Clerkenwell is steeped in history and culture which makes it one of my favourite London neighbourhoods. Happily I’ve managed to see a fair bit of it thanks to my friend Tom who lives in the area and has shown me around.
There are heaps of good places to eat and drink as well which I have put in the next post. My Google map with everything on is here.
Clerkenwell has a long tradition of left wing politics, starting in the middle ages. Clerkenwell Green was the scene of some of the events of the Peasants’ revolt in 1381. It was were the London Corresponding Society demonstrated against the Napoleonic Wars and in 1887 it saw a huge demonstration demanding freedom for Ireland.
In the early twentieth century it was where the Communist Party used to meet and the Marx Memorial Library is located here. The library has tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays marxlibrary.org.uk.
Marx, Lenin and Stalin all lived in the area at various times. Their local was the Old Red Lion www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk at 418 St John St which is one of London’s oldest boozers. Over its 600 year history, many other notable people, including Dickens and Stalin, have taken refreshment here. The Second Congress of the Communist League was held in an upstairs room and the meeting requested that Marx and Engels who were attending the meeting should write the League’s programme; the Communist Manifesto.
In 1890 Clerkenwell Green was the scene of the very first May day rally. In 1919 the rally called for British troops to be withdrawn from trying to bring down the Russian Bolshevik government and in 1969 it demanded equal pay for the women of Ford’s Dagenham plant. It’s hard to think of any place that has a longer or more illustrious history of struggle.
The ancient military order of the Knights of Saint John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, has a long association with the area which is why they appear in many local names. You can still see St John’s Gate which was built in 1504 as the south entrance to their priory.
Now a volunteer ambulance charity, they were originally formed to protect sick pilgrims in Jerusalem during the crusades. They have a museum next to the gate at 26 St John’s Lane www.museumstjohn.org.uk.
The famous Smithfields Meat Market is just at the bottom of the road.
In the 19th century the area around Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road, and Rosebery Avenue was known as Little Italy due to high levels of immigration from that country. A couple of businesses and an annual festival are all that remains of that legacy, as well as the community’s church, St Peter’s Church on Clerkenwell Road.
Elsewhere, Charles Rowan House is a landmark housing estate built in the Expressionist style. It was built in the 1920s as married quarters for Metropolitan policemen (Rowan was one of the first Commissioners of the force when it was formed in the 1820s) but became a Council estate in 1974 and is now a Grade II building.
Many other historic and beautiful buildings grace the area, I’ll try and expand on this post when I have time to write about them. If you’re on a PC, click on the photos to enlarge them.
Eating and drinking in Clerkenwell next!