Clerkenwell London

The History of Clerkenwell in London

The district of Clerkenwell has a long and interesting history. The ancient parish of Clerkenwell takes its name from “Clerks’ Well”.  It was the scene of medieval miracle plays, biblical performances by the parish clerks of London. It was recorded in William Fitzstephen’s description of the city way back in 1174.  The well was located within the boundary walls of St Mary’s Nunnery.

After the nunnery closed and Ray Street (now Farringdon Lane) was built, the well was accessed through the basement of a building in this road. In 1800 a pump was placed at pavement level to allow public use of the well, by the middle of the 19th century the well was closed because its water had become contaminated. Then for many years the exact location of this site was lost until it was rediscovered in 1924 during building work in Farringdon Lane.

The River Fleet

The River Fleet flowed through this area, and it was often referred to as the “River of Wells” because of the number of fresh water springs that erupted along its course.

The waters were said to have healing qualities and some were developed into spas, bathing institutions, and pleasure gardens, the most famous of which was Sadler’s Wells. Several street names in the area, such as Great Bath Street, Cold Bath Square, Cold Bath Fields, take their names from these establishments.


On the right bank of the River Fleet (where today the public house “The Coach and Horses” stands) there was an area known as Hockley-in-the-Hole, which was often flooded. Here there were beer gardens and an entertainment arena where gruesome blood sports, such as cockfighting, bullfighting and bear baiting took place.

An excerpt from The Fascination of London: Holborn & Bloomsbury – by Sir Walter Besant, 1903:

“Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured …”

As a brief aside – during building renovations at the Coach and Horses inn, a small valise was discovered, marked with “R. Turpin”, it is thought to have belonged to the famous highway man Dick Turpin.

A Spa Pleasure Garden in London


A Spa Pleasure Garden in London


“By the turn of the eighteenth century, baiting was moving north of the river, to Hockley in the Hole in Clerkenwell, where in 1710 there was ‘a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate-market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull…which goes fairest and fastest in, wins all. Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never been baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’

Hockley was the centre of bull terrier breeding in London, and so perhaps it is natural that the sport would move there….”

The River Fleet Ditch in Clerkenwell London


The Fleet Ditch

A section of the river known as the Fleet Ditch was to become no more than an open cholera-infested sewer. Walter Besant quotes an earlier writer’s description of Saffron Hill as “narrow and mean, full of Butchers and Tripe Dressers, because the Ditch runs at the back of their Slaughter houses, and carries away the filth.”

Smithfied Market
* Smithfields Market
The Workhouse in Clerkenwell London
* Clerkenwell Workhouse

In 1710 Jonathan Swift (author of “Gullivers Travels”) made reference to the filth of the Fleet during a storm in a poem: : “Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood, Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud  Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”

In 1728 Alexander Pope wrote :   “To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames…”.

Soon many of the local springs became contaminated by the Fleet’s vile effluent and many of the wealthy residents vacated their Clerkenwell homes in favour of newer properties in  the suburbs.

From then on the comparatively low rents in Clerkenwell were understandably attractive to the poorer people.  However, many of the old properties had fallen into deep disrepair and the landlords were unscrupulous and cared more about making money than attending to any works required.  Also, crammed amongst these streets was a densely populated warren of rat-infested back streets, and a maze of blind alleys and courtyards, these were considered to have been some of the worst slums of London.

An excerpt from “The Rookeries of London” 1852 by Thomas Beames:

“It is a most unsavoury black stream of some width, it does not so much flow as rush impetuously between the walls of the houses on each side. The stream is only visible from the back of these tenements, it carries along with its current all sorts of refuse, corks, &c. floating on the surface. Its waters are dark and fetid, and it is difficult, even in cold weather, to stand a few minutes in the room when the windows looking down upon it are opened. In summer, the inhabitants tell you, the stench is intolerable.”

Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner.  Images marked * are in the Public Domain.