When Oonagh Gay retired she was determined to keep busy, so she now runs guided walks bringing history to life.
Until June 2015 when she retired, Oonagh Gay was running the Parliament & Constitution Centre, which she set up at the House of Commons Library more than 15 years ago. Instead of taking a well-earned rest, she now keeps busy feeding her passion for local history by researching and running weekend walks – many starting in Islington. Get Together favourites include those covering Stroud Green, Angel and Holloway Road.
Oonagh Gay, OBE, claims she’s always been immersed in local history. Her father Ken Gay, who died aged 91, was president of the Hornsey Historical Society and had a huge local history collection. “We had to clear 11,000 books,” says Oonagh surprisingly calmly considering she spent two years winding up the job she’s had for 30 years, packing up and selling her father’s home as well as dispersing his huge collection of books.
“My father was an obsessive book buyer,” she admits. “He came from a modest East London background where the only book at home was the family Bible so he was over compensating. My husband and I threw out all our novels but there still wasn’t enough space.”
“Archives are very stuck for space – storage is a big problem. I gave some books and prints to Haringey, the British Film Institute and the Poetry Society, but what they like are artefacts and diaries. I’ve still got my father’s war diary. At 17 it’s full of the girls at school he’d like to be brave enough to talk to, rather than the bombing all around him!”
In preparation for retirement Oonagh trained as a Clerkenwell & Islington Walking Tour guide at the University of Westminster in 2014. “The diploma takes a year and is harder than you think,” admits Oonagh. “It’s a real challenge to write a good walk that’s entertaining and informative, and to learn to speak for five minutes at each stop without looking at your watch.”
Turns out that Oonagh is a fabulous guide. She is easy to hear, exhaustively knowledgeable and good at finding interesting routes.
“Learning something new and doing something different everyday is very empowering,” says Oonagh, who also volunteers for Islington Museum. Her current task is to edit its Streets with a Story (classic 1980s book) for uploading to the web. It gives the history of every Islington road – an invaluable resource for amateur historians.
Islington People’s Plaques are a great idea. I like the way they involve the public in the honouring. There’s one for Edith Garrud, the jujitsu suffragette, one of my heroines, and Marie Stopes who opened Britain’s first birth control clinic on Marlborough Road, N19.
Islington Museum does fantastic outreach work and makes local history relevant to all sorts of cultural backgrounds. The Education Officer is doing work on Gallipoli (site of fierce World War One battles) talking about what it was like to be a Turkish soldier – not just the Finsbury Rifles, who have a memorial in St Mark’s Church, Myddleton Square.
Islington’s town halls in Finsbury and Upper Street are architectural landmarks which I would love to show to visitors. Local government has a rich history.
For anyone curious about the people who lived and worked in Islington – and other parts of London – do go on one of Oonagh, and her colleague Paul Sinclair’s inspiring London walks (turn up and pay approx £8) or arrange your own walking tour with them. Improve your historical knowledge and get to know your neighbourhood better. For dates, visit:
Could you be a tour guide? Find out how here: