The rise of Hoxton: From derelict buildings to ‘world class bars’

PUBLISHED: 13:35 31 March 2016 | UPDATED: 14:26 31 March 2016

Bar owner Paul Daly has been in Hoxton Square since 1988 and has seen it go from a dump to a booming nightime economy

Bar owner Paul Daly has been in Hoxton Square since 1988 and has seen it go from a dump to a booming nightime economy


Paul Daly moved to the forgotten Hoxton Square in 1988 as a squatter. He’s now a successful bar owner and the area he helped to create is booming. Sam Gelder met him for a chat.

Paul with the Eagle sculpture he bought at a knockdown price from an auction Paul with the Eagle sculpture he bought at a knockdown price from an auction

“We didn’t know what we were creating. There was a magic in it, everyone was young, with no fear.”

In 1988, designer Paul Daly arrived in Hoxton Square as a squatter with his artist friend Gary Hume. He still lives there, but he now owns and runs two self-designed bars and is about to start renting out Airbnb-style apartments.

His success is probably down to his undeniable passion for what he does. As he takes me around Zigfrid von Underbelly – the neon-lit, Hunter S. Thompson-influenced roadhouse bar he opened in 2003, he excitedly points out his favourite designs. There are tables, stools, the glass keg holder and a giant sculpture of two eagles he bought at an auction.

“It was going for £5,000 but I knew no one would have the space for it,” he explains. “I waited ‘til the next day and phoned – got it for about £500.”

Paul in Zigfrid von Underbelly Paul in Zigfrid von Underbelly

He’s definitely in the right job, and more importantly in the right place – even if he didn’t plan it.

“I never knew this was my destiny,” he says. “I was just here doing metalwork. It was all empty commercial buildings. This was an old church that was bombed.”

After growing up in Dublin, Paul moved to England from the East Village in New York to study fine art at Goldsmith’s when his best friend was killed in Ireland.

“I was more scared here than I was in Manhattan,” he confesses. “There were no street lights and a lot of crime.”

For five years the artists had one pub, The Stag’s Head, which is still standing.

Paul read up on squatters rights and took out a lease where he was living, which the council granted in exchange for his welding skills.

“I started doing gates, fences and tables,” he says. “I was here with Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas and a few others. There was no one else here.”

That all started to change in 1993 when Glasshouse studios came and started renting out spaces to artists.

“There’s a building in the square that Aviva have just bought for £15million,” says Paul.

“I remember when it was bought for £50,000 in 1989.” The influx culminated in a now legendary event organised by the late art dealer Joshua Compston.

“A Fete Worse Than Death”, held in 1993, sounds like a madcap village fair.

“That was a surreal day,” recalls Paul. “You had all the artists out in the square – there was no licensing involved in those days, we just did it. Damien Hirst was there doing spiral paintings dressed as a clown.

“That was the beginning of the ‘east side’. Charles Saatchi once told Gary ‘I will never go to Hoxton Square’ – but he was here all the f*****g time! It’s amazing to think about it now. It’s like ‘holy s***, we were doing something influential!”

With the underground scene in full throttle, Paul designed furniture for celeb hotspot Blue Note – now Bill’s – and was a regular at the Sunday parties – “you had Goldie DJing, Liam Gallagher and even David Bowie,” he said.

He describes what follows as a “spiral of development”, but has no cynicism towards it at all.

“I think it’s brilliant,” he says. “The money came in but even though there are some big businesses, it’s mostly independent stuff and there’s a very cool vibe. We have world class bars and they are done in their own way.

“When it first started, people thought we would go away, but we’re not.”

Paul learned about licensing while designing bars across the country for “big boys” like Mitchells and Butlers, and opened Zigfrid, followed by Roadtrip and the Workshop in Old Street in 2008.

He owns other venues, but his next venture is a microbrewery in Hackney Wick, an area he describes as the next Hoxton.

“It needs something like this, a central hub where everyone can go,” he says. “This is the best borough in the country with a massive youth culture. I’ve seen it go from being a dump to such a cool, unbelievable borough. I can’t believe my luck.

“I just want to do something that means something and I want to do it in Hackney.”

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