A walk around Clerkenwell Green reveals much about the area's social and Socialist history.
Many years ago, in the 1980s, I was invited to join a friend for lunch at a trendy restaurant in Clerkenwell Green. A mutual friend joined us. We ordered our meal. When it arrived, there was far more empty space on the plate than food. There was a tiny piece of meat a little larger than a postage stamp, a floret of broccoli, and three minute boiled potatoes that had been whittled down to produce tiny whitish spindles. This was ‘nouvelle cuisine’, and entirely unsatisfactory. When the bill arrived, we discovered that we were being charged £25 each for these meagre, unwholesome offerings. Our mutual friend and I looked at our friend, who had suggested the restaurant. She, noticing our shocked expressions, settled our bills. I am afraid that this experience prejudiced me against Clerkenwell.
A recent visit to the area has killed my prejudice against it, and kindled a great enthusiasm.
Clerkenwell, which is now in the Borough of Islington, covers an area that includes: Farringdon Road, Goswell Road, Clerkenwell Road, Hatton Garden, and Smithfield Market (at its southern edge). I will confine my essay to the area around Clerkenwell Green.
The name ‘Clerkenwell’ is derived from the Old English words meaning ‘Clerks’ Well’. Remains of the well may be seen inside Well Court on Farringdon Lane. The formerly rustic Clerkenwell Green came into existence in the 12th century following the establishment of two neighbouring ecclesiastical institutions: The Knights Hospitallers’ priory of St John and, to the north-west of that, the Augustinian nunnery of St Mary. After the dissolution of these institutions by King Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 , land was sold off and buildings had begun appearing around the green. A map drawn in 1560, shows what is now Clerkenwell Green close to the outer edge of the rest of London. The historian Riddell (see below) wrote:
“By the middle of the sixteenth century Clerkenwell had graduated from being a village on the outskirts of London, which had grown up round two monastic foundations, to being a suburb of the City”.
By the 18th century, Clerkenwell Green and its surroundings had become absorbed by the growth of London. A 1750 map shows that Clerkenwell Green and its associated buildings were on the northern edge of London. By 1860, the area could no longer be considered as being on the edge of London, but deeply within it. However, even today Clerkenwell Green, which is close to busy London thoroughfares, gives rise to feelings of its former rural past.
I will describe the area as I visited it recently, beginning with a building on Clerkenwell Road on the corner of Britton Street. This elegant red brick building decorated with neo-classical features such as pilasters and triangular pediments bears the words ‘Holborn Union Offices’ above the date 1886. Now converted into flats, this building, designed by the architectural firm H Saxon Snell and Sons, used to house the administrative offices and medical and ‘out-relief ‘departments for the Holborn Union Board of Guardians. The Board administered the Holborn Poor Law Union, which was established in 1836, a precursor of the Welfare State that tried to alleviate the lot of poor people. And, in the 19th century, Clerkenwell had of people living in squalid conditions close to, or below, the poverty line.
Across the busy Clerkenwell Road almost opposite this building, a short road leads into the southwestern side of Clerkenwell Green. Entering the Green with its trees and picturesque buildings is like stepping out of the city and into a village green.
Covered in scaffolding and just visible through it, there stands a building that used to be the Middlesex Sessions House. This court house, standing at the west end of the Green, was built in the last two decades of the 18th century. The Sessions House replaced the nearby Hicks Hall that dated back to 1611, and served many of the roles played by today’s Old Bailey. The court buildings figure in Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist”, in which they are referred to as ‘Clerkinwell Sessions’. It was conveniently located to a nearby prison (see below). The current building was used as a court until 1921. Now, the building is being developed to join Clerkenwell’s already large population of eateries and bars (see: http://theoldsessionshouse.com). I look forward to visiting the building when it has been restored.
Close to the Sessions House on the north side of the Green, there stands a building, number 37a, with a revolutionary past (and, who knows, maybe also a future). Karl Marx (1818-1883) lived in London between 1849 and 1850 (but not in Clerkenwell). His memory lives on in Clerkenwell Green at the Marx Memorial Library at number 37a, which was established in 1933 to celebrate the golden anniversary of his death. I have visited this centre of socialist study and education once, on a London Open House Day (see: www.openhouselondon.org.uk/). We were shown around the library and, also, the Lenin Room. Long before the establishment of the library, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) worked in this building in 1902 and 1903, supervising his revolutionary newspaper ‘Iskra’. The so-called Lenin Room, which houses much of the great man’s memorabilia is possibly not the exact place in the building where he worked.
When we were shown around the Marx Memorial Library, we were taken into its basement where books and other parts of the collection are stored. The basement contains remains of subterranean mediaeval structures, 15th century vaults that lead into tunnels. We were told by our guides that these tunnels might very possibly have connected the former nunnery of St Mary with the nearby former Priory of St John. If this was the case, one might wonder why they were built.
Before becoming used as the Marx Memorial Library, the building housing it was associated with the radical activity that pervaded Clerkenwell during much of the 19th century. Clerkenwell Green itself, being one of the few open spaces in the area, was the site of open-air rallies or meetings, both for radical and religious causes. Evangelical clerics held vast outdoor meetings to attempt to bring Christianity to the poor of the area, and left-wing groups attempted to rouse the people, often beginning protest marches in the Green. Clerkenwell Green became the 19th century’s equivalent to the later Hyde Park’s ‘Speakers’ Corner’. Number 37a housed first the radical ‘London Patriotic Club’, and then later the socialist ‘Twentieth Century Press’, before it became the Marx Memorial Library.
Feeling thirsty already? Then, help is at hand in the form of the nearby Crown Tavern. This pub might well have had Leninist connections. First established in the 1720s, the present pub is in a building that dates from about the beginning of the 19th century. Many believe that the young Joseph Stalin met Lenin in this pub in 1903. But not everyone shares that belief (see: http://sarahjyoung.com/site/2011/01/16/russians-in-london-lenin/). While Lenin was in London in 1902 and 1903, Stalin was not. Stalin first visited the city in 1907, along with other Russian revolutionaries including Lenin, whom he first met in Finland in 1906.
The southernmost stretch of the winding Clerkenwell Close (‘close’ as in ‘cathedral close’ or abbey precincts) leads from the Green towards the west end of St James Church, which is well-worth visiting. A board close to its entrance informs that there has been a church on this spot since 1100 AD. To enter the present church, which dates back to 1792, it is necessary to ring a doorbell. When I visited it, I bought a copy of a most interesting book about the church “A History of The Church of Saint James Clerkenwell” by N Ridell (published 2016). This is full of information about both the church and the area surrounding it.
The present church stands within the ‘footprint’ of an older, larger one that was demolished (because it was falling to pieces, and could no longer be repaired) in order for the new one to be built. The older, demolished church had its origins as the chapel for the Nunnery of St Mary. The north side of the older church was attached to cloisters, which still existed as late as 1786. After the dissolution of the monasteries, much of the nunnery was destroyed and the land on which it stood was sold for housing and other purposes.
There is much that could be written about the history of the St James Church, but I will confine myself to a few things that I found interesting when I visited it. Before doings so, I will mention that Clerkenwell was a parish in which certain residents (the wealthier ones!) chose their church officials by election. Choosing someone to fill the highly-prized position of vicar was often associated with much public disorder. Prior to the later 19th century, much administration of the parish – both religious and secular – was carried out by a church-based committee, the ‘Vestry’. Members of the Vestry had many opportunities to enrich themselves. I will say no more.
The west end of the church consists of three interconnected lobbies. Both the northern and the southern ones have lovely curving staircases leading to the church’s upper storeys. The southern lobby, which I entered first, has several well-preserved memorial plaques on its walls, including an elaborately sculpted one for Thomas Crosse, who died aged 49 in 1712. He did much good work for the poor children of the parish, including founding a school.
The nave of the church is entered from the central lobby. This lobby contains two memorials that interested me. One of them commemorates the 8th of December 1800, when eight young men managed to ring a complete peal of 5040 changes on the church’s steeple bells. They achieved this remarkable feat in three hours and 15 minutes. Ridell records that the 19th century bell-ringer G Morris was able to ring a peal on the eight bells on his own, with the bell-pull cords fixed to both of his hands and feet. The other memorial relates to a disaster that occurred on Friday the 13th of December 1867.
There were several prisons near to Clerkenwell Green in the 19th century. One of them was the Clerkenwell House of Detention (or Middlesex House of Detention) on Bowling Green Lane, very close to St James Church (and to the Middlesex Sessions House, where many of the inmates had been tried). In December 1867, several Fenians (revolutionary Irish nationalists) were being held in the prison. Some of their comrades planned to rescue them by breaching the wall of the exercise yard during the prisoners’ exercise break. A barrel of explosives was placed by the wall, but the prison authorities, having caught wind of the plot, cancelled the exercise session. The explosives were detonated on the 13th of December, causing much damage to people in the neighbourhood. The memorial in the church relates that 15 people were killed, 40 were injured, and 600 families suffered material loss. The large number of families reflects the overcrowded living conditions that had developed in Clerkenwell during the 19th century, making it one of the most deprived districts in London.
A beautifully sculpted Lion and Unicorn (dated 1792) recline on the pediment above the entrance to the body of the church. The rectangular body of the church is light and airy. It has a curved first floor gallery and fine stained glass windows above the high altar at its eastern end. The pale Wedgewood blue ceiling is decorated with delicate stucco designs.
The organ on the first-floor gallery is flanked by a pair of incomplete second-floor galleries, remains of what had once been complete galleries like the one below it. At the western end of the church on both sides of the central entrance doors, there are boxed pews, one of which was labelled ‘Church Officers’ Pew’. These are the last of the original box pews that formerly filled the church, and were replaced by the present more open-plan pews sometime in the 19th century.
A small garden to the west of the church affords a good view of the tower and steeple with its white stone and brick facing and an old clock. The church is surrounded by green open spaces, some of which were part of the original churchyard. A part of these to the north of the church must have once been the site of the garden that used to be enclosed in the former nunnery’s cloister.
One tree to the east of the church contains a curious modern sculptural work, which looks like a cluster of miniature wooden bird houses wrapped around the tree’s branches. This was installed in 2011 by London Fieldworks.
Following Clerkenwell Close away from the Green, we come across a newish building called ‘Challoner House’. The original house bearing this name was built on this site in about 1612 for Sir Thomas Challoner, a courtier and naturalist, and tutor to the Prince of Wales. The present Challoner House stands beside a huge Peabody Estate that extends northwards to Bowling Green Lane and westwards almost to Farringdon.
The Peabody Trust built the estate in 1884 following the passing of new housing legislation in 1875. The original estate consisted of 11 blocks of flats built around a central court yard. Each of the blocks had a laundry room on their top floors, but no communal bath houses.
George Peabody (1795-1869) was born into a poor family in the USA. In 1837, already a successful businessman and banker, he came to London. He became the ‘father of modern philanthropy’. His Trust begun in 1862, which continues today, financed, amongst many other things, the construction of decent housing for “artisans and labouring poor of London”. Noble as was this venture in Clerkenwell, it involved the demolition of slums that housed many poor people. Many of these people were too poor to afford the albeit modest rates (rents) charged by the Peabody Trust for their superior dwellings. This resulted in many of former the slum dwellers having to squeeze into the remaining, already overcrowded, disgusting slums in the area.
Across the Close from the barrack-like, somewhat forbidding looking Peabody buildings there is a quaint corner-sited pub ‘The Horseshoe’. It existed by 1747, and stands close to a large building that was built between 1895 and 1897 as the ‘central stores of the London School Board’.
Old notices above the street-level doors of the building, such as ‘Needlework Stores’, ‘Furniture Dept.’, and ‘Stationery Dept.’, remind the passer-by of its original purpose. Unfortunately, as soon as it was opened, it was found to be too small, and additional premises had to be found nearby.
In 1976, the premises were converted to house craft workshops, the ‘Clerkenwell Workshops’. In 2006, MAK Architects gave the building a beautiful ‘make-over’. This can be enjoyed by entering the courtyard within the building via an attractive, gently sloping central passageway.
Almost opposite the Clerkenwell Workshops on the east side of the northernmost stretch of Clerkenwell Close, I spotted an old white stone entrance arch that had the words ‘GIRLS & INFANTS’ carved on its lintel. This was once an entrance to the Hugh Middleton School that opened in 1893. The school was built on part of the site that had been occupied by the prison, which had been attacked by the Fenians a few years earlier (see above). The prison was closed in 1885-1886, and then demolished. The main building of the school with spectacular sloping tiled roofs, which is has been used as a block of flats since 1999, was designed by the school board’s architect TJ Bailey. Part of this property’s perimeter wall is all that survives of the former prison. The school, which had been regarded as a ‘model school, was closed in 1971. One of its better-known pupils was the popular 1930’s and ‘40’s band-leader Geraldo (Gerald Walcan Bright: 1904-1974). Geraldo was not the only famous musician in Clerkenwell (see below).
Seckforde Street, which begins near St James Church, attracted me both because of its name and, also, its attractive buildings. Its name derives from that of Thomas Seckforde (1515-1587), a lawyer and courtier in the Court of Elizabeth I, who:
“bequeathed a part of his Clerkenwell estate … to endow almshouses in the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk.” (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol46/pp72-85).
Seckforde Street was laid out in the late 1820s. It cut across what had been one of the poorest parts of Clerkenwell.
A wedge-shaped building standing where Seckforde Street meets St James Walk at an acute angle has a certain elegance and some antiquity. Its main entrance at its apex is surmounted by a circular tower-like structure. This building was once part of ‘John Groom’s Crippleage’ (being a shortened version of ‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls Mission’). Born in Clerkenwell in 1845 (died 1919), Groom, an engraver, became a philanthropist concerned with the plight of the blinded and crippled girls who eked out a living selling flowers on Farringdon and sprigs of watercress in Covent Garden. His charity enabled the girls to be fed and clothed properly, as well as housed. The building at the corner was built to the designs of W H Woodroffe and E Carritt between 1908 and 1910 to be used as a factory and warehouse for Groom’s ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission’. The factory produced, amongst other things, cotton roses for the first Alexandra Rose Day in 1912. Between the 1930s and 1950s, the building was occupied by the tobacco company Gallaher’s. Now, it is used to provide office space.
Some of the existing original 19th century houses on Seckforde Street opposite the former factory, were used to provide protective housing for girls rescued by the Crippleage Mission.
Jerusalem Passage is a few steps away from the southern end of Seckforde Street. On the corner of the Passage and Aylesbury Street, a building bears a plaque to the memory of the ‘Musical Coalman’. He was Thomas Britton (1644-1714), a local charcoal merchant. Successful as a coalman, Britton was blessed with a fine singing voice and a superior intellect. He built his own library and set-up a concert hall in his Clerkenwell premises, where the plaque is affixed today. His concert hall was furnished with a harpsichord and a small organ. He attracted many of the finest musicians of his day, including JC Pepusch and GF Handel, to play in his concert hall. In addition to his commercial and musical achievements, Britton became an accomplished chemist and a highly respected, serious bibliophile – well-known to leading collectors of books and manuscripts. Even though he achieved a fine reputation in the literary, intellectual, and musical worlds, Britton continued to work as a ‘coal man’ until his death.
Jerusalem Passage leads southwards into St Johns Square, which stands on the large piece of land that was once occupied by the Priory of the Order of St John, the ecclesiastical neighbour of the former Nunnery of St Mary. In the 11th century, a hospital was set up in Jerusalem to give assistance to pilgrims. The men and women who staffed this were known as the ‘Hospitallers’. With the arrival of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, the Hospitallers became a religious order recognised by ‘The Church’. They became known as the ‘Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem’. In about 1140, a priory was built in Clerkenwell by the Knights. It was their London headquarters. When King Henry VIII broke with the Church in Rome, the Order was dissolved, and much of the priory demolished. Many years later in 1888, Queen Victoria granted ‘Order of St John in England’ a Royal Charter.
The Priory Church of the Order of St John can be entered from the Square. The present structure, which is much smaller than previous incarnations of this church, the first of which dated back to the 12th century, was badly damaged by bombing in 1941. Now restored, it stands on the site of the chancel of the much larger 15th century church. The crypt of the present church, which can occasionally be visited by members of the public, dates to the 12th century. South of the present church, there is a modern cloister with a lovely garden, where anyone can sit and rest.
Not much else remains of the priory except the fine 16th century gateway south of Clerkenwell Road. During the 18th century, this building was used briefly as a coffee house, which was run by the father of the famous artist Hogarth. Today, it houses offices and meeting halls of the Order of St John on its upper floor, and a well-laid out museum on its ground floor. It illustrates not only the fascinating history of the Order but also the good work it has done over the centuries. Amongst its many exhibits, there is a painting, which might well have been executed by the great Italian artist Caravaggio.
Jewellery and watch-making were amongst the many crafts practised in Clerkenwell. The jewellery firm of Lawson Ward & Gammage Ltd was founded in the area in 1861. There are still some descendants of the founders working in the firm. Although their current workshops are now in Hatton Garden, a clock bearing their name projects from a building in Berry Street, to the east of Clerkenwell Green.
Further along Berry Street on a corner site, there stands the Sutton Arms pub. This hostelry was rebuilt in 1897, but was in existence at least as early as 1848.
Even further along Berry Street at the corner of Northburgh Street, there is a well-restored, elegant red brick building, Northburgh House. Standing between Berry Street and Pardon Street, this former warehouse was designed and constructed by William Cubitt & Co., who also built well-known buildings including Fishmongers’ Hall, Covent Garden market, Paxton’s Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the former Euston Station (see: http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/W._Cubitt_and_Co). The warehouse was built in 1893-4 for Edward Saunders, a paper-bag manufacturer. Today, the refurbished building is home to various companies.
My ‘tour’ of Clerkenwell Green and its surroundings ends in a car park at the corner of Clerkenwell Road and Goswell Road. Standing amidst the cars parked in this vacant lot of prime London building land, there are two enormous works of graffiti to be seen. One work depicting a female figure is by Italian artist Vera Bugatti (born 1979; see: http://www.verabugatti.it). The other work depicts people walking at night in a wet street with unfurled umbrellas. It is painted by British born Dan Kitchener (born 1974), a prolific street artist (see: http://www.dankitchener.co.uk/). I wonder what will happen to these pictures when eventually someone decides to build upon the presently vacant space.
Clerkenwell Green and around it is full of interesting places that illustrate aspects of the history of London ranging from the 12th century to the present. Initially home to major religious establishments, the area has witnessed momentous social changes, and from being one of the poorest parts of London it has become one of the more prosperous and more fashionable parts of the city.