Mr Bell In Clerkenwell: A Dickensian Walk 2


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Clerkenwell is a small area of London that is situated on a hill above the valley of the River Fleet. During the 19th century it became one of the most impoverished and crime ridden districts of the city. Charles Dickens knew its streets and alleyways very well and in his writings has left us with a vivid picture of the filth and squalor that was found here before work commenced in the 1860’s on a project to wipe out the slums altogether. This project known as the “Holborn Valley Improvement Scheme” changed the face of the area, and destroyed, amongst other places, Field Lane, the location of Fagin’s lair in Oliver Twist. However there are still many places from that period that still survive today enabling you to see the darker side of Victorian London.

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The walk starts at Barbican Station. Heading left along Aldersgate Street then left again into Carthusian Street l find myself in the historic Charterhouse Square, following the road to the left I see the gates to the Charterhouse. Originally founded as a Carthusian Monastery the Chaterhouse passed through successive owners following its dissolution by Henry VIII. Eventually it came into the possession of the very wealthy Sir Thomas Sutton in 1611. It was here that he established the Charterhouse Hospital for aged men and the Charterhouse School for the education of the sons of the poor. By the early 19th century, Charterhouse had become a leading public school. The writer William Makepeace Thackeray was an ex pupil. The school moved out of the area in the late 19th century but the Charterhouse is still a hospital and retirement home. It’s open to the public at certain times of the year.

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I continue and go through the gates onto Charterhouse Street passing the Fox and Anchor pub with its gothic frontage. The ornate Smithfield Meat Market is on the left. It was built in 1868 to replace the old livestock market which closed in 1855. Dickens wrote about it in Oliver Twist when Bill Sykes crossed it with Oliver on market morning and found “the ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle”. It was also mentioned in Great Expectations when Pip discovered the old market to be a “shameful place being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam”. Today it’s very different, the cattle arrive pre-slaughtered and it’s a much cleaner place.

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Walking up St John Street I notice that several of the buildings still have the old lifting devices and loading bays from their old market related past.

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Taking the left fork of the road I come into St John’s Lane, at the end is St John’s Gate which was built in 1504 and is all that survives of the Priory of St John of Jerusalem. In the 18th century it was here that Gentleman’s Magazine was published, contributors included Dr Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. It later became the parish watch house, and by the mid 19th century was a popular public house known as the Old Jerusalem Tavern. In 1874, the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem acquired it, and three years later the St John’s Ambulance Brigade was launched from here. Today, a small museum is situated inside the old gate houses, regular tours are available.

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Passing under St John’s Gate I enter a square of modern office blocks, turning left I make my way down St John’s Path, a small, dark passageway squeezed between high walls. At the end I emerge on to Britton Street, immediately on the left is the tiny Jerusalem Tavern. The pub itself has only been there since the 1990’s but the building it occupies is 18th century, they serve a good selection of real ales.

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I head right on to Britton Street, then left along Clerkenwell Road, I stop on the corner after crossing Turnmill Street. Right below where I’m standing is the River Fleet still flowing deep beneath Farringdon Road. Throughout much of the 19th century, this area was considered one of the worst slums or “rookeries” in London. At its height it boasted one of the capital’s highest murder rates, and because Turnmill Street was seen as its centre, the locals knew it as “Little Hell”. It was home to pickpockets, receivers, counterfeiters and child strippers – drunken women who would lure children away in order to steal their clothing.

Eventually the slums were swept away by the construction of the Farringdon and Clerkenwell Roads in the early 1860’s, and by the construction of the Metropolitan Railway line. Work began on the line in 1860 to connect Paddington to Farringdon and it was the world’s first underground passenger railway. Despite some serious doubts that the railway would work, it proved to be an instant success. There is little of interest in Turnmill Street today but there is an excellent view of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.

Crossing Clerkenwell Road I turn left into Clerkenwell Green. The large building I see on my left is the former Middlesex Sessions House which was built in 1779. It was here that Mr Bumble, “in the full bloom and pride of beadlehood…” was bound for in Oliver Twist when he proudly boasted to Mrs Mann “And I very much question…whether the Clerkenwell Sessions will not find themselves in the wrong box before they have done with me”. The courts were closed in 1919 and the premises converted to offices. In 1979 the Masonic Foundation bought the building and restored it to its former glory.

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The square that is Clerkenwell Green was where in Oliver Twist that Mr Brownlow was reading a book at a stall as the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates and Oliver “were just emerging from the narrow court, not far from the open square in Clerkenwell, which is yet called, by some strange perversion of terms “The Green”…” Oliver watched in horror “his eyelids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman’s pocket; and draw from thence a handkerchief…”. Dodger and Bates escaped, leaving Oliver to take the blame.

Walking clockwise I turn left at the Crown Tavern into Clerkenwell Close. Ahead of me is the church of St James. It dates from 1778-82 and has a dark and gloomy exterior. One notable feature is the 19th century “modesty board” placed around the base of the stairs to the left of the entrance, this was to stop the men of the parish looking up the ladies skirts as they climbed the stairs.

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At the other end of the church, through a gate there’s some steps leading to a bricked up doorway, to the right of the stairs is a weathered tomb stone with the name Ellen Steinberg engraved on it. Her and her four young children were stabbed to death on 8th September 1834. The murderer was Johann Steinberg, Ellen’s husband, the motive for the killings was never discovered as he turned the knife on himself. His wife and children were buried at St James’s, their tombstone paid for by public subscription. The husband was buried at night in a paupers grave in nearby Ray Street, with a stake driven through his heart.

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Heading past the grave I exit the churchyard through the gates on the opposite side of the lawn. Turning left along St James’s Walk, then left into Sans Walk I eventually come into Clerkenwell Close at the end of which I turn right and pass through the blocks of Peabody Trust flats. American philanthropist George Peabody established the trust in 1862 “to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis and to promote their comfort and happiness”.

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Turning left I’m now in Pear Tree Court, thought to be the “narrow court” from which the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates and Oliver Twist emerged onto Clerkenwell Green. Following Pear Tree Court I come onto Farringdon Lane where opposite is the Betsy Trotwood Pub, named after David Copperfield’s formidable aunt.

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Crossing Farringdon Road I take the first right into Ray Street, maybe Johann Steinberg may still be lying there! Going up Herbal Hill I cross Clerkenwell Road and take the first right into Saffron Hill. Turning right I come onto Hatton Wall, left is a covered passageway into Hatton Place. I walk down until I see a wall with bricked up windows and some ugly grey metal gates. This is the route along which the baying crowd brought Oliver Twist having captured him on suspicion of stealing Mr Brownlow’s handkerchief. He was “led beneath a low archway and up a dirty court” to be taken in through the back door of a “very notorious metropolitan police office”, where he was brought before the magistrate Mr Fang. It was also along here that Nancy came, at the request of Fagin, tapping the cell doors with her keys trying to locate Oliver.

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Backtracking to Hatton Wall I go left and left again onto Hatton Garden. A short way along on the left is No. 54. Once the front entrance of the Hatton Garden Police Court, the original of the “notorious police office”, to which Oliver was brought. Mr Fang was based upon Mr A S Laing, an infamous magistrate working here between 1836 and 1838. According to John L Forster, on 3rd June 1837, Dickens wrote to Mr Haines – a supervisor over police reports for the daily papers: “In my next number of Oliver Twist I must have a magistrate; and casting about (for one) whose harshness and insolence would render him a fit subject to be shown up, I have…stumbled upon Mr Laing of Hatton Garden celebrity…it occurred to me that perhaps I might under your auspices be smuggled into the Hatton Garden office for a few moments some morning (in order to see him)…” Forster records that, “The opportunity was found; the magistrate…brought before the novelist; and shortly after, on some fresh outbreak of intolerable temper Mr Laing was removed from the bench.

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I continue along Hatton Garden and go left into St Cross Street where on the corner is the former charity school building, a plaque by the door gives its history.

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I now turn second right into Saffron Hill and keep walking ahead. The area is now a shadow of its former crime ridden past. In the 19th century, this was a notorious rookery where crime and vice flourished. Bordered on its eastern side by Fleet Ditch – in reality nothing more than an open sewer – the area was considered one of the most unwholesome parts of London. There wasn’t much complaining when in the 1860’s it was swept away. Towards the end on the right is the One Tun Pub, rebuilt in 1875, the pub claims to be the original of the Three Cripples, a favoured haunt of Fagin and Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist.

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Having taken a right into Greville Street I then take the first left into Bleeding Heart Yard. Yes the place has changed enormously since Dickens day, but it still has a secluded ambience. Mr Plomish and his wife, who was “so dragged at, by poverty and the children together, that their united forces had already dragged her face into wrinkles”, lived here in Little Dorrit and, in the same novel, the inventor Daniel Doyce had his factory “over the gateway”.

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Leaving the yard I go left along Greville Street then left on to Hatton Garden. On arrival at the old gas lamp that leans over the pavement I turn left down the narrow alleyway.

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A little way down is the Ye Olde Mitre Tavern which was built in 1547, a great little place to stop for a refreshment.

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Walking through the passageway I turn right into Ely Place. It was in one of the 18th century townhouses of this charming enclave that Dickens set Mr Waterbrook’s house in David Copperfield. Here the adult David renewed his friendship with his old school friend Thomas Traddles at a dinner party, which was also attended by the saintly Agnes Wickfield and the very ‘umble Uriah Heep.

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My Clerkenwell walk ends here, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed walking it.

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