Finsbury Fields was a large area of open ground, which had been used since medieval times for the practice of archery. It was enclosed in the C17th when the precursor of the Honourable Artillery Company moved to Finsbury in 1641 and it became the Artillery Garden or Artillery Ground. A map of 1677 shows it marked as 'New Artillery Garden'. Since at least 1725 it was used for a cricket pitch, and in September 1784 it was the site of the launch of Vincenzo Lunardi's first manned balloon flight in Britain. It is now used for rugby, hockey and football in winter, cricket in summer and also hired out for events. Trees of various species were planted around the perimeter of the sports ground in 1996, as part of the Millennium celebrations.
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The Guild of St George, the oldest military establishment in the UK, had gained its royal charter from Henry VIII in 1537 and became known as 'the Fraternity or Guild of Artillery of Longbows, Crossbows and Handguns'. The prefix 'Honourable' was used from 1685 onwards. The Guild consisted of citizen archers and was founded to supply officers for the City of London's Trained Bands for the defence of London and also in foreign wars, continuing to do so until 1794 when the City of London Militia was formed. The Honourable Artillery Company was the only volunteer reserve to survive after the Napoleonic Wars and became part of the new Volunteer Force that later became the Territorial Army. Members of the Company included Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Milton and Cowper. Until 1642 their training ground was Artillery Lane near Bishopsgate before moving to the Artillery Ground on City Road; a surviving archery target (wood or stone posts) can be seen in Armoury House, the oldest remaining building, probably designed by Thomas Stibbs in 1734-6. Later additions were made to the building, such as the east and west wings of 1828 and the gates date from 1793, designed by George Dance. Finsbury Barracks were built here in 1857, designed by architect Joseph Jennings and the extension, faced in striped stone and granite that links Finsbury Barracks to Armoury House, was designed by Arnold & Boston and dates from 1994.
Since at least 1725 the site has been used as a cricket pitch, the first great match played here was on 18 June 1774 between Kent and All England, described in a poem by James Love. Ballooning was fashionable in the late C18th and in September 1784 the ground was the site of the launch of Vincenzo Lunardi's first manned balloon flight in Britain, accompanied by a dog, cat and pigeon, which flew to Ware. It is now used for rugby, hockey and football in winter, cricket in summer and also hired out for events by the Honourable Artillery Company.
Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Mary Cosh, The Squares of Islington Part II: Islington Parish, London, 1993; HAC website: www.hac.uk.com