Where was the White Conduit
by John Bryant

Ground:White Conduit Fields, Islington
Other links:map

DateLine: 25th May 2005


White Conduit Fields, Islington, lay to the rear of White Conduit House. The latter is shown on the Greenwood map of 1830 as being immediately south of the junction of the streets now called Dewey Street and Barnsbury Road. This site is now occupied by a public house that was called the 'White Conduit' until quite recently. (Sadly, the name has been 'modernised' to something I have forgotten.) There is also a White Conduit Street, which is now a short and thoroughly undistinguished cul-de-sac letting off Chapel Market. Formerly, however, before being cut off by the improvement of Tolpuddle Street (previously Culpeper Street), it continued much farther to the north to join Cloudesley Road, which is a northern continuation of it - the southern part of Cloudesley Road was formerly White Conduit Street.


All this fairly definitely places White Conduit Fields in the area bounded by (in terms of modern streets) Tolpuddle Street to the south and Barnsbury Road to the west. The ground is this area is fairly level and would be quite suitable for cricket. How far east and north the Fields extended I am not sure; it depends whether White Conduit Street was so called because it provided access to the Fields or because it marked their eastern boundary. If it was the eastern boundary, the Fields were rather small for cricket, so I think it likelier that they extended as far east as Liverpool Road, which is an ancient thoroughfare formerly called Back Lane. It may be significant that the southern boundary, roughly along modern Tolpuddle Street, coincides approximately (or possibly exactly) with the ancient boundary between the parishes of Islington and Clerkenwell. (Farther east, the boundary ran down the middle of Islington High Street, so that about only half of what we now think of as the central part of Islington actually lay in Islington parish; the rest was in Clerkenwell.)


The White Conduit area was built up in the 1820s and 1830s. This means that the Greenwood map is just too late to capture its earlier use. The best map of London before Greenwood's is Horwood's of 1799 but it does not go far enough north to show this area.


It should also be noted, for historical context, that the Regent's Canal was cut directly through this area in the 1810s. It tunnels under central Islington, passing almost directly beneath the site of White Conduit House (it is possible to be confident of this because the tunnel is perfectly straight). The tunnel was apparently built by sinking several boreholes to the appropriate depth and digging horizontally between them; it was a major construction project and must have disrupted whatever remained of the White Conduit's rural character, so it is not surprising that it was shortly after this that the area was built up.


There is one aspect of this story that troubles me: the word 'conduit'. To my mind, this suggests an artificial channel, probably covered, for the conveyance of a continuous flow of water. I find this hard to reconcile with the topography of the area, which is quite high ground (which is why the canal company went to the trouble and cost of building a tunnel; a cutting would have been impossibly deep, and locks very awkward). The lie of the land seems to preclude a natural spring, so where did the water for the 'conduit' come from?


(Article: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.
Copyright © 2005 John Bryant)


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