Covert Clerkenwell | David Suchet, A Belgian detective
Five more insider revelations from thehood – including another dark secret of The News of the World
David Suchet is a Belgian detective. No, David Suchet plays a Belgian detective. It’s easily confused, so inextricably linked is the British actor with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Whether you’re a fan of the moustachioed mincer or not, you’ll remember the ITV series from the Nineties — and the Art Deco flats where he had his TV home.
Florin Court, known in the programmes as Whitehaven Mansions, is a striking, curved building from the Thirties and it’s on Clerkenwell’s Charterhouse Square. The flats are extremely sought-after — some selling for millions of pounds — and the block has a roof garden, a gym and a swimming pool (which was the scene of its very own Poirot-like investigation by residents earlier this year, after it was reported that someone had held a late-night sex party there).
Having filmed almost the whole Poirot cannon over 22 years in the role, Suchet has said he’s keen to complete the set. Earlier this year, ITV announced the production of a further four films, but then put the plan on hold after budget reviews. It is now thought to be going ahead with one more at least, for airing next year. Watch this TV space.
A DEN OF VICE
The Rookery hotel in Peter’s Lane is so called, not because it’s where rooks once roosted, but because it’s where birds of a different sort took up residence — “a rookery” used to be slang for a brothel. One of the rooms is called Sally Salisbury, after a prostitute who used to live there. For centuries, the area around Smithfield, particularly Turnmill Street, was rife with rookeries, and Clerkenwell in general known as a hotbed of violent crime (boasting the highest murder rate in London) and all manner of vice.
You could argue that one of the boutique hotel’s most celebrated visitors was just attempting to keep up the tradition. But Pete Doherty isn’t known for his interest in history… In 2005, he was arrested on the premises after allegedly beating up a documentary film-maker who was staying there, whom he thought had pictures of him smoking heroin. Mr Moss, as he was on-and-off at the time, was jailed for six days before the charges were dropped.
The singer was jailed again this May, this time for six months, for drug offences. So he’s swapped a former den of vice for a modern-day one instead.
Churches and palaces are where most people expect to find frescos. In Italy, too. Not socialist organisations. In Clerkenwell. But the Marx Memorial Library on the Green is home to one of the UK’s most famous wall paintings.
The library was set up in 1933 as a memorial to Karl Marx 50 years after his death (with Nazis burning books in Germany at the time, a library was felt to be the most appropriate tribute), in a building that was once a charity school for the children of the Wesh poor in the area and then the offices of a leftist publisher, from which Lenin worked while he was here in exile (see previous issue).
The following year, the artist and Labour politician Viscount Hastings — otherwise known as Francis John Clarence Westenra Plantagenet Hastings, the 16th Earl of Huntingdon — adorned the wall of the reading room with a fresco representing the Communist cause. Called The Worker of the Future Clearing away the Chaos of Capitalism, it’s after the style of well-known Mexican artist Diego Rivera, under whom Hastings studied.
Hastings would have chosen to fresco, says Clerkenwell artist Sarah Hocombe (featured on the previous pages), because it’s a very philosophical, egalitarian medium. “It’s a kind of art that belongs to everyone – after all, you can’t sell the picture without selling the wall.” You’d better see it before the library sells its walls, then – for details see www.marx-memorial-library.org
Magpies are known for their ability to spot valuables, so it’s fitting that Magpie Lane, between Bouverie Street and Whitefriars Street, near Fleet Street, contains a hidden gem. Go past the public signs relaying the history of publishing in the area and down some steps, and you will see, behind glass in the basement of an office block, the entrance to a 700-year-old crypt.
It once belonged to the white friars, so called because they used to don white robes over their habits on special occasions, who had a vast monastery on this site. The crypt, which was first rediscovered in 1895, has had many uses over the centuries: in the middle ages, it offered protection to those fleeing the law; in later times, it was used as a coal cellar by the house built above it; more recently, it was part of the office complex housing another relic — The News of the World.
When News International moved out to Wapping in the Eighties, the area was redeveloped and the builders found having so much hidden history in the area something of a nuisance. So they dug up the crypt, put it on a concrete platform and transported it to the other side of the street. Builders, eh?
Sorry to spoil your fun but The Jerusalem Tavern in Britton Street isn’t quite what it seems. It may be quaint, it may have creaky wooden furniture, it may say “Anno 1720” over the door, but it was only set up as a pub in the Nineties. That said, the building itself is genuinely old, as is the tradition: Clerkenwell has always had a Jerusalem Tavern, just not in the same spot.
Britton Street used to be called Red Lion Street and at its Clerkenwell Road end was the Red Lion Tavern. In the 1750s, it was renamed The Jerusalem Tavern and in the 1780s, a young John Britton, who eventually gave his name to Britton Street (see page 16), was apprenticed there (he hated it and didn’t last long). The pub was demolished in modern times for the making of Clerkenwell Road.
In the 19th century, there was an Old Jerusalem Tavern in St John’s Gate and (yes, you’ve guessed it) Dickens drank there. Incidentally, in The Museum of the Order of St John, which occupies the gate nowadays, you can see on display a fireplace from another former pub: The Baptist’s Head on St John’s Lane. It was there that convicts from Clerkenwell’s House of Detention were taken for a quick drink on their way to Newgate, the site of London’s gallows.
When you stop off for a quick drink at The Jerusalem, it’ll be more likely that you’re simply on your way home for supper. Did you know that St Peter’s Brewery, the pub’s owner, features all sorts of recipes using its real ales on its website (www.stpetersbrewery.co.uk) www.museumstjohn.org.uk.