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Both Craft Central's homes have interesting stories to tell. Jane Young reveals how the spirit of making things lies deep in their very foundations.

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On the stretch of Clerkenwell Road between Farringdon Road and St John Street stand two key buildings: Cornwell House and Pennybank Chambers. Both are hives of creative activity belonging to Craft Central, a charity promoting the artisan tradition of this area.

There are 39 studios in Pennybank Chambers on St John Square, Craft Central's headquarters. And a further 35 over in Cornwell House on Clerkenwell Green. They are rented to designer-makers who produce all manner of goods, from jewellery and ceramics to hats and toys. Some have been there for years; some, like the jeweller Dominic Walmsley, have an international rep­utation; some, like fresco artist Sarah Hocombe (see Post, Issue 2), have niche skills. There are also spaces for pop-up shops and exhibitions.

It all started with investment in the area in the 19th century. This saw the creation of Clerkenwell Road in 1879 and a rash of new Victorian buildings. With slum clearance came a housing problem, the solution to which was seen as blocks of model dwellings. One such example of this was Pennybank Chambers, then known as Penny Bank Buildings, built in 1880.

It comprised a branch of the National Penny Bank (the landlords) and, above it, tenements for artisans "of regular employment". The idea was that tenants "of good character" might deposit small sums in the bank, instead of spending their wages in the pub. Families of up to 10 occupied between one and three rooms each off a communal landing.

The part-commercial, part-philan­thropic enterprise came to an end in the late 1880s. But the building retains many of its original features. The terracotta tiles around the exterior are stamped "National Penny Bank" and the tenements form the current studios.

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Meanwhile, in 1879, at the corner of Clerkenwell Green, an imposing building was put up by local landlord Charles Powell. Two of his pubs had been demolished to make way for Clerkenwell Road, so he wanted this venture, the new Sessions House Hotel, to be a grand one.

When the hotel closed in 1923, it was bought by the General Optical Co for offices and a factory. It was renamed Cornwell House, after the company's owners, ET and FW Cornwell. Up until the Sixties, when the company moved out, men in aprons and rolled-up sleeves worked at machines producing spectacles, swimming goggles, sunglasses and specialist equipment, while women packed them in boxes for dispatch.

A decade on and lying empty, it was taken over, along with Pennybank Chambers, by the Clerkenwell Green Association, a charity set up in 1970 to revive the area's craft traditions. It was this charity that went on to become Craft Central in 2007, and the workshops it created thrive to this day.

Jane Young is a historian and designer. Her products (www.londonkillsme.com) will be on display at Craft Central this September during the London Design Festival. For more information, visit www.craftcentral.org.uk

 

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