Clerkenwell House of Detention, ghost tales and mummified cats

As well as serving drinks to revolutionaries, the original Crown Tavern pub on Clerkenwell Green has the dubious reputation of having exhibited a mummified cat. Apparently during the 17th Century the cat “which some mason of John or Richard’s reign had cruelly buried alive in one of the walls of St. James’s Church, used to be solemnly shown there”.

Other mysterious events in and around Clerkenwell include the Cock Lane Haunting. The elaborate tale as thick as a modern day Eastenders plot began in 1762. It centred on a userer named Michael Kent who became romantically involved with his sister Fanny. After Fanny’s death from smallpox, Kent’s landlord Richard Parsons claimed to be haunted by the ghost of Fanny. She appeared to tell Parsons that Kent had poisoned her with arsenic. Samuel Johnson investigated the claims that led to Kent being suspected of murder. Eventually it was determined that Parson’s daughter had faked the haunting. Parsons was motivated by an ongoing financial dispute with Kent and was sent to prison for two years.

Ghost stories like this were probably an inspiration for the writer Charles Dickens who grew up in nearby Camden in the early 19th Century. Dickens father was sent to debtors prison and as a child Dickens experienced harsh poverty in London, which influenced his writing. At the time of writing Oliver Twist in the late 1830s Dickens was living in Holborn, and knew Clerkenwell well. He banked at the Finsbury Savings Bank, which you can see on Sekforde Street. Scenes from Oliver Twist when Fagin and The Artful Dodger introduce Oliver to the trade of picking pockets were set in Clerkenwell Green. Tribute has recently been paid to Dickens in Clerkenwell by the naming of The Betsy Trotwood pub on Farringdon Road after one of his characters from David Copperfield.

We have barely scratched the surface of the rich history Clerkenwell has to offer in these posts, other intriguing and creepy sites include the currently fairly uninspiring Spa Fields, which used to form part of the pleasure garden experience that made Clerkenwell such an attractive resort. But it gained a bad reputation by the 17th century so that the gentry required escorts to pass through. It became a burial ground in the 1780s, which was eventually shut down after fifty years by which time 8000 bodies had filled the tiny space.

As multilingual typesetters here at WorldAccent we were curious about the naming of Sans Walk. Does it have any connection to the history of sans serif fonts, given the connections locally to printing? Sadly our research has not uncovered any evidence of that. But nearby is the site of the Clerkenwell House of Detention, which between the 17th and 19th century was the site of various prisons, was destroyed by fire during the Gordon riots in 1780 and where a terrorist attack killed several people in 1867. Amongst its 18th Century inmates was Jack Sheppard, the notorious burglar and thief. Largely demolished in 1890, the prison’s perimeter wall and warden’s residence were left untouched along with the prison’s underground level. These underground cells were used as air raid shelters during World War Two. The site has more recently been used for filming of Oliver Twist, Sherlock Holmes and Spooks as well as a theatre production of Macbeth. Unsurprisingly, ghost stories abound here too with one telling of a little girl whose “heart-rending sobs reverberate from the inner depths of the jail”.

That concludes this round up of Clerkenwell history for now. We hope you’ve found it as enlightening as we have, and will see Clerkenwell’s streets and buildings in a new light. The EC1 Local History Trail [pdf] takes you on a tour of many of the sites mentioned, and is well worth a wander on a fine day. Also well worth a look is this map of The Clerkenwell Historic Trail [pdf]. Enjoy!

Illustration top from Oliver Twist: James Mahoney (1810-1879) (Scanned by Simsalabim) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons