More Clerkenwell history: the Russian connection and a musical coal man

The Musical Small Coalman of Clerkenwell

Where would you find Russian revolutionaries in the early 1900s? The biographies of the future leaders of the Soviet Union show that they were men well travelled as it was not easy to organise left-wing parties in Tsarist Russia, and radicals were often forced into exile. I wrote last week about Clerkenwell’s radical history, and in 1902, the leading Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin came here. He set about publishing the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (The Spark) to be shipped back to Russia.

Lenin worked from an office at 37a Clerkenwell Green. The building had originated as a Welsh charity school and was later occupied by socialist publishers The Twentieth Century Press. Artist William Morris initially helped pay the rent. In 1933 the building became The Marx Memorial Library to mark fifty years since the death of Marx. The founders felt that a library would be an appropriate memorial as the world was then witnessing the sight of Nazis burning books in Germany. The library is still maintained today, holding an impressive collection and Lenin’s office has been preserved for visitors to take a tour.

The diaries of Lenin’s wife have been preserved for history and indicate that he hated it here at first, having no appetite for English food:

“We found that the Russian stomach is not easily adaptable to the ‘ox-tails,’ skate fried in fat, cake and other mysteries of English fare.” [quoted in Islington Now]

However Lenin reportedly grew to enjoy having a drink in the pubs around Clerkenwell Green in addition to riding on London’s open top buses. Some claim he took the young Joseph Stalin for a drink in 1903 at Clerkenwell Green’s The Crown and Anchor (now The Crown Tavern). Stalin was in London to attend the Second Congress of the Russian Democratic Labour Party but it has to be noted that these accounts are somewhat sketchy. The pub’s history also includes the filming in 2006 of scenes from ‘Notes on a Scandal’, with Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett; a fact that is probably more easily verified!

Not a movie star or a revolutionary, but a very notable and fascinating figure from Clerkenwell history is “the musical small-coal man”. Thomas Britton lived near Clerkenwell Green in the decades either side of 1700. Britton did his coal round in the morning before joining local literati to discuss books and learning at a booksellers on Paternaster Row.

His home was a former stable at the corner of Aylesbury Street and Jerusalem Passage. The ground floor was used to store coal while he lived in a single room above, reached by an external ladder. From this home he ran a musical club on Thursday evenings for about forty years. In October 1714 a contemporary newspaper, The British Mercury, described him as “universally known to all Lovers of Musick, of what Quality soever”.  Coffee was served while music was performed, attracting great musicians as members including the composer Handel. The influential royalist pamphleteer Roger L’Estrange was among the founder members of his ensemble.

Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, alludes to Britton in his poem “A Description of the Morning”:

“The Smallcoal-Man was heard with Cadence deep,
‘Till drown’d in Shriller Notes of Chimney-Sweep.”

Nineteen century author John Hawkins later pointed out the historic significance of Britton’s “musical club” in molding the concept of the public concert:

“The truth is, it was nothing less than a musical concert; and so much more does it merit our attention, as it was the first meeting of the kind, and the undoubted parent of some of the most celebrated concerts in London.”

Perhaps the next time crowds gather for a gig in Victoria Park, they should reflect on the legacy of Britton the musical coal-man. He died in 1714 leaving behind a large collection of books, fine musical instruments and sheet music.

Enjoyed this? Read our previous posts on Clerkenwell history: ghosts, cows, medical monks and revolution and Clerkenwell Green: radical centre & relaxing spa springs

Coming up next the next instalment of our history of Clerkenwell: pickpockets, a mysterious mummified cat and a feigned haunting