Clerkenwell is an area of central London in the London Borough of Islington. From 1900 to 1965 it was part of the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury. The well after which it was named was rediscovered in 1924. The watchmaking and watch repairing trades were once of great importance. Clerkenwell was once known as London's "Little Italy" because of the large number of Italians living in the area from the 1850s until the 1960s.
Clerkenwell, Islington in "A Topographical Dictionary of England" edited by Samuel Lewis (1848)
CLERKENWELL, an extensive parish, in the Finsbury division of the hundred of Ossulstone, county of Middlesex; separated from the city of London on the south by the intervening parish of St. Sepulchre, and on the west by the liberties of Saffron-Hill and Ely-Rents; and containing, with the chapelry of Pentonville, 56,756 inhabitants. This place derives its name from an ancient well, round which the clerks, or inferior clergy, of London, were in the habit of assembling at certain periods, for the performance of sacred dramas, as noticed in the reign of Henry II. by Fitz-Stephen, who calls the well Fons Clericorum. The site appears to have been well adapted for the purpose, being in the centre of gently rising grounds, that formed an extensive natural amphitheatre, for the accommodation of the numerous spectators who attended. The most celebrated of these festivals occurred in 1391, in the reign of Richard II., and continued for three days, during which several sacred dramas were performed by the clerks, in presence of the king and queen, attended by the whole court. Soon after the year 1100, Jordan Briset and Muriel his wife founded a priory here for nuns of the Benedictine order, dedicated to St. Mary, and the site of which is now occupied by St. James's church: the revenue, at the Dissolution, was £282. 16. 5. The same Jordan and his wife founded an hospital for the Knights Hospitallers of the order of St. John of Jerusalem, which was munificently endowed with lands, and invested with many privileges by several successive monarchs; the lord prior had precedence of all lay barons in parliament, and power over all commanderies and smaller establishments of that order in the kingdom; the revenue, at the Dissolution, was £2385. 12. 8. The institution was partly restored in the reign of Philip and Mary, but was again suppressed in that of Elizabeth. The remains are, the gate, in the later English style, restored in 1846, and the greater part of which is now occupied as a tavern; and the vaults of the old church, which were cleared out some years since, when a beautiful crypt in the Norman style was discovered. St. John's church occupies part of the site. The establishment of these monasteries naturally drew around them some dependent dwellings, but the parish made little progress in the number of its inhabitants prior to the time of Elizabeth, in whose reign, besides several "banqueting and summer houses," it contained a few straggling cottages, and some good residences in the immediate neighbourhood of the religious houses: its increase was afterwards more rapid, and in 1619 noblemen and gentlemen were among its inhabitants. Since that time, the formation of numerous streets, and the recent laying out of Spafields and the New River Company's estate in a variety of streets and squares, have rendered this one of the most populous districts in the vicinity of the metropolis.
The parish is lighted with gas, and the pathways are well flagged and kept in repair, under the superintendence of two separate Boards of Commissioners, one for each division of the parish, appointed under special acts: it is within the limits of the metropolitan police establishment. The inhabitants are supplied with water by the New River Company, whose works are situated in the parish, where the river terminates. This stupendous undertaking was projected in the reign of Elizabeth, and in the following reign an act of parliament was obtained, enabling the mayor and commonalty of London to carry it into effect; but the commissioners, dreading the difficulty and expense, made no advances for some years. In 1609, Hugh Myddelton, a citizen and goldsmith of London, made proposals to the commoncouncil of the city to undertake the work at his own risk, and to complete it in four years, for which purpose the commissioners transferred to him the powers with which they had been invested by the act. After having persevered in the enterprise till the water was brought to Enfield, the city refusing to grant him any pecuniary assistance, Myddelton applied to the king, who advanced sums of money, amounting in the whole to £6347, with which assistance the work was completed on the 29th of September, 1613. The river, from its source at Amwell in Hertfordshire to Spafields, is 38¾ miles and 16 poles in length; there are nearly 300 bridges over it, and its course is continued through the varying levels of the districts through which it passes, by means of 40 sluices. The Regent's canal passes on the north side of the parish.
Of the numerous Wells with which the parish abounded, several were in great repute for their medicinal properties, and houses of public entertainment were erected near their site. Of these houses, which generally had tea-gardens, and were rendered more attractive by musical performances, the chief were Bagnigge Wells, White Conduit House, and New Tunbridge Wells, or Islington Spa, all still remaining. Of those which have for many years been discontinued were, the Pantheon, in Spafields, now a chapel belonging to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion; the Cold Bath, in ColdbathFields, of which the bath alone is still frequented; the Mulberry and Vineyard gardens, now covered with buildings, and the names of which probably denote the purpose to which the ground was anciently appropriated; the celebrated bear-garden at Hockley in the Hole; and Sadler's Wells, near the New River Head, which has for many years been converted into a theatre for dramatic representations. Fons Clericorum, or the Clerks' Well, is thought by some to have been situated in Raystreet, where the spot is marked by a pump with an inscription; but it is more probable that the original well, upon which a pump was afterwards erected, was in the centre of Clerkenwell-Green, between the two religious houses; a supposition partly confirmed by the tenor of a deed of grant of the ground by the ancestor of the Marquess of Northampton, wherein the right is reserved to the inhabitants of drawing water from this pump, the site of which is distinctly laid down in Stowe's Survey of London.
The manufacture of clocks and watches, of which the several parts form distinct and separate departments of the trade, has for more than a century been carried on here to a considerable extent: when the duty on clocks and watches was imposed in 1791, not less than 7000 of the inhabitants were deprived of employment, and obliged to have recourse to parochial aid. There is a large manufactory for tin goods, which during the late war supplied the chief of the government contracts; also some extensive distilleries and soap manufactories. The parish, with the exception of a detached portion of about 100 acres locally situated in the parish of Hornsey, was, by the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, constituted part of the newly-enfranchised borough of Finsbury, the elections for which take place on Clerkenwell-Green. The sessions for the county, and the meetings of the magistrates for the assessment of the county rates, and for other affairs, are held at the Sessions-house on the Green, which was erected at an expense of £13,000, and was repaired and beautified a few years since: it is a spacious and handsome edifice, with a stone front, having in the centre four pillars of the Ionic order, rising from a rustic basement and support ing a pediment. A new police-court for the district of Clerkenwell, the business of which was formerly carried on at Hatton-Garden, was built in Bagnigge Wells road, under the 2nd and 3rd of Victoria, cap. 71, and opened December 16th, 1841: the building is a neat structure, with a frontage of 260 feet, and consists of two distinct parts almost perfectly square, united by a bold archway. The Clerkenwell prison was erected near the site of the old Bridewell, which was incorporated with the new building; it was enlarged and partly rebuilt in 1818, and considerably extended in 1830 by the removal of several adjoining houses. The buildings were, however, pulled down in 1845; and in the spring of 1847 a model prison was completed, for the detention of persons remanded from police courts, and committed for trial: there are 1000 cells. The house of correction for the county, in Coldbath-Fields, was erected in 1794, at a cost of £70,000, including the purchase of the site, and has lately been much enlarged; it is a spacious brick building inclosed with high walls, and the average number of prisoners is about 1000.
The churches of St. James and St. John, formerly the only churches, have each a distinct parochial district attached, and the parish of St. James is subdivided into three parts, viz., the district of St. James', of St. Mark's, and of St. Philip's. The living of St. James' is a perpetual curacy, with Pentonville chapel; net income, £712; patrons, the Inhabitants of Clerkenwell generally, paying church and poor's rates. The church is a substantial structure of brick with a handsome stone steeple, erected between the years 1788 and 1792, on the site of the ancient church of the priory of St. Mary, which had been previously modernised, and which, at the time of its being taken down for the erection of the present edifice, retained many vestiges of its Norman character, and contained the ashes of the last prioress of the nunnery; the last prior of St. John's; Weever, the antiquary; Bishop Burnet; and many other distinguished characters. This conventual church, on being made parochial, at the time of the dissolution of the priory, was dedicated anew to St. James the Less. The living of St. John's is a rectory not in charge, in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £260. The church, with large curtailments and alterations, is the choir of that belonging to the priory of the Knights Hospitallers. The ancient edifice was purchased of the Aylesbury family, in 1721, by Mr. Simon Michell, who, having repaired the choir, built the present west front, and covered the whole with a new roof, disposed of the church and adjoining grounds, in 1723, for £2950, to the commissioners for building fifty new churches in Queen Anne's reign, who constituted it a parish church, and caused it to be consecrated on St. John's day, December 27th. The interior of the building was much improved in 1845. Notwithstanding that it enjoys the privilege of religious rites, the incumbent of St. James' is entitled to the surplice fees, which he has received since the year 1771, when a lawsuit was successfully prosecuted for their recovery: there are separate churchwardens for St. John's church, but the inhabitants of both districts contribute to the repairs of the two churches, and the same overseers of the poor act for the whole.
St. Mark's, in Myddelton-square, containing 1622 sittings, of which 847 are free, was erected in 1826, by a grant from the Parliamentary Commissioners, at an expense of £16,000, and is a neat edifice in the later English style, with a handsome western front containing a square tower having pierced parapet and pinnacles: the cost of furnishing it, which amounted to £2000, was defrayed by a rate voted by the vestry. The living is a district incumbency; net income, £480; patron, the Bishop of London. St. Philip's, in the later English style, with a campanile turret, built in Granville-square, at an expense of £4418, and to which an ecclesiastical district has been assigned out of the district of St. Mark, was consecrated on January 1st, 1834, and was furnished by subscription: net income, £420; patron, the Bishop. The chapel at Pentonville, a neat edifice of brick, ornamented with stone, and having a small cupola, was opened in 1788, under the provisions of the Toleration act, and continued as a private chapel till 1791, when it was purchased by the parish for £5000, and consecrated as a chapel of ease to St. James'. Spafields chapel, formerly the Pantheon, as before noticed, was appropriated for a place of worship by the Countess of Huntingdon, who for many years occasionally resided at the chapelhouse adjoining; and at her decease here in 1791, it was, agreeably to her will, vested in trustees, with other chapels in various parts of the kingdom. There are likewise meeting-houses for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, and Wesleyan and other Methodists, besides a chapel in which the service is performed in Welsh. The parochial school, founded about the year 1700, has been removed from the school-house in Aylesbury-street, to more convenient premises in Amwellstreet, erected in 1829, at an expense exceeding £3000, and forming a spacious and handsome range in the Elizabethan style, capable of accommodating 1000 children. The London Female Penitentiary at Pentonville, established in 1807, is a large building, comprising an infirmary, and apartments for 100 females. In addition to the two religious establishments previously noticed, a convent of Benedictines was founded in St. John'ssquare, in the reign of James II., by one "Father Corker," which was destroyed in the Revolution of 1688. A portion of the Roman Watling-street, and the river of Wells (the Fleta of the Romans), form part of the boundaries of the parish. Among the distinguished natives and residents of Clerkenwell may be enumerated Sir Thomas Chaloner, Bishop Burnet, Sir John Oldcastle, and Baron Cobham; and Edward Cave, who established the Gentleman's Magazine, had his printingoffice in St. John's Gate, an engraving of which has, since the commencement of that publication, adorned the first page of its numbers.