Mount Pleasant, Islington/Camden
A densely built-up street and locality in north-west Clerkenwell
This locality used to be known as Coldbath (or Cold Bath) Fields, from the cold baths established here in 1697 for the cure of rheumatism, convulsions and other nervous disorders. The street (originally a country track running down to the Fleet River) called Mount Pleasant gained its name in the 1730s after locals had begun to dump cinders and other refuse here. Wherever a place is called ‘Mount Pleasant’, the name usually has ironic origins.
Coldbath Fields were renowned for the prison that was opened here in 1794. With accommodation for 1,800 inmates, the Middlesex House of Correction was the largest British jail of its time. The essayist Leigh Hunt and his brother John were detained here in 1812, awaiting trial for libelling the Prince Regent.
The neighbouring fields were the site of a protest meeting in 1833 at which a policeman was stabbed to death – yet the inquest jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
The prison closed in 1877 and ten years later the Post Office adapted its former treadmill houses for use as a parcel depot, subsequently extending operations here to create the largest sorting office in Europe. The mail centre (as it is now called) was rebuilt in 1934 and extended in 1996. The building has recently been beautifully repainted (as shown in the photograph above) yet its long-term future is uncertain. At least part of the site is likely to succumb to redevelopment of the kind seen at most such ‘brownfield sites’ in London nowadays – almost certainly ignoring an imaginative alternative vision published by the Legatum Institute and Create Streets and shown below in the street view by Francis Terry. Assuming regretfully that it doesn’t happen here, Hidden London hopes that something like this delightful proposition will see the light of day elsewhere in London, though this may require an attitudinal sea change among skyscraper-smitten developers and the politicians who indulge them.
An underground rail service used to carry letters and parcels from Mount Pleasant mail centre to district offices to its west and east. The line extended 6½ miles (10.5 km) from Paddington to Whitechapel, originally with six (later seven) intermediate stops. Owing to increased running costs and the progressive relocation of most of the sorting offices along its route, the Mail Rail service was shut down in 2003 and a fleet of vans and lorries nowadays distributes the mail instead.
The British Postal Museum & Archive presently operates from Freeling House, on Phoenix Place, but intends to move to nearby Calthorpe House, which is being refurbished as a dedicated, permanent home for the BPMA collection. As an adjunct to the project, the museum has submitted plans to reopen a very short section of the Mail Rail line as a visitor attraction. The former locomotive workshop will house a visitor centre and café, while the larger depot space will be converted into an events hall and exhibition space.
North of the mail centre a 400-room Holiday Inn replaced the Mount Pleasant Hotel in the 1990s. Across Farringdon Road, Exmouth Market has become a popular place to eat and drink. At the southern end of Mount Pleasant, the narrow street is crowded with tenements and council flats.
Postal districts: EC1 and WC1
Website: The Mount Pleasant Association
See also: Little Italy