How Curious

There is a small area of central London crammed in between Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Strand and Aldwych. The area is known as Clare Market and is taken up in the most part by the London School of Economics (LSE).

Clare Market today

The area of Clare Market was originally centred on a small market building constructed by the land owner Lord Clare around 1657, but the retail area spread through a maze of narrow interconnecting Elizabethan streets lined by butchers’ shops and greengrocers. Butchers would slaughter sheep and cattle for sale in the street, with an area set aside for the slaughter of Kosher meat. 

These Elizabethan streets were a warren of alleyways and courtyards. So densely packed with houses and badly lit that the area had it’s own legend. It was said that in the 1650s a young man having made his way to London from the country looking for work had taken lodgings within the area. On his second night there, he returned from work on a freezing winters evening and in the pitch blackness failed to find his lodging house. For hours he walked the warren of alleyways trying to find a landmark that he remembered, but to no avail, so in desperation he took shelter within one of the small thoroughfares where he was found the following morning dead from the bitter cold. The legend said that on dark winter nights if you listened carefully you could hear the young man calling out for help.

Surprisingly these streets and some of the houses from the late 1500s survived intact right up to 1905 when they were cleared away to facilitate the building of Kingsway and Aldwych. By this time and for about a hundred years previously that area had become known as Clare Market Slum.

Charles Booth recorded the area on his poverty map shortly before the area was swept away. For the most part it shows that the majority were what he described as “Poor, subsisting on between 18-21 shillings per week” and ” Very poor, in chronic want”. The solid black lines denote”Lowest Class, viscous, semi-criminal”.

Clare Market was no stranger to chaos, or violence. Butchers and slaughtermen were always armed with sharp implements, meaning that the stresses of everyday life in the early modern period could result in truly deadly incidents. One Friday, around the New Year, 1747, two dogs were fighting over scraps in the market, causing a disturbance. “Two Slaughtermen, who were stript and killing of Sheep, came out with their Knives to stick them” (that is, stab them to death), according to a news report. These half naked, sweaty, bloodied men, lunging with long knives still dripping sheep’s blood, both missed and accidentally struck each other, one in the arm and the other in the hand, possibly disabling both for life. From time to time, Clare market saw violence of a more homicidal nature. In 1740, apparently without provocation, a master butcher assaulted a colleague with a large knife, plunging it so deep into his belly that “when it was pull’d out his Caul hung out of the Wound” A riot on St. Patrick’s Day saw mass violence between the local Irish community and Clare market’s butchers, fought with cutlasses, sticks and bludgeons.It’s no surprise that an area such as Clare Market had a fascination for Charles Dickens who used it as a location in several of his works.

Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller find the Lawyer Mr Perker in the Magpie and Stump Tavern near Clare Garden in Pickwick Papers. This was probably based on the “Old Black Jack” in Portsmouth Street, demolished in 1897.

In Barnaby Rudge set during the Gordon Riots the mob pulled down two houses in Clare Market.

Gordon Riots 1780

In the sketches by Boz entitled “Gin Shops” Dickens says that the gin-shops in and near Clare Market, are the handsomest in London. “There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city“. 

The area today is mostly occupied by the LSE but some of the street names are still in existence, Carey Street, Portugal Street and Clare Market itself. One other is Portsmouth Street which is home to the oldest building in the area, known as the “Old Curiosity Shop”.

The shop has been an iconic Dickensian site since the mid-1880s, when its owner, with no justification, decided to emblazon the words “Immortalised by Charles Dickens“above the door. However, it is an old building, probably dating to the sixteenth century. Dickens buffs have always been rightly sceptical about the Dickensian connection, noting that Dickens himself concludes The Old Curiosity Shop with “The old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place“. Nonetheless, 14 Portsmouth Street is a really striking looking building set within modern development and seems destined to remain on the tourist map.

By endean0

Hi, I'm Steve, a London tour guide and owner of A London Miscellany Tours, a guided walking tour company who specialise in small number tours of the greatest city in the world!

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