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 organ­i­sa­tion St John Ambu­lance) lat­er returned to St John’s Gate, where they main­tain their head­quar­ters and a muse­um.

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’.

Shown in the pho­to below (2006), St James’s church was built in 1788–92 by James Carr, a local archi­tect and builder, on the site of the choir of the medieval nun­nery. The church is now Inspire Saint James Clerken­well, “a unit­ed and diverse gospel com­mu­ni­ty that seeks to inspire Lon­don with the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Hidden London: St James Clerkenwell Church, seen in 2006

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