Biography of an historic house

Local historian Mary Cosh’s latest book was launched in some style at the Museum of St John in Clerkenwell last night.

Instead of being a narrative about a town, a community or a family, it’s the story of a house, 53 Cross Street.

Like many of Islington’s Georgian houses, 53 Cross Street fell into neglect. Hard to imagine now, but there was a time when you could not give away housing in Islington; houses that estate agents would now praise as elegant and desirable – and price at £1M – were squatted and semi-derelict. The wonderful Victoria County History describes Islington’s growth and change over these years.

53 Cross Street is one of a terrace of once-grand houses that had been bought by Islington Council. But unable to afford to refurbish them or to let them as permanent housing in such a poor state, the Council let them to a housing co-op instead. The idea was that the tenants could stay for a short time on cheap rent, until the Council came up with a plan. The groups were called Short Life User Groups, or SLUGs. A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is a short time in local government. Many years went by and the houses remained in limbo.

What sets no 53 apart is that one of its residents was an artist and student, Martin King. Martin engaged with the house and instead of doing it up, stripped it back; he revealed the original decorations, finding out about previous generations of occupants as he went.

The Council eventually decided to sell the ‘short-life’ houses. The book describes how initially the Council thought they could get £11k for 53 Cross Street – it turned out to be rather more in the end… Some of the houses were sold to housing associations, others to private owners; the income has been invested in services, the buildings have been restored and are now back in use as permanent homes.

Number 53 may be on to the next stage of its long life, but thanks to Martin’s unique project, we can all see how it was in the past. The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Pauline Lord – highly recommended. In fact my signed copy has already been borrowed by a friend who couldn’t be there last night.

“53 Cross Street; the biography of an historic house”, by Mary Cosh and Martin King, is available from Islington Archaeological & History Society, 8 Wynyatt Street, London EC1V 7HU, cost £20.

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