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Navigator Square – built on the pluck of the Irish

It’s navvies not the navy that’s the inspiration for the name of Archway’s new traffic-free space

08 December, 2017 — By Emily Finch

Archway Tavern in 1872 showing the first tramcar. PHOTO: ISLINGTON LOCAL HISTORY CENTRE

TO most people, “Navigator Square” may recall images of sea waves and dockyards and would appear to be a strange choice of name for the new square in the land-locked Borough of Islington.

But the name chosen for the newly pedestrianised space outside Archway tube station is not a maritime connection but a reference to the Irish community who have long called the area their home.

Navigator Square will come into use in the new year following a consultation survey run by Transport for London and Islington Council, a finishing touch for the facelift at the former road gyratory.

Archway Tavern now at the centre of Navigator Square

The term navigators, or “navvies” for short, was first applied to the Irish who moved to England to build the canal systems in the 19th century. As industry progressed, so did modes of transporta­tion and the Irish were then recruited to build railway systems and later the vast motorway systems. But the name stuck.

Esther Doyle, 62, grew up in Archway, just off Junction Road, and speaks with a faint Irish accent though she only lived in Ireland for a year when she was a child.

She said: “I’m really happy to see what the square is called. I’m so delirious with happiness. I was just looking at it the other day. The Archway Tavern was such a lively happening place. That’s where you used to get your wages and were you would socialise and meet your boyfriends and girlfriends.”

Archway-based Jarsfield hurling team dating from the 1950s

Ms Doyle’s parents first came to London in the 1950s and her mother Bridie worked in a false teeth factory in Kentish Town while her father Anthony worked at the ABC bakery in Camden Town, where Sainsbury’s is today.

She recalled going to mass on Sundays in a tin shed in Hatchard Road and later St Gabriel’s Church, off Holloway Road. “Life revolved around that church. St Joseph’s in Highgate Hill was the posh church,” said Ms Doyle.

For socialising, she recalled visiting the Gresham Ballroom in Holloway Road – now also home to Sainsbury’s.

“That was a big Irish dancehall and a lot of us second-generation girls met our partners there and a lot of friends went off over to Ireland after meeting their partners. I met a long-term partner there too,” said Ms Doyle.

Marion House, a hostel for girls in Hornsey, offered temporary accommodation to settlers

“The Irish started to arrive in Upper Holloway and Archway in the 1830s, before the Irish famine,” said historian Dr Tony Murray, who heads the Irish Studies Centre at the London Metropolitan University.

“They moved from the centre of London where they had settled in the 17th and 18th centuries, near the present-day Centre Point in St Giles. They moved out because of the railways being built and they needed to live close to where they worked by the main railway terminals in Euston and St Pancras,” he said.

“The navvies’ lives were pretty tough,” he added. “They had to work long hours living in pretty squalid conditions because they couldn’t afford anything better because work was sometimes precarious and not unionised.”

Life wasn’t easy for the Irish population in Archway, with many facing prejudice from the English population which made it difficult for them to progress into more skilled jobs.

Dr Murray says there was a further wave of Irish immigration following the Second World War and the Whittington Hospital hired a large number of Irish nurses.

“They were getting into better position jobs which were skilled, such as in the post offices and clerical work. The picture had changed. They moved into already established Irish areas including Archway, Kilburn and Camden,” said Dr Murray.

Dr Murray’s history of the Irish in London, London Irish Fictions: Narrative, Diaspora and Identity, is available from Liverpool University Press at £19.99.


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