I wonder what a passerby would have made of us as we stood on the pavement on Oct. 12 waiting for the unveiling. We were a smallish crowd, maybe 15 in all, with gray predominating in hair and beards. A gold chain shone around the mayor’s shoulders; our councilor spoke briskly; the old and distinguished local historian sat in her chair and looked up brightly at people who stooped to talk to her. Then the postman arrived, which pleased everybody because he is a local man — born in the streets he still treads — and his presence gave us the fleeting, but not false, sense that we really do belong to a community.
A passerby might have thought: “There’s a bunch of people on one of those London walks. Perhaps they’ve stopped outside the scene of a famous murder.”
I was among what might be called the old Islington middle class, the kind of people who catch buses and use libraries and remember each other from the time their children shared a playgroup — a dwindling class, which may disappear in these parts, never to be seen again.
After the speeches, someone tugged a cord and the curtains parted to reveal a green plaque announcing that the estate agent’s beneath was once the office of James Edmondson, builder and developer, who in the late 19th century built most of the north London suburb we live in, including the row of shops that held his office and now bears the green plaque.
“A showy red brick shopping parade,” historian Nikolaus Pevsner said disdainfully of a terrace whose official address, still just visible on its original enamel sign, is the Broadway, Highbury Park.
Edmondson built high streets like this all across north London and sometimes in south London, too. Each was three or four storys high — apartments above and shops below — and made of red brick ornamented with white plasterwork: “developer’s baroque,” Pevsner calls it.
In a remarkably short time — approximately, the 30 years leading to 1914 — developers such as Edmondson carpeted the fields and hills of north London with housing estates and shopping centers — with an occasional theater or tennis court thrown in — so that a lane that might have been trodden by a herd of cows in 1880 had tramcars rattling down it by 1910.
Developers grew rich. According to research by Judith Hibbert, Edmondson had modest beginnings as a carpenter’s son who helped his father. Twenty years later, he was so busy with work that a special railway siding was required to unload the 300,000 bricks that were needed every day to build Muswell Hill. Edmondson’s houses ranged in price from ￡500 (US$800 at current exchange rates) for the straightforward Highbury terrace, to ￡1,000 for the double-fronted or semi-detached villa in Muswell Hill that might come with a billiard room and electric light. Similar homes could be rented from ￡50 a year.
The profits elevated the Edmondsons up the social scale from their beginnings as jobbing carpenters. James Edmondson retired to Bournemouth on the English south coast and his son, Baron Sandford, was first a Tory lawmaker and then a Tory peer. It was a family fortune made from people who wanted their own more modest versions of betterment: airier houses with gardens and room on the top floor for a cheap servant, who would bring home lamb chops and sweet sherry from the shops on the Parade.