Clerkenwell heritage

  • 21
  • Jul

Clerkenwell is one of London’s oldest villages and parishes. It was a working class area for centuries, while also attracting artisan workers, as well as radical activists. It is also Islington’s oldest residential and business district.

Clerkenwell is named after the Clerks’ Well, a 12th-century water source that adjoined St Mary’s Nunnery (c1140), which was a religious order located just to the north of Clerkenwell Green. The well remains one of Islington’s hidden treasures and may be viewed by appointment by contacting Islington Local History Centre.

For the next 750 years the Clerkenwell expanded rapidly, with its borders stretching to the Angel and Chapel Market to the north and to Charterhouse and Smithfield in the south.

In 1900 the parish of Clerkenwell joined with its eastern neighbour, the parish of St Luke Old Street, to form the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury following a reorganisation to London’s administration. Finsbury was later absorbed into an enlarged London Borough of Islington in another restructuring of local authorities in 1965.

Learn more about the origins and growth of Clerkenwell

Much of Clerkenwell’s rich and varied heritage is still visible, with many of the area’s historic buildings and locations continuing to give Clerkenwell a strong sense of time and place.

You may have already spotted a collection of vinyl heritage pavement plaques while walking in Clerkenwell and here is further information about each of these:

  • Bowling Green Lane
  • Clerkenwell Fire Station, Rosebery Avenue
  • Finsbury Health Centre, Pine Street
  • Finsbury Town Hall, Rosebery Avenue
  • Home of Joseph Grimaldi, Exmouth Market
  • House of Detention / High Myddelton School, Corporation Row, Sans Walk
  • Ingersoll building, St John Street
  • Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, Pine Street
  • Metropolitan Water Board Building, Rosebery Avenue
  • Spa Green

Finsbury Town Hall - example of a Clerkenwell Heritage pavement plaque

Bowling Green Lane

During the 17th Century the north side of the lane was home to bowling greens and pasture. The south side of the lane consisted of around half-a-dozen houses and the Cherry Tree public house. This side also had a small burial ground and a public laystall (or rubbish tip).

In the 17th Century the boundary formed by Bowling Green Lane and adjoining Corporation Row marked the northern limits of developed London.

Buildings in the lane began to appear during the late 18th century, mostly in the form of small houses, workshops and stables. In 1830–31 a number of third-rate houses and shops were erected on Bowling Green Lane. This small-scale development lasted until the 1870s. By then clearance had taken place at the western end of the street, for work on the Metropolitan Railway, and in 1872 a factory was built.

Bowling Green Lane School was constructed in 1873–75 and was among the first London board schools built in the ‘Queen Anne’ style; it fully opened in August 1875. From 1899 the Bowling Green Lane site functioned as the junior department of the larger school. It closed in 1970 on the opening of a new Hugh Myddelton Primary School in Lloyd’s Row. For some years after, the building remained in educational use for some years as an annexe to Islington Green Secondary School. In 1982 it was converted for light-industrial use. It is now used as design studios and occupants include Zaha Hadid Architects.

From 1880 until the early 1970s, No. 15 was the office and workshops of Thwaites & Reed, Clerkenwell’s oldest clockmakers, who specialized in the manufacture and repair of large turret clocks for churches, town halls and commercial buildings. Thwaites & Reed moved in 1974 to a new factory in East Sussex.

The large warehouse fronting the street, opposite the Bowler public house, was erected in 1877–79 for James Johnstone, proprietor of the ‘Standard’ and ‘Evening Standard’ newspapers. The building’s central pediment features the winged helmet of Mercury, Roman messenger of the gods. The warehouse was ideally placed for distribution via the mainline termini at King’s Cross and St Pancras. In March 1988 the site was acquired by the architects Campbell-Zogolovitch- Wilkinson-Gough as their new offices.

Bowling Green Lane looking east, with the street’s former, Victorian school building to the right, 2019

Clerkenwell Fire Station, 40-44 Rosebery Avenue

The first Clerkenwell Fire Station was constructed on this site 1871–73 and became one of the London Fire Brigade’s most important stations. It was later replaced by this Grade-II listed building, which was built in two phases between 1912 and 1917. It was the oldest operating fire station in Britain until its closure in January 2014.

This is the second fire station on the site, which was formerly occupied by the Cobham’s Head public house at the corner of Coppice Row (later Farringdon Road) and Cobham Row. In December 1866 it was destroyed by fire; liquor stored for a planned Christmas reopening contributed to the blaze!

The first station, erected in 1871–73, was a tall, red brick building. It comprised of four floors of living accommodation above the appliance room and watch-room; a shed in the yard contained stables and rooms for engine drivers. In 1895–97 the station was extended, resulting in demolition of three old houses. The extension featured exits to Rosebery Avenue, as it was less crowded and dangerous than the previous exit in Farringdon Road.

Meanwhile, the station became unfit for service and a decision was made to replace it with a new station. An extension to this old building was to be built prior to the new station. The works took place in two phases: the extension was erected in 1912–14, after which the old building was demolished and rebuilt 1914–17.

To achieve the desired proportion, the new and old sections at either end were given façades of identical design; the central building retained its original proportions up to fourth-floor level. Quarters for the superintendent and district officer were provided on the second floor and for married men on the upper floors. The full complement was about 33 men. A new drill-tower, drill-yard and garage were provided on ground adjoining to the west after the Second World War. Clerkenwell Fire Station closed in 2014.

In May 2019 the building became a homelessness shelter for London’s LGBTQ+ community. It is being run by the Outside Project organisation, following a £50,000 grant awarded by the Mayor of London, with the backing of Islington Council, to operate as a refuge for one year.

Clerkenwell Fire Station, 1921

Finsbury Health Centre, 17 Pine Street

Commissioned by Finsbury Council, the Grade-I listed Finsbury Health Centre opened in 1938. “Nothing is too good for ordinary people” was architect Berthold Lubetkin’s famous principle when designing the building. It offered free, progressive medical services 10 years before the founding of the National Health Service. The Centre remains one of the best examples of modernist architecture in London.

The Centre’s origins are rooted in years of municipal effort to transform social conditions in and around Clerkenwell’s Northampton estate. In respect of health, these first took built form in the Maternity and Child Welfare Centre of 1927 (see below). In 1934 Dr Lal Katial became chairman of Finsbury Council’s Public Health Committee. He recommended the construction of a health centre to draw the borough’s medical services together. The centre would ‘be built on absolutely modern lines’.  Pride of place was given to the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis but a dental clinic, a foot clinic and services for older women to complement the neighbouring maternity centre were also considered.

Lubetkin and his Tecton architectural practice were commissioned to design the centre at a final cost, upon opening, of £43,200 for the building, £7,000 for medical equipment and £11,500 for the site. Lubetkin’s design takes the form of a shallow H with open space at the front and back, allowing ample light and air to the rooms on all three storeys. The deeper central block, bowed towards the front, is marked by generous public spaces, intended to draw Finsbury’s residents into the building with the unintimidating atmosphere of a club.

After the Second World War there was much medical interest in the building, as a model for municipal health services but the advent of the National Health Service replaced the need for council-run facilities. The building attained Grade-I listed status in 1972. In 2019, as the Clerkenwell Medical Practice, the Centre continues to provide medical services for local residents and beyond.

Finsbury Health Centre, 1938

Finsbury Town Hall, Rosebery Avenue

Finsbury Town Hall was built as the Clerkenwell Vestry Hall in 1894–95. From 1900 it was the town hall of the newly created Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury. The building was also used for dances and political meetings. The hall lost its central purpose when Finsbury was made part of the new London Borough of Islington in 1965. It became a dance school and community centre in the mid-2000s.

The first Clerkenwell Vestry Hall originated as Spa Fields watch-house, built in 1813–14 on ground belonging to the New River Company, at the junction of Garnault Place and Rosoman Street.

It had “an unusually large and lofty room in which the constable of the night receives his charges”, and two cells for male and female prisoners. Enclosed by a high wall, the site included a yard for holding stray cattle. The building was extended to include a public office, a committee room and accommodation for various officers. In 1856 it was decided to make the watch-house its meeting hall.

A committee was set up in 1886 to look into rebuilding. The foundation stone was laid on 14 July 1894 and the new vestry hall opened exactly a year later by Lord Rosebery, the first chairman of the London County Council and later Prime Minister. Designed by Charles Evans-Vaughan, the building contract was awarded to Charles Dearing of Islington and constructed for £14,725.

The plan of the new building was much determined by the shape of the site, an irregular quadrilateral with its longest side to Rosebery Avenue. Evans-Vaughan was also commissioned to design the interior decoration. The ground-floor corridor and the staircases between ground and first floor were lined to dado level with glazed tiles, and there were marble columns in the corridor; the ceilings had elaborate Tudor-style plasterwork, and the floors were laid with composite stone mosaic. In the Large Hall was a flattened barrel-vaulted ceiling, divided into heavily decorated panels.

The new building was lit by both gas and the new mains electricity, and the electric lamps in the large hall, which survive, take the form of sprays of foliage, distinctly Art Nouveau in style, with light-bulb ‘flowers’, held aloft by winged female figures.

In 1939 Finsbury Borough Council received government permission to construct a two-storey bunker beneath Garnault Place, with access from the basement of the town hall. Designed by Tecton and built by ‘cut and cover’, this was completed in late 1940 and comprised, on the upper floor, two large air-raid shelters for male and female staff at the town hall, and on the lower a Control Centre for the borough, containing a control room, signals room and messengers’ room. It was unusually strong, with external concrete walls 2-metres-thick.

Disused after the Second World, the bunker was returned to use from 1952 to 1965 as a local control centre in case of nuclear attack. Later, it was used for civil-defence training and then for storage. When, in 1965, the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury was replaced by the much larger London Borough of Islington, the existing Islington Town Hall in Upper Street became the new authority’s headquarters. Finsbury Town Hall provided accommodation for various council departments, including the Housing District Office and the Area Repair Team, and it was used as a register office for civil weddings until 2003.

In 2005-2006 the Urdang Academy, a dance school redeveloped the building as dance studios, with a fitness centre and cafeteria. Public access was also provided for classes in dance, keep-fit and martial arts.

Finsbury Town Hall, 1930s

Home of Joseph Grimaldi (1818 – 1828), 56 Exmouth Market, EC1

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837 is considered to be the father of modern clowning. Grimaldi’s first performance as a clown took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1800, a theatre in which he was to perform on many occasions. He is buried in nearby Joseph Grimaldi Park, off Pentonville Road.

Actor, pantomimist and clown Joseph ‘Joe’ Grimaldi was born on 18 December 1778 in London, near to present-day Aldwych, into a family of dancers and clowns. His father, Giuseppe Grimaldi was a ballet-master, dancer and pantaloon. Grimaldi’s mother, Rebecca Brooker, danced and played theatrical bit parts.

Joseph Grimaldi’s first appearance, as a child dancer at three-years-old, was in the pantomime ‘Pandora’s Box’ at Sadler’s Wells with his father on 16 April 1781. After this, young Joe regularly performed at the theatre.  His first performance as a clown took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1800. He played Guzzle the Drinking Clown in an innovative pantomime called ‘Peter Wilkins’ written by dramatist and theatre proprietor Charles Dibdin (the younger). Joseph, or Joey, was dressed in an extravagant, multi-coloured costume and his make-up featured a white face, decorated by two red half-moons on each cheek, rather than the traditional ruddy complexions of 18th-century clowns. Grimaldi became so popular in the harlequinade that the name Joey has passed into the English language to mean clown.

Grimaldi rapidly began to be celebrated as the unchallenged king of clowns. In the years that followed he played assorted comic and tragi-comedic parts. These included more performances at Sadler’s Wells, including Friday in ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1802) and, famously, the ‘Wild Man’ in Charles Dibdin’s aqua-drama ‘The Wild Man’ (1809), written especially for him. He was to transform the clown from a rustic fool into the star of metropolitan pantomime. To the delight of audiences, his clown possessed no respect for property, propriety or authority. He was high-spirited, mischievous and amoral, satirising contemporary British society and ridiculing the Regency period.

One of Joseph Grimaldi’s greatest successes was his performance in ‘Harlequin and Mother Goose’ (or ‘The Golden Egg’) a Christmas pantomime written by Thomas Dibdin, brother of Charles, and performed at the Theatre Royal (later Royal Opera House), Covent Garden, in 1806. The piece became the most successful pantomime ever staged at the theatre.

In 1818 Grimaldi bought a share in Sadler’s Wells theatre and, the same year, he moved to nearby 8 Exmouth Street (now 56 Exmouth Market), Clerkenwell, and he lived there for ten years. The clown’s health had been declining for some time and by the mid-1820s he had become almost completely disabled. By 1828 Grimaldi had become penniless and benefit performances for him were held at both Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden.

Joseph Grimaldi died on 31 May 1837 at 33 Southampton (later 22 Calshot) Street, Islington. He was buried in the nearby graveyard of St James’s Chapel, Pentonville Road. The burial ground located in Collier Street, in which the clown’s memorial grave can still be found, is now called Joseph Grimaldi Park. In 2010 a coffin-shaped tribute dedicated to Grimaldi, made of bronze, musical floor tiles, was installed in the park; the tiles are tuned so that when danced upon it is possible to play his famous song ‘Hot Codlins’.

Grimaldi continues to be remembered in an annual memorial service on the first Sunday in February at Holy Trinity Church in Hackney. The service, which has been held since the 1940s, attracts hundreds of clown performers from across the world. They attend the service in full clown costume, all paying their respects to Joseph Grimaldi, the Clerkenwell king of clowns and the father of modern clowning.

Ingersoll Watch Company Building, 223–227 St John Street

This is the former warehouse and showroom of the Ingersoll Watch Co. Ltd. It was designed by Stanley Waghorn, built by W H Gaze and Sons Ltd and completed in 1931. The company’s logo can be seen in green and cream mosaic overlooking St John Street. In 1995–96 the building was converted to flats. It was named Pattern House, having been Condé Nast’s Vogue pattern factory in the 1950s.

Ingersoll Watch Company began in New York City in 1882 by brothers Robert and Charles Ingersoll. The first Ingersoll watches, ‘Universal’,  were introduced in 1892. These were small spring-driven clocks fitted into watchcases.  Initially, they were sold wholesale to dealers but later sold directly to the public via mail order.

In 1904 Ingersoll opened a store in London. The following year, the company introduced the Crown pocket watch for 5 shillings (25p). These were made by a British subsidiary, Ingersoll Ltd, in their London factory. The Ingersoll Watch Company went bankrupt in 1921 during the recession that followed the First World War

The company was acquired the Waterbury Clock Company which, in turn, sold the London-based arm of the Ingersoll watch business, Ingersoll, Ltd, to its board of directors in 1930, making it a wholly British-owned enterprise. The Ingersoll brand is currently owned by Zeon Watches, a British subsidiary of the Chinese company Herald Group.

Former Ingersoll building, St John Street, 2019

Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, 13-15 Pine Street

Finsbury Council built the Maternity and Child Welfare Centre in Pine Street in 1926-27, on ground donated by the Northampton Estate. It was designed by the hospital architect Edwin Stanley Hall using Crowborough bricks and ‘Roman’ roof tiles, which gave it an Italian feel. The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering opened here in 1993.

Following the Maternity and Child Welfare Act (1918), Finsbury Council first set up a clinic in a house in Newcastle Place, Clerkenwell Close which, in 1922, moved to the Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell Green. The purpose-built Maternity and Child Welfare Centre was constructed in Pine Street in 1926-27. The centre’s conventional layout consisted of consulting rooms located around a central waiting area and lecture hall, with space to accommodate mothers with prams and small children. This was all situated at ground level for convenience. There was also veranda along the south side, which opened on to Vineyard Walk; this was intended to double as a pram shed. At the rear of the building there was a kitchen, laboratory and dispensary with a caretaker’s flat above.

Former Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, Pine Street, 2019

Metropolitan Water Board Offices, 173 Rosebery Avenue

The large residential building that has taken the name ‘New River Head’ was constructed in 1915–20 as the central offices of the Metropolitan Water Board. Designed by Herbert Austen Hall, an architect of town halls, the final cost was £298,417. From 1995–98 the offices were converted into 129 flats.

In 1913, a decade after its formation, the Metropolitan Water Board decided to build its headquarters at the New River Head. The proposal came from Frederick Lionel Dove, who represented the London County Council on the board. Islington-born Dove was the chairman of Dove Brothers Ltd, the renowned Islington builders. In spite of some opposition in favour of a more central location, Frederick Dove’s proposal was accepted and six invited architects prepared schemes. The brief included incorporation of the late 17th-century Oak Room from the demolished New River Water House into the new building; its transplantation was an early and significant example of the preservation of an historic interior.

Herbert Austen Hall’s plans were selected and building began in July 1915.  War brought work to a halt between June 1916 – January 1919, and inflation pushed up the cost from £85,000 originally estimated to nearly £300,000 when the offices opened in May 1920.

Original drawing of Herbert Hall’s design for the Metropolitan Water Board Offices, 1915

Middlesex House of Detention / Hugh Myddelton School, Corporation Row / Sans Walk

This two-and-a-half-acre site has a long history, famously as the site of the Middlesex House of Detention prison. In December 1867 Irish nationalists set off the ‘Clerkenwell Explosion’ on this spot. It is now occupied by the late-Victorian buildings of the former Hugh Myddelton School (1892-93), one of the largest board schools to be built in London. It became a further education college and was converted to offices and apartments in 1999.

In 1615 the site was acquired Middlesex Justices of the Peace for a new county prison and, by the end of the year, a ‘house of correction’ had been erected. This ‘New Prison’, or Clerkenwell Bridewell, took the overspill from the City prisons. In 1663–64 a large building was erected on the north side of the Bridewell as a workhouse for a union or ‘corporation’ of Middlesex parishes.

In 1679 the Bridewell burnt down and, shortly after, the prison was moved into part of the disused workhouse. By 1685 a second county prison had been built to the south of the workhouse and Bridewell; a ‘house of detention’ for those awaiting trial who could no longer be accommodated at Newgate. 15 years later part of the premises had been let to the Quakers as an almshouse, workhouse and orphans’ school, which became known as the Quaker Workhouse.

The prison and workhouse buildings remained until the early 1800s, by which time the dilapidated, makeshift Bridewell had been superseded by a new Middlesex House of Correction at nearby Coldbath Fields (now the site of Mount Pleasant Post Office). The workhouse had also closed. By January 1816, with war over, the county had decided to rebuild the prison on a much larger scale by extending it over the Bridewell and workhouse sites. And work was completed in 1818.

By the 1840s the new prison had become overcrowded and not-fit-for-purpose. In some places there were 30 or 40 prisoners to a room, with lines on the floor determining the areas for particular classes of inmate. A new short-stay prison, the Middlesex House of Detention, was erected in 1846–47.  The new buildings were strongly influenced by the recently completed Pentonville Prison (1842). Construction was based on the ‘separate’ system and a cruciform design. As at Pentonville, each cell had its own WC and basin, but only one small window, high in the end wall.

Intended largely for those awaiting trial for petty crime, the House of Detention was not as fearsome as the long-term correctional prisons. Communication between prisoners was forbidden, but they were allowed to wear their own clothes, and food could be brought in by friends and relatives, as could work materials for those who wished to carry on their outside occupations.

In December 1867 Fenian nationalists used a barrel of gunpowder to blow up some 60ft or more of the north perimeter wall in a failed attempt to free two compatriots. 12 civilians were killed and some fifty injured, and most of the houses opposite in Corporation Lane (now Row) were damaged beyond repair.  The prison closed in 1886 and, late in 1890, it was mostly razed, leaving only the perimeter wall and the chief warder’s three-storey stuccoed house at the south-west corner of the boundary wall. These are only parts of the prison to survive above ground today. The House of Detention was replaced in the early 1890s by the Hugh Myddelton School.

The school was ceremonially opened on 13 December 1893 by the Prince of Wales. This was the first time that the School Board for London had been honoured by a royal opening for one of its establishments; this was commensurate with the school’s status as the biggest and most expensive yet built by the board and also probably intended as an act of public exorcism of the old prison site.

The main school building, designed by the board’s architect T J Bailey, was erected in 1891–93 and is characteristic of the larger and costlier late board schools. It had a single large assembly hall on each of three floors, as well as individual classrooms to accommodate 800 infants and 600 each of girls and boys.

In 1891–92, while construction of the school was still in progress, the board considered the issue of educating special needs children. The Clerkenwell special school, in the north-east corner of the site, opened in August 1895. The single–storey building, with an extra-wide corridor to allow ease of movement for disabled children, was designed for 150 pupils in classes of 30 each. It closed as a special school in 1933.

Following the closure of the Hugh Myddelton School in 1971, the premises became part of the Kingsway Princeton Further Education College. In 1999 the former school was sold to Persimmon Homes and converted into flats and offices. The redevelopment was marketed under the name ‘1892’, the date which appears on the School Board’s tablet on the main building. It is now called Kingsway Place.

Middlesex House of Detention, Clerkenwell, c1850

Spa Green Gardens, Rosebery Avenue

Covering 0.79 acres, Spa Green is named after Islington Spa, a 17th and 18th-century ‘health resort’ once located near the site of Wells House on the Spa Green Estate. These gardens were laid out before the creation of Rosebery Avenue in 1892, and opened three years later. Finsbury War Memorial was added in 1921, with its 7-metre-high winged bronze figure symbolizing ‘Peace and Victory’.

The Islington Spa was also called New Tunbridge Wells; its medicinal water was similar to that found in Tunbridge Wells, Kent in 1694. It was claimed that waters from the Islington Spa could cure all manner of ailments including ‘hysterics’, vapours, swellings of the legs, rheumatics, scurvy, jaundice and more besides. The spa could accommodate up to 1,600 visitors each day. These would enjoy its gardens, walks, coffee houses and entertainments. The resort also included Merlin’s Cave tavern and, at one time, even a miniature zoo.

Spa Green gardens were organised in four areas; three as gardens, with trees, and one paved. The gardens opened to the public in July 1895. The First World War memorial at the east end of the gardens is by Thomas Rudge with a bronze angel on a granite pedestal. The gardens were altered in 1946 when the Spa Green Estate was built to the south, designed by Berthold Lubetkin (see Finsbury Health Centre), around a small park.

Spa Green gardens have some notable plane trees, as well as horse chestnut and false acacia, with stylish paths and layout. On a site in the gardens, opposite Sadler’s Wells Theatre, an Indian horse chestnut tree was planted on 17 May 1974 in memory of Lilian Baylis (1874-1937), who was a well-known theatrical producer. Baylis had managed both the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres and near to the tree is a plaque erected by The Vic-Wells Association on the 50th anniversary of her death in November 1987.

Finsbury War Memorial, Spa Green, 1920s

With grateful thanks to ‘Survey of London: Volumes 46 / South and East Clerkenwell & 47 / Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville’. Edited by Philip Temple. Published by Yale University Press for English Heritage, 2008.

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