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Clerkenwell Area Guide

Clerkenwell Area Guide

Author: Julie, 21/07/2016

Clerkenwell is an area of central London in the London Borough of Islington. It was an ancient parish and from 1900 to 1965 formed 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. The south-western part of 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 clerc, meaning literate person or clergyman). 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 in St John’s Square, served various purposes after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. 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.

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 and 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 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 jewelry-making.

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.

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. 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 to 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.

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