Calling Clerkenwell home – roots in roguish & revolutionary soil

Clerkenwell, 1805

The line between ‘family’ and ‘social’ history is becoming ever more blurred. For me, studying my tree has always been more about the history surrounding the lives of my ancestors than finding each and every distant relation. I know I am not alone. My joy at searching through history books for background information into the areas in which my family lived is shared with many others. The number of blogs that place the lives of their forbears in some historical context are testament to value of doing that extra research.

Over the past year I have been spending as much time as possible in Victorian London, tracing my family into the areas of the capital they occupied during the 19th century. Two ‘branches’ led lives moving through Islington; from Clerkenwell to Holloway and Hornsey. My researches led to a previous post – The Clerkenwell Outrage of 1867 – Irish Republicanism in London – and since then I have been keen to know more about an area that has been at different times steeped in religious fervour, fashionable society, radicalism and villainy. Many books focus on the lives lived in the squalor of Whitechapel and further east of the city. But Clerkenwell has its own fascinating story to tell.

The area of EC1 takes its name from the ‘Clerk’s Well’, located where 18 Farringdon Road now stands. John Strype, author of A Survey of the Cities of London & Westminster  wrote in 1720:

‘I was there and tasted the water and found it extremely clear sweet and well-tasted. The Parish is much displeased that it is thus gone to decay and think to make some Complaint at a Commission for Charitable Uses, hoping by that means to recover it to common use again, the Water being highly esteemed thereabouts; and many from these Parts send for it.’

A pump was indeed installed in 1800, but closed off in 1857 when it became too polluted.

St John's Gate 1786

The Clerkenwell Priory, home to the Monastic Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem was founded in the reign of Henry II and became the Hospitallers English headquarters. Burnt down in the Peasant’s Revolt it was gradually rebuilt and finally completed with the South Gate in 1504. For a fascinating description of the Gate and pictures of the church and crypt, pay a visit to the always interesting London Historians’ Blog.

In the  16th and 17th centuries it was a fashionable area, offering the ‘society’ of the crowded City the opportunity to find entertainment and enjoy the natural springs discovered there. Oliver Cromwell had a house just off Clerkenwell Green and a number of other aristocratic families had residences in the surrounding streets.  However, it was also known to Shakespeare and Jonson as home to the depravity of Turnmill Street and in this period three prisons were built – Bridewell, Coldbath Fields and New Prison (later the Clerkenwell House of Detention, scene of the attempted breakout described in my previous post). It is hardly surprising that records written in the 18th and 19th centuries show it becoming a part of London closely associated with crime and conspiracy.

A Clerkenwell home

Indeed, by the 19th century Clerkenwell had an almost unmatched reputation as a territory for rogues, with a murder rate estimated to be the highest in London. Desperately poverty-stricken and thought more violent and dangerous even than the Rookeries of St Giles, it was the scene of the brutal lives lived in George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889) and was used by Dickens as the backdrop for Oliver Twist’s initiation into pickpocketing.  A survey of crime published in 1861 found it the home of not just many young Olivers but home to ‘receivers, coiners and child strippers’. The last of these were women who earned their money for drink by enticing young children away and stealing their clothes. An article in the Illustrated London News in 1847 is quoted as saying:

‘In Clerkenwell, there is grovelling, starving poverty. In Clerkenwell broods the darkness of utter ignorance. In its lanes and alleys the lowest debauch – the coarsest enjoyment – the most infuriate passions – the most unrestrained vice – roar and riot……The burglar has his ‘crib’ in Clerkenwell – the pickpocket has his mart…’

The fetid River Fleet, which ran through the area offered a convenient means of escape from the City where many of the crimes were committed and before it was largely enclosed mid-century it also offered a means of disposal of many of the victims of violence and robbery.

By contrast, in 1865 the Clerkenwell News (later becoming the more noteworthy Daily Chronicle and then News Chronicle) first published a local history of the area written by William John Pinks. His work highlighted the workers in a more prosperous-sounding, industrious Clerkenwell, an area that had become synonymous with high quality watch and clock-making, book-binding and work in precious metals. The newspaper article became a book, running to a second edition in 1880, by which time any prosperity Clerkenwell had enjoyed was fading, the area becoming much more as described, pessimistically, by Gissing.

My Great Grandparents grew up in this area, thankfully taking a route into gainful employment as silversmiths; working with precious metal rather than stealing it. It is not a romantic picture; bear-baiting, bullfighting, any number of brothels and worn out prostitutes plying their trade. It was easy for even the most honest but poor person to be lured into lodging houses and into a life that ended on the gallows. (Turnmill Street was known as ‘Jack Ketch’s Warren’ and eventually became known to locals as ‘little hell’).

The desperate but almost predictable sordidness of the Clerkenwell slums are less surprising than the area’s reputation as a hotbed of radical thought and direct action.

It was not only the Irish Republican Movement – the Fenians of the 1867 outrage – that used Clerkenwell Green as a rallying point to protest against perceived injustices. The Green has historic associations with many of the most famous dissenting voices, from the Lollards in the 16th century to the Chartists in the 19th, who met in the coffee houses of Jerusalem Passage.  In the 1920s and 1930s, 37a Clerkenwell Green was a venue for Communist Party meetings, and Vladimir Lenin published the newsletter Iskria in what is now the Marx Memorial Library, a pretty Georgian building founded on the same site in 1933. It remains there now, home to a huge archive of books and pamphlets relating to Communist, Socialist and working class history. This year Clerkenwell was once again used as the starting point for protest as an anti-cuts march began its move towards Trafalgar Square from this historic meeting point.

Clerkenwell is not the only part of London with this intriguing mix of poverty, crime and political engagement of course and I have found no evidence to suggest my ancestors were interested in politics (although one or two had direct experience of the criminal justice system). However, being of an angry left-leaning Guardian-reading persuasion myself, (though too cowardly to lead any protests or rebellions) studying the area has given me a sense of connection to it as my roots spread through the revolutionary soil of Clerkenwell.

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6 Responses to Calling Clerkenwell home – roots in roguish & revolutionary soil

  1. Interesting and informative as ever Suzie!

    Have you considered that maybe leaning to the left and reading the Guardian is what is making you angry?!

  2. Rick Glanvill says:

    Interesting piece. Clerkenwell has always been attractive to me for the heady mix of people and ideas. My 3xgreat grandfather moved to Jerusalem Passage in the 1850s partly to further his master tailoring business, partly to establish a Methodist church nearby. I haven’t identified the church, but the shop is now an internet company office, having thrived for 70-odd years as Glanvill & Sons. Clerkenwell has a can-do aura. That applies to religion, occupation and politics. Long may it persist.

    • keatsbabe says:

      ‘Heady mix’ is a great way of putting it. Having recently returned to take a look around the area I was really impressed with how some of the restoration has been done and there were lots of young, interesting businesses in the side streets. Yes – hope it stays as vibrant in the future!

  3. Interesting and well-written piece Suzie. I have a fascination with these areas of London, probably through my love of Dickens, so it was particilarly enjoyable to read. I love what you say at the start, too, about family history blurring with social history. I strongly believe that this is the best way to enjoy family history, and turns each name on a family tree into a portal to a past world.

  4. Angela says:

    Great article, I have just been researching Clerkenwell history out of interest as I work in the area. It is nice to see the personal connections you made while researching your family tree. Even if you didn’t find direct links to your own family, seeing the bigger social history of the area must put a new perspective on your research.

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