Mary, Queen of our historic streets
Tributes to historian who ‘knew so much about the streets, squares and personalities of Islington’
10 January, 2020 — By Emily Finch
Mary Cosh, who died recently at the age of 100
HISTORIAN Mary Cosh often said the Second World War gave her freedom.
She found herself very unhappy as she felt pushed towards a “sensible” career in the civil service after leaving school.
She was bored by the work in the Labour office and she craved adventure and a chance to write.
Following the outbreak of war, Ms Cosh was offered a role as a telegraphist in Alexandria, Egypt, with the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
She found camaraderie, excitement and love during her time there and was able to set a new course for her life.
Ms Cosh, who published 10 works on the history of Islington, died on December 18. She was 100 years old.
Ms Cosh, who had called Barnsbury her home for more than 50 years, was not only a prolific writer but a campaigner who helped found the Islington Society which seeks to preserve the area’s historical character.
Without her intervention, which saw her take on the Town Hall and organise picket lines, there would be no Royal Agricultural Hall – now known as the Business Design Centre – or Bravington House in King’s Cross.
Ms Cosh helped launch the Islington Society in 1960 after seeing the threat posed to beautiful Georgian terraces in Union Square which were being torn down to make way for badly designed flats in an area south of Essex Road.
Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, the former culture secretary and president of the Islington Society, paid tribute.
He said: “She was revered in Islington – she had researched and studied so much. She knew so much about the streets and squares and the personalities of Islington. It is now difficult to walk through the squares of Islington without thinking of them through Mary’s eyes.”
He first met Ms Cosh “decades ago” and recalled her ability to always provide an answer to any question on the history of the borough.
“That ability to do the painstaking detailed research and also to make it come alive for people in the here and now is a rare gift,” he said.
She was determined to keep chronicling and was working on updating her 2005 book, A History of Islington, to include passages on the closure of Holloway Prison and the transformation of King’s Cross when she died.
One of her finest works was a book on the history of one house in Cross Street which was jointly written with Martin King. The two historians peeled apart the house to depict the lives of the ordinary working people who had once called the building their home.
Ms Cosh’s early years in the outskirts of Bristol were marred by tragedy when her mother died when she was hit by a car. She also said she struggled to make friends at Clifton High School because she wasn’t particularly sporty and found herself often alone.
After the war, Ms Cosh was accepted into Oxford University where she would eventually settle on studying English literature.
She went on to become a freelance journalist for The Times and The Times Literary Supplement but would also work at the Museum of the Order of Saint John in Clerkenwell. She also modelled for British painter Duncan Grant who was a member of the Bloomsbury Group.
She became enamoured with Scotland after meeting the renowned architect Ian Lindsay and they jointly published a book on the Dukes of Argyll and their ancestral home of Inveraray Castle.
She also spent years working on a comprehensive history of Edinburgh during its “golden age” between the 1760s to the 1830s with the book recently reprinted.
Ms Cosh not only entertained through her books but was a wonderful and honest conversationalist who was able to engage almost anyone with her stories, wit and charm.
Her 100th birthday party last March at Fredericks restaurant, in Camden Passage, attracted dozens of well-wishers including the Islington South MP Emily Thornberry.
She told the Tribune how she had a “great amount of fun” shopping in Harvey Nichols for a special dress from Missoni to celebrate the milestone birthday.
She died at Marie Curie hospice in Belsize Park after a short illness.
A funeral will be held on Monday in Islington Crematorium at 12.30pm.