Common section

London’s Radicals

The Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green, part of the ritual of riot and punishment which has marked this small area for many hundreds of years.

CHAPTER 51

Where Is the Well of Clerkenwell?

There is a story by Arthur Machen in which he describes an area in Stoke Newington where, on occasions, an enchanted landscape can be glimpsed and sometimes even entered; perhaps we may locate it near Abney Park, a somewhat desolate cemetery beside Stoke Newington High Street. This is the street where Defoe lived and where Edgar Allan Poe went unwillingly to school. Few people have seen this visionary place, or even know how to see it; but those who have can speak of nothing else. Machen wrote this story, “N,” in the early 1930s, but as the century progressed other enchanted areas of London have emerged into the light. These remain powerful and visible to anyone who cares to look for them. One of these districts finds its centre upon Clerkenwell Green.

It is not “green” at all; it is a small area enclosed by buildings with a disused public lavatory in the middle. On both sides are narrow streets which in turn lead off into alleys or other streets. The green has its restaurants, two public houses, commercial premises and offices for architects or public relations consultants. It is, in epitome, a typical area of central London. But there are other signs and tokens of a different city. Just beyond the green are the relics of the eleventh-century church and hospital of St. John, where the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller had their headquarters; the crypt survives intact. A few yards to the south of the crypt, in the early sixteenth century, was erected St. John’s Gate; this also still remains. Just on the northern edge of the green itself can be found the original site of the medieval well from which the district derives its name; in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was simply a broken iron pump let into the front wall of a tenement building but, since that time, it has been restored and preserved behind a thick glass wall. It marked the site of the stage where mystery plays were performed for centuries “beyond the memory of man,” and in fact for many hundreds of years Clerkenwell was notorious for its dramatic representations. The yard of the Red Bull Inn, to the east of the green, is reputed to be the first theatrical venue where women appeared on stage. It is one example of the many continuities that charge Clerkenwell and its environs with an essential presence. But perhaps it is best to begin at the beginning.

On Clerkenwell Green the remains of a prehistoric settlement or encampment have been discovered, suggesting that this area of London has been continuously inhabited for many thousands of years. Perhaps the melancholy or ancientness which writers as diverse as George Gissing and Arnold Bennett have intuited, in this location, derives from the weariness of prolonged human settlement with all the cares and woes which it brings.

The area itself is first noticed in the early records of St. Paul’s when, in the seventh century, it became part of the property of the bishop and canons of that institution. In the eleventh century William I awarded the land to one of his most successful supporters, Ralph fitz Brian, who in the proper terminology became lord of the fee of Clerkenwell, held of the bishop of London within the manor of Stepney by knight service. It is important to note here that from the beginning Clerkenwell was beyond “the bars” of London, and effectively part of Middlesex.

The heirs of Ralph became lords of the manor of Clerkenwell, and they in turn granted land and property for the maintenance of two religious foundations. The convent of St. Mary in Clerkenwell was established, roughly where the present church of St. James now stands, and the priory of the Knights Templar—known as St. John of Jerusalem—a little to the south-east on the other side of the green. So from the medieval period Clerkenwell became known, and identified, through its sacred or spiritual affiliations. Since the priory was first in the ownership of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, it was a mustering point for the Crusaders; gradually it grew in size and extent over the adjacent area. The convent of St. Mary was similarly extensive but, as always, the life of the city kept on breaking through.

In 1301 the prioress of Clerkenwell petitioned Edward I “to provide and order a remedy because the people of London lay waste and destroy her corn and grass by their miracle plays and wrestling matches so that she has no profit of them nor can have any unless the king have pity for they are a savage folk and we cannot stand against them and cannot get justice by any law.” This is one of the first reports that the Londoners were indeed “savage,” and it is intriguing to note that the miracle plays were “their” own; it throws a wholly new light upon the presumed sacredness of early drama. Two generations later an even more “savage” and violent assault was mounted against the priory of St. John when, in 1381, the stone buildings of the Order were put to the torch by Wat Tyler’s followers. The priory was badly damaged but not entirely destroyed, while the prior himself was beheaded on the spot because of his role as Richard II’s principal tax-collector. Tyler’s followers camped upon Clerkenwell Green, watching the hall and dormitory of the Knights go up in flame together with the counting-house, the distillery, the laundry, the slaughterhouse and very many other apartments or stables. It seemed as if the whole of Clerkenwell were on fire.

One of the most notorious lanes in the neighbourhood was Turnmill Street (so named because of its proximity to the many mills which harnessed the current of the Fleet), also known as Turnbull Street (because of the lines of cattle which crossed it in order to reach Smithfield). By the late thirteenth century the salubriousness of the area had been under threat from “filth and ordure and rubbage” thrown into the Fleet and, a century later, Henry IV ordered that it be “cleansed anew.” He also obliged the authorities “to repayre a stone brydge over the Flete neare unto Trymyllstreate,” the remote ancestor of the bridge over the Underground line which was once more repaired in the late 1990s.

Yet public works could not affect the public reputation of Clerkenwell; since it was “beyond the bars” it became the harbour for the outcast and those who wished to go beyond the law. So, from the beginning, it has been the home of groups who wish to be separate and separated. In Turnmill Street one William the Parchmenter in 1414 harboured the Lollard, Sir John Oldcastle, and was subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered for his hospitality. Clerkenwell also became the home of Jesuits and other recusants, and the district “was notorious as a centre for papists”; three suspected papists were hanged, drawn and quartered on Clerkenwell Green in the late sixteenth century. The Catholics moved out under the threat of persecution, although they returned in another guise 235 years later when Clerkenwell became an Italian quarter; in the interim other proscribed religious groups such as the libertarian Quakers, the Brownists, the Familists and the Schismatics congregated in the area of the green. Here is further evidence, then, of continuity in persecutions and outlawry. In more recent years the Freemasons have entered the area, with their headquarters in the Sessions House upon the green.

But if Turnmill Street began life as a haven for heretical Lollards and other radical proselytisers, it soon acquired a more dissolute reputation. It was marked down for condemnation in an ordinance of 1422 for “the abolition of Stewes within the City” but, since it was literally “without” the walls, few public measures touched it. In 1519 Cardinal Wolsey raided houses in Turnmill Street and the aptly named Cock Alley. “Now Farewel to Turnbull Street,” writes the anonymous author of The Merrie Mans Resolution in 1600, “For that no comfort yields.” E.J. Burford in London: the Synfulle Citie has reconstructed the topography of the street itself, with no less than nineteen “rents”—alleys, yards or courts—issuing off it. Their conditions were generally described as “noysome” which, in the context of sixteenth-century London, suggests a degree of nastiness which is perhaps not now imaginable. One of them was only twenty feet long and two feet six inches wide, so that “there was not room to get a coffin out without turning it on edge.” Turnmill Street appears very often in city records as the haunt of crime as well as prostitution. In 1585 “Bakers hause, Turnmyll Street” was known as a harbouring house “for masterless men, and for such as lyve by thiefte and other such lyke sheefts,” while, seven years later, a pamphlet entitled Kinde Hartes Dreame cited Turnmill Street as a place in which the owners charged “forty shillings yearly for a little Room with a smoky chimney … where several of these venereal virgins are resident.” The association of Clerkenwell, and Turnmill Street in particular, with prostitution did not end in the sixteenth century. In 1613 Joan Cole and three more “Turnbull Street Whoares” were sentenced to be carted and whipped through the streets; one of them, Helen Browne, had been arrested while concealed “in a lewd house in Turnbull Street in a dark cellar.”

If you come out of Farringdon Road Underground Station and walk a few feet to the left, you will find yourself in the very same Turnmill Street. Its left-hand side makes up the dead wall of the railway tracks, laid where the Fleet River once flowed, while on the other side are office premises and warehouses of a generally unprepossessing nature. There are one or two alleys which act as a reminder of its interesting past; Turks Head Yard, formerly known as Bull Alley, Broad Yard on the site of Frying Pan Yard, and Benjamin Street, first laid down in 1740, are still to be seen. Yet echoes of a more distant past also survive. At the very top of Turnmill Street was, until recent years, a twenty-four-hour night-club of equivocal reputation known as Turnmills. Mad Frank, the memoirs of Frankie Fraser, a member of a notorious London gang, begins: “The Independent had it wrong when their reporter said I’d been shot dead outside Turnmills Night Club in 1991. I was only in hospital for two days that time.” Streets such as this are reminiscent of Henry James’s description of Craven Street, which runs down from the Strand, as “packed to blackness with accumulations of suffered experience.” And, if there is a continuity of life, or experience, is it connected with the actual terrain and topography of the area? Is it too much to suggest that there are certain kinds of activity, or patterns of inheritance, arising from the streets and alleys themselves?

Clerkenwell Green is notable in other respects. The invasion of Clerken-well by Wat Tyler and his followers is an example of its continuing radicalism, while the popular obloquy directed against the wealthy nuns of the priory beside the green speaks for the individual and the dispossessed. But the ramifications of these actions are rich and complex indeed. That great populist and demagogue John Wilkes, commemorated in the phrase “Wilkes and Liberty,” was born just off the green in St. James’s Close in 1727. One of the first meeting-places of the egalitarian London Corresponding Society was established at the Bull’s Head in Jerusalem Passage just east of the green, and in 1794 “Clerkenwell crowds attacked recruiting offices at Battle Bridge and at Mutton Lane at the foot of the Green” with no doubt the same intensity as early fourteenth-century Londoners showed in attacking the Clerkenwell Priory. A group of radical plotters, the United Englishmen, were seized “at a low public house at Clerkenwell” in the spring of 1798 and then, a year later, a number of United Irishmen were arrested in the Nag’s Head, St. John’s Street, which leads away from the green towards Smithfield. Here undoubtedly is a catchment area of dissent and possible radical disruption.

In 1816 Henry Hunt, one of the leaders of the Chartist movement which called for universal suffrage, spoke to a crowd of 20,000 above the Merlin’s Cave Tavern just north of Clerkenwell Green. Ten years later William Cobbett addressed a meeting on the green itself in opposition to the Corn Laws; then, in 1832, the National Union of the Working Classes advertised a meeting in Coldbath Fields north of the green preparatory to a “National Convention, The only Means of Obtaining and Securing The Rights of The People.” On the day itself “a man wearing a new white hat excited passers-by by reciting passages from a publication called The Reformer and loudly proclaiming that people in such an emergency ought to carry arms openly,” a sentiment which had already been heard many times, over many centuries, in this neighbourhood.

The mass meeting was held and an affray took place in which a policeman was killed, all this in the immediate vicinity of Coldbath Prison, one of a number of penal institutions in the area. On Roque’s map of London, delineated in the 1730s and 1740s, the area of Clerkenwell is seen to be exceedingly well regulated indeed and, as the editor of The History of London in Maps noticed, “Clerkenwell Green has a watch-house for policing; a pound for felons; a pillory to put them in; and a turnstile to provide a check on people passing through.” As a known centre of radical activity, there was a strong emphasis on official surveillance. On Roque’s map, too, can be seen the outline of Clerkenwell Gaol just to the east of the green.

It was a notorious prison, built in 1775, part of which comprised a number of underground tunnels lined with cells. Many radicals and schismatics were incarcerated there, and it became known as “a jail for hereticks.” Of the inmates it was observed in W.J. Pinks’s History of Clerkenwell that “they were lamentably ignorant and superstitious, and took great delight in sitting in a ring and telling their adventures and relating their dreams; they tell stories of spirits.” We find in the “New Prison” of Clerkenwell one John Robins who “said that he was God Almighty … Richard King said his wife was with child of him that should be the saviour of all those that shall be saved … Joan Robins said she was with child, and the child in her womb was the Lord Jesus Christ.” Richard Brothers, the self-styled “Prophet of the Lost Tribe” and “Slain Lamb of Revelation,” was imprisoned a few yards up the road in the madhouse of Ashby Street. The Quakers, who in the mid-eighteenth century “went naked for a sign,” met in Peel Court off St. John Street, while in 1830 was instituted a Free-Thinking Christian Meeting House in St. John Square in the centre of the old Templar priory. There is evidence once more of a continuity.

The radical history of Clerkenwell did not end with the riot of 1832. Five years later the Tolpuddle Martyrs, on their return from Botany Bay, were first greeted on the green, and a year later there was a great Chartist meeting on the same spot. In 1842 Prime Minister Peel “banned meetings on Clerken-well Green,” but, in the same period, the Chartists met each week in Lunt’s Coffee House at 34 Clerkenwell Green; there were other radical meeting-places close by, such as the Northumberland Arms at 37 Clerkenwell Green. The unions, too, met in public houses in precisely the same area: the Silver Spoon-makers at the Crown and Can, St. John Street; the Carpenters at the Adam and Eve, St. John Street Row; and the Silversmiths at St. John of Jerusalem; altogether the Trade Union Directory lists nine separate unions meeting regularly in Clerkenwell. The disturbances and meetings in that area continued throughout the 1850s and 1860s, with marches leaving from the green, while an additional strength was lent to the area by the pro-Fenian Irish radicals of the Patriotic Society who used regularly to meet at the King’s Head in Bowling Green Lane a few yards north of Clerkenwell Green itself. At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, “a red flag, surmounted by a ‘cap of liberty,’ crowned a lamp-post in the Green.” These events may provide an explanation why, in the press and on the music-hall stage, the area became a synonym for radical change.

Yet not all the forces at work there were violently libertarian. John Stuart Mill was one of a number of subscribers who set up a fund to endow “a place for political lectures and discussions independent of coerced tavern keepers and licensing magistrates”; a location was chosen, “in a neighbourhood well known to the democracy of London,” and the hall was established at 37a Clerkenwell Green which had once been a school for the children of Welsh Dissenters. It became known as the London Patriotic Club and its history of twenty years “is a history of radical issues”; Eleanor Marx Aveling, Bradlaugh and Kropotkin all used it as a centre for demonstrations and mass meetings. But perhaps the most interesting occupant was one of the last. A socialist press had been founded at the premises in the 1880s, and in 1902 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin walked every day from his lodgings in Percy Circus to Clerkenwell Green in order to edit an underground revolutionary journal entitled Iskra, “The Spark,” which was meant to ignite Russia. It might be mentioned here that in the seventeenth century the printers of Clerkenwell were denounced for issuing “Blasphemous and seditious” literature. That prolonged pattern or alignment of activities continued well into the twentieth century when the Communist newspaper, the Morning Star, had its offices just west of the green in Farringdon Road. In the 1990s the magazine for the homeless and the unemployed, the Big Issue, took up residence a few yards south of the green in the same area where Wat Tyler had led his army of radical protesters more than six hundred years before.

So over a period of time, in one tiny part of the city, at first outside “the bars” and then within the ever expanding capital, the same forms of activity have taken place. It may simply be coincidence that Lenin followed in the path of the seventeenth-century printers. It may have been in conformity to habit, custom, or some kind of communal radical memory that the Chartists, the London Corresponding Society and the unions chose the same area for their meetings and demonstrations. It may be chance that the nineteenth-century affrays took place in the same vicinity as those of the fourteenth century. The editor of the Big Issue has assured the present author that he had no notion of Clerkenwell’s radical history when he decided to situate the office of his magazine in the area.

But other territorial clusters abound. The emergence of Clerkenwell as an instigator or abettor of radical activity is paralleled, for example, by the gradual identification of Bloomsbury with occultism and marginal spiritualism. When the great London mythographer William Blake was completing his apprenticeship in Great Queen Street, an elaborate Masonic lodge was being constructed opposite his employer’s workshop. It was the first city headquarters for what was then a controversial occult order of adepts who believed that they had inherited a body of secret knowledge from before the Flood. Before the erection of their great hall they had congregated at the Queen’s Head in Great Queen Street, and, in the same street less than a century later, the occult Order of the Golden Dawn held their meetings. The Theosophical Society met in Great Russell Street while around the corner, opposite Bloomsbury Square, exists the Swedenborg Society. Two occult bookshops can be found in the vicinity, while the Seven Dials close by marks the convergence of astrologers in the seventeenth century. So here again there seems to be a congregation of aligned forces, by coincidence or design, remaining active within the neighbourhood of a very few streets.

One street, and a particular church, also throw a suggestive light upon London itself. According to Stephen Inwood in A History of London, St. Stephen’s, Coleman Street, was “an old Lollard stronghold”; in the early sixteenth century it became a centre of incipient Lutheranism where heretical texts were placed on sale. In 1642 the five Members of Parliament whom Charles I rashly tried to arrest on charges of treason took refuge in Coleman Street—“a loyal street to the Puritan party”—which was “their stronghold.” Six years later Oliver Cromwell met with his supporters in the same street, as can be gathered in the trial of Hugh Peters after the Restoration.

COUNSEL: Mr. Gunter, what can you say concerning meeting and consultation at the “Star” in Coleman Street?

GUNTER: My lord, I was a servant at the “Star” in Coleman Street … that house was a house where Oliver Cromwell, and several of that party, did use to meet in consultation.

During this period, too, the parish and local congregation were also of strongly Puritan sympathies. Then in 1645 there were weekly public lectures “near Coleman Street,” established by women proselytisers and characterised by “confusion and disorder” during discussions subsequent to the lectures. A few years later, in a “conventicle” in an alley off Coleman Street, “that dangerous fanatic Venner, a wine-cooper and Millenarian, preached to ‘the soldiers of King Jesus’ and urged them to commence the Fifth Monarchy.” During the rising of the Anabaptists we read that “these monsters assembled at their meeting house, in Coleman Street, where they armed themselves and sallying thence, came to St. Paul’s in the dusk.” Even after the Restoration Coleman Street maintained its Puritan allegiances: the old Dissenting preacher, who had been presented with the living of St. Stephen’s in 1633, “opened a private conventicle” after the destruction of the Commonwealth from which he ministered to the “too-too credulous soul-murdered proselytes of Coleman Street and elsewhere.” We read of “Radical independents inhabiting the same quarter,” among them “Mark Holdesby of St. Stephen Coleman Street.”

So there is evidence here of a broad continuity over several centuries, from the Lollards to the Anabaptists, suggesting once again a certain destiny or pattern of purpose among the streets of the capital. Arthur Machen was only one commentator who recognised that “the stones and regions of the great wilderness have their destinies and that these destinies are fulfilled.” Thus there are certain “quarters which are appointed as sanctuaries.”

So the secret life of Clerkenwell, like its well, goes very deep. Many of its inhabitants seem to have imbibed the quixotic and fevered atmosphere of the area; somehow by being beyond the bars of the city, strange existences are allowed to flourish. Mrs. Lewson lived in Coldbath Square until her death at the age of 116; in the early nineteenth century she still wore the dress of the 1720s, thus earning herself the nickname of “Lady Lewson.” She lived in one room of a large house which for thirty years was “only occasionally swept out, but never washed.” In addition it is revealed in W.J. Pinks’s The History of Clerkenwell that “She never washed herself, because she thought those people who did so were always taking cold, or laying the foundation of some dreadful disorder; her method was to besmear her face and neck all over with hog’s lard, because that was soft and lubricating, and then, because she wanted a little colour on her cheeks, she bedaubed them with rose pink.” Her house was lined with bolts and boards and iron bars so that no one might enter, and she never threw anything away; even “the cinder ashes had not been removed for many years; they were very neatly piled up, as if formed into beds for some particular purpose.” The case of “Lady” Lewson has other parallels in London history; there are many instances of old women for whom time has suddenly come to a halt, and who characteristically wear white as some emblem of death or virginity. It may be that, for those whose lives have been damaged by the turbulence and inhumanity of the city, it is the only way of withstanding chance, change and fatality.

Another lady of Clerkenwell, living outside London time, was the Duchess of Newcastle, known as “Mad Madge.” She rode in a black and silver coach with her footmen all in black; in addition “she had many black patches because of pimples about her mouth,” wrote Samuel Pepys (1 May 1667), “… and a black juste-au-corps.” This lady in black wrote books of experimental philosophy, the most famous being The Description of A New World, called The Blazing World. “You will find my works,” she told a friend, “like infinite Nature, that hath neither beginning nor end; and as confused as the chaos, wherein is neither method nor order, but all mixed together, without separation, like light and darkness.” Pepys, having read some of them, called her “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman.”

But if an area such as Clerkenwell can engender activity of a certain kind, perhaps a single street or house might exert its own influences. In the same house, where the Duchess of Newcastle once resided, lived another crazed duchess just fifteen years later. The Duchess of Albemarle on the death of her husband “was so immensely wealthy that pride crazed her, and she vowed never to marry anyone but a sovereign prince. In 1692 the Earl of Montague, disguising himself as the Emperor of China, won the mad woman, whom he then kept in constant confinement.” But she outlived him by thirty years, and to the end remained insane with pride; she insisted, for example, that all her servants knelt while ministering to her and then walked backwards in her presence. It is suggestive, perhaps, that the house which contained these two mad women was located on the same site as the cloister of the black nuns of the medieval period.

In Pentonville Road, in the parish of Clerkenwell, lived that most notorious miser Thomas Cooke, who did not care to pay for his food and drink but “when walking the streets he fell down in a pretended fit opposite to the house of one whose bounty he sought.” With his powdered wig and long ruffles, he seemed a respectable citizen; so he was promptly taken in, given some wine and nourishing victuals. “A few days after he would call at the house of his kind entertainer just at dinner time, professedly to thank him for having saved his life …” He begged his ink from the various counting-houses he visited and, according to Pinks, “his writing paper was obtained by purloining pieces which he saw upon the counter of the bank, on his daily visits.” Here is a true London original, taking advantage of the urban world to float himself. He turned his flower garden into a cabbage patch, which, in order to waste nothing, he enriched with his own and his wife’s excrement. On his death-bed, in the summer of 1811, he refused to pay for too much medicine since he was convinced that he would live only six days. He was buried at St. Mary’s, Islington, and “some of the mob who attended the funeral threw cabbage stalks on his coffin when it was lowered into the grave.” Yet it was a life consistent to the point of perfection, that of a native of Clerkenwell who rarely strayed beyond its bounds.

Yet perhaps the most curious and notable resident of Clerkenwell was Thomas Britton, known everywhere as “the musical small-coal man.” He was an itinerant vendor of coals who lived above his coal-shed in Jerusalem Passage, between Clerkenwell Green and St. John’s Square; despite his humble trade, in the words of Walford’s Old and New London, he “cultivated the highest branches of music, and drew round him for years all the great musicians of the day, including even the giant Handel.” The musicians met every Thursday evening, in his room above the coal-shed; to reach this temporary concert hall, they had to climb a ladder or, as Britton put it in his invitations:

Vpon Thursdays repair

To my palace, and there

Hobble up stair by stair.

Ned Ward described Britton’s house as “not much higher than a canarypipe, and the window of his State-Room but very little bigger than the Bunghole of a Cask.” He himself played the viol di gamba, in the company of his excellent musicians, and afterwards served coffee to his distinguished visitors at a penny a cup. Then in the mornings he would take up his sack of coal, and tread the familiar streets calling out his trade. Britton’s death was no less fanciful than his life. A ventriloquist named Honeyman or “Talking Smith” “threw” his voice and announced that, unless Britton recited the Lord’s Prayer immediately, he would expire within hours. Britton fell on his knees and prayed “but the chord of his life was unstrung by this sudden shock”; he died a few days later in the autumn of 1714. It was rumoured that he was a Rosicrucian, one of the sects which haunted Clerkenwell, and naturally believed in the efficacy of invisible spirits. So the trick of the ventriloquist, or the atmosphere of the area, deeply affected a credulous mind.

Another native of Clerkenwell, Christopher Pinchbeck, may also throw a curious light upon the neighbourhood. He proclaimed himself, in the summer of 1721, as the “Inventor and Maker of the famous Astronomical-Musical Clocks … for showing the various motions and Phenomena of planets and fixed stars, solving at sight several astronomical problems.” He has been denominated “The Near-Alchemist,” yet his was the alchemy of time which bore strange fruit in the vicinity.

By the end of the eighteenth century some seven thousand artisans—almost half the parish—were dependent upon watch-making. Clerkenwell itself produced some 120,000 watches each year. In almost every street there were private houses which had as door-plates the sign of escapement-maker, engine-turner, springer, finisher, and so on. These were modest but solid properties, with the workshop generally constructed at the back. But not all the tradesmen were so fortunately placed, and a nineteenth-century essay upon clocks in Charles Knight’s Cyclopaedia of London remarks that “if we wish to be introduced to the workman who has had the greatest share in the construction of our best clocks, we must often submit to be conducted up some narrow passage of our metropolis, and to mount into some dirty attic where we find illiterate ingenuity closely employed in earning a mere pittance.” The passages, closets and attics may be compared with the wheels and dials of the clocks themselves, so that Clerkenwell itself becomes a vast mechanism emblematic of time and the divisions of time. The census of 1861 listed 877 manufacturers of clocks and watches in this small parish. But why here? The historians of horology have pondered the question and arrived at no satisfactory conclusion; “the commencement of that remarkable localisation” is not certain, according to one authority cited by Charles Knight, except that “it appears to have made a noiseless progress.” Another remarks: “nor have we heard any plausible reason assigned by those who, residing on the spot, and carrying on these branches of manufacture, might be supposed to be best informed on the matter.” So, we may say, it just happened. It is one of those indecipherable and unknowable aspects of London existence. A certain trade emerges in a certain area. And that is all.

But in Clerkenwell we have learned, perhaps, to find larger patterns of activity. Did the presence of skilled artisans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries actively promote the cause of radicalism? By 1701 the manufacture of the watch was being used as the best example of the division of labour, so that one might say that the creation of time-pieces formed the paradigm of industrial capitalism. “Here every alley is thronged with small industries,” George Gissing wrote of Clerkenwell in The Nether World (1889), “here you may see how men have multiplied toil for toil’s sake … have worn their lives away imagining new forms of weariness.” Lenin and Eleanor Marx had found fertile ground. Or was it that the creation of the division and subdivision of time was an obvious neighbourhood idol, to be smashed by those patriotic radicals who wished to return to an earlier polity and a more innocent state of society? Nevertheless the clock- and watch-makers are there still. The mystery of the place remains.

The Marx Memorial Library is still to be found on Clerkenwell Green, within which is preserved the small office where Lenin once edited Iskra. Beside it are a snack bar and a restaurant, which have been owned by the same Italian family for many years. Until recent days Clerkenwell Green and its vicinity retained that dusty, faded look which was a direct inheritance of its past. It was secluded, out of the way of the busy areas to the south and west, something of a backwater which few Londoners visited except those whose business it was to be there. The green harboured printers, and jewellers, and precision-instrument makers, as it had done for many generations. St. John’s Street was dark and cavernous, lined with empty or dilapidated warehouses.

Then, in the 1990s, all was changed. Clerkenwell became part of a social revolution, in the process of which London seemed once more able to renew itself. The great transition occurred when Londoners decided that they would rather live in lofts or “shell” spaces than in terraced houses; these were not the same as Parisian apartments, since the loft offered inviolable privacy as well as proximity. Since Clerkenwell itself was noticeable for its warehouses and commercial properties, it became part of that movement of refurbishment and modernisation which had begun in the warehouses of Docklands before reaching other parts of inner London. St. John’s Street, and the lanes around it, have now been extensively redeveloped with floors of glass attached to old structures and new buildings rising so fast that parts of the area are now almost unrecognisable. As one character says in Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, a novel set in early twentieth-century Clerkenwell, “You’d scarcely think it … but this district was very fashionable once.” It was indeed “fashionable” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as even the presence of the mad duchesses testifies, and now perhaps that period has returned. Yet that same speaker when alone had another realisation, of “the ruthless, stoney, total inhospitality of the district.” Even in the middle of its restoration and rebuilding, St. John’s Street is curiously empty; from dusk to dawn it affords echoic effects rather than the energy of any real movement or business. One is reminded of the fact that in the eighteenth century travellers felt obliged to walk together down this road, guarded by link-boys bearing lights, in case they were harassed or attacked. Whether it was wise of property speculators and developers to choose the street as a great site of renovation is an interesting question, therefore, since it may not be easy to impose a new method of living upon a thoroughfare with so ancient and violent a past.

Clerkenwell persists in London’s history as a kind of shadowland, therefore, complete with its own recognisable if ambiguous identity. But it is also important to realise that the same effects may be found almost anywhere within the city. Of violence, for example, there is no end.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!