Clerkenwell history: ghosts, cows, medical monks and revolution

Clerkenwell, St Johns Gate

Ever wondered what lies behind the name of the area you live or work in, what history is held by the streets you tread daily? In a rush to get around much of the time we remain unaware of the dramas of the past. Our office is based in Clerkenwell, a busy part of central London with plenty of fascinating stories to tell. The area has connections to the Knights Templar, historic revolutionary figures, legendary literary pickpockets, a notable musical coal-man and faked ghost appearances.

In this series of posts about Clerkenwell’s history I will reveal the identity of these coal-men, revolutionaries, pickpockets and more.

Clerkenwell has long been a centre of commerce and trade. You may know Cowcross Street, a thoroughfare that connects Smithfield Market with Farringdon station, which is now full of fashionable bars and eateries. The road’s name derives from being a route for cows to be taken to Smithfield market, where you could buy live animals till the 1850s. The meat market remains though, housed in an imposing building, inspired by Italian architecture and designed by Victorian architect Sir Horace Jones. In fact, this is one of London’s oldest markets having been in operation for over eight hundred years. The market buildings also house the Cock Tavern – an underground pub that opens at 6am and is well known for its devilled kidneys washed down with a pint.

The area also has strong connections to religious orders. The name Clerkenwell derives from The Clerk’s Well where Parish clerks would gather to perform biblical mystery plays. The site of the well was formally within St Mary’s Nunnery of the Benedictine order. It was founded in 1100 and remained till 1539 when Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries and convents. The well fell out of use in the mid 19th century, only being rediscovered when unearthed in 1924. You can see it today at 14–16 Farringdon Lane by peering through the windows of the building that now houses it or joining a Clerkenwell walk with an official guide.

Nearby is St John’s Gate where now stands the Museum of the Order of St John. This was the site of Clerkenwell Priory from the 12th Century and the base of the Knights Hospitaliers of St John of Jerusalem. They were part of a larger religious order founded in Jerusalem known as The Order of Hospitaliers. In 1237 a group of thirty of the Knights Hospitaliers of St John of Jerusalem set out from Clerkenwell Priory for the “Holy Land” to provide medical assistance to the Crusades where they served alongside the legendary Knights Templar. The Venerable Order of St John went on to found the modern day St Johns Ambulance Association established in 1877 to teach and practice First Aid internationally. Their distinctive black and white insignia echoes the design used by the original Knights Hospitaliers.

Coming up in the next blog post: Clerkenwell the rural retreat and radical hotbed…

Picture top: St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, Islington. Photographer: Fin Fahey [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

• Jon Wedderburn is an expert on multilingual content for print and online at WorldAccent Translation, London

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4 Comments

  1. Vertaalbureau
    Posted 25 November 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It’s funny how every place/ village/ whatever in the world has it’s own history..

    I must say that Clerkenwell’s history is quite interesting.

  2. Posted 24 April 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m trying to figure out where Tom Smith (of Christmas cracker fame) had his original confectionery shop. I’ve managed to determine that it was on Goswell Road in Clerkenwell, but can’t find the actual street number. I was hoping I would find it here.

  3. George Cadman
    Posted 2 October 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone have a photo or any info about Compton Buildings Clerkenwell?
    I have a friend whose 3 great-aunts lived in Compton Buildings at the time of the 1911 Census.

    Thank you

  4. Jon Wedderburn
    Posted 13 January 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    The Compton Buildings have since been demolished.

    You can read about their history at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=119425#s6

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