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!
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