Coldbath Fields and Spa, Ray Street, Clerkenwell 1820
Clerkenwell is one of those London ‘villages’ that make up the great metropolis that London is. As one website remarked - it’s one of those places that one can’t really quite place. At various times in its history it has been the home of aristocrats, movers and shakers, radicals, artisan tradesmen, the poor, the Italians and now it seems, the young and trendy. The name comes from a well attached to a priory. Clerk is a derivation of cleric and clerken is the old English plural of clerk - like German. The picture below of what looks a bit like an old toilet, is the actual well - now in a modern office building, but viewable from the street. The photograph below right is of the well and its pump in 1898, when it was still in use. The engraving is of a slightly earlier time.
The name comes from the a well that was attached to a priory close to which the priory clerks used to perform miracle plays in the middle ages. (In old or middle English (not sure which), the plural of clerk is clerken.) The well can still be seen. It is inside a modern office block, looking rather like a primitive toilet - see the picture at left. I believe it can be seen through the windows. An older photograph at right shows it in 1898, still being used, with the pump required to get the water up from underground.
But this was not the only well in the district. There were several springs and wells, and at one point Londoners came there to take the waters. Sadlers Wells (now a theatre and arts centre) and Spa Fields (a cemetery) are names that still persist that are connected with these springs.
At the centre of every village is the village green, and Clerkenwell had one too. Clerkenwell Green has not been ‘green’ for some 300 years, but at the time our Beckwith ancestors were living there, it was still green. The engraving at left shows the Green in 1759, shortly before Joseph Beckwith was born. As you can see it was surrounded by fairly grand mansions and from the end of the sixteenth century various aristocrats and important personages lived in them - Cromwell included, for a while.
The large building at the end of the Green is the Sessions House - a law court, which was second only to the Old Bailey in importance. No doubt this is where many of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions were held. The picture at right is of the interior.
No law court would be complete without a prison nearby and Clerkenwell had a few, the largest of which was the Clerkenwell prison, pictured at left in visiting hours - all those poor women, although, actually they don’t look that poor in this picture. The prison is most famous for a bombing in 1867 by the Fenians - precursors of the IRA - attempting to release some of their number from within. The two engravings below show the bomb blast and the aftermath.
St John, St. James and the Charterhouse
The churches of St John and St James are the two main churches of Clerkenwell, although there were several non-conformist chapels as well. St James was founded back in Norman times, but the original church (shown at the far left) became ruined and was replaced by the structure at left in 1792. Most of our Clerkenwell ancestors were baptised, and/or married in this church, for the other main church, St John had long ago disappeared.
The church of St John was part of the Knights Templar empire, and as such it had a priory attached to it. The gateway shown in the two engravings below still exists, but the church itself disappeared long before. The crypt, shown in the other engraving below was rediscovered when some work to build a sewer was undertaken in the late nineteenth century.
And let us not forget the Charterhouse, a monastery on the right-hand edge of Clerkenwell, with vast grounds and including a school. First the monastery was closed but the school remained for a very long time. The buildings still remain, but the school has moved to Surrey. Wilderness Row - home of the Beckwiths for many years, ran along the northernmost border of the Charterhouse grounds.
The gatehouse of St. John was also famous for being the home of The Gentleman’s Magazine founded in 1731, and for which Dr. Johnson wrote for many years. Indeed printing in general was one of the trades that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Clerkenwell. One of London’s first and most successful local newspapers, The Clerkenwell News was published here and somewhat later Lenin resided there for a while, publishing ISKRA - the Russian Social Democratic Newspaper. Marx also occasionally worked there, and one of the old stately houses - the one in the centre of the photograph at right - has been turned into a Memorial Library.
Marx and Lenin were just the end of a long line of radicals and revolutionaries who made Clerkenwell their home. Maybe this was due to the fact that the majority of the occupants of the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were skilled artisans - in particular, printers, watch and clock-makers and silver and goldsmiths - and artisans are famous for their political activism.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Clerkenwell became known as Little Italy because of the large number of Italian immigrants who settled here. Today the factories and warehouses that housed all these industrious people are being converted into luxury flats and apparently the occupants are now the young and upwardly mobile office workers who work in the nearby city - really just a short walk away.
This map is taken from William J. Pink’s History of Clerkenwell. If you are an Ancestry cubscriber, clicking on the map will allow you to see a larger version