Dickens and London. Clerkenwell Walk.
Most of this walk is spent exploring the streets of Clerkenwell, a quirky little quarter of London that is perched on a hill above the valley of the River Fleet. In the 19th century it became one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden districts of the metropolis. Dickens knew its streets and alleyways intimately, and has left us with vivid descriptions of the filth and squalor found here before work commenced in the 1860s on a project to wipe out the slums once and for all. Known as the ‘Holborn Valley Improvement’ the scheme changed the face of the neighbourhood, and destroyed, amongst other places, Field Lane – the location of Fagin’s Lair in Oliver Twist. Yet many places of that era survive today, and several locations are still redolent of the darker side of Victorian London.
Start: Barbican Station (Circle, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan Underground lines).
Finish: Chancery Lane Station (Central Underground line).
Length: 13/4 miles (2.8 km).
Duration: 11/2 hours.
Best of times: Anytime.
Worst of times: At weekends St Andrew’s Church and the Prudential Building are closed.
Exit Barbican Underground Station, turn left along Aldersgate Street, then left into Carthusian Street, and right through the gates into the quaint, historic Charterhouse Square. Follow the road left to pause on the right outside the gates of the Charterhouse.
Originally founded as a Carthusian Monastery, the Charterhouse passed through successive owners following its dissolution by Henry VIII, before coming into the possession of the hugely wealthy Sir Thomas Sutton in 1611. Here, he established both the Charterhouse Hospital for aged men, and Charterhouse School for the education of the sons of the poor. By the early 19th century, Charterhouse had become a leading public school. However, the writer William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63), an ex-pupil, was not impressed by the establishment, later recalling how he ‘was lulled into indolence & when I grew older & could think for myself was abused into sulkiness and bullied into despair’. Although the school moved out of the area in the late 19th Century, the Charterhouse is still a hospital-cum-retirement home and can be visited at certain times of the year.
Continue ahead and go through the gates onto Charterhouse Street. The Gothic frontage of the Fox and Anchor pub is worth noting as you pass, particularly the hideous grotesques that scowl down from its upper storeys.
Keeping to the right hand pavement, you pass the ornate Smithfield Meat Market on the left.
It was built in 1868 to replace the old livestock market, whose closure in 1855 was no great loss. In Oliver Twist, the title character crossed it with Bill Sikes on market morning and found ‘the ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle’. In Great Expectations, Pip discovered the old market to be a ‘shameful place being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam’. Nowadays, the cattle arrive pre-slaughtered in huge refrigeration trucks. The market, which works through the night, is a lively enclave and, although a lot cleaner than in Dickens’s day, it can still prove somewhat gruesome.
Go first right into St John Street, where several of the buildings still possess the lifting devices and loading bays as testimony to their market-related past.
Cross over the zebra crossing, bear right and keep ahead, taking the left fork into St John’s Lane. When you reach the end, go under St John’s Gate, which was built in 1504 and is all that survives of the Priory of St John of Jerusalem.
It was here that Gentleman’s Magazine, which numbered Dr Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith amongst its contributors, was published in the 18th century. It later became the parish watch house, and by the mid-19th century was a popular public house known as the Old Jerusalem Tavern. In 1874, the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem acquired it, and three years later the St John’s Ambulance brigade was launched from here. Today, a small museum is situated inside the old gatehouses and regular tours are given.
Having passed through St John’s Gate, you are suddenly confronted by a gloomy square of featureless office blocks. Hurry left along St John’s Path, a dark, atmospheric passageway that eases between high walls to emerge onto Britton Street, where immediately on the left is the tiny Jerusalem Tavern.
Although it has only been a pub since the 1990s, it occupies an 18th-century premises, and serves up a variety of real ales, including Old English Porter, which at 6.2% proof a pint might necessitate returning to complete the walk another day!
From the tavern, turn right onto Britton Street, then left along Clerkenwell Road. Having crossed Turnmill Street, pause on the corner.
Although you can’t see it, you are standing on the banks of the River Fleet, which flows deep beneath Farringdon Road on the other side of Farringdon Station. Throughout much of the 19th century, this area was considered one of the worst slums, or ‘rookeries’ in London. It boasted one of the capital’s highest murder rates, and because Turnmill Street was seen as its centre, the locals knew it as ‘Little Hell’. It was home to pickpockets, receivers, counterfeiters and child strippers – drunken women who would lure children away in order to steal their clothing.
The slums were finally swept away by the construction of Farringdon and Clerkenwell Roads in the early 1860s, and by the construction of the Metropolitan Railway line over the wall to your right. Work began on the line in 1860 to connect Paddington to Farringdon, and it was the world’s first underground passenger railway. Despite serious misgivings at the time – notably from The Times, which considered it an ‘insult to common sense to suppose that people… would ever prefer… to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London’ – it proved an instant success. Today, Turnmill Street has little of interest, except for a superb view of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.
Backtrack to the pedestrian crossing, go over Clerkenwell Road, bearing right, then left onto Clerkenwell Green.
The large building immediately on the left is the former Middlesex Sessions House, built in 1779 and the place that Mr Bumble, ‘in the full bloom and pride of beadlehood… ’, was bound for in Oliver Twist when he proudly boasted to Mrs Mann, ‘And I very much question… whether the Clerkenwell Sessions will not find themselves in the wrong box before they have done with me.’ The courts were closed in 1919 and the premises converted to offices. In 1979, the Masonic Foundation acquired the building and restored it to its former glory.
Continue over Clerkenwell Green, which is notable for its lack of greenery.
It was hereabouts in Oliver Twist that Mr Brownlow was reading a book at a stall as the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates and Oliver ‘were just emerging from the narrow court, not far from the open square in Clerkenwell, which is yet called, by some strange perversion of terms “The Green”… ’ Oliver watched in horror ‘his eyelids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman’s pocket; and draw from thence a handkerchief… ’ Dodger and Bates escaped, leaving Oliver to take the blame.
Go clockwise, turning left at the Crown Tavern into Clerkenwell Close. Ahead of you is the church of:-
St James, dating from 1778–82, the exterior of which has a dark gloomy air in contrast to its otherwise pleasant interior. One notable feature is the 19th-century iron ‘modesty board’, placed strategically around the base of the stairs to the left of the entrance, to prevent the gentlemen of the parish looking up the ladies skirts as they ascended the stairs! Also noteworthy are the huge blackboards that show charitable bequests from long-dead parishioners to the poor of the parish.
Go down the steps to exit the church, turn left through the gate and walk to the far steps that lead up to a bricked off doorway.
To the right of these stairs is the weathered tombstone of Ellen Steinberg and her four young children, who were stabbed to death on 8th September, 1834. The murderer was Johann Steinberg, Ellen’s husband, and, as he then turned the knife on himself, his motive was never discovered. His wife and children were buried at St James’s, their tombstone paid for by public subscription. The murderous husband was buried at night in a pauper’s grave in nearby Ray Street, with a stake driven through his heart. This was the customary way of dealing with suicidal murderers in the early 19th century.
Go past the grave to exit the churchyard through the gates on the opposite side of the lawn. Turn left along St James’s Walk, left into Sans Walk and keep ahead into Clerkenwell Close, at the end of which turn right to pass through the brown brick blocks of the Peabody Trust flats.
American philanthropist George Peabody established the trust in 1862 ‘to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis and to promote their comfort and happiness’. Turn left into Pear Tree Court, thought to be the ‘narrow court’ from which the Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist and Charley Bates emerged onto Clerkenwell Green. Pear Tree Court runs onto Farringdon Lane where opposite, appropriately, is the Betsy Trotwood pub, named after David Copperfield’s formidable aunt.
Cross Farringdon Road via the pedestrian crossing on the right. Veer left then first right into Ray Street – beneath the surface of which Johann Steinberg may still be lying.
Take the first left up Herbal Hill and cross Clerkenwell Road via the crossing, bear left, then take the first right into Saffron Hill. Turn right onto Hatton Wall, left under the covered passage into Hatton Place, and on arrival at the wall with the bricked up windows look through the grey gates.
You have just walked the route along which the baying crowd brought Oliver Twist having captured him on suspicion of stealing Mr Brownlow’s handkerchief. He was ‘led beneath a low archway and up a dirty court’ to be taken in through the back door of a ‘very notorious metropolitan police office’, where he was brought before the magistrate Mr Fang. It was also along here that Nancy came, at the request of Fagin, tapping the cell doors with her keys endeavouring to locate Oliver.
Backtrack to Hatton Wall, go left and left again onto Hatton Garden. A little way along on the left pause outside:-
No 54, which offers no hint that this was once the front entrance of the Hatton Garden Police Court, the original of the ‘notorious’ police office, to which Oliver was brought. Mr Fang was based upon Mr A S Laing, an infamous magistrate working here between 1836 and 1838. According to John L Forster, on 3rd June, 1837, Dickens wrote to Mr Haines – a supervisor over police reports for the daily papers: ‘In my next number of Oliver Twist I must have a magistrate; and casting about [for one] whose harshness and insolence would render him a fit subject to be shown up, I have… stumbled upon Mr Laing of Hatton-garden celebrity… it occurred to me that perhaps I might under your auspices be smuggled into the Hatton-garden office for a few moments some morning [in order to see him]… ’ Forster records that, ‘The opportunity was found; the magistrate... brought before the novelist; and shortly after, on some fresh outbreak of intolerable temper’ Mr Laing was removed from the bench.
Continue along Hatton Garden, and go left into St Cross Street, noting the former charity school building on the corner, where a plaque gives its history.
Turn second right into Saffron Hill and keep walking ahead. Now a shadow of its former crime-ridden past, Saffron.
In the 19th century, this was a notorious rookery where crime and vice flourished. Theft was so common here that it was claimed you could have your handkerchief stolen at one end, and buy it back at the other! Bordered on its eastern side by the Fleet Ditch – in reality nothing more than a malodorous open sewer – the area was considered one of the most unwholesome parts of London, and few tears were shed when, in the 1860s, it was swept away. Towards the end on the right is the One Tun Pub, rebuilt in 1875, which claims to be the original of the Three Cripples, a favoured haunt of Fagin and Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist.
Go right into Greville Street and take the first left into the wonderfully named Bleeding Heart Yard.
Admittedly, it has changed beyond recognition since Dickens knew it, but it still has a secluded ambience. Mr Plornish and his wife, who was ‘so dragged at, by poverty and the children together, that their united forces had already dragged her face into wrinkles’, lived here in Little Dorrit and, in the same novel, the inventor Daniel Doyce had his factory ‘over the gateway’.
Exit the yard, go left along Greville Street, left onto Hatton Garden and on arrival at the old gas lamp that leans over the pavement, turn left down the narrow alleyway.
Pause alongside Ye Olde Mitre Tavern which was built in 1547, and is as timeless an old hostelry as you could wish for.
Continue through the passageway and turn right into Ely Place.
It was in one of the 18th-century townhouses of this charming enclave that Dickens set Mr Waterbrook’s house in David Copperfield. Here the adult David renewed his friendship with his old school friend Thomas Traddles at a dinner party, which was also attended by the saintly Agnes Wickfield and the very ’umble Uriah Heep.
Exit Ely Place, walk left along Charterhouse Street, turn left onto Farringdon Road and first right into Cowcross Street, where on the left is Farringdon Underground Station where this walk ends.