A wonderful drawing from 1933 of what is now the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green. It was built in the eighteenth century as a Welsh charity school, in the 1870s housed the Patriotic Club, one of London's leading radical clubs, and later was home to a socialist publishing house. Clerkenwell Green is one of my favourite London haunts - it has not just Marx House, but a wonderful sessions house, The Crown tavern (once a music hall), and overlooking it all the bleached tower of St James, Clerkenwell.
This drawing is on the cover of a pamphlet I've just bought - Tommy Jackson's lively account of the radical associations of Clerkenwell Green. As he says: 'To find a spot in London, or even in the British Islands, richer in historical associations than Clerkenwell Green and its vicinity would be hard indeed.'
A few decades later, another leftist, Andrew Rothstein, pursued the same territory in A House on Clerkenwell Green.
Tommy Jackson knew the area well - he was born in Clerkenwell, and imbibed the traditions of artisan radicalism which then flourished here. He makes that lineage clear in this pamphlet (see below right), and in his wonderfully engaging 1953 autobiography Solo Trumpet. My copy of that title includes a cutting from the 'Daily Worker' (below left) two years later reporting Jackson's death - one of the last of the left's great auto-didacts.
In the post today, I received this rather wonderful book - published in 1885 by the noted, and distinctly quarrelsome, radical Martin Boon.
Yes, it's an odd volume - both volumes together would have been well beyond my pocket.
Boon is a hugely interesting figure in the annals of radicalism. He was born in 1840 in Clerkenwell, greatly influenced by the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien, active alongside Karl Marx in the First International and a lively and quixotic campaigner above all for land and currency reform. There was also a distinct puritan streak to his views - he disapproved both of lasciviousness and of contraception.
In 1874, Martin Boon - who had campaigned actively against emigration - emigrated. To South Africa. There he made himself hugely unpopular by tilting at just about every windmill he could find - Boers, Jews, and black South Africans all came under his withering gaze. He wrote prolifically about the place, and didn't find all that much positive to relate. This book concludes: 'I HAVE NOT WRITTEN TO PLEASE, BUT TO REFORM.' He certainly didn't please, getting himself involved in a succession of court cases and public rows.
Boon played a part in the development of the goldfields in the Transvaal. He died there - apparently taking his own life by jumping into a mine shaft - on December 27th 1888. I realised with a start that today is the 125th anniversary of his death. For all his idiosyncracies and often intemperate views, he deserves remembrance.
Martin James Boon, 1840-1888: land nationaliser, currency reformer, radical propagandist and pamphleteer, settler in and chronicler of South Africa.
Well, this guy doesn't seem to have enjoyed my talk! Last night I spoke about London Fictions in the truly remarkable surroundings of the Norman crypt (from the 1140s) of St John, the old Priory church in St John's Square, Clerkenwell. Listening in the wings was Prior Weston - that's him above - who died in April 1540 on the very day that Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of his religious order. Spitalfields Life, as ever, has been here before me - here's 'A Dead Man in Clerkenwell.'
Still closer to hand was the tomb and effigy of Don Juan Ruyz de Vergara, a sixteenth century procurator of the Knights of St John in Castile. The effigy is not simply of Don Juan but, grotesquely, of his page boy as well - I'm not clear whether he too is buried in the crypt.
It did seem a touch sacrilegious to be talking about matters so secular and profane - George Gissing, Sam Selvon, Zadie Smith, Colin MacInnes, could you ever hope for a more profane bunch - from what was very close to the altar. But the close to capacity current day audience didn't seem to mind (and indeed I sold out of copies of the book) so I hope the ghosts of St John past were equally entertained.
Last night was part of the excellent Footprints of London Literary Festival - more details here.
To St James's Clerkenwell this morning, an elegant late eighteenth century church - and inside the memorial to those killed in the Clerkenwell "Outrage" of 1867. Fenians, Irish Republicans, blew up the wall of the local prison in an unsuccessful attempt to spring two of their number, who should have been in the exercise yard at the time.
The authoritites had been forewarned. The Republican prisoners were confined to their cells - which probably saved their lives. The explosion was hugely too powerful, and brought down not just the prison walls but most of the row of houses opposite the jail, killing at least twelve people.
Some of the outside wall of the jail still stands - along with the chief warder's home, on a street corner and remarkable for having no windows overlooking the street.
Clerkenwell Green just yards away was in the Victorian era a venue for outdoor political meetings, including some held in the aftermath of the explosion by sympathisers with the Fenians - notably a local radical, James Finlen. That created a further public outrage, and Finlen became a figure of notoriety, and eventually was forced to leave London by the hounding of the popular press.
I've always preferred the cheaper end of the Monopoly board - Whitechapel High Street and The Angel have much more appeal that Park Lane and Bond Street. To judge from the piece in today's Guardian celebrating the board game's 75th anniversary, the historian Jerry White agrees.
He makes a connection that had escaped me, the 'Water Works' as the New River Head in no-longer-so-cheap Clerkenwell. Well, of course.
And I also discover that the model for Monopoly was 'The Landlord's Game', devised in 1904 by an Illinois-born woman follower of the land taxer Henry George. Those of you who delve into the depths of this site may know that it was Henry George's followers who coined that marvellous political anthem The Land Song.
If I add that The Angel (£100 for the Monopoly player) is the setting for Alexander Baron's novel 'Rosie Hogarth', I've somehow managed to get several of my pet enthusiasms in a single blog.
Happy New Year!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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