Colin O’Brien’s Clerkenwell | Photography

Acclaimed street photographer Colin O’Brien was born in Clerkenwell and grew up in the neighbourhood. He developed a passion for taking pictures as a child in the late 1940s.

Through his collection of black and white images taken from 1948 onwards, O’Brien offers a unique and often personal perspective on Clerkenwell’s past, including kids playing in derelict bomb sites, nuns sweeping outside St Peter’s Church, and the frequent car crashes snapped from the window of his tenement home at the junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads. We asked Colin, who still lives in the area, to select some of his favourite images for this exclusive retrospective…

Lightning over St. Pauls taken from Clerkenwell, 1972. O’Brien still owns his beloved Leica camera. In 1972 he used it to take this stunning picture of lightning over St. Pauls, which was published in the Evening Standard.


Boys jumping in a bomb site, Clerkenwell, 1950s. Clerkenwell was badly bombed during the war, and in the late 40s and 50s local youngsters played unsupervised in the derelict bombsites. Post-war Clerkenwell was “one giant but dangerous playground,” says O’Brien, where “life was lived on the edge.” 


Accident (day): Junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads, 1962. One boyhood obsession of O’Brien’s was leaning out of the window of his tenement home to snap the frequent car crashes at the junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads. This daytime shot taken in 1962 depicts a small van resting on its side and people on the pavement clustered around a body. An ambulance has just arrived and the medics are seen walking towards the injured person. 


Two Italian boys leaning against a car in Hatton Garden, 1948. O’Brien’s love of photography began as a young boy when one Christmas an uncle taught him how to develop and print film. O’Brien soon acquired a box brownie and started taking photographs; many early images show him clutching a small camera. There was a large Italian population in the area at the time and one of O’Brien’s earliest images is of two Italian boys leaning against a car in Hatton Garden, taken in 1948. This is O’Brien’s first real picture and was made using a box camera. 


Mrs Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings,1959. O’Brien often photographed his neighbours The Leinwebers, who also lived in the Victoria Dwellings tenements. Here Mrs Leinbeber can be seen dishing up a dinner in 1959 of shepherd’s pie and baked beans while waiting for her offspring to come home. 

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Nun sweeping by St. Peter’s Church, Clerkenwell Road, 1959. St Peter’s church in Clerkenwell played host to a large local Italian congregation, as well as the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel procession, which still takes place today. This image shows a Carmelite nun sweeping the pavement outside the property next to the church, where the nuns resided. 


Boy at Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954. O’Brien often took pictures of the local Woolworths store in Exmouth Market, capturing women and children bagging up sweets at the pick and mix counter and in this picture, a small boy looking lovingly at the open displays of merchandise. 


Accident (night): Junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads, 1959. O’Brien’s accident pictures were shown at the Museum of London’s Street Photography exhibition in 2010 and were taken with his prized Leica 3B camera, a present to the young photographer from his parents who “begged, stole or borrowed” what he describes as “the Rolls Royce of cameras at the time”. This 1959 image shows ghostly figures around a vehicle that has crashed into a lamppost. The picture, photographed at night using a short-time exposure, allows car headlamps to trace patterns of light across the image. 


Darts Players, The Metropolitan Tavern, 1954. O’Brien’s neighbours the Leinwebers frequented ‘ The Metropolitan Tavern’, on the corner of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads (a YO! Sushi now stands on the same site). ‘Darts Players’ shows Harry, Aubrey and George Leinweber enjoying a competitive game with a beer or two. 

For more of Colin’s work visit: