Michael Hayle: house detective

Estimated reading time:10 minutes, 33 seconds

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  How much do you know about the people who lived in your house years ago? Or do you have any idea what the area looked like before the builders arrived? Convalescence enabled Michael Hayle to uncover everybody who’d ever lived in the Victorian-built Plimsoll Road house he shares with his partner – not far from where the 19 and 4 bus drivers used to park up for a cuppa.  In August 2014 the Daily Telegraph rated this corner of Finsbury Park as the 19th friendliest place in the country to live. Interview by Nicola Baird

Michael Hayle moved to Islington, in his 40s, when he re-met Caroline who’d been at the adjacent school in Newcastle. “I thought she was lovely when I was 17 (and she was 16), but I didn’t tell her, and she felt the same because she’s showed me her diaries.”

Michael Hayle moved to Islington, in his 50s, when he re-met Caroline who’d been at the adjacent school in Newcastle. “I thought she was lovely when I was 17 (and she was 16), but I didn’t tell her, and she felt the same because she’s showed me her diaries.”

It’s important to be connected to the place you are in,” explains Michael Hayle as he shows me into the house he shares with partner Caroline, a Fitzrovia GP with a passion for choral singing, travel and her home. In the hallway are framed censuses showing the names of people who’ve lived at their house – a poignant reminder to anyone with a terraced Victorian home that many families will have passed through the rooms.

Michael’s house detective skills began years ago when he was living in an old Georgian house in Cheshire with his first wife, before they had children. “I remember sitting on the steps thinking about this wonderful life and how interesting it would be to see who else had lived there. I wanted to know about the house, but as I researched I got really hooked into the families.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and he’s able to tell me all about a typical Plimsoll Road house in N4. He has pages of orderly notes, maps that show how the area expanded and a spreadsheet listing the 17 families who’ve lived in number 12 since Mr Lidstone, a dealer in provisions, first moved into his new residence in 1880.

Find information out about your house from the deeds as well as electoral rolls, censuses, trade and telephone directories. Here’s a list of everyone who Michael Hayle knows has lived at 12 Plimsoll Road.

Find information out about your house from the deeds as well as electoral rolls, censuses, trade and telephone directories. Here’s a list of everyone who Michael Hayle knows has lived at 12 Plimsoll Road.

Writing it down
“You start with the families,” explains Michael. “It’s very atmospheric. I realised if Mr Lidstone had children they might have died in the first world war. So I tracked down Lidstone’s sons – the first children born in the house and was able to find that ‘our’ two boys didn’t die. One moved to the Isle of Wight and died in his 70s.

There’s a sense that they are our families because they lived in our house, see this one, Minnie Freezer living here in 1944. I do like her name but I lost her until I discovered she’d married but stayed in the house and was now Mrs Arthur Davies. You sort of adopt them. And then it expands to an interest in the street and the people they knew. Over the next five years I want to find the signature of everybody who has lived in this house and then paint their signatures around the hallway,” he explains.

Plimsoll Road*, which has a distinctive curve, was built between 1877-1881 on land where bricks had been made. “The fields were flattened [for construction ) and there were often complaints from visitors to the area because there were no trees, but in three years they’d completely filled the gap between Blackstock Road and the new St Thomas’ Road,” he says passing me a map dated 1869 when Plimsoll Road was no more than empty fields.

“The original houses to the South were built as Templeton Road*, Lorne Terrace, Florence Terrace and Albion Terrace but were joined to Plimsoll* in the North and the whole street was renamed Plimsoll Road in 1883,” he explains. “The houses were probably speculative. Plots were sold off and built in sixs or eights. If you walk down the road you can see the blocks – some still have the same doors, tiles, window bays and window heads.”

Au Lac is a favoaurtie

Au Lac on Higbury Park is a favourite restaurant. Try the La Vong fish or other Vietnamese specialities.

Places Michael Hayle enjoys in Islington
“It’s the people that make these places – everyone is so friendly. Caroline and I live out of Arsenal corner shop on Ambler Road. It has everything you might ever need, and they are so friendly. There are so many restaurants and cafes you can walk to:

  • We always plan to get a take away at Yildiz (Turkish restaurant) on Blackstock Road but end up staying. They do very good kebabs, nice bread and humous.
  • When my children come up to stay they always hope we will get pizzas from the Organica Pizza Company on Gillespie Road. Their delivery bike often beats us home if we dawdle on the Blackstock Road.
  • Islington Family History Centre at St John’s is great for information. If you want photos or copies of things work out everything you want to copy as you research and then go back another day with an organised list. The fee for copying anything is £5 a day
  • A couple of years ago we were in Au Lac – which does great La Vong fish* – and Caroline was talking about how much fun Vietnam was. I’d never seen her smile so much, so that night we went home and booked a trip to Hanoi with the aim of seeing whether it’s a place we could live when we retire. I thought Vietnam would be a difficult place to be a Westerner but people were charming and had a wonderful approach to life in general: life was for living now. In five years we may move there, we’ll see.”

Minutes, maps & buses
Michael is enthusiastic about his research and happy to show people tips if they want to find out about their houses. But he warns it is easy to get side-tracked. “I was hijacked by the Vestry minutes when I found out that two brothels were operating in Plimsoll Road until they were closed down by the police, the first in 1883 and another in November 1884. I keep wanting to knock on those doors and say ‘Do you know this was a disorderly place?’ But I haven’t…” he adds with a laugh.

Maps can be distracting from the business of research too. Michael has two favourites: the 1895 map of a completed Plimsoll Road and the Bomb Damage maps made just after World War Two, which “shows all the blast damage houses in London. You know people were bombed here during the war but when you see this map you realise how hammered this area was while people were living here.” Despite the plethora of dark spots on the map signifying bomb damage, the area was after all just by the railway works where Quill Street and Gillespie Park are now, Michael thinks that only one house was so badly damaged it had to be pulled down – where the access gap is on Romilly Road to Ambler School.

Not a lot of people know that in the 1950s Plimsoll Road had a rest stop for bus drivers where 20a is now. Michael explains: “Just after the war they parked a bus for use as a canteen. It served buns and hot tea. Then they put in a modest building as a tea shed. It’s strange to think that Plimsoll Road was officially on the route of the 19 and the 4 and the buses would pull up and park here for the bus drivers to have their tea.” This link shows a bus outside No 20.

Michael celebrated his 55th birthday cycling 15km round Goodwood at the Brompton World Championship 2014 – a bike event where lycra is banned. “Men wore suits and ties and there was plenty of tea and Sipsmith gin”.

Michael celebrated his 55th birthday cycling 15km round Goodwood at the Brompton World Championship 2014 – an event for Brompton folding bikes where lycra is banned. “Men had to wear jackets and ties and there was plenty of tea and Sipsmith gin”.

Taking stock
Michael is far too young to retire, although street research might seem like a retirement hobby. The work he’s done coincided with a disenchantment with the slippery career pole, a serious shoulder operation and his father dying in 2012. “Dad couldn’t talk or swallow for the last two years of his life so he wrote notes when I visited. He’d been a policeman and made the point that he’d lost all three of his brothers to cancer. He felt there were better things in life than trying to prove yourself in a demanding job. He said ‘see yourself as going through life moving through a series of rooms. You can spend time in one or two rooms or do interesting things by going to more rooms’.”

Michael had been a career junky involved in government bids, enjoying the adrenalin rush of winning a big contract, so his father’s advice took time to sink in.

“Dad said you’ve only got a certain time left, so enjoy it. Do interesting things with nice people and enjoy yourself, because there will come a time when you can’t. I realised I was worried about having money when I should be worrying about having time,” says Michael.

As a result he’s had a major life change – besides moving to London. For the past year he’s been doing some coaching and supervising students at LSE and from November 2014 will be doing a PhD in public management and governance. “I’m so looking forward to getting perspective on my 30 years in engineering and procurement, but not having to bring the work home,” he says sipping the last bit of green tea.

Here’s wishing Michael very good luck studying, and plenty of time to organise the writing on the wall that he’s promised his Plimsoll Road house.

Daily Telegraph, Britain’s 20 friendliest places to live (31 August 2014), see article here

Plimsoll Road is named after Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898), who was a campaigner for safety at sea and the protection of mariners and led a huge public campaign in the 1870s. He would have been a very popular figure to the kind of people occupying these houses in the early 1880s. In 2007 a modern local resident, Nicolette Jones, was so inspired by the street name that she wrote the award-winning book, The Plimsoll Sensation: the great campaign to save lives at sea. To buy kindle or paperback copies click here.  The road even has a Facebook page – anyone who lives or has ever lived on Plimsoll Road is invited to join, see here.

La Vong fish is a popular North Vietnamese dish. In Hanoi some restaurants serve nothing else. It’s a grilled fish dish served with Turmeric and Dill, cooked on a burner at your table, with rice vermicelli, chillies and peanuts.

Templeton Road was on opposite sides but had overlapping numbers, 1a-16 on the west, 1-11 on the east. It must have been a confusing time for the postmen.

The rateable value of the new Plimsoll Road houses was between £30-£40. It cost £377 to completely pave nearby Prah Road (In 1881 rateable values were about £42) with a £9 five shillings and four pence [£9 5s 4d] charge for Mr Aspinall to lay the cobbles and paving stones outside one house, some of which you can still see on the kerb. Plimsoll Road got its paving stones a year later in 1882, and Michael’s house was charged £12 7s 6d.

Over to you
Would you like to nominate someone to be interviewed? Or would you like to write a guest post for this blog? If the answer is yes for either question, please email nicolabaird.green@gmail.com

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 nicolabaird.green@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 jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola