Tag Archives: Clerkenwell

Sans Walk, a Fenian Outrage and the Edge of London

There are three photos in my father’s collection that I have not been able to identify. They were labelled “Sans Walk area”. Sans Walk is in Clerkenwell, and the first photo shows what appears to be an empty shell of a building, probably damaged during the war.

Sans Walk

The second photo shows a corner house, in good condition and still occupied, with a lovely street lamp on the corner of the building:

Sans Walk

The third and final photo shows part of a terrace of houses, with a streetlamp and bollards in the foreground.

Sans Walk

No street names, or any other identifiable features to help locate the photos.

I thought if I walked the area around Sans Walk, I should be able to identify some of the locations. I had no idea whether the houses in the photos had been restored or demolished, but armed with printed copies of the photos I set off to walk the area on an early Autumn day.

Although I could not find the locations of the photos, what I did discover was an area packed full of history, and that once formed the edge of London as the city gradually expanded to the north.

The following map shows the places covered in the rest of the post (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Sans Walk

Sans Walk is the nearly horizontal street in the centre of the map. I did walk the rest of the streets around Sans Walk, but this post was getting rather long with just the stops shown.

I started in Clerkenwell Close, opposite the Horse Shoe pub, a very traditional pub that probably dates back to the 18th century. The earliest written records I could find date to 1824 when a newspaper report referred to an inquest into a suicide which was held in the Horse Shoe.

Sans Walk

This area of Clerkenwell is full of narrow streets. Some new buildings intrude, but many 18th and 19th century buildings survive, along with warehouses and factories from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Looking east along Clerkenwell Close:

Sans Walk

Clerkenwell Close is a strange street as it consists of a number of branches. Starting at Clerkenwell Green, it runs north-west, up to Pear Tree Court and the Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate, with the branch I am walking along turning off and running up to Bowling Green Lane and Corporation Row. At one point the street runs parallel to a pedestrian alley, both called Clerkenwell Close, and indicative of how the area has developed as large warehouses replaced earlier streets, alley and buildings.

Sans Walk

New buildings had been added, but they are generally at the same height as the existing buildings, so despite the architectural and material changes, they blend in. Providing they are in keeping with the scale of the area, and there is a justification to replace rather than restore the  original building, it is good to have new buildings. The streets in the area have buildings from the last few centuries and 21st century additions are part of the continuous development of London.

Sans Walk

The above building was built on the corner of the playground of a Victorian school. The curving wall at street level retains a plaque recording the gift of Sir Robert Wood to the parish in 1844. I suspect this refers to the land:

Sans Walk

We are still in Clerkenwell Close, and the following building tells of the late 19th century expansion of London schools and the London School Board.

Sans Walk

The London School Board was responsible for the development of many of the large, brick, late 19th century schools that can still be found across London. As well as their construction, the London School Board was also responsible for their operation, and the supply of all the goods and materials needed to fit out, and keep a school running.

The Board consolidated the process of standardisation and supply, and one of the methods used was large central warehouses. The buildings in Clerkenwell Close were built between 1895 and 1897 as warehouses for school furniture, stationery and needlework supplies.

The growth in the volume of space needed grew in the early 20th century, and in 1920 an extra floor was added to the top of the Stationery and Needlework warehouse on the right of the above photo, and this addition is still visible in the change of brick colour from red/orange to  a brown brick for the 20th century addition of the top floor.

In the above photo, the furniture store was on the left, and the Stationery and Needlework departments were on the right, and these functions are still recorded in stone, above the doors.

Sans Walk

The initials at the top are those of the London School Board.

One of the schools that the warehouse would have supplied is directly opposite:

Sans Walk

The school was the Hugh Myddelton School, built by the London School Board in 1893 and with the distinction of being the only London School Board school opened by a member of the Royal family after it was opened by the Prince of Wales in December 1893.

Such was the importance of the visit of the Prince of Wales that the London School Board allocated £100 towards preparations for the visit, which caused some consternation as the money was thought better spent on education.

In his opening speech, the Prince of Wales said that the London School Board had contributed to a “marked advance in education, diminution in crime and an undoubted increase in general intelligence”.

Lesson in the Hugh Myddleton School in 1906:

 

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0208_3943

Drill in the open area outside the school, also 1906:

Sans Walk

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0208_68_4984

When opened, the school was the largest and most expensive built by the London School Board. The school had a number of special departments, including the Hugh Myddleton School for the Deaf. The site on which the school stands has an unusual history.

From 1845, the space occupied by the school had been the site of the Middlesex House of Detention, built as a short stay prison due to overcrowding in other prisons, the Middlesex House of Detention was demolished in 1886.

Some of the reception cells of the prison were in the basement, and these survived the demolition of the main building and were incorporated in the basement of the Hugh Myddelton School, and are presumably still there.

The school closed in 1971, was a Further Education College for the next couple of decades before being sold for development into flats and offices in 1999.

The site of the school, when occupied by the Middlesex House of Detention was the site of a bomb explosion in December 1867 reported extensively as the Fenian Outrage in the newspapers of the time.

This took place at the perimeter wall of the prison which ran along the northern edge of the site, in Corporation Street:

Sans Walk

The Fenians was another name for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation formed in the 1850s to fight for an independent, democratic Ireland.

The bomb was an attempt to free Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and Joseph Casey who had been arrested earlier regarding Burke’s attempts to purchase arms and ammunition in Birmingham, and a previous attempt to free a prisoner in transit, when a guard had been killed.

The view along Corporation Row in the immediate aftermath of the explosion:

Sans Walk

The Illustrated London News carried the following report of the explosion:

“The whole neighbourhood of Clerkenwell was startled at a quarter to four on Friday afternoon by an explosion, which resembled an earthquake. The houses were shaken violently, the windows in many cases were broken, and in some instances persons were thrown to the ground by the violence of the concussion. The scene of the explosion proved to be the wall of the House of Detention, opposite Corporation-row, some sixty feet of which were knocked down, and it was not long before the discovery was made that numerous persons were seriously, and some fatally injured, and that the calamity had been wilfully caused. It was at once attributed to the Fenians, the motive alleged being a desire to rescue Burke and Casey, who are confined in the prison, and facts which have since come to light show that this theory is the correct one.

The clearest account of what actually took place is given by a boy about thirteen years of age, named John Abbott, who is now in St Batholomew’s Hospital, happily not very much hurt.

This youth who lived in Corporation-row, says that at about a quarter to four o’clock he was standing at Mr Young’s door, No 5, when he saw a large barrel close to the wall of the prison, and a man leave the barrel and cross the road. 

Shortly afterwards the man returned with a long squib in each hand. One of these he gave to some boys who were playing in the street, and the other he thrust into the barrel. One of the boys was smoking and he handed the man a light, which the man applied to the squib. The man stayed a short time until he saw the squib began to burn, and then he ran away. A policeman ran after him, and when the policeman arrived opposite No 5, the thing went off.

The boy saw no more after that, as he himself was covered in bricks and mortar. The man, he says, was dressed something like a gentleman. He had on a brown overcoat and black hat, and had light hair and whiskers. He should know him again if he saw him. 

There was a white cloth over the barrel, which was black, and when the man returned with the squib he partly uncovered the barrel, but did not wholly remove the cloth. There were several men and women in the street at the time, and children playing. Three little boys were standing near the barrel at the time. Some of the people ran after the man who lighted the squib.

The effects of the explosion were soon visible in all directions. The windows of the prison itself, of coarse glass more than a quarter of an inch thick, were to a large extent broken, and the side of the building immediately facing the outer wall in which the breach was made, and about 150 feet from it, bears the marks of the bricks which were hurled against it by the explosion. The wall surrounding the prison is about 25 feet high, 2 feet 3 inches thick at the bottom, and about 14 inches thick at the top.

As to the number of persons injured it was impossible for some hours to learn anything satisfactory. It was found, however, that something like fifty at least had been hurt, and that two or three were killed. Thirty six of the sufferers were removed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where three died in the course of the evening, and six to the Royal Free Hospital in Gray’s Inn Road. Of the wounded some were mere infants, and the husband of a women, who has since died of injuries she sustained, lies in St Bartholomew’s; shockingly bruised and prostrated. Others are missing”.

In the following days, 12 were confirmed to have died in the explosion, with very many injuries.

A number of Fenian sympathisers were arrested, but after trial only one, Michael Barrett, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death. Barrett was the last person to be publically hung outside Newgate Prison.

The scene in Corporation Row after the explosion. A temporary wall has been erected to plug the gap caused by the explosion, and the walls of the opposite houses are being held up with timber supports.

Sans Walk

On a quiet autumn day in 2020 it is hard to imagine the explosion and devastation in Corporation Row.

As well as the Hugh Myddleton School built on the site of the prison, there is another closed school near by. Parts of the wall surrounding the playground and one of the entrances for infants can be seen in front of the recent building that now occupies part of the playground space.

Sans Walk

This is Bowling Green Lane School, built in 1874:

Sans Walk

Another London Board School, part of the site was originally a parish cemetery, along with housing and a tavern.

When the Hugh Myddleton School opened, Bowling Green Lane School became the junior school for the Hugh Myddleton.

Sans Walk

Having built and run many schools in the later part of the 19th century, the London School Board would become part of the London County Council when the authority took over responsibilities for education across London.

A rather nice London County Council coat of arms can still be seen on the side of the school facing the street.

Sans Walk

Bowling Green Lane school closed in 1970, but continued to provide additional space for Islington Green Secondary School until 1982 when it was converted into a range of business spaces, and today, a sign adjacent to the Girls and Infants entrance confirms that Zaha Hadid Architects now occupy the old school.

Sans Walk

The name of the school is after Bowling Green Lane, the street that runs in front of the school. This is both an old street and name and is named after the Bowling Greens that once occupied the land to the north of the street as shown in this extract from Ogilby and Morgan’s map of London published in 1677:

Sans Walk

For many years, Bowling Green Lane and Corporation Row were the northern edge of this part of London, with open space on the northern side of the streets.

The following map extract is from a map produced in 1755 for Stowe’s survey of London. The orientation is rather strange as north is to the left, east is at the top of the map.

Sans Walk

The built areas of Clerkenwell are to the right (south) and open space to the left (north) until we come to the New River Head.

Hugh Myddleton was the driving force behind the construction of the New River and round pond at New River Head, and the large new London School Board school was named after him.

Sadler’s Wells were just north of New River Head and the open space between Sadler’s Wells and Clerkenwell was often a dangerous place for those returning in the dark from entertainments – see my post on Sadler’s Wells.

I now reached Sans Walk, the street that was apparently the centre for the three photos.

Sans Walk appears to have been in existence at the time of the Middlesex House of Detention, but seems to have gone by the name of Short’s Buildings – the name of a terrace of buildings on the southern edge of the street.

The name Sans Walk seems to have come into use by 1893 and the name comes from Edward Sans, the oldest member of the parish vestry at the time.

In the western side of Sans Walk, there are new buildings on the southern edge and the old Hugh Myddleton School on the northern edge of the street:

Sans Walk

Ornate, carved name of the school, high up on the wall to the left of the building.

Sans Walk

The initials of the London School Board are also prominently displayed on the right of the school building:

Sans Walk

The eastern stretch of Sans Walk – I could not match any of the buildings in the street with those shown in my father’s photos.

Sans Walk

On the side wall of the house at the eastern end of Sans Walk is this plaque making clear that the entire wall is the property of the County of Middlesex. No idea if that applies to the rest of the house behind the wall, or just the wall.

Sans Walk

Looking down Sans Walk from the east.

Sans Walk

The building on the left does look like a restored version of one of the terrace of houses in the first photo, however the location is completely wrong. the house above is only a single house on the end of a very different terrace, and there is a road passing immediately in front of the house, with Sans Walk on the right.

At the end of Sans Walk is Woodbridge Street. I could not find any houses that matched the photos.

Sans Walk

Running along the opposite side of the houses to Woodbridge Street is Sekforde Street, lined with early terrace houses, but again nothing that matched my father’s photos.

Sans Walk

Half way along the street is an interesting building. painted white, that stands out from the terrace of houses on either side.

This is the former head office of the Finsbury Bank for Savings.

Sans Walk

The Finsbury Bank for Savings opened in August 1816 at St. John’s Square, Clerkenwell Green. Formed to provide a service for small traders, labourers etc.

The bank moved premises to the building in Sekforde Street shown in the photo above in April 1841 after being built for the bank during the previous year.

Although the bank was intended for customers with limited savings, it was used by many more affluent customers, including the author Charles Dickens.

The Finsbury Bank for Savings went through a series of mergers, eventually becoming part of TSB, which in turn was taken over by Lloyds Bank.

I failed in the aim of the walk, to find the locations of my father’s photos around Sans Walk, although one of the aims of searching for these locations is to explore the surrounding area, and there was plenty to be found around Sans Walk.

The schools and warehouses of the London School Board, a 19th century bomb planted by the Fenians, the northward limit of Clerkenwell in the 18th century and streets that record lost bowling greens and one of London’s early saving banks – all within a short walk.

London is always best explored on foot and almost every street tells a story.

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Albion Place, Clerkenwell – A Lost Terrace

Walk up St John Street, north of Smithfield, and turn up St John’s Lane towards St John’s Gate, and on the left you will find Albion Place. My father’s 1947 photo of the street shows a pedestrianised street with a row of terrace houses. In the distance the street descends rapidly towards Farringdon Station, the descent of the street indicating that this was once down to the valley of the River Fleet.

Albion Place

Albion Place in 2020:

Albion Place

The name Albion Place was in my father’s notes to the strip of negatives which included this photo. I was concerned whether this was indeed the right location. Apart from the way the street descends, there are no other visual clues. All the buildings in the 1947 photo have since been demolished. Albion Place is no longer pedestrianised, and the street today looks wider than it appeared in 1947.

Albion Place is shown in the lower right of the following map, between St John’s Lane and Britton Street. Benjamin Street then continues on towards Turnmill Street and the tracks of the railway into Farringdon Station (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Albion Place

The main cause of my doubt about the location was the junction with Britton Street. This is on the right, at the end of Albion Place, just before Benjamin Street descends towards Farringdon.

The junction with Britton Street cannot be seen in my father’s photo – indeed the street appears to be a continuous row of buildings.

I have been able to confirm this is Albion Place through a single visual clue, as well as a couple of other pointers.

Firstly, towards the end of Benjamin Street, there is a building that juts out and narrows Benjamin Street towards the junction with Turnmill Street.

The building has a unique outline. Today, a tree has grown up against the building and hides the edge of the wall and roof:

Albion Place

However I can demonstrate this is the same building as one seen at the very end of the 1947 photo.

In the photo below, on the left, is an enlargement from my father’s photo showing the very end of the street. There is a building jutting out and I have outlined in red the shape of the upper wall, up towards the roof.

In the photo on the right, I have marked the same outline of upper wall and roof.

Albion Place

The two buildings both edge out into Benjamin Street, and both appear to have the same upper wall and roof shape. Would be clearer without the tree, but they appear to be the same.

I also checked the 1894 Ordinance Survey map, and in Albion Place, there is a row of terrace houses in exactly the right place (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’):

Albion Place

The OS map also shows Britton Street (then Red Lion Street) and the junction with Albion Place. I have no idea why this does not appear in my father’s 1947 photo, I assume the junction is there – just the perspective of the photo, and the way the buildings line the route of Albion Place and continue straight down to Benjamin Street.

I found one final confirmation of the location. The London Metropolitan Archives, Collage Collection has a single photo of Albion Place, dated 1956 which although photographed in the opposite direction towards St John’s Lane, includes a view of the same terrace.

Albion Place

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01 080 56 4132

The houses look the same, even the house on the left having the two steps to the door, with single steps serving the rest of the houses – exactly the same as in my father’s photo.

In the 9 years between the two photos, Albion Place has lost the rather nice lamp posts. In 1956 a new concrete lamp post is in place.

The following photo is looking up Albion Place from the junction with Britton Street, and shows the same building at the end of the street, on St John’s Lane, as in the Collage photo above.

Albion Place

Albion Place has a long history. The land was originally part of the outer precinct of the Hospitallers’ Priory of St John of Jerusalem, which extended down to Cowcross Street by Smithfield Market, Turnmill Street to the west and St John (‘s) Street to the east.

The street seems to have been built in the late 17th century, and was probably part of the gradual growth of the City northwards, as housing and industrial premises were built over what had been the lands of St John’s Priory.

The following map extract from William Morgan’s 1682 map of London shows the area as it was with the location of Albion Place marked by the red oval, on space then occupied by what appears to be the Earl of Berkleys property.

Albion Place

When built, the street was originally called George’s Court, and had changed name to Albion Place by 1822 when the court had been rebuilt to the form seen in my father’s photo, and is presumably from when the terrace of houses date.

The growth of Clerkenwell was linked to industries such as watch and clock making and Albion Place was home to the inventor of an alloy which would reduce the price of ornate 18th century clocks.

Gold was originally sold as 18 carat standard, and was therefore expensive when used as the casing for a clock or watch. Christopher Pinchbeck, who lived in Albion Place invented an alloy of copper and zinc which very nearly resembled gold. Pinchbeck moved from Albion Place to Fleet Street in 1721.

The name “Pinchbeck” was given to this new alloy, which was widely used for the cases of clocks and watches up until the mid 19th century when the sale of lower carat gold was legalised.

By the time of Rocque’s 1746 map of London, the street that would become Albion Place was now shown on the map as George’s Court. Benjamin Street had also been built down to Turnmill Street.

Albion Place

The following photo shows Benjamin Street. Albion Place has a shallow reduction in height, which is far greater in Benjamin Street, as the land descends to what was the Fleet valley which ran just across the railway tracks into Farringdon Station, roughly along the route of Farringdon Road.

Albion Place

The following photo shows the view along Britton Street – the street originally named Red Lion Street. This is the junction that caused me to doubt whether the photo was of Albion Place as it could not be seen in my father’s photo.

Albion Place

View back up Benjamin Street and Albion Place. To the north of Benjamin Street (to the left in the following photo) is a small green space – St John’s Gardens.

Albion Place

St John’s Gardens was originally the burial ground of St John’s Church – the parish church that was in St John’s Square, and following wartime bombing, now rebuilt as the Priory Church of the Order of St John.

The area was taken on by the parish in 1754 and used until 1853 when it was closed under the Burials Act. The burial ground originally did not face directly onto Benjamin Street. As shown in the 1894 OS map earlier in this post, a line of buildings ran along Benjamin Street with St John’s Gardens being an enclosed square. This can also be seen in the 1947 photo where buildings line the far end of the street.

Today, the gardens form a valuable bit of green space.

Albion Place

Albion Place

There is a rather poignant mural in the gardens.

Albion Place

It was created by Emma Douglas in memory of her son Cato Heath who died aged twenty one in 2010. Each coloured rectangle represents a day in the life of her son, with the colour of the rectangles representing an event, for example a black rectangle for a doctor’s appointment.

The mural created by Emma in St John’s Gardens is one of a number to be found.

On the corner of Albion Place and Britton Street is a rather interesting building:

Albion Place

This is the Grade II listed 44 Britton Street originally built for Janet Street-Porter and designed by Piers Gough.

Before her career in the media, Janet Street-Porter trained at the Architects Association where she met Piers Gough. She wanted a house that did not follow the old English tradition with rooms being in well defined places. She also wanted a house that did not look too friendly and looked a bit hostile, so there is no outward facing door to the building. The entrance is tucked away at the rear of the building in a courtyard.

The bricks used in the construction are shaded, starting with dark bricks at the base, getting gradually lighter towards the top of the walls. This was to give the impression that the base of the building is in shade, with the top of the building in perpetual sunlight.

The external lintels above the windows are in the shape of concrete logs.

Janet Street-Porter lived in the house from 1988 to 2001. There is an episode of the BBC programme Building Sights dating from 1991 with Janet Street-Porter talking about, and showing the interior of the building. The programme can be found on the BBC iPlayer here – it is worth a watch.

On the opposite corner of Albion Place and Britton Street there is another interesting building. This is the Goldsmiths Centre:

Albion Place

The Goldsmiths Centre was founded by the Goldsmiths Company, one of the twelve great livery companies of the City of London, as a charity for the professional training of goldsmiths.

The centre provides a location where the technical skills of gold and silversmithing and jewelry working can be taught and developed. The building also provides support for developing business, with shared studio space in which to work.

The Goldsmiths Centre is in a rather appropriate location given the history of Clerkenwell with the trades associated with metal working.

The Goldsmiths Centre was opened in 2012. The building on the Albion Place corner is a modern addition to a Grade II Listed 1872 Victorian London Board School, which together form the Goldsmiths Centre.

The main entrance to, and the main school building is in Eagle Court which runs from Britton Street back up to St John’s Lane.

Eagle Court is shown in Rocque’s map, and in the earlier 1682 map by Morgan appears to be shown as Vinegar Yard, so Eagle Court is older than Albion Place.

The name Eagle Court comes from Eagle’s House which appears to have been a mid 14th century mansion built along the western edge of St John’s Lane. The house was named after the Templar preceptory of Eagle in Lincolnshire and acted as the Clerkenwell residence of the bailiff as the senior official of this preceptory.

The view up Eagle Court towards St John’s Lane:

Albion Place

Before the school was built, Eagle Court had long been a dense court of workshops and houses. Industrial processes being performed next to living space.

Work was dangerous and accidents were frequent. for example on December 5th, 1738 “A fire broke out in the workshop of Mr Tabery, a Japanner in Eagle Court, St John’s Lane, occasioned by the Varnish Pot boiling over. Two men were so miserably burnt that their lives are despaired of”.

The area around Albion Place and Eagle Court was densely populated and criminality was rife. The location for the school was chosen by the London School Board for this very reason, as introducing a formal education was seen as one of the means to improve the future prospects of the residents.

When the school was being built in 1873 and 1874, the workmen and the location needed a police guard to protect them and the building materials for the school from the lawless elements of the local population.

The school backs onto Albion Place, and is often referred to as being in Albion Place. The following article from April 1906 provides another example of the crime in the area which was probably heightened by the precious metals which could be found in the workshops:

“DESPERATE BURGLARS – SCHOOL CARETAKER ATTACKED WITH JEMMY. The caretaker of the London County Council School at Albion Place, Clerkenwell, was found lying in a pool of blood with his head severely cut on Saturday night under mysterious circumstances.

When the premises next door were opened the ground floor window was found to have been forced and the entire premises ransacked. The second floor was occupied by a gold refiner. Several hundred pounds worth of gold and silver were on this floor, and the men removed a considerable quantity.

It was when the burglars were leaving via the schoolyard that they were surprised by the caretaker. He was rendered unconscious by blows from a jemmy, which the men dropped.

The caretaker has not yet been able to give any account of the affair. The burglars worked leisurely, and cleaned the window before leaving to remove all traces of incriminating finger prints”.

The increasing level of workshops and industry in the area resulted in the reduction of family homes and the number of children resulting in the closure of the school in 1918.

For the rest of the 20th century, the old school buildings hosted a wide range of educational functions including Cordwainers’ Technical College, the LCC Smithfield Institute and Smithfield College of Food Technology, the College of Distributive Trades, and following a merger with the London College of Printing, the old school buildings became the London Institute.

The current use of the building as the Goldsmiths Centre therefore continues a long educational tradition, including a century of use as a technical educational centre.

Unlike many buildings created by the London School Board, the building consists of only two floors. This was intentional so as not to cast the buildings opposite in this narrow street, in permanent shadow,

Albion Place

I have walked just a few short streets, down Albion Place, along Benjamin Street, then back up to St John’s Lane via Eagle Court, but these few streets reveal their part in the long history of Clerkenwell. From the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, through the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries when the area was home to watch, clock and metal working, an area of dense population with high levels of crime.

The terrace shown in my father’s photo survived until the late 1960s. If the terrace had been renovated, and if Albion Place had stayed a pedestrianised street, with bollards and cast iron lamps, this could have been a lovely street. Although, we always need to be careful when looking back at the past, and remember the lessons of Christopher Pinchbeck’s alloy that all that glitters is not gold.

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Sadler’s Wells – How Water Shaped North Clerkenwell

London today is covered by streets, pavements and buildings. Apart from the larger parks, there are a limited number of small green spaces. So much of what shaped the surface has been long hidden, but we can still find signs as to why the built environment appears as it does, and how names recall features we cannot see.

Clerkenwell, up to the Angel has been shaped by water. The River Fleet created much of the western boundary. New River Head was built at a point which was almost at the same 100m contour that followed the river back to the springs in Hertfordshire, the fall in height to the City and Thames provided a distribution system using gravity.

We can see this by overlaying an elevation map on top of a street map. In the following extract, dark blues are lowest height, with the colours changing up to red as height increases (map from topographic-map.com)

Sadler's Wells

We can see the dark blues of the River Fleet valley. As elevation increases the map shades through green then orange and red as the height increases up to north Clerkenwell, Finsbury and the Angel at the top centre of the map.

Much of this area had numerous springs and wells, and as the land increased in height, it passed through bands of London Clay and gravel, and it is a band of gravel and a well that gave rise to the location of today’s post – Sadler’s Wells.

Sadler’s Wells is a world leading theatre and centre of dance, located at the northern end of Rosebery Avenue. There has been a theatre on the site for many centuries, the current building opened in 1998, photographed below looking north along Rosebery Avenue with Arlington Way on the left.

Sadler's Wells

William J. Pinks in the History of Clerkenwell (1865) describes the origins of Sadler’s Wells: “This popular place of amusement is the oldest theatre in London. Some time before the year 1683 a wooden building, called Sadler’s Music House, stood on the north side of the New River about this spot. Sadler, as well as being the proprietor of this establishment, was a surveyor of the highways. In the year last mentioned, his servants, while digging in the garden for gravel, discovered a well of mineral water, which shortly afterwards became very celebrated for its curative properties; so that it was visited by five or six hundred people every morning”.

The well that Edward Sadler’s workmen had discovered possibly dated from the 12th century or earlier when many of the wells in Clerkenwell were used by the Clerkenwell priory to persuade people that the virtue of the waters came from the strength of their prayers. (Books have different accounts of Sadler’s first name, with Richard or Dick being frequent references, however the Survey of London concludes Edward as being the almost certain name, based on a Chancery Court proceeding against him. Edward Sadler was a vintner, who in 1671 had taken a 35 year lease on the area that would become Sadler’s Wells).

The wells were closed at the reformation as they were claimed to support a superstitious believe in the power of the waters.

Pinks provides some additional description of the well found by the workmen: “When they had dug pretty deep, one of them found his pick axe handle strike upon something that was very hard, whereupon he endeavoured to break it, but could not,; whereupon, thinking within himself that it might, peradventure, be some treasure hid there, he uncovered it very carefully, and found it to be a broad flat stone, which having loosed and lifted up, he saw it was supported by four oaken posts, and under it a large well of stone arched over, and curiously carved”.

Sadler capitalised on the discovery of the well, and quickly promoted the health benefits of the waters, and as Pinks described, the wells were soon visited by several hundred people a day.  Sadler encouraged the regular drinking of the waters, and put on several forms of entertainment to encourage people to come, stay, and spend money. Treatment included recommendations to stay at the well for a whole day, drinking the waters at specified times, walking and resting around the surrounding gardens in between drinking sessions.

Sadler and the well that his workmen discovered would provide the name for the site, and most histories seem to put the discovery of the well as the starting point for the following centuries of the site as a place of entertainment, however Pinks provides a hint that it was probably providing such a function for many years prior to 1683:

“A petition from the proprietor of Sadler’s Wells to the House of Commons, stating that the site was a place of public entertainment in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. If this be correct, Sadler was certainly not its first possessor for musical purposes and water drinking”.

It appears that Sadler was not running the site for too many years after discovery of the well, and the popularity of the well would also quickly decline. In the 1690’s the well appears to have been closed, but by June 1697 the following advert would appear in the ‘Post Boy’:

“Sadler’s excellent Steel Waters, at Islington, having been obstructed for some years past, are now opened and current again, and the waters are found to be in their full vigour, strength and virtue, as ever they were, as is attested and assured by the physicians who have since fully tried them”.

By 1699 the building occupying the site was called Miles’s Music House, and entertainment, rather than the waters seems to have been the main focus.

The following photo was taken a little further south along Rosebery Avenue and shows how close Sadler’s Wells is to New River Head which is on the left, with the curved Laboratory Building on the left of the theatre.

Sadler's Wells

Today, Sadler’s Wells is in the heart of north Clerkenwell / Islington. A short distance south from the busy junction at the Angel, however the theatre has its origins when the area was still rural.

In the following extract from Rocque’s 1746 map, I have circled the location of Sadler’s Wells.

Sadler's Wells

The rectangular shape in the upper part of the circle is presumably the theatre, surrounded by gardens. Note the New River coming in from top right down to the round pond of New River Head to the left of Sadler’s Wells. The New River would form a southern border for the site for many years. The River Fleet is on the left of the map, running between the lines that indicate sloping land forming the valley of the river – exactly as we can see today on the elevation map, and when walking the streets.

The map also shows that in 1746, over 60 years since the discovery of the well, Sadler’s Wells was still surrounded by fields.

At night, the area between Sadler’s Wells and the City was a notorious area for thieves, and those heading back often risked their lives, as the following report from the Newcastle Courant in 1716 makes clear:

“On Saturday Night, a Gentlewoman, one Madam Napp, and her Son, betwixt 10 and 11 coming from Sadler’s Wells at Islington, where they have been to see the Diversion of Dancing, to their House in Warwick Court in Holburn; were attacked by some Foot Padders, on this Side of Gray’s Inn Garden Wall. 

The Gentleman Collar’d one of them, and flung him down to the Ground, and whilst he was struggling with another, his Mother cryed out Murder; upon which the third Rogue fired a Pistol and shot her dead.

Some People at Bromley Street hearing the Pistol go off, ran to see what was the Matter, and the Roques scoured off, and had not Time to take any Thing from the Gentleman, but his Hat and Wigg. A Soldier, and two others, were seized on Suspicion of being the Rogues, and carried before Mr Plummer, a Justice of the Peace in Bedford Row, who committed them to Newgate”.

Not every attempted robbery ended with such fatal consequences, but judging by the number of newspaper reports, care needed to be taken when walking home at the end of an evening’s performance.

One hundred years later, and London had reached, and surrounded Sadler’s Wells as shown in the following extract from Reynolds’s Splendid New Map of London of 1847:

Sadler's Wells

And for no other reason than I love maps, and will use any excuse to put one in a post, this is an extract from the large scale map of Clerkenwell in Pinks’ History of Clerkenwell, showing the location of Sadler’s Wells around 1860.

Sadler's Wells

From Sadler’s original Music House, the buildings of Sadler’s Wells have been through many iterations with rebuilds and additions as the popularity of the site changed, along with the type of entertainments put on by the theatre.

In 1731, 15 years before the Roque map, the following print shows Sadler’s Wells in a very rural location, the theatre surrounded by trees and a couple of out buildings.

Sadler's Wells

Sadler’s Wells also featured in a 1738 print by Hogarth from his Four Times of Day series. In “Evening”, we see the entrance to Sadler’s Wells on the left, with the inn, the Sir Hugh Myddelton on the right. In the scene, a Dyer and his family are strolling over a footbridge by the New River.

Sadler's Wells

The entertainments provided at Sadler’s Wells were many and varied. An advert from July 1740 stated that there would be “rope-dancing, tumbling, singing, and several new grand dances, both serious and comic. With a new entertainment called ‘The Birth of Venus’ or Harlequin Paris’. Concluding with ‘The Loves of Zephyrus and Flora’. The scenes, machines, dresses and music being entirely new”.

An advert from 1742, concluded with “Several extraordinary performances by M. Henderick Kerman, the famous ladder dancer”.

In the 1740s. Sadler’s Wells were described as a place of “great extravagance, luxury, idleness and ill fame”, and that there were frequently great numbers of loose, disorderly people.

Probably because of the perception of Sadler’s Wells, it was included in a number of satirical prints of the time, including the following print from 1784:

Sadler's Wells

The devil plays the violin whilst three dogs dance. Each dog has the head of a politician. The Whig politician Charles James Fox is on the left. Facing him is the Whig MP Edmund Burke, and on the right is Lord North, who had resigned as Prime Minister the previous year following a vote of no confidence after the loss of the American War of Independence.

Dancing dogs were indeed one of the 18th century forms of entertainment at Sadler’s Wells, and other forms of animal entertainment included a singing duck.

In the 18th century, theatres and plays needed to be licensed. The Licensing Act of 1737 theoretically prevented all theatres apart from the Royal Patent Theatres at Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Haymarket, from putting on drama without musical accompaniment. Many theatres did continue to put on productions, including Sadler’s Wells and the licence conditions do not seem to have been rigorously enforced. They were mainly meant to prevent anti-government propaganda, with plays having to be submitted for approval. Remarkably, this continued until 1968.

In 1790, Sadler’s Wells had a large sign on the side of the building indicating that the theatre was licensed.

Sadler's Wells

There was tragedy at Sadler’s Wells in 1807, when eighteen people lost their lives and many more were badly injured. From a newspaper report of the time:

“DREADFUL ACCIDENT AT SADLER’S WELLS. On Thursday night, as the curtain was letting down at Sadler’s Wells theatre, to prepare for the water scene, in the Wood Daemon, a quarrel commenced in the pit, and some people cried out ‘A Fight’. The exclamation was mistaken for a cry of ‘Fire’. It was a benefit night and the house was crowded. Every part was immediately terror and confusion; the people in the gallery, pit and boxes, all pressed eagerly forward to the doors, but could not obtain egress in time to answer their impatience. The pressure was dreadful; those next to the avenues were thrown down and run over by those immediately behind, without distinction of age or sex. Of those quite in the rear some became desperate; they threw themselves from the gallery into the pit, and from the boxes onto the stage. A horrible discord of screams, oaths and exclamations reigned throughout. On the exterior of the theatre, the scene was not less dreadful; at every door and avenue might be seen people dragging out those persons whose strength was exhausted, and who were unable to effect their escape, but had just strength to gain the passage, or had been forced forward by the crowd behind. Not less than 50 women were fainting at the same time, on the inside and outside of the house”.

Of the 18 dead, there were seven men, seven women, three boys and one girl. Two men suspected of causing the initial commotion were taken to Clerkenwell Bridewell and brought before a judge, however he directed the jury that they could not be found guilty of murder or manslaughter, and that the eighteen met their deaths “Casually, accidentally and by misfortune”.

On a happier note, the first couple of decades of the 19th century were when the actor, comedian and dancer, Joseph Grimaldi was one of the leading attractions of Sadler’s Wells, and also recognised as one of London theatres leading clowns.

Grimaldi appeared at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells theatres, but appears to have been more successful at the Islington venue. In 1812 he earned £8 a week at Covent Garden and £12 a week at Sadler’s Wells.

It was common at the time to publish the songs from well known entertainers such as Grimaldi, along with a suitable drawing portraying the theme of the song. One of those sung by Joseph Grimaldi at Sadler’s Wells in 1807 was Poll of Horselydown:Sadler's Wells

Also in the early years of the 19th century, Sadler’s Wells made use of the theatres proximity to the New River. Pinks writes that “An immense tank was constructed under the stage, and extending beyond it, which was filled by a communication with the New River, and emptied again at pleasure. On this aquatic stage, the boards being removed, was given a mimic representation of the Siege of Gibraltar, in which real vessels of considerable size, bombarded the fortress, but were subdued by the garrison, and several of them in appearance burnt”.

The Aquatic Theatre as such performances were known added another novel element to the performances at Sadler’s Wells. The following ticket was for a box on Monday 22nd September 1817 to watch one of the aquatic performances.

Sadler's Wells

The view on the ticket presents Sadler’s Wells still in a rural setting. Trees in the gardens and the New River flowing alongside the boundary of the theatre.

As well as the Siege of Gibraltar, another performance that made use of the water tanks under the stage was the Battle of the Nile, performed with “Real Water”.

Sadler's Wells

We can get an impression of the interior of the theate during one of the aquatic performances from the following print. The boards on the stage have been removed and the performance is now taking place in a large tank of water.

Sadler's Wells

It was common for audience members to throw themselves into the water at the end of a performance – probably with the help of plenty of alcohol consumed during the evening.

Competition for London audiences was intense, and perhaps more difficult for Sadler’s Wells having a location outside the centre of London. The theatre was always on the look out for ever more dramatic and daring events.

in May 1833 Sadler’s Wells announced that there would be a stupendous representation of the Russian Mountains. This consisted of “sliding down at break-neck speeds in cars along a highly inclined plane of wood, previously laid over with blocks of ice united into a mass of water thrown purposely over them. The cars descended with great velocity from a considerable height at the extremity of the stage across the orchestra to the back of the pit”. No record of what must have been a number of injuries from this performance.

A colour print of the entrance to Sadler’s Wells with the New River running alongside:

Sadler's Wells

The following print from 1830, also shows Sadler’s Wells and the New River, but look at the background, just to the left of the theatre and there is a smoking chimney – the pump house at New River Head.

Sadler's Wells

From the 1840s onwards, the performances put on by Sadler’s Wells started to change. No more dancing dogs or representations of sea battles, rather more intellectual and improving performances. Samuel Phelps, the manager at this time planned to put on productions of all of Shakespeare’s plays. He succeeded with 30 plays, and under his management there were four thousand nights of Shakespeare’s plays with Hamlet being put on for 400 nights.

By this time, Sadler’s Wells was a substantial theatre. London had now grown out from the centre and surrounded the theatre, which had also lost most of the gardens and trees. The theatre in 1850:

Sadler's Wells

Although by the second half of the 19th century, Sadler’s Wells was putting on serious productions, some were not without controversy, such as when the American actress Adah Menken appeared in May 1868. The Era provides the following description of the performance:

“SADLER’S WELLS – Miss Menken has been giving her celebrated impersonation of Mazeppa at this house during the week. The audiences have been good, and the far famed actress has nightly been received with great applause. Though Mademoiselle causes a sensation by appearing very sparsely clad in the course of her performance, she is splendidly dressed at the commencement of it. Her page’s costume, which she wears as Casimer in the first act, is of the most costly and gorgeous nature. Whatever may be thought of the propriety of a lady making a public exhibition of her figure, with the outlines of it almost as distinct as those of a piece of undrapped sculpture, there can be no question that the beauty of the form displayed by Miss Menken is of remarkable character”.

In the latter decades of the 19th century, Sadler’s Wells went through a period of considerable change, and a variety of uses. During one period of four years, the theatre had eleven managers. Shows were put on, but they were not successful enough to attract the funding needed.

In 1875, 104 pounds of lead were stolen from the theatre’s roof. There were rumours that the building might be sold for a furniture warehouse, but by June 1876, the theatre had been converted and reopened as the New Spa Skating Rink and Winter Garden – however this use failed within a couple of months.

The building was used for boxing and wrestling matches, although these events were closed down by Police. In 1878 an application for a theatre licence was refused because the building still had wooden stairs which were considered a danger compared to stone stairs.

The theatre did manage to stagger on, putting on a range of different productions from variety to serious drama – all with variable success. For a short time at the start of World War I, the building was in use as a cinema.

Real change came in 1925. The Old Vic, south of the Thames was run by Lilian Baylis, and during the 1920s the plan to expand north of the river was considered. Baylis pursued the idea of purchasing Sadler’s Wells and engaged as many people in public life as possible to support the proposal, and to raise funds. On the 30th March 1925, a public appeal was launched:

“To purchase Sadler’s Wells (freehold), reconstruct the interior, and save it, with its historic traditions, for the Nation,

To establish it as a Foundation, not working for profit, under the Charity Commissioners, and by providing for its use by the Old Vic Shakespeare and Opera Companies, conjointly with their present Theatre in the Waterloo Road, to give an old Vic to North London”

The appeal was successful, and a new theatre was designed by F.G.M. Chancellor, opening on January 6th 1931, with a performance of Twelfth Night (suitable for the date), with John Gielgud.

The new theatre brought together Opera and Ballet, and included a School of Ballet.

The new theatre still retained the well, which was to be found at the back of the pit, concealed under a heavy iron plate. Here, a Miss Noble tests the depth of the well:

Sadler's Wells

The 1931 building is shown below, as it appeared in the early 1970s, looking from the same viewpoint as my 2020 photo at the top of the post:

Sadler's Wells

After the war, the ballet company of Ninette de Valois which had formed at Sadler’s Wells moved to Covent Garden to become the Royal Ballet.

The theatre continued the long tradition of dance and the D’Oyly Carte Opera performed seasons at Sadler’s Wells. The theatre hosted touring companies from across the world. However there were financial challenges, rumours that the site may be sold as part of development plans from the New River Company (which by then was a property company).

In the 1990s there was again significant change at Sadler’s Wells, with a campaign for a new, purpose built dance theatre. The campaign was successful, including a significant £36 million from the National Lottery.

The new theatre opened in October 1998, and continues the tradition of dance and entertainment on this site in north Clerkenwell / islington well into the 21st century.

I started the post talking about how this area of London has been shaped by water. If the location had not been the site of a well, the name would be very different, and perhaps also without the initial fame of the well, Sadler’s original gardens and music house may not have continued too much further than the 17th century.

Although the area is very different to the fields covering the area in the 17th century, the water is still there, deep below the surface. A borehole in the sub-basement of the theatre descends some 600 feet to the chalk basin that runs under London, from where water is taken for the sinks, toilets, heating and cooling of the theatre. The borehole supplies water at a rate of 12 litres a second and at a temperature that varies between 11 and 12 degrees Centigrade.

Walk down Arlington Way, to the west of the building and there is a door facing onto the street, to the right of the large grey door.

Sadler's Wells

On the door is a sign confirming the location as the site of the Sadler’s Wells Borehole pumping station, where Thames Water are also extracting water from far below the surface.

Sadler's Wells

Thames Water hold the licence to extract water from the borehole, however up until 2004, the Sadler’s Wells Trust held a licence to extract water for water bottling. I cannot find any reference after 2004, so I suspect that was the last time you could buy bottled water drawn from below the theatre.

Again, a weekly post only allows me to scratch the surface of the history of Sadler’s Wells.

The History of Clerkenwell by William J. Pinks provides a detailed history of the first couple of centuries of the theatre. The Story of Sadler’s Wells by Dennis Arundell provides a detailed history up until 1977, and the Survey of London, volume 47 provides the usual highly detailed history. All prints used in this post are  © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sadler’s Wells, a very successful theatre that owes its name and probable longevity to a patch of gravel and discovery of a well in the fields of Clerkenwell.

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Rosebery Avenue, St John Street and Amwell Street

A couple of week’s ago I wrote about the New River Head. Whilst in the area, I took advantage of a walk along Rosebery Avenue, St John Street and Amwell Street to visit the location of some of our 1985 photos, and also to explore the area in a bit more detail. What follows is therefore a rather random walk, but as with any London street, there is so much interesting architecture, history and people to discover.

The following map shows some of the key locations in this week’s post (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Rosebery Avenue

  • Location 1 is the starting point, at the junction of Rosebery Avenue and Clerkenwell Road
  • Location 2 is the site of a hairdressers photographed in 1985
  • Location 3 is a row of 18th century houses which in 1985 looked doomed to demolition, and also where Rosebery Avenue meets St John Street
  • Location 4 is a long open chemist in Amwell Street
  • Location 5 is an old engineering business also in Amwell Street
  • Location 6, for reference, is New River Head, the location of the post a couple of weeks ago.

Rosebery Avenue runs from points 1 to 3 on the map, and is one of those late Victorian streets, built to support the increasing volume of traffic across London, and to provide a wide through route where before only a maze of narrow streets existed.

Clearance of the route commenced in 1887, and the new street was opened in July 1892. The new street was named after Lord Rosebery, the first chairman of the London County Council. Lord Rosebery had resigned from the LCC a few days before the opening of Rosebery Avenue, so John Hutton, the vice chairman took on the task of formally opening the street.

Compared to many other 19th century London street openings, that of Rosebery Avenue seems to have been rather subdued. The Illustrated London News reported simply that:

“The new street from the Angel at Islington to the Holborn Townhall, Gray’s Inn Road, called Rosebery Avenue, was opened on Saturday, July 9, by the Deputy Chairman of the London County Council. It is 1173 yards long, straight and broad, with a subway under it for laying gas and water mains and electric wires. It has cost £353,000, but part of this expenditure will be recovered by the sale of land”.

As well as being the first chairman of the LCC, Lord Rosebery was a prominent politician of the late 19th century and was a Liberal Party Prime Minister between March 1894 and June 1895 after William Gladstone had retired. In 1895 Rosebery’s government lost a vote of confidence and the resulting general election returned a Unionist Government. He continued to lead the Liberal Party for a year, then permanently retired from politics.

Lord Rosebery after whom Rosebery Avenue is named:

Rosebery Avenue

The following map extract is from “Reynolds’s Splendid New Map of London; Showing The Grand Improvements for 1847”, and shows the area before the construction of Rosebery Avenue.

Location 1 is the same as in the above map, where the future Rosebery Avenue would meet Clerkenwell Road. Point 3 is where the new street will meet St John Street and point 6 is New River Head, with the ponds as they were in 1847.

The red oval is around a House of Correction. This was Coldbath Fields Prison, where the Mount Pleasant Post Office buildings would later be constructed. The south-east corner of these buildings are close to Rosebery Avenue.

Rosebery Avenue cut across the Fleet valley, cut through numerous streets, and cut short many streets including Exmouth Street which originally ran up to the site of the prison.

The following photo is at location 1, looking from Clerkenwell Road, across to the start of Rosebery Avenue:

Rosebery Avenue

Construction of Rosebery Avenue would displace a large number of people, as housing would be demolished to make way for the new street. The LCC mandated the construction of new housing to the south of the street before work commenced on the northern sections.

A short distance along Rosebery Avenue we can see the evidence of the LCC’s requirement with two identical blocks of flats lining the street – Rosebery Square, east and west. The following photo shows Rosebery Square east.

Rosebery Avenue

The new buildings were completed and ready to house those displaced by the new street in July 1891. A plaque on the wall records the names of the parish church wardens at the time of construction:

Rosebery Avenue

Parts of the southern section of Rosebery Avenue, between Laystall Street and Coldbath Square, are higher than the surrounding land. (See this post on Laystall Street) This allows extra lower floors to be part of buildings such as Rosebery Square, and also requires a viaduct as shown in the photo below where the street crosses Warner Street.

Rosebery Avenue

The photo above also shows how the buildings facing onto Rosebery Avenue drop down below the level of the street, and are therefore much larger than they appear.

A short distance further along, just before the junction with Mount Pleasant and Coldbath Square is the first of the locations photographed in 1985. In 2019, this is the Pleasant Barbers:

Rosebery Avenue

Who twenty-four years ago, were The Pleasant Gent’s Hairdresser, but at the same location:

Rosebery Avenue

It is interesting how the name of a trade changes over time. In the 1980s, to get your hair cut (for a man) you went to a Hairdresser. Today, you go to a Barber.

Hairdressers / Barbers are a type of shop we have been photographing for the past 40 years. They are usually local businesses, not part of a chain and have individual character. One of the few types of business that is not under threat from the Internet.

A few years ago I wrote a post about Hairdressers of 1980s London, featuring a selection from 1985 and 1986. Many have since disappeared, but there are still plenty to be found across London.

After the building with Pleasant Barbers, we find the south-east corner of the Royal Mail sorting office at Mount Pleasant.

Rosebery Avenue

The area occupied by the Mount Pleasant sorting office was the site of the House of Correction shown in the 1847 map – a location that deserves a dedicated article.

On the opposite side of Rosebery Avenue is the Grade II listed, former Clerkenwell Fire Station.

Rosebery Avenue

A fire station had existed on the site before the construction of the building we see from Rosebery Avenue. The site increased in importance over the years, becoming the Superintendent’s Station for the Central District by 1890.

The original fire station was extended over the years, and the section facing onto Rosebery Avenue was constructed between 1912 and 1917, and included parts of the original fire station buildings and the 1896 extensions to the building.

The architectural quality of the building draws from the London County Council’s development of London housing, as architects from the LCC housing department also had responsibility for fire station design from the start of the 20th century.

Clerkenwell Fire Station closed in 2014 – one of the ten London Fire Stations closed in the same year due to budget cuts when Boris Johnson was Mayor.

A reminder of the London County Council origins of Clerkenwell Fire Station:

Rosebery Avenue

The fire station stands at the south-eastern corner of the junction of Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road. This is where Exmouth Street was shortened slightly. In the photo below, I am looking across the junction to Exmouth Street.

Rosebery Avenue

If you look at the 1847 map, Exmouth Street was originally on a main route between Goswell Road and Gray’s Inn Road, along with Myddelton Street (a New River reference).

The construction of Rosebery Avenue faced a number of legal challenges and one of these was from the Marquis of Northampton who was after £22,000 of compensation due to the impact on his properties around Exmouth Street and that “the remainder of the estate would be seriously depreciated by the diversion of traffic from Exmouth Street to the new thoroughfare, thus converting that street into a back street”.

Exmouth Street today is a back street as far as traffic is concerned, but now is the location of the Exmouth Street market.

The Marquis of Northampton, or Lord Northampton and his landholdings in Clerkenwell featured in a map created in 1909 by William Bellinger Northrop and titled “Landlordism Causes Unemployment”.

Rosebery Avenue

Map from Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography and reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) Unported License

The aim of Northrop’s map was to show how “Landlordism” was strangling London, with large areas of the city being owned by the rich and powerful. Northrop claimed that Lord Northampton owned 260 acres in Clerkenwell and that this estate produced an annual rent of £1,600,000.

Continuing along Rosebery Avenue and the gradual increase in height is more apparent now, showing again why New River Head was located at close to the end of Rosebery Avenue as the drop to the city aided the flow of water from reservoir to consumer.

There are plenty of interesting buildings along the street, and a mix of architectural styles, one rather ornate building is the old Finsbury Town Hall:

Rosebery Avenue

Finsbury Town Hall was built between 1894 and 1895 on land cleared following the construction of Rosebery Avenue. The original vestry building was in a southern corner of the same plot, however a much larger triangular plot of land had been reduced to a much smaller triangular plot as Rosebery Avenue cut through Rosamond Street (now Rosoman Street).

In the following extract from the 1847 map, the red line is the rough alignment of how Rosebery Avenue would cut through the area. The blue rectangle is the original vestry building, and the red dashed lines show the location of the Finsbury Town Hall which now faces onto Rosebery Avenue.

Rosebery Avenue

Soon after completion, in 1900, the building became the town hall of the new Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury.

As well as conducting council business for the borough, the town hall also had two large rooms available for council functions and public hire.

Typical of the events held in the town hall was a Carnival Ball of Costermongers belonging to the National Association of Street Traders held at Finsbury Town Hall on the 30th January 1928:

Rosebery Avenue

Local government changes meant that in 1965 the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury was integrated with the London Borough of Islington, and the majority of council functions moved to Islington Town Hall, with only a small number of council operations remaining in the old Finsbury building.

The building entered a gradual state of decay, and by the end of the 1980s, council functions had to be moved out of the building.

Finsbury Town Hall almost fell to the “luxury flat” fate of so many other buildings across the city, however in 2005 the dance school, the Urdang Academy commenced the redevelopment of the building, moving in, in 2006.

The building continues to be the home of the Urdang Academy, with some of the large halls still available for hire.

The ornate entrance to the old Finsbury Town Hall from Rosebery Avenue:

Rosebery Avenue

Leaving Finsbury Town Hall, we reach New River Head, which I explored a couple of weeks ago, and then Sadler’s Wells, which demands a dedicated post, so I will continue to the end of Rosebery Avenue, and to the junction with St John Street, where the next location of my 1985 photos is to be found.

Across St John Street, and just to the south of the junction with Rosebery Avenue is a short stub of street by the name of Owen’s Row, with a terrace of late 18th century houses. In 1985 these were boarded up, and appeared to be at risk:

Rosebery Avenue

Thankfully in 2019, they are still here and looking in good condition. A wider view in the photo below to the 1985 photo, showing Owen’s Row with the terrace, and the former Empress of Russia pub on the corner with St John Street.

Rosebery Avenue

The Empress of Russia pub dates to the early 19th century. The pub closed in 2000, went through a series of food related businesses, before returning to a pub in the form of the Pearl and Feather.

From 1985 the Empress of Russia was the regular London performance venue of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, where it was usual to hear the music of the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground played on the Ukelele.

The alignment of Owen’s Row is down to the New River.

Building of a row of houses along the eastern bank of the New River commenced in 1773 by Thomas Rawstorne, who started building from the St John Street junction. When built, the houses faced onto the New River.

Look in the centre of the following extract from the 1847 map. Just above the S in the word Street of St John Street, is the word Owens, and to the left of this is the channel of the New River, flowing to the bottom of the map towards New River Head. In 1847 this section of the New River was still uncovered.

Rosebery Avenue

Owen’s Row would not become a street until 1862 when this section of the New River was enclosed and covered.

Today, the terrace consists of just four houses, but following the start of the street in 1773, houses extended further along the eastern edge of the New River. The following photo from 1946 shows the extended terrace, with a row of three floor buildings after those with four floors. These were later demolished, and the end of the original Owen’s Row is now occupied by the Sixth Form College of the City and Islington College.

Rosebery Avenue

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01_087_F3305

What is interesting in the above photos, is that in all photos of the remaining terrace, the bricks of the fourth floor are a very different shade to those on the lower three floors. It is more clearly visible in the 1946 photo, and would indicate that the terrace was originally built with three floors, with a later addition of a fourth floor.

Really good to see that part of the terrace remains, and that although boarded up in 1985, they were not demolished. Owen’s Row is also a physical reminder of the route of the new river, and when this terrace of houses looked out onto water flowing through the channel to New River Head.

Although I still had two 1985 photos to track down, I find wandering the streets fascinating, and in the streets around St John Street there are so many interesting places.

On the corner of St John Street and Chadwell Street are Turner & George, butchers.

Rosebery Avenue

The Turner & George business is new, only opening in the last few years, however the shop has long been a butchers.

In the tiling below the windows is the word BLAND. This refers to the Bland family who ran a butchers in St John Street from 19th century.

In 1882, there was a Mrs Sarah Bland recorded as Butcher of 563 St John Street-road, Clerkenwell, The present building is at number 399 St John Street, so Sarah Bland’s butchers may have been at a different location, or more likely, at the current corner location, which has changed number, as streets were frequently renumbered as streets changed over the years.

On the corner of Arlington Way and Chadwell Street is the business of Thomas B. Treacy – Funeral Directors.

Rosebery Avenue

I have not been able to find any evidence, however I suspect the building may have originally been a pub. The corner location, and the round corner for the building are typical of 19th century pubs.

One pub that does survive is The Harlequin in Arlington Way.

Rosebery Avenue

The Harlequin was first recorded as a beer house around 1848, with the current name being in use by 1894.

Although there is plenty of interest in the streets around Rosebery Avenue and St John Street, I had two more 1985 photo locations to find, so I walked across to Amwell Street to find the location of W.C. & K. King, Chemists, who had this wonderful lantern hanging outside the shop in 1985.

Rosebery Avenue

In 2019, the shop is still a chemists, and the same shop front survives, however the lantern has disappeared.

Rosebery Avenue

The lantern claims 1839 as the year the business was established, however I can find no evidence of when the business opened, or when W.C. & K, King where proprietors.

I continued walking down along Amwell Street, past the point where I photographed the base of the New River Head windmill, and then found this rather magnificent building – giving the appearance of a large brick built castle guarding Amwell Street:

Rosebery Avenue

This is the Grade II listed Charles Rowan House.

Built between 1928-1930 to provide accommodation for married police officers, the building was design by Gilbert Mackenzie Trench who was the architect for the Metropolitan Police.

Built of red brick, the large rectangular building provided 96 two and three-bedroom flats, arranged around a central courtyard. The longer sides of the building are along the roads leading off from Amwell Street, and it is in these two side streets that the arched entrances to the central courtyard and the flats can be found.

The building transferred to local council ownership in 1974. I am not sure how much of the building remains as council provided housing. I suspect many of the flats have transferred to private ownership through right to buy, and today, a 2 bedroom flat in Charles Rowan House can be had for £650,000.

The building is named after Sir Charles Rowan, the first Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and his obituary published on the 11th May 1852 in the London Daily News, reveals a link between the Metropolitan Police and the Battle of Waterloo:

“Death of Sir Charles Rowan K.C.B. – Sir Charles Rowan, later Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, died at his residence in Norfolk-street, Park-lane on Saturday the 8th inst. he entered the army as an ensign in the 52nd Light Infantry, in 1797, and served with that distinguished regiment in the expedition to Ferrol in 1800; in Sicily, in 1806-7; and with Sir John Moore’s expedition to Sweden in 1808. He joined the army in Portugal after the Battle of Vimiera, and served from that time with the reserve forces of Sir John Moore, and in the Battle of Corunna. he also served with great distinction both in Spain and Portugal, and commanded a wing of the 52nd at the Battle of Waterloo, when he was wounded; he was also wounded at Badajoz, on which occasion he received the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 1815 he was appointed companion of the Bath. From 1829, the year the Metropolitan Police Force was instituted, until 1859, he was chief commissioner, and for his services in that capacity was, in 1848, nominated a knight commander of the Bath”.

Fascinating that the building is named after someone who fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and that same person became the first chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

The construction of Charles Rowan House obliterated a street and a large number of houses, and it was here that Amwell Street ended.

In the following extract from the 1896 edition of the Ordnance Survey map, I have marked the location of Charles Rowan House with the large red rectangle.

Rosebery Avenue

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

Amwell Street ran to the northern tip of what would later become Charles Rowan House, and from then down to Rosebery Avenue, the street was named Rosoman Street.  Today, Amwell Street extends onto Rosebery Avenue, replacing the Rosoman Street name.

This is relevant as it helped me find more details of the following location, photographed in 1985:

Rosebery Avenue

In the 1901 census, the address was 95 Rosoman Street rather than 13 Amwell Street.

The building was occupied by:

  • Frederick Bowman, aged 52 and occupation Brass Founder
  • Ellen Bowman, aged 39, his wife
  • Irene Bowman, aged 14, daughter
  • Ruby Bowman, aged 13, daughter
  • Theophilus Bowman, aged 11, son
  • Christie Bowman, aged 7, daughter
  • Helen Munto, aged 32, servant

If the business was founded in 1865 as recorded on the front of the building, then I am not sure it was the Frederick Bowman of the 1901 census, as he would have been too young, and all his children were recorded as being born in Chingford, Essex.

I cannot find any reference to an earlier F. Bowman. In the 1911 census, Frederick Bowman was still living at 95 Rosoman Street, aged 64 and still working as a Brass and Aluminium Founder. All his children still lived at home, however Helen Munto had left (perhaps returning to her native Scotland), and the new servant was Edward Redgrave, aged 30.

Frederick seems to have been a name used by the family over the generations, as Theophilus middle name was Frederick. Chingford also seems to have been a family connection as Theophilus would marry Florence May Jerome at Chingford in 1922.

Theophilus would go on to live in Chingford, but he would also carry on the family trade, as in the 1939 census, his occupation is given as Brass Moulder – what is not clear is whether he worked in Chingford, or commuted to the Rosoman / Amwell Street business.

The same location in 2019:

Rosebery Avenue

The 1985 photo implies that the entrance to the business was in the centre, with the entrance to the family home to the right.

In 2019 it looks as if the building has been converted to a home, with a single entrance door to the right, and the paving leading to the business door removed to open up the cellar.

Frederick Bowman’s name still looks onto Amwell Street.

A short distance on, and I was back on Rosebery Avenue. Although the walk did not have a theme, to me it is the fascination of what can be found on random walking across London, on this walk using some 1985 photos as a guide.

Businesses that continue to (hopefully) thrive on London’s streets such as the Pleasant Barbers, Lord Northampton’s hold over the land of Clerkenwell, a row of houses that owe their alignment to the New River, a block of flats named after a Waterloo survivor, and a street named after the first chairman of the London County Council, and future Prime Minister are typical of the fascinating stories to be found all over London.

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New River Head and London’s Water Industry

Last week I had the opportunity to research the New River, and to walk around the site of New River Head, where the New River terminated, just south of the Pentonville Road.

The New River dates to the start of the 17th century, a time when there was a desperate need for supplies of clean water to a rapidly expanding city. Numerous schemes were being proposed, and the build of the New River tells the story of how the City of London, Parliament, the Crown and private enterprise all tried to gain an advantage and ownership of significant new infrastructural services, the power they would have over the city, and the expected profits.

The New River proposal was for a man-made channel, bringing water in from springs around Ware in Hertfordshire (Amwell and Chadwell springs) to the city. A location was needed outside the city where water from the New River could be stored, treated and then distributed to consumers across the city.

The site chosen, called New River Head, was located between what is now Rosebery Avenue and Amwell Street. The red rectangle on the following map shows the area occupied by New River Head (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

New River Head

The story of the New River dates back to 1602 when a former army officer from Bath, Edmund Colthurst who had served in Ireland, proposed a scheme to bring in water from Hertfordshire springs to a site to the north of the city.

As a reward for his military service, he was granted letters patent from King James I, to construct a channel, six feet wide, to bring water from Hertfordshire to the city.

Colthurst’s was not the only scheme for supplying water to the city. There were a number of other private companies, and the City of London Corporation was looking at similar schemes to bring in water from the River Lea and Hertfordshire springs.

Whilst Colthurst’s project was underway, the City of London petitioned parliament, requesting that the City be granted the rights to the water sources and for the construction of a channel to bring the water to the city.

In 1606 the City of London was successful when parliament granted the City access rights to the Hertfordshire water, a decision which effectively destroyed Colthurst’s scheme, which collapsed after the construction of 3 miles of the river channel.

It was an interesting situation, as Colthurst had the support of the King, through the letters patent he had been granted, whilst the City of London had the support of parliament.

The City of London took a few years deciding what to do with the water rights granted by parliament, and in 1609 granted these rights to a wealthy City Goldsmith, Hugh Myddelton. He was a member of the Goldsmiths Company, an MP (for Denbigh in Wales), and one of his brothers, Thomas Myddelton was a City alderman and would later become Lord Mayor of the City of London, so Myddelton probably had all the right connections, which Colthurst lacked.

Colthurst obviously could see how he had been outflanked by the City, so agreed to join the new scheme, and was granted shares in the project. Colthurst joining the City of London’s scheme thereby uniting the rights granted by James I and parliament.

Work commenced on the New River in 1609, but swiftly ran into problems with owners of land through which the New River would pass, objecting to the work, and the loss of land. A number of land owners petitioned Parliament to repeal the original acts which had granted the rights to the City, however when James I dissolved Parliament in 1611, the scheme was given three years to complete construction and find a way to overcome land owners objections, as parliament would not be recalled until 1614.

There were originally 36 shares in the New River Company. Myddleton had decided to enlist the support of James I to address the land owners objections, and created an additional 36 new shares and granted these to James I who would effectively own half the company.

in return, James I granted the New River Company the right to build on his land, he covered half the costs, and Royal support influenced the other land owners along the route, removing their objections, as any further attempts to hinder the work would result in the king’s “high displeasure”.

The New River was completed in 1613. It was a significant engineering achievement. Although the straight line distance between the springs around Ware and New River Head was around 20 miles, the actual route was just over 40 miles, as the route followed the 100 foot height contour to provide a smooth flow of water, resulting in only an 18 foot drop from source to end.

The New River Head location was chosen for a number of reasons. A location north of the city was needed to act as a holding location, from where multiple streams of water could then be distributed through pipes across the wider city.

The location sat on London Clay, rather than the free draining gravel found further south in Clerkenwell, and it was also a high point, with roughly a 31 meter drop down to the River Thames, thereby allowing gravity to transport water down towards consumers in the city.

The site already had a number of ponds, confirming the suitability of the land to hold water.

The following map from Stow’s Survey of London, dated around 1720, shows the location of New River Head, still in fields to the north of the city, with the New River feeding in from the right.

New River Head

The New River project was a success, however by the end of the 17th century, the New River Company was supplying water to a considerable part of London, and had reached the organisational and technological limits of the time.

Whilst there were no significant problems with transporting water from Hertfordshire to New River Head, the real problems were distributing water onward across the city, where a system of pipes had grown over the years without any integrated planning, and no real understanding of the implications of water pressure, pipe size, height profiles etc.

Users were starting to complain, water could be cut off for days, pressure was frequently low, and the number of consumers continued to grow rapidly, for example in the ten years between 1695 and 1705 an additional 600 new consumers had been added in the West End, an area of considerable growth for the New River Company.

The West End also had unique problems as it was higher than the City and the difference in height required different distribution methods, rather than just adding more pipes to an already overstretched network.

Sir Christopher Wren was asked to help with understanding the problems of distributing water to Soho Square in the West End, however Wren looked at the whole system and recommended that the problems could only be addressed by effectively replacing the entire system with a new, integrated design.

The New River Company also commissioned John Lowthorp (a clergyman, who was also a member of the Royal Society) to look at the distribution problems,

Lowthorpe established that it was not water supply problems to New River Head (indeed the New River supplied enough water for the whole of London), as with Wren, Lowthorpe identified the distribution network and the organisation of the company.

The New River Company undertook a significant reform of their operations over the course of the 18th century. An integrated approach to distributing water, placement of valves and cisterns, use of different pipe bores and careful surveys of the height profile of the distribution network, and the locations of consumers.

The New River Head location also expanded with additional holding ponds, and in 1709 a new reservoir called the New or Upper Pond was constructed, a short distance north from New River Head, where Claremont Square stands today towards Pentonville Road.

The following plan shows the New River Head in 1753. The original Inner pond, built for the 1613 opening of the New River, surrounded by later ponds, and to the upper left, the New Pond dating from 1709.

New River Head

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: p5440560

The New Pond was higher than the main New River Head site, so a means of pumping water was required and initially a windmill was constructed at the New River Head site to pump water up to the New Pond, however this was an inefficient method. Water could not be pumped at times of insufficient wind and the windmill was also damaged during times of high wind. The windmill was soon replaced by horsepower, and then by steam pumps in a new pump and engine house.

The following print shows New River Head in 1752.

New River Head

The New Pond is at the bottom of the picture, the ponds at New River Head are just above and the windmill can be seen to the right of the New River Head ponds. This print also shows how the buildings of the city are gradually creeping towards New River Head, when compared to the map from 1720 – all new consumers for the New River Company.

This print from the 1740s shows New River Head and the windmill.

New River Head

The growing demand for water also meant that the capacity of the original Hertfordshire springs was insufficient. The New River Company had started to use the River Lea as an additional source of water and in the 17th century had constructed pipes to take water from the River Lea to the New River.

Bargeman and Mill owners along the River Lea were not happy with the impact of the New River on the volume of water and rate of flow along the River Lea, resulting in a number of disputes.

Parliament provided their approval to an agreement drawn up between the trustees of the River Lea Navigation and the New River Company in 1739, which allowed the New River Company to continue drawing water on payment of £350 per annum to the River Lea Navigation.

There is so much history to New River Head, however this post is already far too long, so a brief look at a couple of maps to show how the site then developed to the site we see today.

This 1913 revision of the Ordnance Survey map, shows New River Head, with the central round pond, and surrounding filter beds. The map also shows the level of development during the 19th century with the fields that surrounded the site in the 17th century, now covered with housing and streets.

New River Head

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

Fast forward to the 1952 revision, and we can see the large head office of the Metropolitan Water Board (discussed further down the post) dominates the site, and covers much of the original location of the round pond, with only parts of the northern edge remaining (which we can still see today).

New River Head

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

In the map, I have marked the location of the New River Head viewing point (see further down the post) by a blue circle, and the red circle outlines the base of the original windmill used to pump water to the Claremont Street reservoir.

The following photo from Britain from Above, dated 1952, shows the New River Head location. It is really only with an aerial view that you can appreciate the head office of the Metropolitan Water Board in the centre of the photo.

New River Head

Time for a walk around the site today, to see what is left of New River Head.

As part of the New River Path, developed to follow the route of the New River between Hertford and Islington, Thames Water created a viewing platform to look over the site of New River Head. To get to there, i walked up Rosebery Avenue, and just before the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, turned left into Arlington Way, then just before the Shakespeare’s Head pub, turned left into  Myddleton Passage.

New River Head

At the point where Myddleton Passage does a 90 degree bend up to Myddleton Square (both named after Hugh Myddleton), there are two metal gates, the one on the right provides access to the viewing platform.

New River Head

There are a number of information panels lining the fence providing some background to the New River and New River Head.

New River Head

The concept of having a viewing platform at the end of the New River Path, overlooking the place where water emptied out into the ponds and the infrastructure to distribute the water onward across London is brilliant, however I must admit I was somewhat disappointed by the limited view. Much of the original history of the site is either obscured by plant growth, or buildings, or is just too low to be visible.

The following panorama shows the view from the viewing platform, and I have marked some of the key features which are either visible, or hidden.

New River Head

Fortunately, taking a walk around the wider area reveals much more of New River Head and the New River Company, so here is a tour round the site starting with the magnificent Head Office of the Metropolitan Water Board constructed in 1919 / 1920. This is the view of the building as you walk up Rosebery Avenue from the south.

New River Head

It is hard to appreciate the full size, or shape of the building from ground level. The Britain from Above photo shown earlier in the post shows what a magnificent building this is when the full building can be appreciated.

There are multiple reminders of the original function of the building and New River Head, to be found all over the building:

New River Head

Walking further north along Rosebery Avenue, and this is the view looking back towards the Metropolitan Water Board head office. The full area on the right is part of the original New River Head.

New River Head

In the above photo, where the head office building ends along Rosebery Avenue, there are gates which provide a glimpse of the original round pond. The photo below shows part of the retaining wall of the round pond behind the far fence – later upgrades and restorations so not exactly the 1613 walls, but retaining the position of the original round pond.

New River Head

To the north of the site is the magnificent Grade II listed, 1938 Laboratory Building, designed by John Murray Easton and formerly the water testing centre for Thames Water.

New River Head

The Laboratory Building is now home to 35 apartments. On the rounded corner of the Laboratory Building is the seal of the New River Company:

New River Head

The seal depicts the hand of Providence bestowing rain upon the city. The motto “et plui super unam civitatem” translates as “and I rained upon one city”.

This is the turn off from Rosebery Avenue to get to Myddleton Passage:

New River Head

The view along Myddleton Passage. The passage can be seen along the northern boundary of New River Head in the maps above. The wall on the left is the boundary wall from 1806-7.

New River Head

In the 19th and early 20th centuries this passage, alongside the water works was a dark and isolated place at night, and a number of crimes were reported in the press of the day. For example from the London Daily News on the 26th March 1846 “Robbery from the person of Mr Thomas Woods, of Number 9 Wardrobe-place, Doctors Commons whilst passing through Myddleton-passage, Clerkenwell, a striped silk purse, containing twenty sovereigns and twenty shillings in silver”.

The presence of police officers in Myddleton Passage can be seen through “collar numbers” carved into a section of the boundary wall along Myddleton Passage.

New River Head

The Survey of London identifies a number of the officers who recorded their numbers along the wall. One being Frederick Albert Victor Moore, from Cornwall, who joined G Division of the Metropolitan Police in 1886. Prior to his transfer to London he had served at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, and in Myddleton Passage recorded not only his London number, but also his original 365 PLYMOUTH number, seen in the middle of the second from bottom course of bricks in the following photo:

New River Head

Fascinating to imagine Metropolitan Police Officers of the 19th century patrolling this lonely alley on a dark night, with the waters of New River Head just behind the wall.

Walk to the end of Myddleton Passage, stop off at the viewing platform then head north.

At the end of Myddleton Passage, we reach Myddleton Square, a large square with the church of St Marks, Clerkenwell in the centre. Both passage and square named after Hugh Myddleton.

New River Head

Along the northern terrace of Myddleton Square, there is a distinctive change in brick colouring:

New River Head

Not due to cleaning, rather bombing of the site and a rebuild of the terrace as recorded on a plaque adjacent to the black door in the centre of the above photo:

New River Head

The plaque records the New River Company rebuilt this section of Myddleton Square between 1947 and 1948, and it also gives a clue as to how the New River Company evolved.

The Metropolis Water Act of 1902 transferred the responsibility of the many local water companies serving London to the newly created Metropolitan Water Board. The New River Company ceased the role that it had been created for almost 300 year before.

As well as supplying water, the New River Company had long been a significant owner of land and properties, both along the route of the New River and the surroundings of New River Head. In 1904, the New River Company re-incorporated as a property company.

In 1974 the New River Company was taken over by London Merchant Securities, but still operated as a separate division.

Today, the New River Company is a subsidiary of the property company Derwent London plc (I am constantly fascinated by how you can still find evidence of centuries old institutions across London).

A turning off Myddleton Square is Chadwell Street – after one of the original Hertfordshire springs.

New River Head

Leading north from Myddleton Square is Mylne Street.

Mylne Street is named after Robert Mylne (1733 to 1811), who became the New River Company’s second chief surveyor in 1771. Mylne had already worked on Blackfriars Bridge (completed in 1760), he was surveyor of St Paul’s Cathedral and worked on numerous canal and architectural construction and engineering projects.

I have a load of 1980s photos that we took around Clerkenwell and Islington, and one of the reasons for my visit to the area was to photograph the same locations today. The following is a photo from 1984 showing one of the first buildings in Mylne Street from Myddleton Square.

New River Head

It is a lovely building, with ornate ironwork fronting the street, but what was of interest is the street name carved between the ground and first floors. Also, from the perspective of 2019, the parking meter that was once so common across London streets.

The same building in November 2019:

New River Head

At the northern end of Mylne Street we reach Claremont Square. This was the location of the New, or Upper Pond. In a wonderful example of continuity of use, over 300 years later, the centre of the square is still occupied by a large, covered reservoir, with grassed, earth banks surrounding the centre of the square.

New River Head

Lining three sides of the square are early 19th century terrace houses. Pentonville Road lines the northern edge of the square.

New River Head

Steps leading up from Claremont Square to the top of the reservoir:

New River Head

The original reservoir was uncovered, however as the reservoir contained filtered water ready for distribution to consumers, the Metropolis Water Act of 1852 required such reservoirs to be covered to prevent any form of contamination entering the water from the wider environment.

In the 1850s, the reservoir was drained, brick piers built, covered and turfed over. The reservoir was also raised in height to give a total depth of water of 21 feet, and the capability to hold 3.5 million gallons.

Four million bricks were used in the reconstruction and covering the reservoir, and the following print showing work taking place, and the internal construction provides a good view of how the reservoir was built and covered.

New River Head

Whilst New River Head could provide water for large parts of London in the 17th and 18th centuries, new sources and reservoirs were being developed, including reservoirs in Stoke Newington, where the New River now terminates and feeds the east and west reservoirs just south of Seven Sisters Road.

The Claremont Square reservoir was already integrated into a wider water distribution network in the 19th century, as in the 19th century, large pipes had been installed between the reservoirs in Stoke Newington and Claremont Square, so the reservoir could be stocked with water from both New River Head and Stoke Newington.

Today, the reservoir is fed with water from the London Ring Main, and the reservoir was Grade II listed in the year 2000..

The western edge of Claremont Square is at the top of Amwell Street (named after one of the original Hertfordshire springs), so I turned into Amwell Street and headed south.

Passing the junction with River Street (after the New River) and Lloyd Baker Street (see my earlier post on the Lloyd Baker Estate), I reached the point where you can peer through railings surrounding the New River Head site, and see the base of the windmill that was built to pump water from New River Head to the Claremont Square Reservoir in 1709:

New River Head

The plaque above the door reads:

“The round house, remains of the windmill used C. 1709 -1720 to pump water from the round pond to the upper pond (now Claremont Square reservoir)”.

Locks on the entrance gate between Amwell Street and the New River Head site – they really do not want you to get in:

New River Head

Which is understandable, as New River Head is still a key location in the distribution of water across London.

In another fascinating example of how locations across London maintain a continuity of use across centuries, the information panel at the viewing point shows where a deep shaft at the New River Head site connects to the London Ring Main, a core part of the infrastructure that now distributes water across London.

Pumps raise water from the ring main for distribution via the Claremont Square reservoir.

New River Head

As well as the London Ring Main interconnect, the New River Head site also hosts a bore hole used to extract ground water.

For centuries, water intensive industries such as breweries, tanneries etc. drained London’s ground water, resulting in an ever dropping level of ground water.

With the decline of these industries, ground water has been gradually rising. Whilst a good thing to return to natural levels, rising groundwater does create problems for the infrastructure now buried deep under London. For example, TFL has to pump 47 million litres of water a day from across the network, with 35 litres per second needing to be pumped from just Victoria Station.

The bore hole at New River Head is to the left of the old windmill base, but appears to be out of operation at the moment as stabilisation works are required, however when back in operation, the New River Head bore hole can extract between 3 and 3.46 million litres per day from London’s rising ground water.

Again, I have only scratched the surface of the history of the area and New River Head. Within the Round Pond, there is the Devil’s Conduit, a chimney conduit originally from Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury and moved to New River Head in 1927. The original 17th century oak room from the Water House building, built next to the Round Pond, and dating from around 1693, is now in the Metropolitan Water Board head office building (open during Open House, London).

Thames Water (the successor to the Metropolitan Water Board) have long left the New River Head offices, and are now based in Reading. The old head office building has been converted into flats.

To research this post, as well as walking the area I have used a number of excellent books, including:

  • The New River by Mary Cosh
  • The Survey of London, Volume 47 on Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville
  • The History of the London Water Industry 1580 to 1820 by Leslie Tomory
  • Online reports from Thames Water and TFL
  • Online reports by the General Aquifer Research Development and Investigation Team

The book by Leslie Tomory is a fascinating read if you want to understand how the water industry developed across London from very simple beginnings, to an industry that could serve an industrialising and rapidly expanding city.

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St James Clerkenwell

It is 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning, the 6th September 1953 and my father is in Clerkenwell Green and took the following photo looking down Clerkenwell Close towards the church of St James Clerkenwell.

St James Clerkenwell

One of the doors to the church is open, perhaps there is, or has been a Sunday service. I doubt the man walking his dog would have attended, he was probably more interested in when the pub on the corner would open.

And this is the same view in the summer of 2017 (although a week day rather than a quiet Sunday morning).

St James Clerkenwell

A wider view of the area:

St James Clerkenwell

The church of St James Clerkenwell we see today was built between 1788 and 1792. It replaced a much earlier church, parts of which dated back to the twelfth century. Prior to the reformation there was an Augustinian nunnery dedicated to St Mary on the site, and after the reformation parts of the building were used by the parish as the parish church. The following print from Old and New London shows the old church of St. James.

St James Clerkenwell

The old church originally had a steeple but appears to have suffered a common problem of London’s churches, due to their age and poor maintenance of the fabric, as the steeple collapsed in 1623 and there was a later second collapse due to poor construction of the replacement. Repair work was carried out and the church was left with the squat tower shown in the above print rather than a steeple.

I am always fascinated by the growth of London and how parts of the city were once on the boundary. The following map produced in 1720 for Stowe’s Survey of London shows the parish of St James Clerkenwell. The red ring marks the location of what at this time would have been the original church and not much further north were open fields.

St James Clerkenwell

The street in the centre running from top to bottom of the map is St. John Street which retains the same name today. In 1720 St. John Street was labelled as “the road to Chester” which is an interestingly distant location to mark on a parish map.

The new church was designed by the architect James Carr. It cost nearly £12,000 and was consecrated by Bishop Porteus in 1792.

St James Clerkenwell in 1812, twenty years after completion (©Trustees of the British Museum) .

St James Clerkenwell

In my father’s 1953 photo there is a pub on the corner of Clerkenwell Green and Close and the pub is still there today and does very well on a summer’s day.

St James Clerkenwell

This is the Crown Tavern and occupies the corner plot, but if you look at the above photo, the houses on the right and left of the pub are of exactly the same style and construction – these buildings were originally part of the pub and although internally they have been subject to major reconstruction, externally they maintain the link. These building are of mid 19th century construction with some reconstruction in the late 1890s.

The Crown Tavern is allegedly where Lenin and Stalin first met in 1905.

Although the front of the church and main entrance is on the end of the church where Clerkenwell Close bends around the church, the entrance today is the side entrance looking back towards Clerkenwell Green. A flight of steps lead up to the church entrance, which as can be seen in the photo below, is well above street level.

St James Clerkenwell

The interior of the church was subject to Victorian “restoration” so is very different to the original interior. Today the church appears to rent out work space so I thought it best to avoid walking round the church taking photos and disturb those working. This is the view from the entrance.

St James Clerkenwell

There is still a large churchyard surrounding the church, although any original gravestones are long gone.

On a summer day, the churchyard is now a major lunchtime attraction for local workers.

St James Clerkenwell

The church is surrounded by a number of mature trees which help to distance the churchyard from the surrounding busy streets.

St James Clerkenwell

One of the trees has a sculptural installation of bird boxes by London Fieldworks and dating from 2011.

St James Clerkenwell

Before leaving St. James, it is good to see that the tower and steeple still rise above the surrounding buildings. Too many central London churches are now in the shade of their surroundings. This is the view of the church from Clerkenwell Road.

St James Clerkenwell

St James Clerkenwell and the area around Clerkenwell Green deserves a much longer write up, however I have had too many other commitments this past week so I shall have to return in the future – perhaps on a Sunday morning at 11:30.

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Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

This is one of the scenes photographed by my father in 1947 that is to me, a fascinating photo being 70 years old, however I am not sure if there was a specific reason, point of interest etc. to take this particular photo. The scene is Clerkenwell Close with the steps leading up to Robert’s Place at the end of the close, adjacent to the Pear Tree Court and Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

The same scene in 2017:

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

A view that has hardly changed apart from the two trees, cars and the buildings at the far end around and behind the steps.

To find this location, head north from Clerkenwell Road to Clerkenwell Green, then follow Clerkenwell Close around the edge of the church of St. James where you will find the site of the above photos. I have marked this with an orange circle in the 1940 map below (the streets here have hardly changed):

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

Going up from the orange circle, there is a road to the left, this is Pear Tree Court. Just above this junction are the steps at the far end of the photos which lead up to Robert’s Place and then into Bowling Green Lane.

This is one of the photos were I can work out exactly where the original was taken, leaning up against the wall underneath the Clerkenwell Close sign.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

The buildings seen in the photo are part of the Clerkenwell Estate built by the Peabody Trust. The estate runs along Clerkenwell Close and Pear Tree Court, and consists of a number of Victorian five storey blocks clustered around a central courtyard. Each block given a letter rather than a number which, along with their appearance, does give the impression of blocks of barracks. The entrance to block C from Clerkenwell Close:

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

The view along Pear Tree Court:

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

The Clerkenwell Estate was one of six estates built by the Peabody Trust in the late 19th century. The Peabody Trust emerged from the The Peabody Donation Fund which was set up by the American, George Peabody in 1862. He was born in Massachusetts in 1795 but moved to London in 1837 where he remained for the rest of his life.

Peabody wanted to do something to help alleviate the poverty that he saw across London. It was suggested to him that people needed better living conditions with an affordable rent so he set up the Peabody Donation Fund with the first housing being built in 1864 at Commercial Street, Spitalfields.

The Clerkenwell Estate came about through the clearance of a number of slum sites under the Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 which allowed the Metropolitan Board of Works to buy up and clear six sites across London. The area around Pear Tree Court had already been condemned as unfit for human habitation.

The architect of the new estate was Henry Darbishire. The model used for each of the blocks consisted of units of five flats around a central staircase. In the late 19th century it was still standard practice for many facilities to be shared so each unit of five flats had shared lavatories and sculleries.

Entrance to Block C:

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

Block E – I do like the brick construction, however they do present a rather institutionalised appearance.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

Block D:

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

On the side of the estate towards Farringdon Lane, there is an obvious change in construction where to the left a short terrace of two storey buildings run to the left. This terrace is the site of Block G which was badly damaged (along with Block H) by bombing in December 1940 with 12 people being killed in the attack.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

Entrance to Block A – flowers and sunlight and I am startng to really appreciate these buildings.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

The site is built on a considerable slope as can be seen in the photo below. The site slopes down towards Farringdon Road and the old route of the River Fleet.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

Looking across the courtyard towards Blocks E and F. An air-raid shelter could still be found in the courtyard until 1985. The area is now occupied by a children’s playground.

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

The steps at the end of Clerkenwell Close were not that old in 1947 having been built as part of the Peabody development. Clerkenwell Close was extended towards the current position of the steps and a wall that blocked the route onward towards Bowling Green Lane was demolished to allow a route through via Robert’s Place.

There is much to discover in both Clerkenwell Close and the surrounding area which I hope to write about in more detail in the future. For example, the street was originally known as St. Mary’s Close after the old Benedictine Nunnery of St. Mary, part of which was latter incorporated into the church of St. James on the corner of the close. Clerkenwell Close has also had a number of well known inhabitants including Oliver Cromwell and there is a story that the death warrant of Charles I was signed in his house on Clerkenwell Close.

Oliver Cromwell’s house:

Pear Tree Court And Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate

I am still no wiser as to why my father took the original photo, what interested him in the scene, although I am pleased he did as it is ordinary street scenes that I find so fascinating and they always lead me into looking at an area in a bit more detail.

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