Fancy taking in some local history on your lunch break? Or perhaps an historical after-work drink? We caught up with Hatton Garden worker Annemarie Fearnley, who fills us in on the best local spots for drinks with a side of history.
Read on to explore this fascinating part of London, or download the pdf below to read the story on the go. This long read is brought to you by the Hatton Garden BID.
I’ve been working in the area for 14 years, at Usborne Publishing in Saffron Hill. I discovered the delights of the area during my lunch hours, and after work with my colleagues. I devised this walk about ten years ago, when we had a few new members of staff and we thought it would be a good idea to combine a pub crawl with a bit of history! The walk has slowly evolved into more of a historical walk than a pub crawl (although five pubs are featured) but unfeatured pubs can be visited along the way. But don’t expect to complete the walk all in one go!
We start our journey on Saffron Hill. This was a notorious street for vice in the 19th Century. Theft was so common that if your handkerchief was stolen at one end, you could probably buy it back at the other! It used to be nothing more than an open sewer, running alongside the Fleet River, and in the 1860s it was swept away in a deluge.
The Clerk’s Well
The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks (all the Clerks who worked in the City churches) created the well from a spring in Farringdon Lane, within the boundaries of St Mary’s Nunnery, in the middle ages. It was first mentioned in the 1170s by Thomas (Archbishop of Canterbury) Becket’s secretary.
It was here that the Clerks performed in the annual medieval mystery plays – reenactments of Bible stories – much loved by the public who were unable to read the Bible. These plays were generally performed by the Guilds who were master craftsmen. The Cross, for example, would be performed by carpenters, the Three Kings by goldsmiths, etc. They were also called Miracle Plays as the craftspeople were also considered miraculous as their crafts were a closed shop and were a “mystery” to the general public.
The well was raised to ground level in 1800 so that the public could use it, but closed 50 years later. It was rediscovered in 1925 and can still be seen if you press your nose up against the window of 14-16 Farringdon Lane.
Clerkenwell was considered one of the worst areas of London, and had one of the capital’s highest murder rates. Turnmill Street, which follows the line of the Fleet River, was known to locals as “Little Hell” and was considered the most disreputable street in London. It is mentioned in both Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 2 and in Ben Johnson’s Batholomew Fair. It was a home for pickpockets, conmen and child strippers – drunken women who would lure children away in order to steal their clothing. The slums were cleared to make way for the world’s first underground railway line in 1863, and is unrecognisable now.
The First Underground Railway
The first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863, and ran from Paddington to Farringdon, 3.5 miles, using the cut and cover method – which means that the tunnels are very shallow with plenty of air ventilation – very useful when the trains were smoke and steam fuelled. The Times said “It was an insult to common sense to suppose that people would ever prefer to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London.” It was an instant success.
Cowcross Street/The Castle Tavern
Cowcross Street, so named as it was one of the roads for driving cattle to Smithfield.
Notice the three gold balls fixed to the wall outside the Castle Tavern. This is a Pawnbroker’s sign. It’s the only pub in the world to own a pawnbroker’s licence. This is because King George IV, when he was Prince Regent, frequented Clerkenwell when it was the most notorious Red Light district in London. He was partial to gambling and one night lost a large amount of money betting on a cock fight at the Castle. He asked the pub landlord to lend him the money in return for the loan of his watch. The next day the landlord received the sum of money, in return for the prince’s watch, along with a Royal Charter that the pub could hold a pawnbroker’s licence which it still holds to this day. He was an extravagant Prince and at one point his debt was worth £60 million in today’s money!
White Horse Alley
Built in 1603, the alley conceals the entrance to the old Danish Bacon factory. A pub would have once been on the corner, hence the name. Cut through here to get to Britton Street.
In the early 19th century, a number of respectable distillers arrived in the district, drawn by the steady supply of fresh water in Clerkenwell. If approaching from the South, look up to your left and you will find a frieze depicting the processes of gin distilling, lifted from the old Booths Gin Factory. The original factory was on Turnmill Street but it was destroyed in the 1970s when the frieze was moved to its current home in Britton Street.
The Jerusalem Tavern
This beautiful building was built in 1719 as the Jerusalem Coffee House and was originally a merchant’s house before becoming a workshop for watch and clock craftsmen. It has had close links with Samuel Johnson, William Hogarth, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Handel. The current shop front was added around 1810 and was a café for a long time until St Peter’s Brewery bought it in 1996 and recreated the wonderful 18th century interior. If you can, head for the mezzanine for a cosy and memorable evening!
Priory of the Knights of St John
The whole area from the station to St John St and beyond was once part of the Priory of the Knights of St John, a military religious order, founded in Jerusalem before the First Crusade in 1099. Their first duty was to care for the sick and there is a record that Richard (Dick) Whittington stayed there in 1368 when he first arrived in London, in return for labour (oh yes, he did!). The Priory could be a place of refuge for any stranger who needed a place to rest for up to 3 days, whatever their religious persuasion.
St John’s Gate was the main entrance to the Priory. It is now the headquarters of the modern British Order of St John – the parent of two charities – St John Ambulance Association and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem. All that remains is St John’s Gate and The Priory Church of St John. It is the home to the interesting Museum of the Order of St John. A good place for a lunchtime diversion. After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the nunnery and priory became houses for aristocracy. The Gate housed the Master of Revels where 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed and rehearsed. It is likely that Twelfth Night was first performed here in around 1601. The area became popular with artisans and craftsmen, especially watch, clock and scientific instrument makers, jewellery and furniture makers.
St John’s Square was the location for the two rival newspapers in Mike Bartlett’s ITV series, Press, staring Ben Chaplin and Charlotte Riley.
A map of 1885 shows 23 pubs on St John’s Street, so it is no wonder that Passing Alley was renamed Pissing Alley for reasons which will become obvious as you pass through it!
Jerusalem Passage, Thomas Britton, Musical Coalman
Look up and see the plaque dedicated to Thomas Britton, “The Musical Coalman”. He held weekly concerts in the room above his warehouse between 1678 and 1714 and Handel played the harpsichord here. Unfortunately, he was the victim of a practical joke during one of these concerts. When a local Blacksmith played a ventriloquist trick, he scared poor Tom to death! Jerusalem Passage was once the northern covered way into the Priory of St John of Jerusalem.
The Priory Church of St John
Originally built in the 1140s this now has a 1950s façade as it was bombed in the Blitz in 1941. It has a crypt surviving from the 12th Century. Inside you can find the tomb of William Weston, the last Prior of the Priory of St John. It’s a cadaver effigy, showing the body as a rotting corpse, popular in the later middle ages. It can only be visited as part of a guided tour, which can be booked on the Museum of the Order of St John website. On the ground in the square you will see a circle of stones marking out the nave of the 1140s priory church. There is a gorgeous cloister garden, open during the museum opening hours, where one can spend a peaceful lunch hour.
Middlesex Sessions House was built in 1779 – and is mentioned by Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist. It was the courthouse for the County of Middlesex (North London). There is a ghost of a weeping woman in there, whose lover had been transported. The courts were closed in 1919, and in 1979 the building was acquired by the Masonic Foundation. They sold it recently, and it is being transformed into a high end retail space/bars/events venue.
The Sessions House
Clerkenwell was one of the first places in London to welcome the French Hugenots in the 17th century, fleeing anti-Protestant persecution in France. They were craftspeople and they set up artisan workshops, and these workshops remain an important part of life in Clerkenwell today. Many of the wealthy families moved out, and Clerkenwell became less prosperous and was well-known for its over-crowded slums and politically radical inhabitants. Clerkenwell became a public open space and a meeting place for radical politics, public meetings and popular riots. It’s been an open space for radical meetings for over 900 years. The first May Day March began from the Green in May 1890, now the International Workers’ Day, and anyone who lives or works in Clerkenwell can hear this march, every May Day, from wherever you are!
Karl Marx Memorial Library
37 Clerkenwell Green was built in 1737 as the Welsh Charity School for children of Welsh Settlers, who used to drive their sheep through Clerkenwell to Smithfield. It closed in 1771 as it proved too small for the number of children, and moved to larger premises in Grays Inn Rd. Around 1902 Lenin was living in London and published his radical magazine Iskra (The Spark) from 37a and 38 Clerkenwell Green. He would often hang out with Stalin at the Crown. It is now the Karl Marx Memorial Library. It opened in 1933 and holds 150,000 works related to Marxism and socialism. There’s a guided tour here every Tuesday and Thursday lunchtime which is well worth a visit.
The Three Kings
Although this pub dates from 1791, the royal trio turns out to be Elvis, Henry VIII and King Kong. A much-loved pub the past couple of decades or so, it’s recently been taken over by a new company and had a complete refurb. I haven’t visited yet, but it looks promising!
St James Church
St James Church replaced St Mary’s nunnery after the dissolution of the monasteries. Around the side of the church you can just about see the remains of the old cloisters.
Rebuilt in 1792, it has a “modesty board” at the base of the stairs to the left of the entrance (inside) to prevent gentlemen looking up ladies skirts. It has an excellent organ, so is popular for recordings. This area had about 140 archery grounds and the City of London archers practiced here once a week. In the corner of the church a worn gravestone marks the grave of the family of Johann Steinberg, a German whip-maker who stabbed his wife and four children to death in 1834 and then killed himself. No motive was found. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, with a stake through his heart, which was the customary way of dealing with suicidal murderers in the early 19th Century. His trial was held at the Three Kings, opposite.
The Peabody Estate
The American philanthropist, George Peabody, came to London in 1827 and was shocked by the slums and poverty. He established the Peabody Trust in 1862 to improve the conditions of the poor and needy of London and to promote their comfort and happiness. He donated £500,000 for the construction of the model dwellings. The Clerkenwell Estate was the second of these, the first being in Spitalfields. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, but only for three weeks as his will requested that he be buried in his home town which was named after him. The Estates were a good idea up to a point, but any drunkenness or late payment of rent could be met with instant eviction.
The Betsy Trotwood
The Betsy is named after a lovely character in Dickens’ David Copperfield. It’s a fine pub that holds regular comedy and gig nights, with the focus on Folk music.
Clerkenwell Close, House of Detention, St James’ Walk
Architect Amin Taha designed and lives in the very interesting award-winning building at 15 Clerkenwell Close. In 2019 it narrowly escaped a demolition order issued by Islington Council, who claimed they did not have planning permission for the façade. Personally, I love it!
As you walk further up Clerkenwell Close, one of my favourite parts of Clerkenwell, you will see the old London School Board buildings, with their descriptions of the departments held within. The London School Board was an institution of local government and the first directly elected body covering the whole of London.
As you stroll down St James’ Walk you will walk past the building that was turned into Hugh Grant’s flat in the film, About a Boy. It is fondly known to locals as Hugh Corner.
Hugh Myddleton School was named after the founder of the New River Company. The New River, built in the early 1600s, runs from Ware in Hertfordshire to New River Head in Islington, and is neither new nor a river. There were three prisons on this site: Clerkenwell Bridewell, New Prison and the House of Detention. The last prison was closed in 1890 and it became the school two years later. It is now private housing, but the cells remain underneath.
Sekforde Street and Woodbridge Chapel
This beautiful street is named after Thomas Sekforde, a lawyer in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He owned land which supported alms houses in his home town of Woodbridge in Suffolk. The Woodbridge Chapel opened in 1833 and is now occupied by the Clerkenwell and Islington Medical Mission, founded in 1889.
At number 8 you will find a Blue Plaque for John Alfred Groom, who was born here in 1845. He was a regular churchgoer and also taught at Sunday School. He was concerned with the situation of the blind and disabled girls on the streets around Farringdon Market scraping a living selling flowers and watercress to passers-by.
In 1866, he founded the ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission’, later known as ‘John Groom’s Crippleage’. It was based in Covent Garden, but then moved to Clerkenwell Close. Groom read the girls Bible stories and, in an effort to give the girls practical help, the Mission was turned into a well-organised floristry factory. The Girls’ Flower Brigade, as it became known, made up bouquets which were sold from the premises. The scheme proved successful and in 1894, the Mission moved to larger premises at Woodbridge Chapel.
No. 18½, former Finsbury Savings Bank
Intended for ‘tradesmen, mechanics, labourers, servants, and others’, Finsbury Savings Bank was founded in 1816. The building you see today was built by Alfred Bartholomew, son of a Clerkenwell watchmaker, in 1841. Charles Dickens deposited his trust funds here in 1845. The windows are framed by Egyptian-style pilasters with lotus-leaf capitals. Closed in the 1960s it then became offices, and then a residential building in the 1990s.
In Haywards Place you will find a plaque marking the site of the Red Bull Theatre, built around 1605. This was one of the first theatres to have female performers and had a bit of a reputation. It continued to host illegal performances, even when Parliament closed theatres in 1642. It eventually closed around 1666.
The Sekforde Arms is a beautifully renovated pub and an ideal place to end your tour!