Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser- known stories from EC1.
MARQUESS OF NORTHAMPTON
You can carve up London in many ways – council districts, transport areas, postcodes, trendy “villages”... There’s also land ownership. It’s easy to be oblivious to the fact that there’s a wealthy aristocrat behind pretty much every street in historic central London.
Our aristo is the Marquess of Northampton (NB Northampton Square and Northampton Road), who also owns much of Islington, including the newly renovated Canonbury Tower. The title currently belongs to Spencer “Spenny” Douglas David Compton (NB Compton Street). He’s on every rich list, he’s been married six times and his last divorce cost him a mere £17m. Besides “Spencer” (Spencer Street), other names associated with the family include “Alwyne” (Alwyne Place etc in Canonbury, where you can also find the Marquess Tavern) and “Wilmington” (Wilmington Square). Spencer Compton, the first Earl of Wilmington, was briefly our Prime Minister, from 1742 to 1743. The title of Marquess of Northampton was originally created by another six-wifer, Henry VIII, who gave it to William Parr, the brother of his last wife, Katherine. The family’s country piles are Castle Ashby House in Northampton and Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire. All very “spenny” indeed.
Clerkenwell’s Ironmonger Row Baths was once home to Britain’s first diving club. Not only that, it was world famous and produced Olympians.
It was the Highgate Diving Club, set up in, erm, Highgate in 1928. Back then, it had the somewhat less appealing location of the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath in which to train. Bad weather, squelchy mud, murky water, passing ducks, spawning frogs and discarded bottles all had to be contended with (and worse). But this didn’t dampen the spirits or hinder the commitment of the divers, who were determined to be great British athletes and to challenge the monopoly of the Americans in the sport at the time. Amazingly, despite the facilities, or lack of them, the club became the most successful diving club in the UK.
To this day, it has had a representative compete in nearly every Olympic, European and Commonwealth Games. Brian Phelps, who won a bronze medal at the 1960 Olympics aged only 16, belonged. With its progression, the club upgraded from the Ponds to actual swimming baths, meeting at pools in Willesden and Crystal Palace, as well as at Ironmonger Row. Today, it meets in Kent.
There’s a large amount of history packed into the small area of Clerkenwell. Even the definitive book containing it all is historic itself. It was written back in the mid-19th century by a man called William Pinks. Pinks, a local man through and through, was a bookbinder’s apprentice, before becoming a teacher in a ragged school, then a journalist. He contributed to The Clerkenwell News, one of the country’s most successful newspapers, writing mainly about watchmaking. Seeing as he only got to the age of 31, it’s no insignificance to point out that he devoted the last six years of his life to researching his book. He died before he could finish it (hastened to his grave by his endeavours, the preface says) so the publisher hired an editor to do the rest. Lucky man – the manuscript was in “a very unfinished state” and it took three years to sort out.
Pinks’ The History of Clerkenwell was finally published in 1865, at 800 pages long. If you don’t have time to read it, it can be potted thus: Clerkenwell was dominated by religious orders, then wealthy noblemen, then pleasure-seekers, then craft industries. But you knew that already... Oh, and it was great at supplying the capital with prisons and water. Pinks is buried in Highgate Cemetery and his memorial stone refers fondly to him as “The Clerkenwell Antiquarian”.