Secrets | Avid Readers
Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser-known stories from EC1
1: FREE LIBRARY
Clerkenwell is full of avid readers (we producers of The Post certainly like to think that, of course). It was always thus, it seems.
Skinner Street once boasted the country’s first open-access public library; in other words, you didn’t have to queue up and request a book at a counter, you were actually at liberty to pick one yourself from the shelves.
The Clerkenwell Free Library opened in 1890. It was on the corner of Skinner Street and St John Street, and was funded by The Skinners’ Company, who owned the site, the Penton family (owners of much of Pentonville) and Mr Robert Major Holborn of Highbury, a wealthy tea merchant and book lover. He originally off ered his donation to Islington but the residents there were slow to embrace it, so he gave it to the more receptive people of Clerkenwell instead.
According to a report in The Illustrated London News, the Elizabethan inspired building was “a handsome structure of red brick and terracotta”. The newspaper reading room was furnished with armchairs and there was “a place specially screened off for ladies”.
Before the building was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Finsbury Estate housing development, an enlightened chief librarian ensured it won another first – for having a children’s section.
2: LADY LEWSON
Introducing EC1’s very own Miss Havisham: Jane Lewson, nicknamed Lady Lewson, on account of her eccentricities.
Married at 19 to a much older gentleman, she was widowed at just 26. When her only daughter le home, she eff ectively shut the doors on the outside world, hardly ever stepping out or seeing any visitors. She confined herself to one room in her grand townhouse in Coldbath Square.
She kept just one servant – who had to make all the beds in the house each day, despite the fact that they were never used – two lapdogs and a cat.
Most bizarre of all was her dress sense. Born in 1700, she came of age during the reign of George I and wore the Georgian fashions throughout her life. Silk gowns with long trains, a black cloak, walking cane and a hairpiece that was “near half a foot high,” according to a contemporary source.
Over the years, she became very superstitious, to the point that she would only ever drink tea from the same teacup, she refused to have the windows cleaned, in case they were broken and let in germs, and she never washed, instead smothering herself in pig fat. Lovely.
Her formula was clearly a successful one, though. She lived to the age of 116.
3: GATTI’S ICE-CREAM
When it comes to the summer, we all scream for ice cream. For which we have Italian Carlo Ga i, and his Clerkenwell warehouse, to thank.
Strictly, Ga i was Swiss-Italian. He came to London seeking prosperity in 1847. It’s hard imagining life before refrigeration but in order to make ice cream, you needed ice (naturally) and ice had to be imported all the way from Norway (think of the ice-cutters at the beginning of the Disney film Frozen).
Once he’d transported it here, Gatti kept the ice in a depot on Saffron Hill. He also had a large ice well in King’s Cross, capable of storing 1,500 tons of the stuff ; the building is now where you’ll find the London Canal Museum in New Wharf Road.
Many of the Italians who came over here earned a meagre living as organ-grinders (yes, often with monkeys) but organ-grinding was becoming increasingly unpopular with the masses; the new trend was for leisure time, and with that came a demand for ice cream.
Gatti was a legendary entrepreneur. He started out as a humble street-seller of waffles and chestnuts. He managed, through his ice business, town cafes, ice cream parlours, sweet shops and even concert halls. He died a millionaire.