Clerkenwell is an area of central London in the London Borough of Islington. From 1900 to 1965 it was part of the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury. The well after which it was named was rediscovered in 1924. The watchmaking and watch repairing trades were once of great importance. Clerkenwell was once known as London's "Little Italy" because of the large number of Italians living in the area from the 1850s until the 1960s.
Clerkenwell took its name from the Clerks' Well in Farringdon Lane (clerken was the Middle English genitive plural of clerk, a variant of , meaning literate person or clergyman). In the Middle Ages, the London Parish clerks performed annual mystery plays there, based on biblical themes. Part of the well remains visible, incorporated into a 1980s building called Well Court. It is visible through a window of that building on Farringdon Lane. Access to the well is managed by Islington Local History Centre and visits can be arranged by appointment.
The Monastic Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem had its English headquarters at the Priory of Clerkenwell. (The Blessed Gerard founded the Order to provide medical assistance during the crusades.) St John's Gate (built by Sir Thomas Docwra in 1504) survives in the rebuilt form of the Priory Gate. Its gateway, erected in 1504 and remaining in St John's Square, served various purposes after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For example, it was the birthplace of the Gentleman's Magazine in 1731, and the scene of Dr Johnson's work in connection with that journal. In modern times the gatehouse again became associated with the Order and was in the early 20th century the headquarters of the St John Ambulance Association. An Early English crypt remains beneath the chapel of the Order, which was otherwise mostly rebuilt in the 1950s after wartime bombing. The notorious deception of the "Cock Lane Ghost", in which Johnson took great interest, was perpetrated nearby.
Adjoining the priory was of the Benedictine order, now entirely disappeared, and St James's Church, rebuilt in 1792 on the site of the original church which was partly of Norman provenance. The Charterhouse, near the boundary with the City of London, was originally a Carthusian monastery. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Charterhouse became a private mansion and one owner, Thomas Sutton, subsequently left it with an endowment as a school and almshouse. The latter still remains but the school relocated to Surrey and its part of the site is now a campus of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Fashionable residential area
In the 17th century South Clerkenwell became a fashionable place of residence. Oliver Cromwell owned a house on Clerkenwell Close, just off the Green. Several aristocrats had houses there, most notably the Duke of Northumberland, as did people such as Erasmus Smith. 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. The present day Sadler's Wells has survived as heir to this tradition, after being rebuilt many times and many changes of use including pleasure gardens, theatre, aquatic display venue, circus, music hall. Today it is a leading theatre and modern dance venue.
Clerkenwell was also the location of three prisons: the Clerkenwell Bridewell, Coldbath Fields Prison (later Clerkenwell Gaol) and the New Prison, later the Clerkenwell House of Detention, notorious as the scene of the Clerkenwell Outrage in 1867, an attempted prison break by Fenians who killed many in the tenement houses on Corporation Row in trying to blow a hole in the prison wall.
The Industrial Revolution changed the area greatly. It became a centre for breweries, distilleries and the printing industry. It gained an especial reputation for the making of clocks and watches, which activity once employed many people from around the area. Flourishing craft workshops still carry on some of the traditional trades, such as jewellery-making. Clerkenwell is home to Witherby's, Europe's oldest printing company. The company, which was established in 1740 and whose shareholding is mainly family-held, produces a wide variety of commercial work such as magazines, leaflets, report and accounts, brochures and information packs at its on-site print facility.
Clerkenwell Green lies at the centre of the old village, by the church, and has a mixture of housing, offices and pubs, dominated by the imposing former Middlesex Sessions House. It was built in 1782, extended during the Victorian era, and by the early 21st century used as a Masonic hall. The name is something of a historical relic—Clerkenwell Green has had no grass for over 300 years. However, in conveying some impression of its history, it gives the appearance of one of the better-preserved village centres in what is now central London. In Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, Clerkenwell Green is where Fagin and the Artful Dodger induct Oliver into pickpocketing amongst shoppers in the busy market once held there. Indeed, Dickens knew the area well and was a customer of the Finsbury Savings Bank on Sekforde Street, a street linking Clerkenwell Green to St John Street.
Clerkenwell Green has historically been associated with radicalism, from the Lollards in the 16th century, the Chartists in the 19th century and communists in the early 20th century. In 1902, Vladimir Lenin moved the publication of the Iskra (Spark) to the British Social Democratic Federation at 37a Clerkenwell Green, and issues 22 to 38 were indeed edited there. At that time Vladimir Lenin resided on Percy Circus, less than half a mile north of Clerkenwell Green. In 1903 the newspaper was moved to Geneva. It is said that Lenin and a young Joseph Stalin met in the Crown and Anchor pub (now known as The Crown Tavern) on the Green when the latter was visiting London in 1903. In the 1920s and 1930s, 37a Clerkenwell Green was a venue for Communist Party meetings, and the Marx Memorial Library was founded on the same site in 1933. Clerkenwell's tradition of left-leaning publication continued until late 2008 with The Guardian and The Observer having their headquarters on Farringdon Road, a short walk from the Green. Their new offices are a short distance away in King's Cross. In 2011 an anti-cuts protest march departed from Clerkenwell and ended with a rally at Trafalgar Square demanding trade union rights, human rights and international solidarity.
Clerkenwell St James was an ancient parish in the Finsbury division of the Ossulstone hundred of Middlesex. The parish vestry became a nominating authority to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855. The area of the metropolitan board became the County of London in 1889. A reform of local government in 1900 abolished the Clerkenwell vestry and the parish became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury. Alexandra Park, an exclave of the parish, was transferred to Hornsey, Middlesex at the same time. Clerkenwell Town Hall, which had been built on Rosebery Avenue in 1895, became Finsbury Town Hall. Finsbury became part of the London Borough of Islington in 1965 and the old town hall lay empty and deteriorating for many years. It has since been sold to the Urdang Dance Academy.
Post-war de-industrialisation and revival
After the Second World War Clerkenwell suffered from industrial decline and many of the premises occupied by the engineering, printing publishing and meat and food trades (the last mostly around Smithfield) fell empty. Several acclaimed council housing estates were commissioned by Finsbury Borough Council. Modernist architect and Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin's listed Spa Green Estate, constructed 1943–1950, has recently been restored. The Finsbury Estate, constructed in 1968 to the designs of Joseph Emberton includes flats, since altered and re-clad.
A general revival and gentrification process began in the 1980s, and the area is now known for loft-living in some of the former industrial buildings. It also has young professionals, nightclubs and restaurants and is home many professional offices as an overspill for the nearby City of London and West End. Amongst other sectors, there is a notable concentration of design professions around Clerkenwell, and supporting industries such as high-end designer furniture showrooms. It is claimed that the area has the highest concentration of architects and building professionals in the world. Many of London's leading architectural practices have offices in the area.
Clerkenwell, or Clerkenwell St James, is one of the ancient parishes of Middlesex. In 1889 it was transferred from Middlesex to the newly-created County of London and in 1900 became part of Finsbury Metropolitan Borough. Finsbury Metropolitan Borough was abolished in 1965, becoming part of the London Borough of Islington.