Estimated reading time:14 minutes, 34 seconds
Everyone has a story. Mick Fitzgerald was just five-years-old when he was sent from Limerick to join his parents in London. His new home was 34 White Lion Street and he wasnât impressed. Now 66, and living in Essex, heâs enjoying recalling the old days. Follow this short circular walk from the Doubletree Hilton to Angel tube to immerse yourself in the grimy poverty â and childhood freedoms – of 1950s life for a young Irish lad, one of the âMicks & Paddysâ and his Cockney neighbours. Interview by Nicola Baird.Â
âAs you get older you are drawn back to where you grew up,â says Mick Fitzgerald. âMy mum, who is 98, had got a thing about knowing your roots. She says âdonât forget your Islington Irishâ, says Mick switching from a London accent to a Limerick lilt when heâs quoting his countrymen.
Mick, 66, now retired after driving tube trains for 42 years, is up in London for the Arsenal match (25 Sep 2017: Arsenal 2 West Brom 0). Heâs met up with Islington Faces in Islingtonâs grandest hotel, the Hilton Doubletree on Pentonville Road. When you check in here guests are served a warm chocolate cookie before being shown their room and thereâs a Marco Pierre White steak restaurant. Itâs also a magnet for well-behaved Arsenal fans, like Mick, who meet here for bar food before the game. But Mick has an extra special connection with this Hilton because underneath the reception used to be a bombsite where he played as a child games like tin Tan Tommy (Kick the Can). And the bedrooms at the back, facing White Lion Street, are built on site of the brick terraced house where he grew up. These were pulled down in the 1960s as part of Islingtonâs slum-clearance.
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Listening to Mickâs stories itâs clear that he lived in real poverty. In those days school didnât help tackle deprivation. âClass, architects and MPâs children, went to Lady Owen (now Dame Alice Owen in Barnett), Rising Hill was for the sons and daughters of business people. William Yerbury was for the sons and daughters of stall holders and Bishop Gifford (a secondary modern that has now closed) was a dumping ground for poor Irish and Cockneys. I hated it.â
According to Mick, âthe only way to get money was working for it or nicking it.â Luckily Mick had a real appetite for work and from a young age was working on or around Chapel Market, delivering shopping, as a paperboy and at Yearlyâs Wholesalers, which had a shop on Baron Street. Like many of the local youngsters he also truanted from school. âWe climbed out of the window after register. Iâd go to my job. I felt so proud giving Mum housekeeping money.â
Despite no school qualifications Mick found permanent employment easily. âMy first job was with WH Smith on Kingsway as a diesel fitter on the vans. Iâd just got married and there was a baby on the way when there was row with foreman over 50 pence. I packed it in. But then you could get a job on a Monday and it was a job for life,â so Mick went to work on the underground. He was active in Aslef â as his Mum was with Islington Labour – and so over the years has met all the politicians, inlcuding John Prescott and Jeremy Corbyn.
Note: Micks & Paddys is a term no longer used, because of itâs pejorative and racist connotations, but in post war Islington Mick meant any Irish person, regardless of religion, and Paddy meant Catholic. According to Mick Fitzgerald there was tribal rivalry between the kids with Irish born parents and the Londoners with Cockney-slang speaking parents. You can read about a 1950s Cockney childhood on Islington Faces if you read the interview with David Hammond.
PENTONVILLE ROAD & NEIGHBOURHOOD
Pentonville Road (opposite the Hilton Doubletree)
âAll the kids would run in the streets playing football between traffic. There werenât any railings then. Weâd play Grand National jumping the walls between the gardens. It was fun.â
âWhen we were kids in the â50s weâd jump over the wall of the reservoir and go swimming there. I donât remember anyone drowning.â
âThe first house was the Doctorâs. The square had the best play swings in London. It was like an oasis in a madhouse.â
âI was five. I lived with my grandparents in Newcastle West, Co Limerick and theyâd sent me, on my own, to join Mum with a group of other Irish children on the boat to Liverpool and then the train to London. This lady with dark hair met me at Euston station. She said âIâm your mumâ. We took the 73 to Baron Street. We got off [just after the Pentonville Arms]. People were milling around. Iâd never seen so many people in my life. I remember gong âhelloâ to everyone, like we did in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, until I was put right by my brother. He was 12.
Pentonville Arms (now The Castle)
Pentonville Arms, Baron Street was a Charringtonâs pub. Recently itâs been in the news as itâs where the Hatton Garden job was planned. See this news item in the Guardian.
WHITE LION STREET
34 White Lion Street
âWe lived at 34. It was a dump. We Fitzgeralds were on the middle floor with the Murphies in the basement and the Kennedies above us. We all slept in one bedroom. The kitchen was very small so we ate in the lounge on our lap. To this day Iâve only ever seen Mum, who is 98, eat bread and tea. There were no locks on the door. All the doors would be open with a pram outside. It felt so cold inside. The only heating was the cooker. Mum, who worked as a cleaner and went out early to clean offices and private houses, would open the oven door, turn the gas on and put our socks and underwear in it to warm up.â
Mick, who is a huge Gunners fan, now lives in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex so heâs often up in Islington. But despite having seen it change he is flabbergasted by how different things are now. âItâs only 60 years ago. I canât believe the poverty in the tenements we lived,â he says. âWe moved to Archway in 1969, when I was 17, and the terrace we lived in was flattened. They would have been fantastic if theyâd been renovated. But we became private tenants of Islington Council. It was like winning the pools to be a council tenant. Our new place was a four-bedroom end of terrace in N19. It felt like Buckingham Palace.â
Mount Zion Chapel
âMount Zion Chapel, 71 White Lion Street was opposite where we lived. It was a Baptist Chapel. Iâve read in books that the top floors were for âfallen and repentant womenâ, but when I lived there we never knew any of the history.â
White Lion Street School (now Lift youth club, 45 White Lion Street)
âThey had a playground on the roof. On Holy Days of Obligation we got the day off from St Johnâs/Bishop Gifford school. Weâd go and taunt the kids at White Lion Street School shouting âyou f** Protestants, we go the day off and you havenât.â But theyâd get us back on Guy Fawkes night â we had to stay in because weâd be picked on.â
Penton Grove (no through way now)
âThis was an alleyway to Penton Street/Barnsbury Road.â
>>GODSON STREET (now an alley way with housing)
âThis was our football pitch. Weâd have two orange boxes as the goals. Thereâd be 50 kids and weâd tear strips out of each other, girls and boys. Weâd play all night until someoneâs Mum or Dad said we had to come home.â
âEveryone was on the make. It was 90 per cent fruit and veg stalls then and I remember a stall that sold apple fritters, they were lovely. ÂŁ12 a year for a pitch. It was all families â there were the Yearlys, Browns, Redrupps, Jacksons, Manzes and two Italian families running coffee bars.
That was where William Hill or Sports Direct was. Weâd buy an ounce of butter. One of the very first Tescoâs was on Chapel Street â not the first, that was in Ridley Road, Dalston.
The Alma, 78 Chapel Market
A policeman was stabbed here. It still has a very long bar, but the pub has had an extension. The corner used to be ABC Bakers. http://thealma.london
âWe got free dinners at school. In the holidays weâd get pie and mash with green liquor at Manzes, 94 Chapel Market. It was like going up the Savoy. I didnât like eating the eels but Manze would say âyou like it or get outâ.â M Manze opened in 1902 on Chapel Market and closed in 2017. http://www.manze.co.uk Outside the shop they had a stall (pitch 90). Thatâs where the live eels swam. I never like eels, but I didnât like him slitting an eelâs throat, cutting off its head and putting the guts in the bin.â
Beside Manzes stall (91)
âThat was the peanut stall. On the other side of the road was the sewing machine shop. Every woman wanted a Singer sewing machine, more even than a Rolls Royce, because they all made their own clothes.â
>On the White Lion Street/Baron Street corner
Stiles the bakers
Stiles the Baker, 61 Chapel Market, had a lovely smell. At ten to four theyâd sell the stale bread and broken biscuits.
William Michael Yearley & Sons Wholesalers (now a house)
âThis is where I worked at W M Yearley & Sons, 31-33 Baron Street. There was a trap door into the basement where we kept stock. Theyâd sell goods out of the window too.â
The Crown (now the 3 Johns)
Proper drinkers would have their favourites â Charrington, Watney, Truman and Young â itâs just like people like craft beer now. The 3 Johns was a Watney house. All the pubs had four or five bars. The snug was where the women went. The public bar was for workman and the saloon had a piano â on a Saturday the Cockneys would be playing Knees Up Mother Brown and the Irish would have diddley-do music. Some of the pubs had a lounge bar, which wasnât always open. This was for events like a wedding reception and where youâd wear your posh clothes. Every morning the Paddywaggon would stop outside the 3 Johns and the gangmaster picked who would work. The gangmaster was god. Now you see the Irish doing this to the Eastern Europeans, and some are doing worse, making people work like slaves.
WHITE LION STREET
Claremont Mission (now the Claremont Project)
âThe mission at 24-27 White Lion Street had public baths (and a laundry) in the basement. It sounds Medieval but there was nowhere to wash at home. Mum paid one shilling for five of us in the bath. It was all done on seniority so the eldest got the cleanest and warmest water. âMore hot in Number 12â.â
âIn the 1950s there were children with rickets, so even though we were Catholic weâd go to the Mission Sunday School for vitamin C and B12, jam sandwiches and lemonade. And the mothers got milk. I remember it well. I was picked to play football for Islington Boys and Rev Limbar (sp?) at the Mission bought me a pair of football boots.
* 24-27 where North London Cares is now sited, was a congregational church founded in 1819. It provided public baths for the neighbourhood as there were no municipal ones locally. The nearest were at Caledonian Road or Ironmonger Row.
Dunns (now Pret a Manger,Â 27 Islington High Street)
âSold posh office jackets and bowler hats.â
White Lion Inn (now HSBC)
âThis used to be a coaching inn on the A1. You can still see the stone lions on this building, and a date – 1898.â
ISLINGTON HIGH STREET
Pied Bull (now the Halifax)
All the local kids rehearsed here, itâs how the skiffle groups â just a broom, tea chest and banjo â learnt their trade. If they were out of time someone in the audience would chuck a bottle of beer at you.
Odeon cinema (now Starbucks)
Going to the cinema was the highlight of the week. We’d bunk in at the back entrance on White Lion Street.
Lyonâs Corner House (now the Co-op Bank)
âWeâd go once or twice a year if we were lucky. There would be a pot of tea for us all and sandwiches in a tower. There were two floors. Mumâs order was taken by a Nippy, the waitresses who looked really smart in their white aprons, white caps and black dresses, but they looked down on us. They knew we had no money.â
SOUNDS OF THE STREET
âAt the crossroads of Islington High Street and Pentonville Road there were trolley buses (early 1960s). Angel was the change over section for Old Street, Holborn and Kingâs Cross. There was a woman with a long stick who had to untangle the wires all day. Youâd see a lot of horses then too â the brewery horses delivering the beer, the milkmanâs horse and the rag and bone men.â
SUMMING UP – It was a real treat walking around the streets that Mick grew up in. If you decide to retrace his steps (or your own!) around Islington please do let Islington Faces know. And if you have stories about places you love – or loved – in Islington please get in touch. Apologies as there’s not enough about football on this particular post, but these days one of Mick’s favourite places in Islington is watching Arsenal with friends and family.
- For more history about Penton Street and Chapel Market, see the 2008 Survey of London here
- Head to Lift youth club
- Volunteer or join activities at the Claremont Project
Over to you
If youâd 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.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles orÂ Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola