Crossroads of Time | Clerkenwell in the Fifties

Growing up in Clerkenwell in the Fifties, photographer Colin O’Brien started to capture evocative images of everyday life.

With the Leica camera he received for his 15th birthday, he took photographs from the window of his family’s top-floor flat on the corner of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road. He witnessed church processions, car crashes and fire emergencies… Now published in a new coffee-table book, London Life, his images reveal a fascinating Clerkenwell of a bygone era.

3 mains

Three images of the Junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road

The Italian community’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel procession on Farringdon Road. (Early 1950s) St Peter’s Italian Church is the focal point of the parade.

Trolleybuses ran along Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road until 1962 (see last issue’s feature). Sometimes the driver had to use a long piece of bamboo to manoeuvre the poles carrying the power supply on overhead wires back into position (Early 1960s)

The snowbound streets on New Year’s Eve. (1962)

shop main

Skinner Street (1964) Colin remembers the poverty in the area: even the bargains in Solmans’ second-hand shop window were too expensive for people who lived in the surrounding estates.

rio main

Skinner Street (1952) Built in 1913 at the junction of Skinner Street and Coburg Street (since demolished), the Rio Cinema with its domeshaped apex had room for 800 people – including Colin, a devotee of westerns – until it was closed in 1955.


Farringdon Road (1960) A traditional barber shop complete with adverts for Brylcreem, razor blades and cigarettes. The pedal car was once an object of desire for the young Colin, whose parents couldn’t afford one.

wool main

Woolworths, Exmouth Market (1954) As Colin recalls more than 60 years on, food rationing was ending and people could buy as many sweets as they could afford.

image camera main

Colin O’Brien 
The photographer has spent almost seven decades shooting EC1. The Post featured the photography of Colin O’Brien back in 2013. Two years on, his retrospective volume covering seven decades is a hit – a No 1 bestseller in Amazon’s sales chart of photographers’ books. “It seems to have touched a nerve,” says O’Brien, who’s pictured here with his first Leica in the late 1950s. The book, London Life, contains more than 200 photographs arranged chronologically. “It’s a history of me growing up in Clerkenwell,” he adds.

Born in Clerkenwell in 1940, O’Brien began photographing the street life of Londoners in 1948. He started with a Box Brownie and went on to a Leica, taking black-and-white photos from his window. With the newspaper industry nearby in Fleet Street, O’Brien often took his pictures there in person and some of his images found their way into national newspapers. He became a photographic lab technician at St Martin’s School of Art and worked for the Inner London Education authority in Media Resources. Fortunately, O’Brien continued to take photographs – the most recent picture in the book is from 2014 – and they now form an essential visual record of our neighbourhood’s social history.

book main

“London Life” by Colin O’Brien and the Gentle Author (Spitalfields Life Books) is available now in hardback