Saturday, 15 March 2014

London 7 - Clerkenwell

The London of Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 1870 - 1924, his desk and his office in the Marx Memorial Library & Workers' School, 37a Clerkenwell Green, where he edited ISKRA from 1902 - 1903


Clerkenwell takes its name from a well on Farringdon Lane next to which London Parish Clerks used to perform Mystery Plays.  It is now part of the Borough of Islington, though was once in Finsbury, and while it has a clear centre, in Clerkenwell Green, it is no longer clearly defined - some would have Smithfield in Clerkenwell, though really Smithfield is in Smithfield (which is in the City of London).

Anyway, it is a great area to explore, and is fast becoming very fashionable, with publishing, design and architecture in particular flourishing, which has led to smart bars and restaurants and to the opening of the first gin distillery in London for about 200 years.  This is COLD (The City of London Distillery) down Bride Lane, just off Farringdon Street, which Jonathan Clark opened in 2012.  It's a strange irony perhaps that William Hogarth, artist of Gin Lane, lived part of his life in the Gatehouse of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a mere spit away.....

But for the moment it is Lenin I am interested in.  Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, then aged 32, married to Nadya, was at large in Europe, editing The Spark, which was the magazine of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.  As it was banned in Russia, he edited it first in Munich and then in London, and it was then distributed clandestinely amongst supporters in his homeland.

In 1902 the Lenins moved into Number 30 Holford Square, just a half mile north of the Green.  Bomb damage in the Blitz led to the area being entirely rebuilt in the 50s, as the Bevin Court housing estate.  The name was taken from Ernest Bevin, though the original plan was to name it after Lenin, as the project's architect was the Russian Berthold Lubetkin (who also designed the penguin pool in London Zoo), and he had already created a memorial to Lenin that had graced the earlier Square.  Trouble is that by 1953 communists were not as popular as Labour politicians.  Lenin - Bevin - only two letters different!



Искра - The Spark - was a political newspaper of Russian socialist emigrants established as the official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party


Imagine Vladimir Ilyich wandering down Farringdon Road every day, and working in his tiny office (which he shared with Harry Quelch, director of the Twentieth Century Press) in what had been built as a Welsh Charity School in 1737 (there were many Welsh artisans living in poverty in Clerkenwell at that time) but which was to become the Marx Memorial library on the fiftieth anniversary of Karl's death.


37a Clerkenwell Green, The Marx Memorial Library


The Green has not been green for some three hundred years, but there was a busy market here in Victorian times, and it was here that Fagin and the Artful Dodger inducted Oliver Twist into the gentle art of pick-pocketing.  Nice one, really, as the imposing building that blocks off the south west end was the Middlesex Sessions House, built in 1782, and it served as a judicial hall until 1921.  From under the dome here many thousands of miscreants, some not much different from young Oliver, were sent to the colonies or to the gallows.  In later years it became a Masonic Hall, but is now a venue for weddings.....



The Former Middlesex Sessions House, built in 1780 for £13,000.  A complex of tunnels under the building once linked the court not just to Newgate but also Clerkenwell House of Detention, the cellars of adjacent Marx Memorial Library and The Crown and The Horseshoe pubs



A few steps from Lenin's office in the other direction is the Crown Tavern, a rebuilt version of the Crown and Anchor, where Lenin may have had the occasional lunch.  He is reputed to have met Stalin here, and it was around that time that Lenin coined the phrase Bolshevik, which means Majoritarian, to contrast with his opponent Martov's Mensheviks (Minoritarians).  This came about following disagreements at the second conference of the RSDLP which took place in London in July 1902.  

I don't think I knew exactly what a Bolshevik was before...... Funny how words grow.



St James's Church, Clerkenwell.  There was a Benedictine Nunnery on this site from 1100, though the present church dates from 1792.  The Crown Tavern is on the right.



Apart from the cars, the scene from the church steps cannot have changed that much in the last 100 years, though I doubt that Lenin saw it from this angle very often.



From the Steps of St James - looking towards Clerkenwell Green



I don't know for sure, but unlike some later Russian leaders, I doubt whether Lenin was much of a drinker, and I suspect he might have quenched his thirst at this trough more often than he frequented the Crown.  We take drinking water for granted these days, but it was a major issue in Victorian London, and this was one of 85 that the association provided in the mid-nineteenth century.  Beer was generally safer, tea and coffee were too expensive, and with the dangers of (untaxed) gin drinking and the activities of the Temperance Movement, water became the poison of choice for large numbers of citizens.



The association originated with Samuel Gurney in 1859, to provide clean drinking water.  The association extended its help to animals in 1867.



Another thing that we take for granted in civilisation today (unless of course you happen to be taken short in the new Farringdon Station) is the public toilet.  In Lenin's time the nearby Passing Alley was known by a different name.....



Passing Alley - once Pissing Alley, and one of many such public conveniences in London

Curious, perhaps, as it is literally next door to this fine medieval gateway, which is part of the Priory of the Knights Templar of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, though Henry VIII dissolved the Priory in his rage against the powers of the Church in 1540.



St John's Gate, built in 1504, the only gateway spanning a public highway in London; William Hogarth once lived here

This complex of buildings, Norman, Tudor and modern, is something special.  Within the Gatehouse is the Museum of the Order of St John, which has been here for over 100 years, though it was refurbished in 2009/10. It tells the story of the Order of Knights, from its origin in Jerusalem in 1080, to its work today with the St John Ambulance.  Apart from at one time being a coffee shop, run by the father of William Hogarth, the artist, the building has also hosted The Gentleman's Magazine which gave Samuel Johnson his first job as a writer.  Later it housed a tavern, The Old Jerusalem, where Dickens used to drink; (he got everywhere, that Dickens!)



The Museum of the Order of St John tells a unique and fascinating story — the story of the Order of St John — from its origins in eleventh century Jerusalem, through to its role today with St John Ambulance and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.


It is a surprising place to encounter Caravaggio, but he is currently on show here:



The first version of The Cardsharps, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), on loan to the Museum of the Order of St John



While the Queen presides in youthful glamour on the first floor:




Upstairs in the Museum



Under the glitter of splendid chandeliers:



That Chandelier



While across the way the Priory Church of the Order of St John, restored after being bombed in 1940, is light and tranquillity:




The Church of the Order of St John: Acoustically perfect and visually satisfying, the understated grandeur of the Priory Church of the Order of St John always comes as a surprise when first one enters through its unassuming front door. Its large, light space is used for concerts and lectures



And beneath it there is the Norman crypt, once used to store bodies, now a chapel in its own right:



The Norman Crypt of the Priory Church of the Order of St John



And next to the church there is a peaceful herb garden, recalling the use of plants in medicine and care, such as St John's Wort:




The Cloister Garden



Retracing steps towards Cowcross Street, which itself is a reminder of the times when drovers would head to Smithfield Market down St John Street, past the Cross that stood at the junction, there are alleys which reach back into the past:



Off Cowcross Street



And just by here, with faux shop names over the fronts, hides The Rookery, which is one of the more up market places to stay if your business (or pleasure) brings you to the Capital. Lenin would not have put up here, though I imagine Putin might....



The Rookery - in its own words: all period charm. Polished wood panelling, stone flagged floors, open fires and genuine antique furniture give the place a warm, homely atmosphere – more private club than hotel



Lenin would have been much more likely to have grabbed a sandwich at the Curved Angel:



The Curved Angel Cafe - not everything has been gentrified


Or perhaps, just perhaps, on his way home he might have dropped in for a game of table football at the Cafe Kick in Exmouth Market, opposite the excellent Medcalf, an erstwhile butcher's shop, now a classy modern restaurant.....



Café Kick was born in 1997 out of an old Toy Shop in Exmouth Market. It quickly grew into a very busy Continental Bar


Or he might have dodged down to the coffee shop which is where the Jerusalem Tavern, only home in London of St Peter's ales, has set up shop, pretending to be olde worlde, and pinching the name from the wine shop that was once in the cellars of the St John Gate.



The Jerusalem Tavern attracts all sorts....


I like it here.  Though I don't like it when the City Types crowd in on a Friday evening (or for that matter any evening!)  It may be phoney, but it is calm, a copy of the Guardian is available, and good food can be had from lunch until early evening.




But can be quiet inside, at times....



A sign of the complexity of the area is just a few steps away. Watchmakers used to work around here, and indeed John Harrison, who persuaded the world that longitude was time, lived not far away.  It is an area where metal and precision meet.



Further along Britton Street


Though not everyone has the same feeling for design.  There are not many green spaces here, and one, which is being refurbished, is St John's Garden....  Is the red significant?




St John's Garden is being restored!  The red frame blends in perfectly with this tiny bit of green!


And just down the road is the Metropolitan Railway station (once Terminus) of Farringdon, now being drilled and gutted and uprooted and magnified to make it also a part of CrossRail.  As the web page says, When complete, it is planned that over 140 trains per hour will flow through the Farringdon interchange when it becomes a link between Thameslink, Crossrail and London Underground services. Farringdon will be the only station from which passengers will be able to access all three networks. Farringdon will become one of Britain’s busiest train stations......

I wonder what Vladimir Ilyich would have thought?



Opened in 1865 this was a station for the world's first ever underground railway - The Metropolitan Railway - which ran from Paddington to Moorgate.


It is a complex area, where the old resists change, but the new rises from the roots of the ancient.  Lenin could have snuck through this alley:



Faulkner's (or Faulkerner's) Alley, pretty much unchanged since 1660



But he could not have eaten at this restaurant, however much the premises might have suited him:



St John -  one of the new school of dining places, though it opened in 1994.  A Georgian building, once a smokery and also once the Editorial Office of Marxism Today.


He could have brought lead or glass from the Farmiloe family, from this very building which was especially constructed with reinforced floors to withstand the weight of the merchandise.  In recent years it has been used for film sets, with Batman and Sherlock Holmes blowing through in their own ways, but now it is becoming, for the moment at least, licensed club premises.  Not something Lenin would have enjoyed, I think.....



Farmiloe's - until 1999, when it removed to Mitcham, one of the oldest firms in the area.  Work has just begun to change it into a night club


On the edge of the area, where the Hicks Sessions building and the largest brewery in London used to be, old and new share the air.  There is something reassuring about how it is not all blasted away in the name of progress:




I wonder if Lenin rode a bike?

I'm tired, and would love to stop longer.  Without a pied a terre in the Bevin estate I would have to try The Rookery, or the Zetter Townhouse.  Could be worse, I suppose, but in the spirit of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's marxist principles, perhaps it would not be quite the thing, this time.....




The Zetter Townhouse, 13 rooms, £210 - £475 per night.  Lenin did not stay here.



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