London Series – Clerkenwell and Smithfield – Crime, revolutions and executions

Crime, revolutions and executions seems an apt subtitle for Clerkenwell and Smithfield – a district that has housed prisons, acted as a site for public executions and has been the chosen residence of its fair share of revolutionaries over the centuries.

Clerkenwell (Clerks Well) and Smithfield (Smooth field) are two ancient districts on the boundaries of the City of London and over the centuries have seen multiple waves of development – from fashionable districts in the 17th century, through industrial revolution and post-war decline to come full circle to trendy districts in the 1990s. An example is the Clerkenwell house of detention – first a prison, later a school and now – luxury flats (though the prison cells remain in the basement).

Walking around the streets here you try to imagine the hemmed in feeling of the ‘Rookeries’ – the narrow streets and cheap houses that covered the modern day area from New Oxford street to Farrington Road. Many of the locations in the area feature in the writing of Dickens including; Saffron Hill, Bleeding Heart Yard and Clerkenwell Green, an odd name as it has not been ‘green’ for 300 years. This old village square of Clerkenwell has links with radical politics with the Bolshevik’s newspaper Iskra published here in the early years of the 20th century. The same building now houses the Marx Memorial Library. There is a local story that Lenin met the young Stalin in the Crown Tavern on the green in 1903.

Clerkenwell has a monastic tradition as well, acting as the home of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem – today only the southern gatehouse of their Priory exists but a link with the monastic order remains in the name of the district’s oldest pub – the Jerusalem Tavern, which has existed since the 14th century.
Smithfield, a popular site for the public execution of heretics and dissidents was until the 1850s open fields and the location of London’s meat market. Cattle were driven down to Smithfield via St John’s Street and slaughtered and sold on site. The area was also the location of two monasteries, Charterhouse – later an almshouse and St Bartholomew the Great.