Historic Clerkenwell and Clerkenwell Green: A Potted History
‘the eloquence, the wit, the wisdom, that give proud distinction to the name of
Clerkenwell Green. Towards sundown, that modern Agora rang with the
voices of orators, swarmed with listeners, with disputants, with mockers, with
indifferent loungers…the roar of an enthusiastic total-abstainer blended with
the shriek of a Radical politician…from the doctrine of the Trinity to the
question of cabbage versus beef; form Neo-Malthusianism to the grievance
of compulsory vaccination, not a subject which modernism has thrown out to
the multitude but here received its sufficient mauling.’
So did George Gissing describe Clerkenwell in his Victorian novel The Netherworld. Public open space in cities has always had a dynamic place at the heart of social change. Clerkenwell Green, the compact, gently sloping trapezium nestled between the Farringdon and Clerkenwell roads, is today a sleepy and leafy quarter, surrounded by pubs and cafes, architect practices and sandwich shops. But today’s gentle setting belies Clerkenwell and its Green’s exciting, dramatic and riotous history, revolving about centuries of struggle for democracy, liberty and human rights. The people, social movements and ideas that found their place on the Green and the streets around it make Clerkenwell the most important place in England for the fight for freedom, a place of international importance. And it is a legacy that is still lived today.
The Clerkenwell Parish emerges in recorded history with the sacking of London. Bouddicea defeted the Roman garrison at Battle Bridge, which is now Kings Cross and marks the corner of the parish. However, it is from the 14th century that its separate history really beings. Clerkenwell was a separate village on the edge of the City. It had its origins as a religious community of priories and covents, situated next to the River Fleet thereby affording good trading links with London and the villages to the north. Its name refers to the Clerks Well, a corruption of the medieval clerc meaning literate person. Before Clerkenwell became a built-up area, it had a reputation as a resort a short walk out of the city, where Londoners could disport themselves at its spas, of which there were several, based on natural chalybeate springs, tea gardens and theatres. It was famous for its Mystery Plays, arranged by the Parish Clerks during the Middle Ages. The priory of St John of the Knights Hospitallers had its headquarters here. Wat Tyler, on his march to London during the Peasants Revolt of 1381, beheaded the Prior in Clerkenwell. This perhaps marks the beginning of revolutionary associations in the area. [Henry IV] was known have his archers practice out on gentle open slopes of the area.
Clerkenwell only really became part of London in the 18th Century, when the Penton estates were laid out as good quality housing for the growing middle class, though it was sufficiently familiar in the form it has today for Oliver Cromwell to live on Clerkenwell Close. In 1780, anti-Catholic Gordon Rioters broke into the Clerkenwell Bridewell prison, freeing prisoners, and by the turn of the century the area was beginning to become poorer and more artisan and working class.
19th Century – Reform Act
In 1832, Parliament passed the Reform Act that extended (a little) the franchise. Agitation for this was fierce in Clerkenwell and on the Green. Meetings calling for the Reform Act occurred at Spa Fields, located just to the north of Clerkenwell Green, in December 1816. They attracted between 20,000 and 100,000 people. These were truly massive political spectacles. The famous, aristocratic and radical orrator Henry Hunt arrived from the nearby Merlin’s Cave Tavern, ‘waving the green, red and white tricolour, flag of the new British Republic’. Hunt was a radical later imprisoned for sedition as an organiser of the meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, which was to be known as Peterloo after the massacre by charging yeomanry. He, along with another Clerkenwell activist, journalist William Cobbett, founded the Radical Reform Association to advocate for a much deeper reform than the 1832 Reform Act afforded. The Times reported that Hunt ‘harangued the multitude from the upper window of the Merlin’s Cave.’ This may have had an effect in exciting the crowd, for a major riot followed.
‘Watson jumped up and shouted, ‘The ministers have not yet granted our
rights – shall we take them? Will you demand them? If I jump down, will you
Over 300 men headed down St John’s Street Road. At Skinner’s Row they entered Mr Beckwith’s gunsmith store and took weapons before entering the City. Some were arrested at the Royal Exchange, others attempted to break into the Tower of London. A second, separate group fought the Horse Guards at Holborn Bridge. After about four hours, the rioters had either dispersed or been detained.
In 1833, the Clerkenwell Riot emerged from a public meeting of the National Union of the Working Classes, held on Cold Bath Fields in the north of the Parish. It culminated in the stabbing of three police officers and the killing of Constable Robert Culley which attracted national attention. The working people of the area brought banners bearing the slogan ‘Liberty or Death’, the American Flag and the French Tricolour. The fields were crowded with up to 3,000 people. The police were ordered to march and seize the ‘seditious’ banners and the leaders of the agitation. A pitched battle developed between people and police, who blocked a number of streets.
The Chartist movement brought massive upheaval across Britain. Emerging from artisan agitation calling for much greater reform than the 1832 Reform Act had enabled, it culminated in nationwide riots and marches which reached their height in 1848 encouraged by revolutions spreading across Europe and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Clerkenwell was a location of many Chartist meetings and starting point for marches, and many of its (male) residents were leaders of the movement.
On 14th February 1839, over 7,000 people met on the Green to hear speeches by delegates from across Britain. Later that year, on 7th July a Chartist billsticker was arrested on Clerkenwell Green carrying pistols, and in April 1848, as the movement was reaching its height 150,000 working men met at Kennington Common having originated from four starting points, one being Clerkenwell Green. Clerkenwell’s Chartist connection was further cemented by the delivery of a 3,315,752 signature petition supporting the Charter to the House of Commons on 2nd May 1842. A procession left Clerkenwell Green in order to present the petition to Thomas Duncombe, MP for Finsbury.
Meetings were held regularly during the summer of 1848. Over 4,000 met on the Green on 31st May, 300-400 on 25th July, 3000 on the 18th August, with further meetings on the 20th and 25th August. William Lovett, first leader of the Chartist movement met regularly for political discussion in Lunt’s Coffee House on Clerkenwell Green, and in premises in Jerusalem Passage at its eastern end. William Cobbett, radical journalist and agitator spoke on Clerkenwell Green (ISLC CB, 15/02/1838) as did Irish agitator William Smith O’Brien MP in favour of repeal of the Act of Union (ISLC CB, 27/05/1849). Feargus O’Conner, leading Irish Chartist and member of the Repeal Association was also a regular speaker
Though there was no factory in the locality until 1878, by the early nineteenth century, Clerkenwell had become a major centre for clock and watchmakers, gold and silversmiths, and printers, making it a major artisan centre in London. The highly concentrated nature of many of Clerkenwell’s trades was both beneficial and debilitating. In 1799 Parliament imposed the Watch Tax allowing cheaper imports from the Continent. Instantly, 8,000 Clerkenwellians were out of work. Soup kitchens were established in Coppice Row to feed the watchmakers and their families.
Nineteenth-century rioting in London was not confined to Clerkenwell. In 1867, the authorities attempted to close Hyde Park, where a meeting of the artisan and working classes was scheduled. A massive riot ensued during which Clerkenwellians were present ‘wearing the tricolour scarves of the British Republic’. They were also represented at the ‘Bloody Sunday’ meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square in 1887. Clerkenwell contingents were prevented from leaving their parish. A party led by William Morris was hounded and set upon by police blocking the route to Trafalgar Square.
On the 4th April 1866 4,000 people met on Clerkenwell Green to discuss the Reform Bill. The Islington Gazette reported ‘A brass band there playing ‘‘popular airs’’ was well received’. This glimpse into the nature of the meetings hints at their theatre. Leaders of meetings delayed their arrival, making the crowd frenzied with anticipation of the fiery speeches to come.
In 1891 up to 20,000 tailors demonstrated in support of the Dockers’ Strike of 1889, as well as meetings of the dockers themselves.
A strong Fenian movement developed in Clerkenwell in the late 1860s, amalgamated with the political notions of reformists and radicals, within a wider doctrine of artisan liberation. Ernest Jones spoke to over 10,000 people demonstrating for the commutation of death sentences passed on four Fenians in Birmingham. The speakers’ cart was positioned outside the door of the Middlesex Sessions House. In December 1867, three ‘Americanised-Irish’ laid explosives at the wall of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in an attempt to free imprisoned Fenians. A Fenian arms cache of ‘400 rifles, 25 cases of revolvers, 5 barrels of ammunition and 100,000 rounds’ under the Church of St James in Clerkenwell Close.
The burning of an effigy on Clerkenwell Green of the Governor of Jamaica responsible for the hanging of 439 Jamaican squatters attracted significant attention. ‘The London artisans ought to be very deeply indebted to the Clerkenwell Reformers for the satisfactory and inexpensive amusements which are provided…it is the hit of the season’,
Meetings in support of the 1871 Paris Commune were heavily attended and well reported:
‘The scarlet emblem of Red Republicanism, topped by an ugly-shaped cap of
liberty, was mounted over the drinking fountain on Clerkenwell Green in
signification that the sympathizers with the Communists of Paris intended to
hold a preliminary discussion to the one at which they asked the attendance
of thousands…the Marseillaise was read to end the meeting’
Rising wealth, late Victorian clearances and the changing economic base saw Clerkenwell’s industrial importance decline and its people move out. Italian immigrants began to arrive in the 1920s and 1930s, but by 1945 the population was at its lowest since incorporation into London. The post-war decline was arrested during the early 1970s as regeneration of the old warehouses and factories began to take place and new industries – notably architecture – moved in. By the 1980s Clerkenwell was undergoing a full-scale regeneration, turning it into a fashionable quarter of a reinternationalising London.
Nonetheless, its old traditions still hold true: every year the May Day marches organised by the Trade Unions Congress leave from the Green, maintaining the link between the space and its history into the 21st Century.