Wednesday, 22 July 2015

London's Clerkenwell: Prisons, Dickens, Oliver, and Fagin

The London neighborhood of Clerkenwell, a short walk to the north of the intersection of Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street, derives its name from the Old English for “clerks’ well” -- clerks in this case meaning clerics. Medieval monks and nuns from several nearby religious houses drew their water from a well here, along the banks of the now subterranean River Fleet, which runs under Farringdon Street and Road. The Fleet gave its name to Fleet Street and the notorious Fleet Prison. The prison is long gone, replaced by high rise offices. Hard to say which is worse.

To the west of Farringdon St./Rd, just past Holborn Viaduct runs a narrow lane and area called Saffron Hill. It didn’t get its name from upscale developers. Saffron was once grown here. By the early nineteenth century it had become a derelict area inhabited by the very poor and criminals. Many shops along the street and just off it fenced stolen goods. Charles Dickens placed Fagin’s thieves' den in Oliver Twist here, just off Saffron Hill on Field Lane. Alas, there are few reminders of those days left. Saffron Hill ends at Clerkenwell Rd and becomes Herbal Hill, a street descending the other side of the gentle incline.

Near here one can see the well that gave Clerkenwell its name. It's on Farringdon Lane, just east of Farringdon Road. The well is inside a modern office building with a sign on the wall: Clerks’ Well.  You can see it through a plate glass window, much like Christmas displays at Harrods. Visits can be arranged. Maybe you can be drowned.

The well is just off Clerkenwell Green, which hasn't been green for three hundred years or so.

Clerkenwell Green is where the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates take Oliver Twist to introduce him to their trade: pick-pocketing. The episode leads to Oliver’s arrest and appearance in court before the snarling magistrate Mr. Fang and his temporary rescue from Fagin by the kindly Mr. Brownlow. (Illustration from Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank)

The courthouse itself is at one corner of the Green. The Old Middlesex Sessions House, is an impressive building. It's a neoclassical structure, opened in 1780. It once had the reputation of being the most severe London court in its sentencing of convicted criminals. Today it's a Masonic Lodge and a tour of the attractive interior, if open, is well worth the time. Its dome is a replica of the Pantheon in Rome.

Clerkenwell Green also boasts the Marx Memorial Library, which houses a large collection of literature relating to the history of Marxism, socialism, and the British trade union movement. Its building, dating from 1738, once housed the Welsh Charity School.

If you are  thirsty, there are a couple of nice pubs nearby. One, the Betsey Trotwood is named for David Copperfield's crusty but goodhearted aunt. it lies just to the north of Clerkenwell Green where Farringdon Lane runs into Farringdon Rd. 

A couple blocks north of the pub, at the intersection of Roseberry Ave, is a large white post office depot with the words “Mount Pleasant” emblazoned across its front. The name has a certain irony. It was once the location of one of London's most feared prisons, the Cold Bath Fields House of Correction, opened in 1794. Londoners nicknamed it “The Bastille, ”or just “The Steel.” It was a most unpleasant place, especially after the governors introduced the treadmill.

Clerkenwell is well worth a visit! But don't get caught thieving!

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