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. Continue reading “Clerkenwell House of Detention, ghost tales and mummified cats”

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.
Continue reading “More Clerkenwell history: the Russian connection and a musical coal man”

Clerkenwell Green: radical centre & relaxing spa springs

Wat Tyler killed at Smithfield, Clerkenwell

Clerkenwell as a haven from the urban bustle? It may be hard to believe it now, but Clerkenwell was once considered to be a country retreat from the city. King John stayed for a break in the Clerkenwell Priory in 1212. The area was also renowned for its relaxing spa springs and pleasure gardens during the 13th Century but its tranquility would soon be broken.
Continue reading “Clerkenwell Green: radical centre & relaxing spa springs”

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.
Continue reading “Clerkenwell history: ghosts, cows, medical monks and revolution”

Little Italy alive and well in Clerkenwell

One of the great things about being based in Clerkenwell is its character. This area, just north of the City of London, is a maze of back streets and alleyways. In fact, Clerkenwell is the backdrop for Fagin’s gang of pickpockets in the book Oliver Twist as Charles Dickens knew the area well.

A decade or two after the publication of Oliver Twist, Clerkenwell became a centre of London’s Italian population, acquiring the nickname “Little Italy” somewhere along the line. This community has now largely dispersed, although I’m glad to say that a good number of Italian restaurants and the odd deli survive.

Another remnant is St Peter’s Italian Church which stands at the centre of what was Little Italy, just a few streets away from our office.

Hundreds of people still flock every year for an annual parade which has been held since the late nineteenth century to honour Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is supposed to be the first outdoor Roman Catholic event that had been allowed in London since the Reformation.

What is without doubt is that this procession is spectacular, bringing a small slice of Italian street-life to London every July. Banners and statues are carried down the street, mingling with floats decorated to illustrate biblical and other scenes.

(Pictures © Alan Denney. For more images of the parade and a fascinating chronicle of ordinary Londoners over the last few decades, see Alan’s Flickr).

Perhaps predictably, the streets are not only filled with religous icons but also with aromas from the outdoor kitchens and food stalls that also spring up. You can get a metaphorical taste of the day from the pictures at the Italian Church website.

It’s easy to forget the influence of other cultures and nationalities on our city, and how many hidden gems such as this parade they contribute. I feel we’re lucky to live in a city that celebrates different cultures. London has been described as “the multicultural centre of Europe”, with over 7 million inhabitants speaking 300 distinct languages. We are renowned for our multiculturalism, and that is something we should be proud of.