Clerkenwell

Clerkenwell, Islington

A former monastic settlement now turning increasingly hedonistic, conveniently located between King’s Cross and the City of London

Clerkenwell - Marx Memorial Library

Around 1140 Jordan de Briset and his wife founded the hospital and priory of St John of Jerusalem and the nunnery of St Mary. The sisters of the convent drew their water from a well that became known as the clerks’ well because City students performed an annual miracle play close by.

In 1370 Sir Walter de Manny established the Carthusian priory of Charterhouse, which was rebuilt as a rambling mansion after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. It subsequently became Charterhouse school and is now London’s most picturesque retirement home. The nunnery’s buildings were also demolished after the Dissolution but the clerks’ well can still be seen through the window of an office block on Farringdon Lane. Parts of St John’s priory have survived and a revived ‘venerable order’ (which has metamorphosed into the health care organization St John Ambulance) later returned to St John’s Gate, where they maintain their headquarters and a museum.

St James Clerkenwell Church
St James Clerkenwell Church

Richard Sadler established a music hall and spa in north Clerkenwell in 1683. Sadler’s Wells has since evolved via a series of rebuildings into ‘London’s dance house’.

From medieval times Clerkenwell attracted edge-of-City trades like jewellery, lock-making, printing, bookbinding, and the making and repair of clocks and watches – and there are still practitioners of several of these crafts today. When many of the larger firms closed or moved out to suburban industrial estates, they left behind factories and warehouses that have now been converted for ‘loft style living’

Clerkenwell also had a murky side, and the House of Detention, formerly an underground prison, and the Old Sessions House, once the busiest court in England, survive from its period as a den of thieves and receivers, pickpockets and coiners. In the 19th century the district was said to have the highest murder rate in London.

Most of Clerkenwell’s housing still consists of Georgian terraces and municipal and philanthropic tenement blocks from the first half of the 20th-century, but apartment complexes like Brewhouse Yard are filling the few available spaces.

Numerous gastropubs and bohemian brasseries cater to Clerkenwell’s new community of media-oriented young professionals. The locality’s popularity is set to increase further when the Elizabeth line (Crossrail) arrives at Farringdon station. “We believe this interchange will become so important to London that Farringdon will re-emerge as a destination in itself,” says the Crossrail website.

George Gissing depicted the underbelly of Clerkenwell in his 1889 novel The Nether World.

Vladimir Lenin produced 17 issues of the Russian revolutionary newsletter Iskra in 1902–3 at what is now the Marx Memorial Library. The library building is shown in the photograph at the top of this article.

Arnold Bennett set his 1923 tale Riceyman Steps in Clerkenwell, although the Potteries-born author did not know the area well and had to draw on William Pinks’ study of the district (now republished, see below).

Postal district: EC1
Population: 11,490 (2011 census)
Further reading: William Pinks, The History of Clerkenwell, Lightning Source, republished 2011
and Richard Tames, Clerkenwell and Finsbury Past, Historical Publications, 1999
See also: Finsbury, Little Italy, Mount Pleasant and the Lloyd Baker estate