Historian whose home was a door to the past
Friends remember ‘a truly lovely person’ who made his Georgian house a theatre of memory
07 June, 2019 — By Emily Finch
Martin King: ‘Kind, steadfast, non-judgemental, whimsical and sensitive’
MARTIN King, a historian of Islington who famously excavated parts of his own home to learn about the lives of ordinary working people, has died, aged 59.
His funeral took place on Friday at Golders Green Crematorium, where his coffin was draped with a “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” flag.
His close friend, Les Swain, this week described him as “kind, steadfast, non-judgemental, whimsical and sensitive”.
Mr King is best known for his book, 53 Cross Street, written with Islington Society vice-president and noted historian Mary Cosh.
The work was based on his findings at the Georgian house where he lived as a member of the Black Sheep Housing Co-op from the 1980s to 2003.
Martin King’s collection of political badges, now in Islington Museum
He found walnut shells under the floorboards left by 18th century workmen and even a broken stiletto shoe from the 1960s in his bedroom. Knocking down a temporary cellar wall put up in the 1950s revealed a copper boiler and he found intricate clay pipes when excavating the garden.
A documentary based on his finds from the house, produced in the late 1990s, explained his fascination for the property and those who came before him.
“It’s in the everyday things that history really happens,” he said. “I’m very interested in the idea of history from below and history as created by ordinary people making things and writing letters.”
His friend, Phil Barnett, said at the funeral: “To him the house was a magic portal into another world. He illuminated patterns of immigration and settlement, and alluded to the house as a theatre of memory.”
Mary Coss with Martin’s friend Judith Williamson
Mr King was a regular volunteer at Islington Museum, dedicating every Friday to sorting through the archive and planning new exhibitions.
His donations of personal notebooks, photographs and political pin badges from the 1980s and 1990s became the inspiration for the museum’s long-term project – an archive of Islington’s LGBTQ history, called Islington’s Pride.
He was a treasurer of the Young Communist League in the 1980s and a key member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who backed striking miners faced with Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures.
Their actions have been immortalised in the 2014 film Pride, shown at Cannes Film Festival.
Family and friends toasted Mr King at the museum after the funeral service.
Morgan Phillips, who worked with Mr King sorting through his mementos of LGBTQ life for an exhibition at Islington Museum, said: “I hope by finishing this project I will be able to show the world what a truly lovely person he was.”
Morgan Phillips and Phil Barnett
Museum curator Roz Currie said: “We are about documenting social justice and Martin embodied that through his work and life.”
Ms Cosh who worked with him on 53 Cross Street paid her own tribute: “He was an excellent researcher and a very good fellow. He will be missed and I cannot believe he is gone. What a sad day.”
Mr King was adopted and brought up in Chislehurst, Kent, attending Orpington College before embarking on a career in academia at Middlesex University.
He would go on to be a lecturer at Central Saint Martins after completing an MA in Design History at the Royal College of Art based on the 18th century stencil wall decorations he uncovered at his Cross Street home.
Mr King is survived by his brother Paul and half-brother Doug Dando alongside other family members and countless friends.
Those interested in the documentary on Cross Street can see it on Youtube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sfttpfN3Y8