Tour reveals bizarre history of Stoke Newington’s isolated ‘Island’ neighbourhood that was knocked down in 1970
- Credit: on the record
Bad tempered pigs, circus elephants, children playing on the streets and women sitting on their porches shelling peas – these were all part of everyday life in a legendary tight-knit community where you had to pay a toll and hop over someone’s back wall to get in.
“The Island” – which comprised five streets containing terraced Victorian two-up-two-down homes where Stellman Close now stands – was cut off from the world because of a geographical anomaly.
If you didn’t want to walk miles around to access from Hackney Downs, the quickest way to get in was to knock on the door and pay a penny.
The homes, which stood off Evering Road, were declared slums and demolished to make way for new housing in 1970.
A few years later a literary group from Centerprise overheard a pair talking about it nostalgically in a pub – Roger Mill, whose aunt had been a resident, and Ken Jacob, a postman who had delivered letters there.
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They decided to make a book about it, and the authors of A People’s Autobiography of Hackney went about contacting the former tenants who had been scattered to the four winds in Kent and Essex.
Their archive interviews have been used by Laura Mitchison and Rosa Schling from On The Record in one of four audio walks for their history project A Hackney Autobiography, and written about in their book The Lime Green Mystery.
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They have also interviewed people from the present day.
“We have reinterpreted the story into a dreamy drifty walk about the old island streets,” Laura told the Gazette. “It has a grainy quality to hear the voices of the islanders that are no more.
“It’s a kind of ghosting of the new housing with the memories and scenes of the olden days, but it also tries to be a bit critical of the vision of the world the islanders had, who were insular and hostile to the outside world.”
Elizabeth Riley, for instance, had lived there for 20 years having moved from Wood Green – but none of the Islanders would talk to her because she was “an outsider”.
Islanders describe houses painted gorgeous vibrant colours like “emerald, dark tangerine and duck egg blue”. The end of one street was spelt “Ottoway” but the other was “Ottaway”.
Elephants were stabled there for the nearby music hall, and children were fascinated by a woman who would curl old fashioned feathers with a flame for the circus perfomers.
Redoubtable old ladies called the Guinness twins would sit outside making sure no intruders came in and the kids weren’t run over or abducted.
A self sufficient community, they had chickens and a “pig club”, with everyone chipping in cash and feeding the animals their slops, so they could share the bacon once they were slaughtered.
Stories include that of a boar called Johnny would gore people’s legs. In the end one of the islanders knocked both his tusks off after he ended up in hospital with stitches.
Another tells of Jean Palmer, who was allowed to stay off school by her grandmother because she was bullied and called “four eyes” and “fatty”. The woman allowed her to drink beer, and would tell the school officer Jean was feeling “dizzy” when they knocked on the door to find out where she was.
“Because it was cut off it got a reputation,” said Laura. “It wasn’t a street of mobsters, it was just very very poor and very very cut off.
“A lot of the memories of the islanders are nostalgic and rose tinted and they were genuinely sad when it was knocked down.
“There was a real country-in-the-city feel. Yes, their houses were leaky and had outside toilets, but they didn’t see it as a slum – it was a community.”
To buy a copy of the book email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find the free app A Hackney Autobiography on Google Play or the iTunes app store.