COPENHAGEN FIELDS WAS an open space north of the Barnsbury district of London’s Islington. In the 17th century, the place was beyond the northern edge of London. As with other open spaces in 17th century Islington, it was an area where people whose homes had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 congregated with what belongings they managed to salvage. By the 18th century, Copenhagen Fields had become a place where large numbers of Londoners used to gather for political meetings.
According to William Howitt writing in his “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869), the fields acquired its name following a visit of the King of Denmark to his relative King James I (reigned over England, Scotland and Ireland from 1603 to 1625). A Dane built a house on the open space, Copenhagen House. The name ‘Copenhagen’ appears on a map published in 1695. Howitt reveals that Copenhagen Fields and its house became a place of recreation for Londoners:
“It became a great tea house and resort of the Londoners to play skittles and Dutch-pins. It commanded a splendid view over the metropolis, the heights of Highgate and Hampstead …”
As mentioned, Copenhagen Fields was connected with political activity; it was a place of mass protests. Not long after the French Revolution, there was a meeting in the open space:
“On the 12th of November 1795 a public meeting was summoned by the London Corresponding Society in Copenhagen Fields which was attended by more than a hundred thousand persons. Five rostra or tribunes were erected, and Mr. Ashley, the secretary, informed the meeting that it at each of them petitions to the King, Lords and Commons against the Bill for preventing seditious meetings would be offered to their consideration.” (www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/france/copenhagen.htm).
The best remembered protest that occurred in Copenhagen Fields was on the 21st of April 1834. Thousands of people commenced marching from there to central London in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who lived in Dorset:
“In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast but six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom.” (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/).
Many of those marchers began their procession from Copenhagen Fields:
“Up to 100,000 people assembled in Copenhagen Fields near King’s Cross. Fearing disorder, the Government took extraordinary precautions. Lifeguards, the Household Cavalry, detachments of Lancers, two troops of Dragoons, eight battalions of infantry and 29 pieces of ordnance or cannon were mustered. More than 5,000 special constables were sworn in. The city looked like an armed camp.
By 7am the protesters began to gather marshalled by trade union stewards on horseback. Robert Owen, the leader of the Grand Consolidated Union and the father of the Co-operative Movement arrived.
The grand procession with banners flying marched to Parliament in strict discipline. Loud cheers came from spectators lining the streets and crowding the roof tops. At Whitehall the petition, borne on the shoulders of twelve unionists, was taken to the office of the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne. He hid behind his curtains and refused to accept the massive petition.” (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/story/mounting-protest)
In June 1855, Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert, opened the Metropolitan Cattle Market (later known as ‘Caledonian Market’). This market occupied most of the area of Copenhagen Fields. It was built to ease the congestion caused by driving live animals into the more centrally located Smithfield Market. Although at first many animals walked to the market from the fields where they were raised, the market was built close to the goods yards of the recently built Great Northern and North London railways (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Cattle_Market).
Cattle travelled (under their own ‘steam’) two hundred miles from Devon at two miles per hour, walking twelve hours a day. Sheep from Wales, also two hundred miles from Copenhagen Fields, would be trotting across England to London for twenty days. Some cattle travelled even further: over five hundred miles from Scotland. These fascinating figures can be seen on a sign located in the park that stands where the cattle market stood between 1855 and the early 20th century, when trade in live animals began to decrease. Later, the market area was used for selling antiques and bric-a-brac. The Caledonian Market finally closed in 1963.
Much of the old market area is now used for recreation. On the south side of Market Road, there are enclosed sporting areas. The northern side is an attractive little park. All that remains of the market are the Victorian cast-iron railings, which are in various states of decay, and the market’s clock tower, which has been beautifully restored. The tower is 151 feet tall. It used to stand amidst the now-demolished dealers’ offices and close to the also demolished abattoirs.
Just north of the tower, there is a small café which is named in honour of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Within it, there is a wall facing the serving counter. This has two murals commemorating mass protest. One of them, painted in a style reminiscent of social realism depicts people of many different ethnicities marching beneath a banner of The Islington Trades Union Council. This bears the words:
“Reclaim our past. Organise our future”.
The other mural commemorates the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Panels on the walls of the café and around the north entrance to the park are decorated with scenes from the history of the area in the form of silhouettes. Some of them show animals being driven through the countryside. Others depict market scenes and the shops in which the meat was sold. Circular panels mounted on the walls of the tower show old photographs of the market in its heyday.
Although the park is not as spectacular as many other London parks, it is worth visiting to see the magnificently restored market clock tower and the several plaques and illustrations that provide clear explanations of the area’s historical importance. In addition, the small café and surrounding buildings within the park are good examples of contemporary architecture. The Caledonian Park, the former Copenhagen Fields, is yet another fascinating feature that contributes to what is wonderful about London.