Clere, Clair, Cleare or Clare Street…?

Uncovering the origins of this unusually named street in Shoreditch

Clere Street is a turning off Tabernacle Street in Shoreditch, on the edge of the pre-1965 border between Finsbury and Shoreditch boroughs. It was previously called Paradise Street from c. 1792, then gained ‘Clere’ around 1938 when many London streets with confusing, duplicated and common names were renamed in an attempt at clarity. 

Sometimes, new names were chosen to reflect the area – but why ‘Clere’ and with such a strange spelling? 

Somewhere north of this street corner, probably closer to the junction of Tabernacle Street and Old Street, lay an ancient well or spring with claimed therapeutic waters. The spring’s name has multiple spellings in different accounts, maps and illustrations, variously Saint or Dame; Agnes or Annis; le or the; Cleare/Clair/Clare/Clere etc. 

John Stow’s Survey of London from the turn of the 1600s mentions ‘a well, curbed with stone, named Dame Annis the Cleare’. 

Over a century later, an advertisement from 1731 announces that “there is now opened at St. Agnes le Clear, Hoxton, not far from Moorfields, the place formerly distinguished by the sign of the ‘Sun and Pool of Bethesda’, a new cold bath, larger and more commodious than any in or about London, being 30 feet long, 20 feet broad, and 4 feet 6 inches deep, the water continually running, where ladies and gentlemen may depend upon suitable accommodation and attendance”.

By the 1700s, wells and spas had become popular places to meet and socialise, often competing with each other for both the excellence of their buildings and surroundings, and for offering mineralised waters that cured many (or indeed all!) ailments. Sadler’s Wells, Bagnigge Wells, the Cold Bath and the Islington Spa were all local examples.

Accessed on https://www.layersoflondon.org, CC BY 4.0

The Chassereau map of Shoreditch from 1746 is remarkably detailed – the number 30, just to the left of ‘Old Street Road’ refers to this index entry: ‘St Agnes le Clear, an ancien (sic) Spring now a Cold Bath, and much frequented for cure of Rheumatick Pains etc.’

Various maps from the later 1700s also feature the well, right up to the 1894 Ordnance Survey marking the ‘Site of St. Agnes Le Clere’s Well’, again near the junction of Tabernacle Street and Old Street.

© The Trustees of the British Museum | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

This illustration by Thomas Shepherd is dated 1851, while another version in Hackney Archives has the date ‘1502’ above the St. Agnes Le Clair name. Whatever the spelling, if you walk down Tabernacle Street today and pass the turning to Clere Street, remember the therapeutic well of the past where people came to ‘take the waters’ over hundreds of years.

Lesley Thompson leads tours in neighbourhoods bordering the old City of London in Camden, Islington and Hackney. Keep an eye out for her ‘Walking the Hackney/Islington border from the Rosemary Branch to Old Street’ tour that features the well and today’s Clere Street. Join Lesley’s mailing list and get more info at lesleythompson.co.uk.