My Clerkenwell Life | Mike Franks

 The long-term local who describes himself as the “steward of Clerkenwell” is an urban planner and social enterprise developer. He talks about founding Clerkenwell Workshops, the tradition of making and his latest community initiative in the neighbourhood.

How did Clerkenwell Workshops come about in the mid-Seventies?
I’m an architect planner and I worked for the GLC [Greater London Council]. I got frustrated, I wanted to do something rather than plan things that didn’t happen. Somebody from Clerkenwell said the artisans and craftsmen have got a real problem with property. We found the school board’s repository, this big building of 70,000 square feet. I had to fight the council for two years because they wanted to knock my building down for housing. They finally agreed what I was doing was worthwhile.

How were those early years?
The first two years in Clerkenwell Workshops were the best two working years in my life. We got 70 different trades in 130 workshops, I was really proud of it. It was the instrument- making trades, we had metalsmiths of all kinds. We had silk ropemakers, it was extraordinary who came through us. We became known as the clockmakers’ supermarket.

 Does that tradition of craftsmanship endure today?
The only things that have survived are the artisans and makers who have a direct relationship with the client, which is jewellery and craft skills. But there was 300 years of instrument-making here – Clerkenwell was one of the more sophisticated economies in the world.

Did you lead the way with communal workspaces?
I did, but not the way it’s being done now. What I did was to try and make it the nerve centre of a neighbourhood. We wanted our people to find space outside in the neighbourhood as they grew.

What was the role of Finsbury Business Centre?
We were asked by the GLC if we wanted the building, and we created offices and studios. Less was made there, but some very interesting prototype making happened, as well as in the workshops and in Clerkenwell generally.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a programme called the Clerkenwell Commons. I’ve done the historic trail, and I’ll put information in the street and in the parks. It’s a route from Smithfield to Sadler’s Wells, through the squares and parks and the historic zones. I’m trying to encourage people to think of the spaces as pedestrian- friendly – a walkable neighbourhood.There are paviours in the ground with the historic trail but they’re in the wrong places, so I’ll get them moved. There will be a website and exhibition panels in the street and parks. It will encourage people to take an interest in the area, value it and respect it.

How do you maintain the sense of community?
If I still had the Workshops, they would be a catalyst for all the things I wanted to do. I’ve tried to work through big organisations that are growing here. We’re about to set up a Friends of the Clerkenwell Commons, which I’m really excited about.

How do you relax in the neighbourhood?
I walk around it with my dog – Minky is a toy poodle, she’s well known – and say hello to people. I like the area because I’m walking around its history, I know its past.

What are your favourite places?
Well, I go next door to the Workshops and the Clerkenwell Kitchen, I love it. I go there for my breakfast. It’s an interesting building and they are a very successful business. They must have learnt from the things we did. I’ve been trying to work with the public sector and the private sector in a social entrepreneur role. I was always interested in the neighbourhood, and I still am. 

Are there lots of familiar faces in EC1?
I know the last of the old Italians who are still here in the cafes and delicatessens. There’s a continuity there, they remember their grandfathers.

Do you have a favourite local pub?
I love the Three Kings, I’ve known John Eichler and his son since they started. The dog can go in and then she becomes the pet for everybody.

What’s a key achievement you’ve passed on?
Easy access to domestic scale accommodation. But it wasn’t a property formula, it was managing space to get wider access – that was the key to it. I am the steward of Clerkenwell, that’s my claim, but I don’t own anything except my own house.