Saturday, March 7th 2015
Today I found myself returning to Clerkenwell, which I visited yesterday, this time at Tigger’s suggestion. What drew us there was the prospect of a tasty but healthy breakfast.
We used to visit “CAFE MAΨA” often but it became popular and was often too crowded for us to find a seat. Happily, today there were free tables and we could indulge ourselves with a MAΨA vegetarian breakfast. This seems to be modelled on the “Turkish breakfast” offered by many cafes these days, and includes slices of grilled haloumi cheese. (How do you pronounce “CAFE MAΨA”? I assume to Greek letter psi should be taken as a ‘Y’, making it “mayer” or “my-ah”. One of these days I’ll remember to ask…)
This neighbourhood is also known as Mount Pleasant and is home to the famous – one might almost say legendary – postal sorting office of the same name. Whence came that name, for there are no mounts to be seen and while the area is no less pleasant than many similar neighbourhoods, its delights are not so obvious as to be enshrined in its name. The only explanation I have so far found is that offered by the London Encyclopaedia which explains it thus:
Formerly a country path leading down to the Fleet River and rising beyond the far bank. By 1720 Strype described the area as ‘a dirty Place with some ill buildings’, so the name was presumably ironic.
I am glad to say that the “ill buildings” have vanished and that modern day Mount Pleasant is no dirtier than any other city district.
In Farringdon Lane I always admire this handsome building. It dates from 1875 and is fine enough to have received a Grade II listing from English Heritage. It was built for John Greenwood, an importer and manufacturer of clocks and watches. This, in turn, reminds us that this neighbourhood was once known for the large number of clockmakers and jewellery manufacturers who had their businesses here from Huguenot times onwards. This trade has now faded away, though a few businesses remain and Abbotts Court, as it is now called, serves as an office block.
From Clerkwenwell Green we had a fine view of the sunlit spire of the Church of St James. (See my previous post for more details.)
This handsome building, dating from 1885-7, is often wrongly described as a workhouse. In fact, it was the administrative offices, medical and out-relief departments of the Holborn Union Board of Guardians. A “union”, in this sense, was an area administered by a Board of Guardians for the purpose of poor relief under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Clerkenwell came under the jurisdiction of the Holborn Union. Such unions existed until 1930 and you can find out more about them in the Poor Law Union Wikipedia article. I passed this way yesterday and thought about photographing the building then, but the light had been too contrary, leaving the façade entirely in shadow. Today, it was mottled with reflected sunlight making what I found to be an attractive picture. The building has been converted as a residential block.
We walked along Britton Street that runs beside the Holborn Union Office and even here, the Shard obtrudes itself like a malevolent omnipresent ghost.
We took a stroll around St John’s Garden where these chairs, grouped beside the bench, looked as though they were left from some now forgotten conversation. In 1751, this parcel of land was donated to the Church of the Priory of St John (see my previous post) as an extension to its burial ground. In 1854, London’s cemeteries were closed and in 1880, this one was converted into a garden for public use. A few traces of its original purpose remain.
We found ourselves in the Farringdon area whose name derives from one Nicholas Farringdon or Farringdone who in 1279 purchased land that was to become the ward of Farringdon and became its Alderman two years later. The name appears to be a compound of two Anglo-Saxon words meaning “fern covered hill” and occurs in many parts of England. The Farringdons perhaps acquired their name from living is one of these places.
Near here stands the famous Smithfield meat market to which generations of sheep and cattle have been led to an appointment with their executioner. There was a separate market for cows and it had its own market cross. From this derives the name of Cowcross Street (until the late 18th century still written as two words, Cow Cross). Happily, animals are no longer led along it to the indignity of slaughter.
This façade belongs to Farringdon Station. When the the steam-powered Metropolitan Line opened, it may very well have been possible to send parcels without an accompanying human being but this is no longer the case. What is the space used for now? I have no idea…
The original Farringdon Station opened for business in 1863 as the terminus of the new underground Metropolitan Railway. Since then it has acquired access to the Circle Line and the Hammersmith & City Line as well as mainline railway services. It once sent trains to a special unloading bay at Smithfield Market but this no longer exists, I am glad to say. Much rebuilding and refurbishment has taken place recently below ground to make the station ready for enhanced Thameslink services and to be a stop on the route of the as yet unfinished Crossrail service. What one sees above ground, however, is the station of 1922 which opened under the name of Farringdon and High Holborn. Since 1936, the Grade II listed station has been plain Farringdon.
We walked along a road which later becomes a footpath between buildings and leads, via a staircase, to Charterhouse Street. This is Saffron Hill which was once part of land acquired in 1272 by John Kirkby, Treasurer of the Realm. Kirkby later became Bishop of Ely (Cambridgeshire) and, on his death, bequeathed the property as a London Palace to the Bishopric. Saffron Hill runs where once the lavish palace garden lay, among whose exotic flowers and fruits was saffron, first introduced into England in the 14th century.
Saffron Hill runs into a courtyard between buildings with posts to forbid the entry of motor vehicles. You exit into Charterhouse Street via a broad staircase. In one corner of the courtyard is this strange object, reminiscent of the pipe chamber of an organ – if organs had square-section tubes. What is it? Is it art, a utilitarian structure disguised as art or… well, what? There is no indication to help the curious investigator identify the structure.
We climbed the stairs and entered into Charterhouse Street where I took a last look back along Saffron Hill, once adorned with exotic blooms. We now stepped into Holborn (pronounced hoe-b’n) where we met an old friend.
I refer of course to the equestrian statue of Prince Albert at Holborn Circus, not to the Prince himself whom I never met. I do harbour some admiration for this man who embraced his adoptive homeland and was a force for good. Albert possessed extraordinary energy allied to uncommon intelligence and a social conscience. His breadth of vision might be envied by politicians today.
In addition to the Prince, riding a horse and tipping his hat to the City of London, there is a plaque explaining what the monument celebrates. This shows the Prince laying the foundation stone of the Royal Exchange on January 17th 1842. The monument, whose sculptures are by Charles Bacon, was not raised until 1874, 15 years after the death of the Prince.
From Holborn we took a bus to Bethnal Green where, among other delights, one finds the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. We had already visited this intriguing institution (see Vegetarian cafe and museum of childhood) and today were principally interested in going to the museum’s cafe for a cup of tea!
If you wonder what is the derivation of the name Bethnal in Bethnal Green, I can tell you that it is subject to a certain amount of scholarly debate. One view has it that it derives from two Anglo-Saxon words, healh (angle, nook or corner) and blithe (blithe, happy), thus meaning “Happy place”. Another view agrees with healh but takes the second word to be Blitha, a personal name. In that case, it would mean “Blitha’s Place” or “Blitha’s Corner”. Both seem quite plausible to me.
Beside the museum is a pleasant park called Museum Gardens. One of the historic items in it is a drinking fountain dedication to the memory of two people who perished in a house fire. The memorial plaque reads as follows.
ALICE MAUD DENMAN
WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN ATTEMPTING
TO SAVE OTHERS
AT A FIRE AT 423, HACKNEY ROAD,
ON THE 20TH OF APRIL, 1902
It seems that, more precisely, Mr Regelous was trying to save the occupants of the burning house, Alice Denman and her four children, and all parties perished in the flames. The disaster had a big impact on the community and large crowds turned out for the funeral. The mayor of Bethnal Green set up a public fund for those who suffered from the fire and the fountain was erected in 1903.
The Green and Museum Gardens are remnants of what was known as Poor’s Land. In 1678 owners of properties around the Green bought it collectively to avoid it being built on. The land was kept open and rented, the proceeds being used to help the local poor. Much of it has now been built on (for example, by the Museum of Childhood and the Church of St John shown below) but the Museum Gardens remain as a reminder of what was both a self-interested and a charitable act.
This is Bethnal Green’s parish church and is named St John on Bethnal Green. It was built in 1824-5 to designs by Sir John Soane with later additions and repairs. It is Grade I listed.
The fire to which the Museum Gardens fountain is a memorial is not Bethnal Green’s only major disaster. The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster claimed 173 lives and is still vividly remembered by the community. During the Second World War, underground tube stations were designed as bomb shelters and when a bombing raid occurred in an area, the local station would experience a rush of people seeking safety within.
On the evening of March 3rd 1943, a bombing raid caused people to rush into the Bethnal Green tube station to shelter. At the bottom of the first staircase, a woman with a small child fell and within seconds many others fell and were crushed because people entering the station were unaware of the accident and continued to push their way in. No bombs fell on the station and all the deaths and injuries were caused by the crush, making this the gravest civilian accident of the War.
A memorial to the disaster and in memory of those who lost their lives, called the Stairway to Heaven, has been created. Its design recalls the fateful staircase and provides room for people to place individual wreaths and tokens to loved ones who perished.