Hidden Charms | Battle of Trafalgar

Among this issue’s collection of local secrets are Clerkenwell’s time machine and a trophy from the Battle of Trafalgar


If you’ve known Clerkenwell for a long time, you may feel as if you’ve been able to travel in time, so much has it changed over the past few decades. And if you’re in love with its vibrant history, you may wish you could wind back the centuries and experience it as it was in Dickens’ day or medieval times. Though visiting the Saffron Hill area slums, home to Fagin and his ilk, and drinking water from the filthy River Fleet would no doubt be activities you would want to avoid on your trip.

For time travel, of course, you need some sort of machine, a DeLorean with a Flux Capacitor, perhaps – or a TARDIS. The latter, Clerkenwell used to have. If you walked up Turnmill Street in the late Nineties and early Noughties, you could see it, hidden in the brick wall that runs along the railway track. “It” was a blue painted door to a set of artists’ studios, rather than a Sixties police box, but it was a TARDIS all right, as it said so next to the buzzer.

What went on inside (which was, naturally, by all accounts, a lot bigger than the outside led you to believe) was rather more high-brow than Dr Who. It was where sculptor Nick Reynolds hosted parties and literary soirées for his celebrity and arty friends, among them local resident David Thewlis and his then partner Anna Friel.

“It was run rather like a private members’ club,” says Thewlis. “There were private functions, wrap parties, gigs, photo shoots, poetry readings. You’d get all kinds of characters – old gangsters, artists, creatives, musicians; it was a real little factory of activity. It was an extraordinary place. I used to love it.”

Reynolds is a former Navy diver and the man who plays the harmonica in the theme tune to The Sopranos. He’s also the son of Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds. So it’s a little ironic that it was the train, specifically the development of Farringdon station, that saw to the end of the Clerkenwell TARDIS.



There’s usually a happy feel to St Peter’s Italian church on Clerkenwell Road as, more often than not, there’s a wedding party celebrating outside. But it’s also connected to a large-scale tragedy, to which it pays tribute every November with a special mass.

In July 1940, the SS Arandora Star, a passenger liner commandeered for the war effort, was travelling from Liverpool to Canada. On board were many Italians, a large number of whom had lived in England for years, even decades. They were suddenly being deported because, with Mussolini declaring war, the British government distrusted their motives and had them interned. This policy was commonly known as “Collar the Lot”.

Soon after it launched, the ship was hit by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland and almost half of the 1,600 on board were lost. It was a controversial sinking, as it is reported that the ship was not displaying a Red Cross sign, to show that there were civilians on board. As London’s main Italian church, in Clerkenwell’s famous old Italian quarter, St Peter’s erected a memorial to the disaster in the Sixties. You can find it just inside the impressive porch.




How many times have you walked through St John’s Gate? Ever thought twice about the black bollards? Unlikely. Next time you’re there, look again at one on the north side; third from the right as you face towards Smithfield. It’s slightly different from the rest and allegedly a cannon from HMS Victory, no less – Nelson’s splendid flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Not strictly a cannon, it’s what’s known as a carronade, a low-velocity, shortbarrelled weapon for firing a large ball at close range. The idea was that it wouldn’t make a hole in your opponent’s ship but instead dent it, causing huge splinters to whirl off around the men inside, leading to horrific injuries. For this reason, it was nicknamed the “smasher” or “devil gun”. So how did this smasher end up as a bollard? It’s something of a mystery. There’s an inscription on it that simply says “St James’ Church, Clerkenwell”, which is odd, although a dent near the top seems to prove its naval provenance.

Meanwhile, Nelson was buried not far away, in the crypt of St Paul’s, after winning the 1805 battle but losing a personal one against a musket ball lodged in his spine.

Thanks to reader Nick for this secret. Do you know more about it? Contact us



Hospitals always have murals and they are, for obvious reasons, commissioned to portray uplifting subjects; countryside scenes, playful penguins, smiley faces. At Barts, however, there’s one depicting the blind, the lame and the sick, in an unusually detailed and medical way.

Not the most encouraging, you would have thought.However, it does have a positive message – it shows Jesus healing a paralysed man at the Pool of Bethesda. And it was painted by one of the greatest names in the world of art, William Hogarth, alongside a “matching” mural of the story of The Good Samaritan.

In 1736, Hogarth, a local lad (he was born in Bartholomew Close), got wind that the Italian artist Jacopo Amigoni had won the gig to paint a pair of large murals on the grand staircase leading to the hospital’s Great Hall. Outraged that British painters had been overlooked, he immediately put himself up for the job, offering to do it for free. Unsurprisingly, Barts changed its mind. Cuts advice for the NHS, perhaps?

Hogarth, who became a governor of the hospital, is an interesting man. He lobbied successfully for the introduction of the Copyright Act of 1735. He and his wife Jane had no children but they regularly fostered orphans from the Foundling Hospital in nearby Coram Fields. Hogarth loved pugs. And he was a member of The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks – essentially an excuse to dress up with his boho mates for a steak night every Saturday. You can take the man out of Smithfield, but you can’t take Smithfield out of the man…

For information on visiting the murals, see www.bartsandthelondon.nhs.uk



It’s often remarked how Clerkenwell lacks green space. But there are hints of its verdant past everywhere, not least in such street names as Spafield Street, Hatton Garden and, of course, Clerkenwell Green.

It was once a rural retreat, thanks to the surrounding fields and spa waters, where Londoners would come for their leisure. In the early 18th century, pleasure gardens were popular, offering grounds and grottoes to explore, fireworks, music and refreshments. The exclusive entrance fees, to keep out the riff-raff, prompted a system of regulation, giving birth to the whole concept of licensed premises.

The most famous pleasure gardens in the area were at Sadler’s Wells, and the site’s great theatrical reputation lives on today, of course. But there was also Dobney’s and Busby’s Folly near Penton Street, the Mulberry Pleasure Gardens in Corporation Row, the grand Peerless Pool swimming pond near the junction of Old Street and City Road, and Merlin’s Cave near the New River Head, which was known for its skittles.

Lawn bowling was another game at the height of fashion in the 1700s and, unsurprisingly, Bowling Green lane had not one but two bowling greens. It was also known for its cherry trees (the street’s pub was then called The Cherry Tree). But don’t be fooled. A hundred years earlier, it was far less appealing, boasting “one of those mountain heaps of cinders and rubbish that disgraced old London”. The inappropriately named Mount Pleasant had one too – as well as a dunghill nearby.

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