The first prison on the site to the north of Clerkenwell Green, initially known as the Clerkenwell Bridewell or New Prison, was built in 1616 and was used as an overflow for City prisons.

Later that century, a second prison was built next door, this time as an as a remand prison for those awaiting trial to relieve the crowded Newgate. Among those imprisoned here was the notorious Jack Sheppard and his mistress Bess Lyon (they both escaped from it in 1724).

The prison, which wasn’t located far from the Middlesex Sessions House, was significantly enlarged in 1774 and, in 1818, when the original Clerkenwell Bridewell was demolished, the New Prison was rebuilt almost entirely across both sites, providing accommodation for a couple of hundred.

Less than 30 years later, however, in the mid-1840s the still relatively new building was demolished and a new House of Detention, also known as the Middlesex House of Detention, was built in its stead. Its design was cruciform and influenced strongly by the recently completed Pentonville Prison. It had several wings for males and one for females.

The prison was eventually closed in 1877 and demolished in 1890. The Hugh Myddelton School was subsequently built on the site (the building still stands, albeit it is used as flats).

One of the most famous incidents at the prison took place on 13th December, 1867, when during an unsuccessful escape attempt, members of the Fenian Society detonated a barrel of gunpowder, causing an explosion which blew open the prison wall as well as damaging the houses which lay opposite across Corporation Row. In what became known as the “Clerkenwell Outrage”, 12 bystanders were killed and scores injured. The ringleader, Michael Barrett, was the last person to be publicly hanged at Newgate on 24th May, 1868.

The prison’s Victorian-era vaults still lie beneath the streets of Clerkenwell and a number of films including Sherlock Holmes and TV shows including Secret Diary of a Call Girl have been shot here. They can be accessed via special tours from time-to-time.

PICTURE: Above – Visiting time at Clerkenwell House of Detention from an 1862 publication (via Wikipedia); Below – All that remains of the House of Detention – the vaults (Daejn/Wikipedia)

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In which we continue our look at some of London’s connections with Dickens’ writings…

• ‘Oliver Twist’ workhouse, Cleveland Street. The building, recently heritage listed following a campaign to save it, is said to have served as the model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist and was apparently the only building of its kind still in operation when Dickens wrote the book in the 1830s. Dickens had lived as a teenager nearby in a house in Cleveland Street and was living less than a mile away in Doughty Street (now the Charles Dickens Museum) when he wrote Oliver Twist. Thanks to Ruth Richardson – author of Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor – for mentioning this after last week’s post.

• Clerkenwell Green. It is here that Mr Brownlow first comes into contact with Oliver Twist and, mistakenly suspecting him of stealing from him, chases him through the surrounding streets. Interestingly, the grass (which you would expect when talking about a green) has been gone for more than 300 years – so it wasn’t here in Dickens’ time either.

• Barnard’s Inn, Fetter Lane. It was here, at one of London’s Inns of Court, that Pip and Herbert Pocket had chambers in Great Expectations. Barnard’s Inn, now the home of Gresham College, is only one of a number of the Inns of Court with which Dickens and his books had associations – the author lived for a time at Furnival’s Inn while Lincoln’s Inn (off Chancery Lane) features in Bleak House and the medieval Staple Inn on High Holborn makes an appearance in his unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And, as mentioned last week, Middle Temple also features in his books.

• ‘Dickens House’, Took’s Court. Renamed Cook’s Court in Bleak House, the house – located in a court between Chancery and Fetter Lane – was where the law stationer Mr Snagsby lived and worked in the book. It’s now occupied by music promoter and impresario Raymond Gubbay.

• London Bridge. The bridge, a new version of which had opened in 1831 (it has since been replaced), featured in many of Dickens’ writings including Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Other bridges also featured including Southwark Bridge (Little Dorrit) and Blackfriars Bridge (Barnaby Rudge) and as well as Eel Pie Island, south-west along the Thames River at Twickenham, which is mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby.

We’ve only included a brief sample of the many locations in London related in some way to Dickens’ literary works. Aside from those books we mentioned last week, you might also want to take a look at Richard Jones’ Walking Dickensian London,  Lee Jackson’s Walking Dickens’ London or, of course, Claire Tomalin’s recent biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.

Located just to the north of the City, the area of Clerkenwell takes its name from the Clerk’s Well which stands in Farringdon Lane.

The well was mentioned as far back as 1174 and was the scene of medieval mystery plays which were performed by the parish clerks of London. It was formerly located inside the wall of the 12th century St Mary’s Nunnery (located on the site of St James Parish Church) but is now found in the basement of a building named Well Court.

Islington Council record that a pump was installed at pavement level in 1800 to enable the public to use the well to draw water but this was closed by the mid 1800s and the exact site of the well lost to public knowledge. It was only in 1924 that the well was rediscovered during building work.

Alongside the nunnery, Clerkenwell was also home to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, English headquarters of the crusader order known as the Knights Hospitallers. The Order of St John is still headquartered on the site of the former priory – the remains of the original priory include the Norman crypt under the rebuilt church and the priory’s main entrance, St John’s Gate, now home to a museum on the order. Also found in Clerkenwell is the Charterhouse, founded by Carthusian monks in 1370 and later a school (it’s these days home to a school of medicine and dentistry).

The area, centred on Clerkenwell Green (although apparently there hasn’t been a green here for several hundred years), become famous for its leisure-related institutions in the 1600s – these included spas, tea gardens and theatres (Sadler’s Wells Theatre still remains, albeit in a modern, dance-related form) – and gradually evolved into a more built-up residential area.

It was initially favored by the fashionable until the Industrial Revolution saw printing houses, breweries and distilleries, and clock and watchmakers move in. A survivor from the 18th century is the Middlesex Sessions House, built on Clerkenwell Green as a court around 1782 and now used by the Freemasons.

Industry declined in the area after World War II and Clerkenwell, which had also become a noted location for communists in the early 1900s (Lenin edited a paper here at one stage), was gradually transformed back into a residential area. Since the Eighties, Clerkenwell has again been going through a process of transformation – this time one of gentrification.

The well, located at 14-16 Farringdon Lane, can be visited – to arrange a visit, contact the Islington Local History Centre on 020 7527 7988 or email local.history@islington.gov.uk. For walks in Clerkenwell, see the Clerkenwell & Islington Guides Association  at www.clerkenwellwalks.org.uk.