It is good news for all Amwell Society members that the House of Illustration (HoI) has acquired the heritage assets – Engine House, Windmill Base, old coal stores, associated additional buildings and land at the New River Head, ending a campaign lasting almost 30 years to prevent inappropriate development of this important, historical site.
Thames Water moved its headquarters from the New River Head to Reading in the early 1990s and the vast office building, research station and water quality buildings on the site were quickly converted to apartments. A Planning Brief produced by the London Borough of Islington [LBI] called for the redundant industrial buildings at the northern end of the site to be made available for heritage, education and community purposes. Despite this obligation, Thames Water sold many of these buildings to a property developer who spent several years trying unsuccessfully to gain planning permission for residential development.
About three years ago the developer accepted that this was not going to happen, and let it be known that he was willing to sell his interest in the site. The Amwell Society was instrumental in introducing the House of Illustration (HoI) to the site at a time when they were looking for a permanent home when the lease on their current building at Kings Cross expires about 3 years hence. Negotiations took about 18 months, before the HoI successfully acquired long leases on all main buildings on the site, including the Grade II Listed Engine House, home to steam pumping engines for over 150 years.
The House of Illustration, founded 5 years ago by Sir Quentin Blake, is familiar to many of us, not least because of the enjoyable outing there earlier in the year to see the retrospective exhibition of the works of renowned illustrator and graphic novelist (and Amwell Society member) Posy Simmons. Said HoI Director, Colin McKenzie ‘We are absolutely delighted to have acquired such an important and exciting site to be the long term home for the UK’s only public gallery devoted to the celebration of the art of illustration. The Amwell Society has played a central role in us acquiring the site and we are looking forward to their continued involvement as we develop our plans.’
HoI recently advertised for architects to work with them on a project planned to complete in 2022 to design the exhibition, teaching, administrative and community facilities on the site, and we understand that 6 firms have now been short-listed. We also hope that, before very long, we will be able to offer Amwell Society members the opportunity for a tour of the site, and the chance to see for themselves these impressive buildings at the heart of our neighbourhood.
Of course for the Amwell Society, this is not the end of the matter. It is not even the beginning of the end, though it is surely the end of the beginning! We are thrilled about this development, which should secure public access to the site and bring many visitors to our area (and help to sustain the shops in Amwell Street and Arlington Way). We sincerely hope that the move will fulfil all HoI’s aspirations. And, as foreseen in the Planning Brief, we want to see the site used also to celebrate New River Head’s role in bringing clean water to London’s teeming population, an important factor in the City’s expansion in the 17the, 18th and 19th centuries. We look forward to engaging with HoI as their plans take shape.