Clerkenwell

Why visit this area?

A walk through Clerkenwell is a journey into a thousand years of history. Once a pastoral tranquillity of rural religious houses and one of London’s early medieval suburbs with its wells, rivers and Mystery Plays. It boasts one of London’s oldest hospitals, the site of its oldest fair and oldest parish church. It is where William Wallace met his end, Thomas More prayed in silent contemplation and where Wat Tyler the Peasant’s leader was slain. 

You will discover Shakespeare and Dickens who knew the area and inspired some of their most famous plays and novels. More up to date it has one of the first Underground stations and the latest Crossrail station. But it also has a dark side with its prisons, burnings, hangings, body snatchers, and revolutionaries such as Lenin and the Fenian Brotherhood.

History

Clerkenwell took its name from the water source of the Clerk’s Well in the precincts of the medieval priory. The area was a small village on the outskirts of the City of London and it was here that the monastic order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John at Jerusalem had its English headquarters at the Priory of Clerkenwell. Every year Clerkenwell performed what was known as the Miracle Plays. Stories from the Bible or the lives of saints performed on stages by the clerks of London at the Clerks Well. By the time of Elizabeth I reign, the area with its wells and fields close to London, attracted the nobility who built mansions as their town houses.

By the middle of the 17th century Clerkenwell was changing from a largely residential to increasingly industrial area. Much of this industrialization was to do with the influx of French Huguenots into the area. They set up their workshops deliberately outside the city where they could practice their craft skills unmolested by the City livery companies.


The Industrial Revolution brought great changes to the area. Small industries and workshops thrived such as printing and paper making, enamelling, engraving, clock making and gunsmithing. Breweries and distilleries were based here and the area became famous for its gin making. At this time a large Italian community developed in the area leaving their mark today with their churches, cafes and restaurants. Although the area saw a decline after the Second World War it has now seen a revival boasting the highest concentration of architects and building professionals in the world. Today the old factories have been converted into loft living accommodation and it has a vibrant night life of pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants. Although a modern outpost of the City, Clerkenwell still retains its character with much evidence of its historical past with some fine examples of Medieval, Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and Modern architecture.

Places to visit

Smithfield In the Middle Ages, Smithfield was a broad grassy space known as Smooth Field, just outside the London wall. Main place of public execution for 400 years. William Wallace, an early Scottish nationalist, was hung, drawn and quartered for organising uprisings against Edward I. The boy king Richard II parleyed with the rebels of the Peasant’s Revolt and their leader Wat Tyler who was fatally stabbed by William Walworth the Mayor of London. During the Reformation in the 1500s both Catholics and Protestants were burnt to death for the crime of heresy here. There are plaques to commemorate all these victims.

On the eastern bank of the River Fleet. Due to its access to grazing and water it was used as the City’s main livestock market for nearly 1,000 years. Given market rights under royal charter by Edward III in 1327. Live animals were brought to the market on the hoof by drovers and dogs and were slaughtered on site. Volume of animals started to raise major concerns due to its extremely poor hygienic conditions and brutal treatment of animals becoming a threat to public health. Dickens gives a vivid description of the market in Oliver Twist.

No longer a live market. Current building designed by Sir Horace Jones, the architect of Tower Bridge, completed 1868. It is a Grade II listed buildings. In December 2025 the Museum of London will move from its current site and occupy the old General Market buildings that have lain derelict for years. It will be the only museum in the world to have a trainline running through the galleries with Thameslink trains travelling between King’s Cross and Blackfriars zipping through it every few minutes.

Charterhouse A Carthusian priory, founded in 1371. Up to 25 monks lived in cells, some of which survive. Thomas More when studying law took part in prayers with the Carthusians and wore a hair shirt as penance. Following the priory’s dissolution in 1537, it was rebuilt to become one of the great houses of Tudor London. In 1611,Thomas Sutton bought the property and after established a school for the young and an almshouse for the old.

Clerkenwell Green Originally the space where the Clerk’s Mystery Plays were performed. Becomes home of radical protests, Wat Tyler set up camp here during the Peasant’s Revolt. Original Speakers Corner before moved to Hyde Park. 1800s Chartists rallies for the right to vote. Corn Laws demonstrations. Loaves of bread carried on hearses and paraded around the green. Bloody Sunday demonstrations. George Bernard Shaw, William Morris and Eleanor Marx led the Clerkenwell contingent of several thousand on the march on Trafalgar Square protesting about unemployment and the Irish Home Rule question. The World’s First May Day March demanding an eight-hour day.

Cloth Fair Founded by Rahere, court jester to Henry II on the land of St Bartholomew’s priory and hospice. Originally founded to stimulate trading of wool cloth. It was the engine of the medieval economy like oil is today. Known as Bartholomew’s Fair held annually for three days from the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day 24th August. It was symbolically opened by the Lord Mayor snipping a piece of cloth with shears, from whence comes the traditional custom of opening buildings by cutting a ribbon.

By the 17thC the fair had become somewhat chaotic being thronged with players, wrestlers, fencers, freak shows, fire eaters, tight-rope walkers, refreshment booths with the inevitable accompaniment of beggars, pickpockets, cutpurses and prostitutes and inevitably closed by the City authorities.

St John’s Gate Inner gatehouse of the Priory and English headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers of St John at Jerusalem who cared for the pilgrims in the Holy Land and wore the ‘Maltese Cross’ following their tenure of the island. 

The Order was dissolved and the gatehouse used as the Elizabethan Master of the Revels office, a coffee house run by William Hogarth’s father and the offices of Edward Cave’s The Gentlemen Magazine. The Order of St John was revived in the 19th century and the building is the HQ of the St John’s Ambulance Service.

St John’s Gate Museum Excellent museum detailing the history of the Knight’s Hospitallers and the St John’s Ambulance from its founding to the present day. Good bookshop and guided tours.

St John’s Church and Crypt The church was rebuilt in 1950s after the existing church had destroyed during WW2. Original church on this site was Norman now the only Norman crypt in London. Granite setts on the ground show the position of the original octagonal nave of the first priory church built in the 12th century. Probably the first building on the Priory site at the heart of the Inner Precinct. The church was modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The circular shape was characteristic of the Hospitallers and Templar churches.

St Bartholomew’s Church The oldest surviving church in the City – and only surviving part of the great Norman church of the Priory of St Bartholomew’s the Great founded by Rahere – see section on people. Superb Norman Romanesque interior. Nave once stretched to where the gate-house arch remains. After the Dissolution of the monasteries the mighty nave pulled down.

Known as the Butchers’ Church – Banner of the Worshipful Company of Butchers hangs in the church and there is an annual procession from Butchers Hall to the church in September. Church used extensively in Films – Four Weddings and a Funeral, Elizabeth the Golden Age, Shakespeare in Love, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. There is a charge to visit the church.

St Bartholomew’s the Less

St Bartholomew’s Hospital Oldest hospital in London. Founded in the 12thC by Rahere see people – a hospital and priory not looking after only the ill – but also the needy, the old and orphans hence the word “hospital” which stemmed from “hospitality”. Still occupies the site it was originally built on. Providing care for nearly 900 years. Medieval hospitals social services of the Middle Ages.

Re-founded by Henry VIII and escaped the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Mayor and Aldermen lobbied king to keep hospital open. Statue of Henry VIII above the gate is the only public statue of him in London.

Present building started in the reign of Queen Anne in 1730s. Inside is a main square designed by James Gibbs (St Martin in the Fields). Three of the four original blocks survive.

St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum St Bartholomew’s Hospital is approaching the 900th anniversary of its foundation in 1123; the hospital museum tells the story of nine centuries of healthcare at the edge of the City of London.

The permanent exhibition of original and facsimile archives, objects and works of art, includes Rahere’s grant of 1137 – the oldest document in the hospital archives – and the 1546 agreement between Henry VIII and the City of London which re-founded the hospital.

The museum is located in the hospital’s historic North Wing, adjoining the Grand Staircase with its vast and spectacular paintings by William Hogarth. The paintings can be viewed from the museum during opening hours. 

St James’ Church

Farringdon Station – Circle Line and Crossrail

In January 1863 a banquet was held for 700 dignitaries and shareholders for the opening of the world’s first underground railway from Paddington to Farringdon – The Metropolitan Railway was built by the ‘cut and cover’ method and used gas lit open and closed railway carriages was pulled by steam locomotive.

In 2022 in the Queen’s Jubilee year a new Farringdon station was opened. Part of Crossrail – The Elizabeth Line – running from Reading in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east.

New River New River an ambitious engineering project to bring clean water from the River Lea in Ware in Hertfordshire to New River Head in Islington and London. Built in the 17th century and pioneered by Hugh Myddelton see people.

The Clerk’s Well Was a fresh water spring in the precincts of the medieval priory. By the early 19th century with pressure on fresh water the well is now brought up to pavement level. Local industry particularly brewing polluted the source. By 1856 the well is built over. In the 20th century the well was rediscovered and is now open for viewing by appointment.

River Fleet

44 Britton Street Janet Street-Porter commissioned a house from CZWG Architects. Janet Street Porter’s interest in architecture comes from her two years at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. The building designed by Piers Gough ‘the Vivien Westwood of architecture’ on the site of an old warehouse. JSP sold the property in 2001.

Sadler’s Wells

Exmouth Market

Finsbury Town Hall

Spa Green Estate Is the most complete post-war realisation of a 1930s radical plan for social regeneration through Modernist architecture. Conceived as public housing, it is now a mixed community of private owners and council tenants. In 1998 this work by the architect Berthold Lubetkin received a Grade II* listing for its architectural significance, and the major 2008 restoration brought back the original colour scheme, which recalls Lubetkin’s contacts with Russian Constructivism.

Finsbury Health Centre Built in 1935–38, designed by Berthold Lubetkin and the Tecton architecture practice. The design shares some of its materials and detailing with similar Lubetkin projects of the period. Partly restored in the mid-1990s, the building is Grade I listed.

London Metropolitan Archives

Little Italy Covered north and south of Clerkenwell Road. Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road and alleyways around Saffron Hill, Leather Lane and parts of Hatton Garden. Italians had been settling in Clerkenwell from the Middle Ages. By the 19th century there were several thousand living in the area setting up cafes, restaurants and ice cream businesses.

St Peter’s Italian Church It was built by request of Saint Vincent Pallotti, and it is still under the control of the Pallotine order which he founded for the growing number of Italian immigrants in the mid-19th century. It was consecrated on 16 April 1863 as The Church of St. Peter of all Nations. At the time of consecration, it was the only Basilica-style church in the UK.

Ely Place

St Etheldreda’s Church

Hatton Garden

Marx Memorial Library – Clerkenwell Green Originally an old dairy building was converted into Welsh Charity School. In the 1800s meetings of Karl Marx’s International Working Men’s Association are held here. Lenin wrote from here Iskra (The Spark) the paper of the Russian Social Democratic Party. 1930s-Marx memorial Library and Workers School is set up to commemorate Marx after the Nazi ‘book burning’ on the 50th anniversary of his death. 1930s-Fresco by Jack Hastings pupil of the radical Mexican muralist Diego Rivera depicting the overthrow of capitalism. ‘Lost’ for fifty years. The library now houses a remarkable collection of Radical and Chartists literature and is the official archive of the International Brigade

Church of the Holy Sepulchre without Newgate

Golden Boy of Pye Corner Marks the western limit of the spread of the Great Fire of London 1666. Fire started after midnight on Sunday 2nd September in the bakery of Thomas Farrinor in Pudding Lane near London Bridge where the Monument marks the site close to the bakery.Built on the site of a tavern – The Fortune of War – a well-known 19th century Body Snatchers pub, haunt of the ‘London Burkers’.

People

William Wallace A 13th century Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders of the first war of Scottish independence. Wallace routed the English army at the battle of Stirling Bridge but was defeated at the battle of Selkirk and later captured and executed at Smithfield.

Wat Tyler Leader of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt who rebelled against Richard II and his advisors for imposing the Poll Tax. 

Charles Dickens 19th C author many of whose novels were social commentaries of the Victorian age especially regarding the urban poor. Lived in Doughty Street, Holborn and often took late night walks around Clerkenwell. Fagin’s Den in Oliver Twist is based on an area of rookeries and slums known as Hockley in the Hole now cleared and replaced by streets around the Farringdon Road area Fagin was based on Ikey Solomon a local ‘fence’.

Berthold Lubetkin Georgian British architect who pioneered the Modernist design in Britain in the 1930s with his architectural practice Tecton. Famous for the penguin pool in London Zoo. See also places; Finsbury Health Centre and Spa Green Estate.

William Shakespeare

Geoffrey Pyke Inventor, genius, fugitive, spy. During WW2 invented Pykerete – Sawdust frozen into massive ice blocks that would provide floating runways in the Atlantic. Worked in secret refrigeration rooms in the bowels of Smithfield Market.

Thomas Moore

Edward Cave Printer, editor and publisher. He coined the term ‘magazine’ for a periodical, founding The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731. First publisher to successfully publish a wide-ranging magazine. Magazine offices based in St John’s Gate and worked alongside Samuel Johnson. Buried in St James’s Church.

Janet Street Porter JSP is a journalist and TV personality her Interest in architecture comes from two years at the Architectural Association School of Architecture.

Zaha Hadid

Vladimar Lenin

Christopher Hatton

Lilian Bayliss

Rahere Courtier (court jester) to Henry I turned cleric in fulfilment of a vow made when stricken by illness on a pilgrimage to Rome and had a vision of St Bartholomew who told him to found a hospital and priory. Miraculously cured Rahere returned to London and founded the hospital and Augustinian priory. He died in 1144 and his elaborate tomb in Bartholomew’s Church dates from 1405.

William Hogarth Painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist and social critic. Born in Bartholomew’s Close, baptised in St Bartholomew’s Church. Famous works include Beer Street, Gin Lane and Rake’s Progress. His murals The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan are to be seen on the staircase on the way to the Great Hall of Bartholomew’s Hospital where he was a Governor of the hospital.

Hugh Myddelton Jacobean Welsh entrepreneur, goldsmith, banker and self-taught engineer. Best remembered as the driving force behind the construction of the New River an ambitious engineering project to bring clean water from the River Lea in Ware in Hertfordshire to New River Head in Islington and London. Statues on Holborn Viaduct and at Islington Green. Streets, squares and schools named after him.

Edmund Tylney Master of the Revels in Elizabethan England. Responsible for vetting plays and playwrights and ensuring censorship of controversial topics. Offices based in St John’s Gate.

John Betjeman Founder member of The Victorian Society, he saved some buildings from demolition such as St Pancras Hotel. Lived at Cloth Fair because he thought it was the most historic part of London. Betjeman was a parishioner and hospital visitor.

Events

The Processione della Madonna del Carmine (Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) Since the 1880s there has been an Italian carnival each July. The Processione della Madonna del Carmine (Procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) goes around the St Peter’s Church. Thousands come out to watch and each statue is greeted with great applause.

Clerkenwell Design Festival Annual festival showcasing the best in design of architects, interiors, furniture and building professionals. Most based in the local area.

For more information

St John’s Gate Museum https://museumstjohn.org.uk/planning-your-visit/ Open Wednesday – Saturday 10.00am – 5.00pm. Tours also available.

Charterhouse Tours take place each day at 11:00am and 2:15pm Tuesdays to Saturdays

https://thecharterhouse.org/visit-us/

St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum

Museum opening hours are normally Tuesday-Friday, 10am – 4pm.

https://www.bartshealth.nhs.uk/bartsmuseum

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