Here's a mystery in a minor key. This is a path that leads from the hidden-away Spa Fields in Clerkenwell to Exmouth Market. The three silver painted bollards are all embossed 'C.V.'- but what on earth was 'CV'?
It took me a while. But I think I have cracked it. And it is sort of bleedin' obvious.
And the clue is in the rather imposing late Victorian municipal building nearby.
This is the rear view of Finsbury Town Hall, which stands on a peculiarly shaped triangular parcel of land. But it wasn't built by the Borough of Finsbury.
This was constructed in 1894-5 as the Clerkenwell Vestry Hall on ground cleared during the construction of Rosebery Avenue. The vestry was the form of local government in place until 1900 - when Clerkenwell was joined with neighbouring St Luke's in the new Borough of Finsbury (which was in turn subsumed into the London Borough of Islington in the 1960s).
The Clerkenwell Vestry was notorious for guzzling (dining well at ratepayers' expense) and for the house agents who contested elections largely to obstruct the enforcement of sanitary and building regulations.
There was an earlier vestry hall on the same site, which had been built in 1814 as the Spa Fields watch house. This later and clearly ambitious building - its interior is much more grand - was constructed in the closing years of the vestry and was, by their parsimonious standards, an opulent spend.
Strangely, although the back end of the town hall is architecturally impressive it doesn't have an entrance to match. The main entrance is on the Rosebery Avenue side.
So 'C.V.'? It has to stand for Clerkenwell Vestry, doesn't it?
I went in search yesterday of William John Pinks. It's strange to set off in pursuit of someone who died 160 years ago. But, after a fashion, I found him.
So, who was he? Well, he was among the best - and most productive - of the battalion of antiquarians and local historians of Victorian London. Some years ago, in a review of the Survey of London volumes about Clerkenwell, I paid a tribute to this rather tragic figure:
William John Pinks had been buried for five years in Highgate cemetery when his huge and ambitious History of Clerkenwell first appeared in book form. It is among the most impressive London parish histories of the Victorian era. The antiquarianism is tempered by contemporary anecdote and a keen social eye, and its 800 pages are enlivened by scores of engravings – among them one depicting the author’s grave. Pinks was himself a Clerkenwellian, apprenticed as a bookbinder, and later a full-time contributor to the ‘Clerkenwell News’, the first and most successful of London’s district papers. He died from TB at the age of thirty-one.
When J.T. Pickburn, the 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. The ‘Clerkenwell News’ had by then metamorphosed into the much grander ‘Daily Chronicle’ which, as the ‘News Chronicle’, remained a leading national daily until 1960.
So it was of course William John Pinks's grave that I was seeking yesterday, in the older west section of Highgate Cemetery. And with the help of a guide, Charles, I found it - though as it was some distance away from any of the paths, I couldn't venture there myself (health and safety etc).
Charles did, for which many thanks - and while from the plan he had of the cemetery this is certainly Pink's grave and tombstone, he couldn't immediately make out any of the inscription.
Pinks's magnum opus, The History of Clerkenwell, provides us with the text of the inscription -
It's worth including here the account of Pinks which appeared in the volume he wrote, which was first published towards the end of 1865 -
The history was a stupendous achievement - of both author and of the editor, Edward J. Wood. It is certainly antiquarian, but Pinks also knew well the streets he wrote about and every now-and-again he gives a sense of the Clerkenwell of his day as well as earlier days. There is an account, for example, of the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway and the building of Farringdon station - events he would have witnessed as a teenager.
Pinks's History appeared in a second edition in 1880. And rather marvellously it was republished in a facsimile edition in 2001 - an edition which sold out. Not many local histories have such a long life.
And if you don't know where Clerkenwell is, perhaps the folding map included in the History may help!
What a brilliant piece of political ephemera - from 150 years ago, and relating to my own back yard. Many thanks to the wonderfully named Bloomsbury booksellers, Jarndyce - yes, it's an allusion to Dickens's Bleak House - for providing me both with this prize item (at a price to match, naturally) and the high quality image above.
This is a programme for a Reform League procession to the Agricultural Hall in Islington's Upper Street, just a couple of miles from where I live. They were a nationwide, and very effective, campaign organisation which demanded an extension of the franchise and the introduction of the secret ballot. The Second Reform Act of 1867 didn't deliver the manhood suffrage they sought but it more than doubled the number of those eligible to vote (a property restriction remained, but male borough householders and lodgers who paid £10 or more in rent a year now qualified to vote). The Ballot Act followed in 1872. It was another half century, 1918 to be precise, before any women got the vote in Parliamentary elections
The Reform League was largely middle class-led, but artisan radicals and the craft trade societies also rallied to its standard. In central London (and Holborn most notably) several of the League's branches were notoriously left-wing, extending to sympathy for Republicanism and for the Irish nationalist 'Fenian' movement. Some of London's radical working men's clubs, such as the Patriotic on Clerkenwell Green - it's now the Marx Memorial Library - were born out of Reform League branches.
The legend 'God Save the Queen!', in capitals at the bottom of the programme, was clearly intended to emphasise the League's loyalty to the Crown, whatever some of its more wayward members might have spouted from their Sunday morning speaking platforms.
You can see from this programme how important the trade societies were to the Reform League - and also the care the League took in ensuring that its processions were well arranged and effectively marshalled. They even had mounted marshals (in other words, on horseback) - among their number was my old friend Samuel Brighty. Many years (sorry, decades) ago I started a doctoral thesis about popular politics in Clerkenwell in just this period (the chapter on the Reform League was finished, which is more than can be said for the wider thesis - details on request). Brighty was one of several local radical notables (in his case a member of the Clerkenwell Vestry) who engaged my attention. He famously gave evidence to the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes of 1884-5, but that's another story ...
I did wonder whether the 'Mr Coffey' who is also listed as a marshal might be William Cuffay, the noted black Chartist activist, Not so - Cuffay, whose father was from St Kitt's, was deported to Tasmania and elected to stay there at the end of his sentence. He died there in 1870.
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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