Clerkenwell’s hidden history: the great and gruesome 20150520_153735 - Designworks Tiles mosaic portrait of the grizzly end of a local tavern owner. Full view

Clerkenwell’s hidden history: the great and gruesome

While this week sees a celebration of much that is innovative and new in Clerkenwell, one ingenious project reminds us of the rich – and often troubled history that this area has.

Throughout Clerkenwell Design Week, Designworks Tiles has teamed up with historian and author Alec Forshaw to promote a tour that uncovers the great and the gruesome about Clerkenwell’s history.

Tour of Hidden Clerkenwell Credit: Designworks Tiles
Tour of Hidden Clerkenwell Credit: Designworks Tiles

The tour kicks off down Passing Alley. Its first title was similar but too vulgar for prim and proper Victorians, so the original ‘i’ was replaced with the ‘a’ and Passing Alley left its lavatorial origins and was reborn.

A short walk past City University hall of residence, Liberty Court, brings up Britton Street where the famous Booth’s gin distillers were based.

Next you pass through St John’s Garden, a former parish burial ground now beautiful public gardens, past shoe manufacturing giants Kurt Geiger and down to Farringdon station. Uncharacteristically sloping for a central London street, the station sits in the valley of the now long hidden river Fleet, which was buried in 1734. The station, opened in 1863,  also boasts being the world’s oldest underground metro line.

If you continue past Farringdon station and the popular student watering hole, the Sir John Oldcastle, you come to Saffron Hill and the One Tun pub. The area, then known for its high levels of crime and poverty, served as inspiration for Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Oliver Twist. Saffron Hill was the location of Fagin’s lair and the One Tun pub served as inspiration for The Three Cripples pub, where thieves and criminals considered themselves at home.


The next destination is Hatton Garden, site of the recent jewel heist. From 1576, Elizabeth I’s favourite Christopher Hatton lived and worked in the area which led to its name being changed from Ely Palace to Hatton Garden.

That is not the only piece of local history that the Hatton family lent to the area. Lore has it that Bleeding Heart Yard and the Bleeding Heart pub got their names when Christopher Hatton’s daughter was brutally murdered there. According to local legend, when her dismembered body was discovered,her heart had been cut out of her chest yet was somehow still pumping blood.

Walking down the former valley, you come to Ray Street and the Coach and Horses pub. This area was notorious for animal fights such as bear baiting, bull baiting, cock fighting and dog fighting. According to legend, the landlord of the pub used to keep the baiting bears in the cellar of the pub until one day his ladder slipped and he met a grisly end.

The tour continues up Farringdon Lane  to Clerkenwell Green, which is home to grimmer history. The Old Sessions House and the House of Detention serve as reminders of the high crime rates and brutality that went on in Clerkenwell. The House of Detention was where criminals were kept on remand and awaiting trial. The Old Sessions house was built as the court in which criminals were tried and sentenced.

Once it closed as a courthouse, the Old Sessions House was bought by the Freemasons and it is only recently that it was opened to the public.

The final leg of the tour brings you to the other side of Clerkenwell Green and towards St John’s Gate. The Monastic Order of The Knight’s Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem held its English base in Clerkenwell and even though the members of the order were the forefathers of St John Ambulance, they are known also as fighting Crusaders.

The monastery stood there until the dissolution of the Roman Catholic church by Henry VIII and the adjoining church stood there with the Church of England until its destruction in World War Two.

St John’s Gate still remains as a reminder of the area’s rich history. After its monastic dissolution it stood as a licensing house for plays. One of its most frequent visitors, William Shakespeare, had 35 of his plays licensed there and it later stood as the place where Samuel Johnson, father of the dictionary, worked as a journalist.

Although the area is now one of the centres of innovation in London and the world, its history, though well-hidden, is unforgettable.

The tours are sponsered by Designworks Tiles. Follow the link for more information.


Written by Eleanor Rudd

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