The photograph on the left is of Clerkenwell Green - and is taken from the cover of the excellent recent Survey of London volume on South and East Clerkenwell. It seems to be taken from the roof of the old Sessions House. The distinguished grey building in the foreground is the Marx Memorial Library - once a school, and then in the nineteenth century for twenty years the home of one of London's foremost radical working men's clubs, the Patriotic, and later hosted the Social Democratic Federation's press. Overshadowing it is St James, a fine eighteenth century church, and absolutely worth a visit. On the right is 'The Crown', a pub with a rich history - it was once a music hall. The Green itself - a misnomer, no grass has gown there for centuries - was in the Victorian era a venue for demonstrations, political meetings and street corner oratory.
Clerkenwell was once a bastion of artisan crafts such as watchmaking and bookbinding. There are a few, very few, remnants left of these trades. But it's still a wonderful part of London to walk round. I studied the politics of this area in the late Victorian period, when Clerkenwell was renowned for its radicalism. I am very fond of the place.
I've posted below a review of the two Survey of London volumes covering Clerkenwell published in History Workshop Journal
Clerkenwell in literature
George Gissin'g The Nether World is the commanding Clerkenwell novel - I've written about it briefly on the London Fictions page of this site, and at greater length on a new London Fictions site. It's a depressing book in many ways, but acutely observed. He took the trouble to walk Clerkenwell's streets and listen it to radical meetings. It tells you hugely more about the place than a parish history ever could.
Arnold Bennett's Riceyman Steps is also set in Clerkenwell. While The Nether World is largely about the area around Clerkenwell Green, the steps Bennett had in mind - they are still there - run from just off Farringdon Road to Granville Square, one of the more humdrum squares amid the architectural magnificence of the Amwell estates. At the time Bennett was writing however - the novel was published in 1923 - the area was down-at-heel, and the story concerns a miserly bookseller, (there's a great website 'Walking Riceyman Steps' which is much recommended).This district was still distinctly tatty when B.S. Johnson wrote about in Albert Angelo, an experimental novel published in 1964
Clerkenwell also features in the writing of Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist fails in his first attempt at kerchief picking on Clerkenwell Green) and of William Hale White. It's also the setting for Peter Ackroyd's Clerkenwell Tales - a story of religious and political intrigue in the medieval period.
The 'real' Riceyman Steps
This is a marvellous image of the locality Arnold Bennett used as the setting of Riceyman Steps at just the time the book was published. It's dated November 1924, a year after publication, and is taken from sketches by Hanslip Fletcher, published in the Sunday Times and then as a collection of sketches, Changing London. It's remarkable that the steps had taken on their fictional name so quickly after Bennett's novel appeared - they had been called Granville Place or Steps and are now known as Gwynne Place.
Most of the buildings shown here have been cleared. The steps survive, accessed through a non-descript modern hotel which fronts Kings Cross Road. The church you can see is St Philip's, Granville Square - it closed in 1936 and was demolished soon after.
And in post-war literature
Alexander Baron is best known for his war novel From the City From the Plough, and his account of an obsessive gambler living in Dalston, The Lowlife. Rosie Hogarth (1951) deserves equal billing in his work - a strong novel and Baron's first set in London, a city which he knew intimately and loved deeply.
It's set immediately after the Second World War in the northernmost part of the old Clerkenwell parish - a respectable, working class terraced street close to Chapel Market, just north of Pentonville Road. Baron offered a powerful and evocative sense of place - and wrote a tender account of a close-knit, insular community trying to refind its feet after the dislocations of war and its aftermath.
Chapel Market remains a defiantly plebeian island amid gentrified south Islington. You can get still get a vicarious sense of the community Baron depicted. There's a more substantial account of the novel, and the manner of its account of the fictional 'Lamb Street', here. This includes a deciphered copy of the novel's original dust jacket, which at first glance looks like an abstract drawing but is in fact a detailed and very accurate map of the locality which features in the novel.
Though not always great literature
It's difficult to think of a more Clerkenwellian novel than this 1958 title, set in and around a rather grimy Red Lion Street in the 1920s. A struggling clerk, Kerry Betterkin, dreams of being an author, but his first book, a historical novel 'Green and Pleasant Clerkenwell', bombs. His next book, with more commonplace characters, is a runaway success. So he is able to marry his girlfriend at St James's.
Not a great plot, and the characterisation is no better - but amid the references to medieval Clerkenwell, there's quite a lot about the area in its lean decades. And there's certainly a lot of Clerkenwell - from first page to closing page.
This was the final title in Raymond's multi-volume 'A London Gallery', an enterprise that took him more than a quarter of a century, and is now as little remembered as, well, Betterkin's 'Green and Pleasant Clerkenwell'.
An effortless read, but hardly a match for Bennett or Gissing.
And Dickens's Clerkenwell
Here's an audio walk through the Islington and Clekenwell of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist:
A 1943 poster by Abram Games with the frontage of the FHC
The Survey of London describes the Finsbury Health Centre just off Farringdon Road as the most famous building in Clerkenwell.
It was born out of municipal concern for the health of London's poor - an initiative of the left-leaning Finsbury Borough Council in the 1930s. And the design was the work of one of the most renowned modernist architects, Berthold Lubetkin. 'Besides the hope it embodies for a brighter future', says the Survey's recent volume on Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville, 'the rigour of the research expended on the project and the passion of its technics and aesthetics set the loftiest of standards for British modernism.'
How sad, then, that the Pine Street building is now semi-derelict and that there's real concern about its future. There's now a 'Save Finsbury Health Centre' campaign, seeking to ensure that the centre is repaired and remains a place where the local community can access health services. The 'Guardian' - for many years based close by - recently reported on the battle over the future of the building. Given its pioneering social and architectural importance, it deserves a secure future serving the people of Clerkenwell.
A century and a half ago, William John Pinks wrote one of the most remarkable and impressive of London parish histories. He had been buried for five years in the west side of Highgate Cemetery when his voluminous History of Clerkenwell first appeared in book form. Pinks's antiquarian approach is tempered by contemporary anecdote and keen social observation, and its 800 pages are enlivened by scores of engravings - among them one showing the author's grave.
Pinks was himself a Clerkenwellian, apprenticed as a bookbinder, and later a full-time contributor to the 'Clerkenwell News', perhaps the most successful of London's Victorian-era district papers (it became the 'Daily Chronicle'). He died from TB aged 31. When J.T. Pickburn, proprietor of the 'Clerkenwell News', published Pinks's local history in 1865, it was the high water mark of prosperous, industrious Clerkenwell. A second edition, in essence unchanged, appeared in 1880 - the format of the book, reflecting Clerkenwell's fortunes, a little more cramped and pinched in appearance.
Through the last century, virtually nothing was written about Clerkenwell. the area lost its municipal identity when it was merged with St Luke's in 1900 to form the borough of Finsbury. This was in turn merged into the London Borough of Islington in the 1960s. Slum clearance, depopulation, the decline of artisan crafts and deindustrialisation all contributed to the decline of Clerkenwell.
From the 1970s, the gentrification of Amwell and some other pockets of Georgian and early Victorian housing, and the growing the popularity of the area with architect and design companies, contributed to a modest resurgence. Clerkenwell began to mean something again. The republication in 2001 of Pinks's history in facsimile form was itself a reflection of a resurgent Clerkenwell. The Survey of Londonvolumes about Clerkenwell published in 2008 are the first to lavish as much care and attention on the district and its built environment as Pinks, and pay proper tribute to the pre-eminent historian of the district. (These paragraphs borrow from a review I write for History Workshop Journal in 2009, posted above).
The Clerks' Well
This pamphlet, illustrated with grainy black-and-white photos, was published a few months after the well from which Clerkenwell took its name was rediscovered. It's in Farringdon Lane and is open to the public by appointment - there is a none too appetising picture of the well as it is now, looking like a rather grotty latrine, on this Islington Council site.
The well was found during rebuilding work in 1924. At the time, Clerkenwell was part of the Borough of Finsbury - and this detailed account of the well and its reappearance was delivered before the council as well as at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society.
I bought this pamphlet from the excellent Walden book shop in Chalk Far, which always has an excellent selection of books about London.
Walking the Cally Road
It's not really Clerkenwell, except the southernmost end - but it's wonderful all the same. Alan Dein's audio journey and slide show down the Caledonian Road - popping in to Housmans, among other places. Give it a try!
Aand a band called The Big Skies' has recorded a song called 'Cally Road' - you can her