The Highbury church that made the history of rock.

David Franchi

After few days of working from home and with sunshine weather, I decided to take a walk on New Highbury Park, Islington, London. Here buildings and part of the surrounding area are from the mid- nineteenth century, built in a typical Italianate style.

Strolling around I arrive to St. Augustine church, part of the Anglican Evangelical tradition of the Church of England. Members of the parish mirror the very mixed population of Highbury, counting at least 22 different nationalities. Notably activities include the children school, the Islington Choir, groups for exploring Christianity, praying, fare trading, campaigning against poverty and climate change.

Redevelopment has started so St. Augustine is closed. This particular edifice was built in 1869, in replacement of a temporary church first established in 1864. A parish was assigned to the church in 1871, taken from the ones of Christ Church and Saint Paul’s. The structure was restored in 1982. The church seats around 1,150 people. The building is made of brick with stone dressings, designed by Habershon and Brock in the Decorated style, typical of the Gothic Revival – or Victorian Gothic – architecture, practised in England in the second half of the nineteenth century.

But the most interesting part of the building is the peculiar church hall. Built in 1881, later on it will become a piece of the history of the music, hosting the very famous “Wessex Sound Studios” a recording venue for rock legends. Now, astonishingly, it has been transformed into homes.

In the 1960s, the Thompson family converted the church hall into a recording studio. They named it ‘Wessex’ because their previous recording studio was located in Bournemouth, in the Ancient English county of Wessex.

George Martin, the legendary producer of The Beatles, bought the studios in 1965 and make of it one of the hottest rock place of the history. Wessex lasted for 40 years and in Britain it was second only to Abbey Road studios for equipment and frequentation. In 1975, Chrysalis bought the studios and George Martin became a director of the company.

The list of music personalities who have worked at the Wessex Studios is amazing. Here the Sex Pistols recorded many of their albums, including the revolutionary ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ in 1977. The Clash recorded their celebrated – but never enough – ‘London Calling’ two years later. The Queen used the venue for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. For ‘We will rock you’ The Queen recorded the mighty ‘boom-boom-cha boom-boom-cha’ of the song making the whole staff of the studios jump on the pavement.

Additionally, worked here Rolling Stones, The Pretenders, King Crimson, Marianne Faithfull, XTC, King, Slade, Peter Townshend, Jesus and Mary Chain, John Cougar Mellencamp, Theatre of Hate, Kylie, Talk Talk, Nick Cave, REM, Motorhead, The Moody Blues, Dido, Coldplay, Elvis Costello, Bob Geldof, The Damned, The Stone Roses, The Specials, Enya, Nik Kershaw, Erasure, Judas Priest, Tina Turner, and David Bowie. The list could probably be longer if one just had enough time to make research.

But time passes by and in 2003 the building was sold to Neptune Group and later converted into a residential development. Today the place is known as “The Recording Studio” and it contains eight apartments and a townhouse. The website of the agent declares that The Recording Studio “might not make you a rock star – “but at least you can live like one”. Ironically, for a property here in a rock’ n’ roll location you need to have a lot of cash to meet the expenses.

Wessex Studios were famous for having the newest technologies of which the celebrated mixing desk ‘40 channel SSL 4048E console’ is still alive nowadays and used in a recording studio located in Llangennech, Carmarthenshire, in South Wales.

But this is not all. Another involving site is just nearby few steps further on. At the 124 Highbury Park, it is possible to find the house of David Gestetner, an Hungarian scientists who was the inventor of the Gestetner stencil duplicator, the first piece of office equipment that allowed production of numerous copies of documents quickly and inexpensively. Or better to say the ancestor of the photocopy machine. On 15th March 2011, Gestetner received a Blue Plaque on his home at 124 Highbury New Park.

Well, it is strange to go for a relaxing walk and find out the history of music, together with the one of the office equipment. Though it is now past, it’s always worth to amble and then go back home searching for the amazing history of this place on the internet.