Secrets | Charitable Trousers

Our regular trio of lesser known stories from EC1

When giving to charity at Christmas time, a default option might be to choose a high profile cause. But you could consider, this year, giving your money locally. You’d be following a tradition, after all.

Ponder these rather depressing statistics about our borough, Islington. It has the fourth highest rate in England of young people living in poverty (34 per cent). Not only that, it also has the fourth highest rate in England of older people living in poverty. Then it has the shortest life expectancy in men in London, and the highest level of suicide of men in London. The borough does contain a very mixed demographic but, all the same, these are not flattering facts.

Poverty in our area is clearly not a new problem. Back in 1500, a man named John Sworder was moved to donate £40 in his will to the St Giles-without-Cripplegate church to provide trousers for the local poor. His act initiated the establishment of the Cripplegate Foundation – which is still going, more than half a century later, albeit now in a secular guise. It gives out grants to local residents who are living in poverty. The foundation is connected to another, wider local charity, Islington Giving. So if you’re feeling generous this Christmas, perhaps remember Sworder and his landmark gift. He was certainly an exemplar of the old adage that charity begins at home.

Ye Olde Mitre off Hatton Garden is one of Clerkenwell’s most hidden pubs, and one of its most historic. The little, evocative alleyway pub was built in 1546 (as a sign proudly displayed outside it claims) for the servants of Ely House on Ely Place, the Bishop of Ely’s London palace. The pub was rebuilt in 1773, soon after the palace was demolished (priorities, eh?) and a stone mitre from the old gatehouse is incorporated into one wall. There’s also, strangely enough, the trunk of a cherry tree in the corner of the front bar. It used to mark the boundary of the diocese and it is said that Elizabeth I once danced around it, maypole style.

For a long time, the whole “Ely enclave” here remained a corner of the country within the City of London; it was governed by Cambridgeshire, not City, laws. This even extended to the pub and its licensing and opening hours. To this day, Ely Place is a private road and is run by its own commissioners and beadles. Head to the Mitre for a cosy drink this Christmas. It’s not just the history that’s a draw – the pub is also a CAMRA Pub of the Year 2014.

If you like creepy stories at Christmas, you might be interested in some of the trials that went on in the Old Bailey, just beyond Smithfield. All the trials between 1674 and 1913 were recorded in what was known as the Old Bailey Proceedings. Thanks to the universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire, these Proceedings have been made available online, in what claims to be “the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published” (that’s a polite, academic way of describing petty criminals).

If you search for “Clerkenwell” on the database, all manner of cases from our neck of the woods come up. One man was part of a group of lads who were throwing stones at each other on Clerkenwell Green. He had the “hard misfortune of being too good a marksman, for he hit one of them under the ear” and the victim died three days later. He was done for manslaughter.

Ann Peters was found guilty of “stealing a suit of curtains” and had to pay costs of 10 pence. Edward Matthews was brought in for accidently killing a little girl by running her over with his cart. He said it was dark at the time and he was very sorry. These real stories convey a colourful picture of past Clerkenwell life. The online service, launched in 2003, has inspired many, including the writers of BBC series Garrow’s Law. There’s an “On this day” feature, if you want a regular dose of lawbreaking titillation.