Infamy In Clerkenwell

The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, in 1971. (Photo via British History Online.)

‘Excuse me, but are you Bill Oddie?’

It is a freezing night in February 2020. It is my 50-something birthday. I am sat outside The Crown pub on Clerkenwell Green with my friends Chris, Mark and Paul. The first pints of the evening have just been assembled on the table and an attractive young woman, obviously pleased to have spotted a celebrity out on the town, has just identified me as the noted birdwatcher and ex-Goodie. ‘Can I get your autograph?’ But I am not Bill Oddie, any more than I am Alfred Molina, Trevor Nunn, or Paul Greengrass, for whom I have, at one time or another, been mistaken. What’s worse, much worse, is that the shock has caused me to knock over Chris’s drink.

I made haste to repair the damage I had done to Chris’s pristine, un-tasted, pint. For all his affability, Chris is nearly seven feet tall; and just as Serengeti park rangers advise visitors never to get between a hippo and a waterhole, it is unwise to separate Chris from his cider. I returned with a fresh Aspall’s and heard Mark, a trade union operative with a rich Barnsley accent that masks the fact that he was born in Croydon, offering some observations on Clerkenwell’s long association with radicalism: exactly the sort of spot that would interest Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin, both of whom lived and worked locally. Lenin published his proto-Bolshevik periodical Iskra out of an office No. 37a Clerkenwell Green between 1902 and 1903. It’s also been suggested, although no-one can prove it, that Lenin took Stalin for drinks at The Crown when the latter visited London a few years later. Stalin certainly went drinking elsewhere in London during that visit, sometimes in the company of his new friend Leon Trotsky, who he had assassinated thirty years later. (37a is now The Marx Memorial Library.)

Clerkenwell Green has the aspect of the classic London village, church and houses nestling around a village green. It seems this is accidental, and that it actually came into being as little more than a bare patch between the Fleet and the two religious houses here: St John’s priory and St Mary’s nunnery, where St. James’s church is now. As the religious institutions declined, new buildings were constructed looking onto the Green rather than away from it, so you get the classic village configuration. There were riots here in the 1760s in support of radical MP John Wilkes, and by the 1780s the Gordon Riots demonstrated in spectacular fashion that slum conditions could fuel social disorder. Living conditions were certainly grim, even for those involved in small trades like watchmaking, which was a local speciality. Somewhere near here was Frying Pan Alley – a lane just twenty feet long by two feet wide. The name may have had something to do with it being the width of a frying pan, or it may be related to one of the bleak occupations resorted to by the desperate: frying-up rancid, cast-off fish at home and hawking them round local pubs as a bar snack. There was a similar trade in out-of-date cabbages, which were cleaned up to be re-sold; but neither pursuit was going to endear you to your neighbours. The rookeries became great material for the mid-Victorian press, as they were able to parlay sensational stories under the banner of outraged decency. When they began to be cleared away, the demise of the more notorious slums was marked by a certain nostalgia for grunge and squalor.

Reform League protesters outside the Middlesex Session House, Clerkenwell Green, 1867.

By the 1860s Clerkenwell Green was a well-established forum for dissent and radicalism. Thousands of people turned out at mass demos in the fields that lay just north of the churchyard. In 1887 William Morris addressed a crowd of 5,000 here, protesting for social justice on a range of issues, including rights for Ireland, reflecting the make-up of the local community. That demo (dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday‘) ended in violence, police moving in on the marchers as they reached Trafalgar Square. Earlier, in 1867, an Irish nationalist named Captain Richard O’Sullivan Burke was being held in the Clerkenwell House of Detention on Clerkenwell Close. Fenians attempted to spring Burke; the first try didn’t work because they used damp gunpowder, so the second time they parked a wheelbarrow of explosive against the prison wall. The blast was heard forty miles away. An entire street of houses was levelled, killing six and injuring forty others. There was a mass jailbreak, naturally, but Burke had already been moved so he was not amongst the escapees. One of the bombers, Michael Barrett, was convicted and became the last man to be publicly executed in Britain, hanged outside the door of Newgate Gaol.

I think I was boring my birthday evening companions with this factoid, as by that point we had relocated to The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close, near the site of the old prison. Although the Peabody flats that back on to the pub show the reforming zeal of the late Victorians, Clerkenwell Close now boasts some of the most expensive (and controversial) properties in any EC district. (One wonders what George Gissing, whose resolutely bleak, Zola-esque novel The Nether World is set in 1880s Clerkenwell, would have made of this.) As for The Horseshoe, it remains a pub of fond memory for me, as my much-missed friend John O’Driscoll ran a photo darkroom next door in the 1990s. The pub hasn’t changed since then; well, it hadn’t changed in February 2020 – I’m not sure what Covid has done to it since.

My memory of the evening is a little vague past a certain point … I remember a vivid discussion of why Harvey Keitel was dismissed from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; and even more vivid speculation as to whether it was the same reason he was fired from Apocalypse Now (I’m not going to peddle scurrilous rumours here, you’ll have to Google them yourself.) Was that the night that Andrew and Alan came along? When we went on to that club near Tower Bridge, and I had to walk all the way from The Minories to Whitehall through pelting hail to get the night bus home? Who knows … but one thing is certain: Bill Oddie turns 80 in July this year.

3 thoughts on “Infamy In Clerkenwell”

Leave a Reply to jason dorley brown Cancel reply