Published: 27 October, 2011
by PETER GRUNER
THE story of one man’s dream to turn an abandoned and derelict Victorian agricultural hall in Islington into Britain’s first major integrated trade and conference centre is told for the first time in a fascinating book.
The Building That Lived Twice, by Alec Forshaw, reveals the passion, pain and ultimate success of Islington shop fitter Sam Morris in his relentless quest to acquire the huge former livestock building more than 30 years ago.
The book, which contains a wealth of historical photographs, is not just a rags-to-riches story but an intriguing account of a working-class family who went on to become one of London’s most generous benefactors.
Sam, who left school at 14, was born to a humble East End Jewish family of nine in 1917.
He married Golda, had five sons, and set up a small shopfitting business in Upper Street not long after the war.
The agricultural hall – known as the Aggie – built in 1861, was empty and unused and had become a vast rotting blot on the Angel landscape. But no one had any idea what to do with it.
Author Forshaw was a planner during the period he writes about, and later became Islington’s highly regarded conservation officer.
His description of Sam’s pioneering spirit, in the face of many setbacks, will have a resonance with today’s entrepreneurs struggling in an equally cold financial climate.
Sam’s youngest son, Jack, now chairman of the centre, described visiting the Aggie wreck with his dad for the first time and thinking he was entering a time warp: “It was like a scene from a nuclear holocaust. There were trees growing out of the floor, and decay.”
Sam needed to raise more than £10million for the refurbishment project but investors were not prepared to lend to a mere shopfitter with no track record of property development.
Not only was there no money, but Islington Council, which needed to give its backing, also had cold feet.
The Morris family met in September 1984 to discuss the project, which was threatening their ruin, and voted to abandon it. Sam, however, didn’t give up.
Then, as in all great stories, there was a chance meeting and a little bit of luck. Sam was on holiday in France and bumped into an American businessman who had himself just purchased a trade centre in San Francisco.
The American liked Sam and introduced him to his banker friends who also saw potential in the Londoner’s vision, and decided to put up a lot of the necessary cash.
Islington council, then under Labour leader Margaret Hodge, finally gave the green light and the scheme went ahead.
Restoration work began in 1985 and it was reopened by Hodge in 1986.
The refurbishing of the Aggie prompted a new surge of prosperity in Upper Street and contributed to the eventual gentrification of the area.
Today the centre attracts more than half a million visitors every year and houses more than 100 companies.
The book celebrates the Business Design Centre’s 25th birthday.
The Morris Trust, founded three years after the centre opened, has donated more than £1.5million to charities since 1989, and the Business Design Centre Group contributes a proportion of its annual profits to the Trust.
Sam died in 1991, aged 74.
His son Jack, who was recently awarded an OBE, said: “For as long as I can remember, giving back to your community was something that my parents instilled in us.
“My mother and father were always involved in local charity fund raising activities, something that was strong in the Jewish community.”
• The Building that Lived Twice. By Alec Forshaw. The Business Design Centre £20. Email: book@business designcentre.co.uk