Today’s Clerkenwell is popular with creative firms and dotted with smart apartment blocks in converted warehouses, with many good restaurants and a great street food market held in Exmouth Market.
Clerkenwell is quite a large area, running from Pentonville in the north to Smithfield Market in the south. Some parts of the district are covered in my Crossing Boundaries Tour, which can be found on the Tours page of the website.
So for this piece, I’m going to focus on an area known as Clerkenwell Close.
We’ll begin on Ray Street Bridge. The large stone water trough is a reminder of when cattle were herded through the area on the way to Smithfield Market.
It is estimated that in a single year around 230,000 cattle and 1.5 million sheep were driven to the market. Obviously not all of them would pass through the area but as the predecessor to Farringdon Lane (in 1676 it was known as Towns End or Codpiece Row) was the main route into Smithfield from the north, a significant number would have used the trough.
Clerkenwell was an ancient parish from the mediaeval period onwards and takes its name from the Clerks’ Well in Farringdon Lane (clerken was theMiddle English plural of clerk, a variant of clerc, meaning a literate person or a clergyman). The first surviving reference to the name is from 1100. In the Middle Ages, the London Parish clerks performed an annual mystery play there, based on biblical stories. Part of the well remains visible, incorporated into a 1980s building called Well Court. It is visible through a window of that building on Farringdon Lane.
Clerkenwell as a suburb was beyond the confines of the London Wall so was outside the jurisdiction of the puritanical City fathers. Consequently, “base tenements and houses of unlawful and disorderly resort” sprang up, with a “great number of dissolute, loose, and insolent people harboured in such ….. poor cottages, and habitations of beggars and people without trade, stables, inns, alehouses, taverns, dicing houses and bowling alleys”.
During the Elizabethan era, Clerkenwell contained a notorious brothel quarter and was described in Sugden’sTopographical Dictionary as “the most disreputable street in London, a haunt of thieves and loose women“.
Clerkenwell Green lies at the centre of the old village by the church of St James, as shown on the map below from 1561, but has had no grass on the Green for over 300 years.
The Green has also had a historic connection with radicalism, from the Lollards in the 16th century, the Chartists in the 19th century and Communism in the early part of the 20th century. Vladimir Lenin lived very close and worked at number 37a, publishing the Newspaper “Iskra” in 1902. He would frequent the Crown & Anchor Pub (now The Crown Tavern, bottom right in the picture below) and it is said that he went for a drink with a young Joseph Stalin when the latter visited London in 1903.
Clerkenwell Close probably gets its name from when the area around St James church was the medieval nunnery of St Mary and the nuns would walk within the Cloisture or Close. The current church dates from 1792, but there was a previous church dating from around 1160. Like so many others, the nunnery and church were closed down during the dissolution in 1539.
Today, Clerkenwell Close has its fair share of new and modern buildings, but one survivor is number 6 dating from the early 1800s, which stands next to the Three Kings public house. There were two other houses in the row, but 4 and 5 have been demolished.
The shopfront, with its iron cresting, was built out over the forecourt in 1884. From 1896 until 2000 it was occupied by the Oliver family, dealers in cycles and later auto-spares. The photograph is from 1911 and the building is decorated to celebrate the coronation of George V and Queen Mary.
There has been a pub on the site of the Three Kings since the early 18th century when it was called the Three Johns. Around 1774 it changed its name to the Oxford Arms. In 1777 it played its part in a criminal event that was later tried at the Old Bailey.
On the 18th January, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Mary Duarzey, a French woman who was living in Berwick Street in Soho. An accusation of theft had been made against her by Peter Tolosa who was the cook at the residence of the Dutch Ambassador.
Tolosa alleged that he was in a relationship with Duarzey and stated that over the course of their affair he had made her gifts amounting to 27 guineas (around £3,000 today!) but she had stolen a further 40 guineas from him, which she had spent on clothes, trinkets, jewellery and drinking.
A peace officer, William Davey, and two other men went to Duarzey’s lodgings but found none of the items alleged by Tolosa. Duarzey spoke little or no English, so an interpreter was summoned. Davey decided after questioning the woman that she be brought in front of a Magistrate, so the three men, Duarzey and the interpreter took a coach to Clerkenwell Close. There they entered the office of Justice Blackborrow where Peter Tolosa and his interpreter were present.
The justice through the interpreters questioned both Duarzey and Tolosa for about 20 minutes. The three men gave their account of the search of the lodging house and Duarzey was searched, but none of the items in her possession matched those described by Tolosa.
Eventually, Justice Blackborrow decided that there was no case to answer and discharged the woman.
As they left the Justices office Mary took William Davey and one of the other men by the arm, and through the interpreter offered to buy them a drink at the nearby Oxford Arms, to which they agreed. The steps down from the office were narrow and so the group had to walk in single file, which they did as they made their way to the pub. They had gone about 30 yards from the office when Tolosa rushed from behind them and plunged a knife into Mary’s neck leaving a large wound. The officers apprehended Tolosa who had made no attempt at escape and carried Mary’s body into the Oxford Arms. A surgeon was summoned, but by the time he arrived Mary was showing no signs of life and was pronounced dead.
Tolosa stood trial at the Old Bailey on the 19th February 1777. He stated that he had felt badly let down by the way justice Blackborrow had treated him and that he had decided to take matters into his own hands by killing Mary Duarzey. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. The trial being on a Friday he was held at Newgate prison over the weekend and hanged at Tyburn gallows on Monday morning. A footnote in his trial records shows that his body was given to surgeons who later dissected and anatomised his corpse.
Clerkenwell Close at its northern end joins with Bowling Green Lane, prior to the early 1600s this was known as Feather Bed Lane, but no reason for this is known. Should you have been walking along the lane in the 1620s you would have seen an enormous dust pile.
This was waste ash, general rubbish and dust collected from within the City, and then transferred and dumped at the nearest available site outside the walls. Because of the noxious nature of the dust pile, the lane was virtually uninhabited.
By the 1670s the dustpile had been removed and the area was given to pasture, gardens and laystalls for cattle. At the north-east end were several bowling greens, which gives the lane its present name. At its eastern end, the lane becomes Corporation Row, previously known as Corporation Lane. In the 1750s it was the site of a workhouse for Quakers with a small Bridewell or prison attached. At the turn of the 19th century, the prison site had expanded and had taken over the workhouse building.
By the 1840s the New Prison had become overcrowded and outmoded. In some places, there were 30 or 40 prisoners to a room. A new short-stay prison, the Middlesex House of Detention, was designed and opened in 1847.
On 13th December 1867, its exercise yard was the target of a gunpowder explosion instigated by members of the Fenian society in an attempt to aid the escape of Richard O’Sullivan Burke, an arms supplier to the Fenians. The blast killed twelve bystanders and wounded 120 in Corporation Row; demolishing most of the houses and the event became known as the “Clerkenwell Outrage”. Some of those responsible were executed, with ringleader Michael Barrett becoming the last person to be publicly executed outside Newgate Prison.
Although repaired, the prison was only in use for a further nine years and was demolished in 1890.
It was replaced by the Hugh Myddleton School which was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1893. this was a break from tradition as most schools were named after the street that they stood in. Hugh Myddleton was the creator of the New River opened in 1613 to supply fresh water into London. The New River Head reservoir was built just to the north of the school was built in 1740. The school was an all-inclusive school with classes for deaf and dumb children and also what would be classed as today as special needs.
The school closed in 1971, converted into flats and offices but there are still echoes of the past to be seen in Corporation Row.