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CLERKENWELL
Description and History from 1868 Gazetteer

CLERKENWELL, a parish and suburban district of London, in the Finsbury division of the hundred of Ossulstone, in the county of Middlesex, 1 mile N. of St. Paul's.

At the time of the Conquest this parish is supposed to have formed part of the great forest of Middlesex, and to have been included under the name Isendone, as it does not appear separately in Domesday Survey. The first mention of it as Fons Clericorum, or Clerkenwell, is made by Fitz-Stephen, under the reign of Henry II., when describing the mysteries or sacred dramas, which were acted by the clerks and inferior clergy of London, who selected the well in Ray-street, now covered by the pump, as their stage, it being in the centre of gently rising grounds, which formed an extensive natural amphitheatre for the accommodation of the numerous spectators who attended on such occasions. The most celebrated of these festivals took place in 1391, in the reign of Richard II., and continued for three days, during which several sacred dramas were performed by the clerks in presence of the king and queen, attended by the whole court. In 1461 Edward IV. was proclaimed king here; and in 1603 a new way was cut through the fields, nearly in a line with the present Northampton street, to welcome the entry of James I. into London. The manor, which includes parts of this and the neighbouring parishes, retains the Saxon custom of "borough English," and has for many generations belonged to the Comptons, who formerly resided at Northampton House, a mansion occupying the site of the modern square of that name. Clerkenwell forms part of the borough of Finsbury, for which it is a place of election, and includes St. John-street, with the whole district lying between St. Sepulchre Without, the Charterhouse, and Goswell-street, covering an area of 320 acres of very uneven ground, and containing 7,088 inhabited houses. There are six squares, viz., Wilmington, which was once Spa Fields, Granville, Myddelton, Lloyd, Claremont, and St. John's. The whole is now built over, and is considered a healthy spot, having a gravel soil. Its population, according to the census of 1861, was 65,681 of whom several thousands are engaged in the watch and clock manufacture, besides jewellers, goldsmiths, enamellers, and other branches of manufacture. Here are Reid's brewery Nicholson's and other distilleries; Sadler's Wells Theatre, where Grimaldi acted; the county sessions-house, on Clerkenwell Green, built by Rogers, in place of Hick's Hall, in 1782; the county house of correction, built in 1794, at the cost of 70,000; the new prison, now called the House of Detention, on the separate system, for prisoners awaiting trial; the police station and court for the G division of the metropolitan police force, near Bagnigge Wells; the Finsbury dispensary, reformatory, London Female Mission House, &c. The space formerly occupied by the reservoir of the New River Company is now levelled and built over. Clerkenwell was anciently celebrated for its ecclesiastical establishments, especially for the priory of the Knights Hospitallers in St. John's-square, founded about 1110 by Jordan Brisset. Its prior was head of his order, and took precedence of all lay barons; scarcely less celebrated was the Benedictine nunnery, which occupied the site of St. James's church, founded by Muriel Brisset. The beautiful gateway of the former is all that now remains of the monastic buildings, and has been recently restored. Its appearance is well-known from the woodcut which has appeared for a century on the covers of the Gentleman's Magazine, which, on its first appearance in 1731, was printed at Cave's printing-office in the gatehouse, now the "Jerusalem Tavern."-The mother church is St. James's, built in 1792, on the site of the nunnery church, in which Lady Sackville, the last prioress, Weaver, author of "Funeral Monuments," Bishop Burnett, and the musician Britton, are buried. The living is a perpetual curacy, value 300, in the patronage of the ratepayers. Pentonville chapelry, formerly annexed to St. James's, is now a district parish, with two churches and schools. The living, value 100, is in the patronage of the Incumbent of St. James's. St. John's church, which stands on the site of the priory, was one of the fifty new churches built by Queen Anne, and has underneath the old crypts of the priory church. Its living is a rectory* value 260, in the patronage of the lord chancellor. St. Mark's church, built in 1828, cost 16,000; its living is a perpetual curacy, value 535, in the patronage of the Bishop of London. St. Philip's church is situated in Granville-square, and is in the patronage of the Incumbent of St. Mark's. Besides the churches most of the Dissenting bodies have chapels. There are numerous schools; the principal are:-Lady Owen's free grammar school and almshouses, founded in 1613, and lately rebuilt in the Elizabethan style; the National and infant schools for 1,500 children, the Society of Friends' school, and the Pentonville schools. Clerkenwell is a registration district for births, deaths, and marriages, and is included in the Islington County Court district. Connected with this parish are many literary associations, it having been the frequent haunt of Johnson and Goldsmith while writing for the Gentleman's Magazine, and for some years the residence of Dibdin, who lived in a cottage near Sadler's Wells, but which no longer exists. Many other distinguished persons were also connected with this parish, as Bishop Burnett, Sir Thomas Challoner, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Cobham the martyr, Lady Huntingdon, who built her first chapel here, William Huntingdon, S.S. ("Sinner Saved"), Valangin, who sold the "Balsam of Life," and Swedenborg, who died in Great Bath-street. Dubourg and Handel also frequently played at Mr. Britton's house in Jerusalem Passage.

[Description(s) from "The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland" (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson 2003]
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[Last updated on 9 Oct 2003 by David Hawgood. 2003]