly says that it is “very accessible”, with a scrapbook feel that comes from the extensive use of family photography. It shows a life in Finsbury in the round – from work to war, school to society at large. There are depictions and descriptions of work, leisure, homes, air-raid shelters, pubs, demolition and construction – and some of the area’s traumas including the the Blitz of WWII and the awful experience when the Wenlock Brewery was bombed, causing many fatalities.

Established in 2006, the Community History Group was meant to encourage people who otherwise may not have visited libraries and museums to build their own archive. Since then it has grown to become an important archive and it is also a crucial link to the old borough of Finsbury, which was absorbed into Islington in 1965 and no longer exists except vestigially in the names of Finsbury Health Centre and Finsbury Town Hall.

“It’s very much an aim of the book to raise awareness of Finsbury because many younger people and newer residents haven’t got a clue that it was a borough in its own right,” says Polly. “This is important because it was such an innovative place in terms of things like healthcare and housing, especially in the 1930s and 40s. We’re trying to raise awareness of that.” It is also important to The Right Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chris Smith, a former MP for Islington South – he has provided an afterword to the book – and to group member, David Hyams: “Finsbury was the second most densely populated borough in London. There were 12,000 people living here and only 200 had baths in the 1920s.”

Many of the group members are now in their 80s. But the book is not solely a look back at a disappearing world. “It’s a celebration of a corner of London that did very well for its people and was so significant and ahead of the game,” says Polly. “We’ve got very good working relationships with local schools and our members have made presentations.”

What is apparent is that the mix of the commercial and the domestic has long existed in the area, with old factories and workshops now replaced with residential lofts and high-tech businesses. One aspect of the book is that many of the 19th Century terraces depicted have gone. “It’s a huge loss, and imagine the area now if they’d stayed,” says Polly. “But we have tried to be positive. There’s a sense of pride and acceptance about the changes. Finsbury was innovative in the 20th Century and now we’ve got new innovations – look at aspects like Silicon Roundabout. The area has constantly reinvented itself and jobs have always been on people’s doorsteps.”

More information about the ‘Finsbury Stories’ (£9.99) and the St Luke’s Community History Group can be found at the Facebook page Finsbury Stories and via [email protected]

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