Walk Hackney: Local walks, local stories

Hackney resident, tour guide of Walk Hackney Sean Gubbins tells us about Stoke Newington’s churches, farms and the vast numbers of people laid to rest in Abney Park cemetery

Tell us about yourself

My name is Sean Gubbins. I used to live in Stoke Newington and now live in Dalston. For the past 14 years I have been devising and leading local history walks in different parts of today’s Hackney. Please see walkhackney.co.uk for the schedule of walks I offer twice a month.

Could you tell us the history of Stoke Newington & Dalston? When were they established? Who were the residents and shopkeepers over the years? Did any well-known people live in the area?

Stoke Newington and Dalston were and remain very different. Stoke Newington was its own parish, separate from Hackney. It is said that land there was granted to the priests of St Paul’s Cathedral in about 940 by the King of Wessex – before England existed as a country. Its name means new settlement in the woods.

Dalston was one of the various settlements in the much bigger parish of Hackney. Its name means “farm belonging to Dedrlaf ”. For most of its history, Dalston was a farming community stretching along Dalston Lane which, until 1870, was the main road heading west out of Hackney. The healthy environment of its open spaces attracted various institutions. A hospital for London’s German community was opened in 1845 and in 1849 a Refuge for Destitute Women moved here. The coming of the railway through Dalston in 1850, with a further line down to the City in 1867, attracted industry to the area.

Further away from London, Stoke Newington always remained more secluded. In the late 1600s it became a centre for non-conformists: people who would not obey the established religion of the day – the Church of England. They lived together in Stoke Newington, built their own places of worship and established their own schools. They were often at the forefront of radical ideas, campaigning for social reform. Their number included Daniel Defoe, Mary Wollstonecraft and leaders of the anti- slavery movement.

St Mary’s Church, Stoke Newington.

There are two churches in Stoke Newington Church street. What is their story?

The older church was re-built in 1566 by William Patten, who leased the manor of Stoke Newington from St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is one of few churches built in the London area between the closing of religious houses in the Reformation and the rebuilding of London by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666.

Between 1801 and 1851 the population of Stoke Newington grew by 500%. A new church was needed to accommodate this increase. It was consecrated in 1858. The architect was George Gilbert Scott, who also designed two London landmarks: St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial.

“Between 1801 and 1851 the population of Stoke Newington grew by 500%”

What about the Abney Park Cemetery?

The cemetery was formed in 1838 from the grounds of two big houses which stood beside Stoke Newington Church Street. It was one of a few cemeteries laid out in the outskirts of London because London’s old burial grounds were being filled to overflowing. Never consecrated, it attracted burials of people of different Christian denominations, particularly non-conformists. It was laid out as an arboretum, making it an attractive place to visit. Gradually every bit of space was used for a burial until
it became overcrowded so no more income could be raised from carrying out burials and the owners went bust. All sorts of people are buried there: including an African prince, politicians, heroes, industrialists, people born as slaves: over 200,000 in all – almost the number of Hackney’s population today.

If you compare to 30 years ago, the area changed a lot. What was the area like back then? What has made it so popular these days?

30 years ago Stoke Newington was already beginning to change, with many terraced houses to attract young middle-class families. The shops along Stoke Newington Church Street were being replaced by restaurants and estate agents. That trend has continued. But Stoke Newington still remains comparatively isolated from the rest of London. The station which bears its name is not in Stoke Newington but on Stamford Hill; it is still not served by a tube station and the only means of transport to get you to the centre of Stoke Newington remains the bus.

Change in Dalston has been more recent. Without the same amount of housing stock, it is the old industrial buildings which have, in the past few years, been converted into offices, living space and clubs or been replaced by high rise apartment buildings. 30 years ago Dalston was drab, with run-down housing and shops and closing businesses. It would have been very hard to imagine then that in 2009 Italian Vogue would label Dalston as “one of coolest places on earth.” Brought here by the East London Line, which re-opened in 2010, Dalston today attracts clubbers from all over London and beyond, creating a new tension between those promoting Dalston’s night culture and local residents.



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