Secrets | Clerkenwell man Samuel Pepys

Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser-known stories from EC1


This May, Mr Punch celebrates his birthday. His 353rd birthday, in fact. And it’s all thanks to Clerkenwell man Samuel Pepys. This is because it was the Fleet Street-born diarist who first recorded seeing the famous
puppet in this country, back in 1662. Pepys was in Covent Garden, and the show was performed by an Italian, Pietro Gimonde, otherwise known as Signor Bologna (he was from that town).

Punch puppets at the time were the stringed sort, not the glove puppets we’re used to today. Pepys loved the show and returned two weeks later with his wife to watch it again. Signor Bologna was clearly a master – a few months later, he performed to Charles II on a huge stage at Whitehall and was rewarded with a gold chain and medal, plus £25, the equivalent of about £3,000 today.

In his diary, Pepys referred to Punch as Polichinelo. The name relates to the character’s roots in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. It was in the late 18th century that the Brits developed the Punch we’re all familiar with: the jester outfit, the
stick (slapstick, geddit?), the exaggerated hunchback, the squeaky, nasal voice (produced by having a device called a swazzle in the mouth).
That’s the way to do it!

Bleeding Heart Yard is one of those pockets of EC1 that’s got a wonderfully colourful history. Literally so, in the case of this tidbit. The art shop Lawrence Art Supplies is now based in Hove, Sussex, but for many years the company was a Clerkenwell institution. It started life, founded by local-born 19-yearold Thomas John Lawrence, in 1859 as a manufacturer of blocks for engravers – all crafted by hand, of course, from boxwood.

In 1917, a few generations of Lawrence family later, the business fell to Stanley Lawrence. He ran it for nearly 70 years and had an expert knowledge of handmade papers and wood-engraving materials. He was a character and, by all accounts, stamped (excuse the pun) his personality on the shop. One customer recalls this typical exchange:

“What do you want?”
“I’d like to buy some blocks.”
“I don’t sell to new people.”

The Lawrence shop supplied the engraver Reynolds Stone with blocks for his masthead of The Times in 1951. It also supplied Naum Gabo with inks for his woodblock prints.

The shop moved a few times within Clerkenwell, and was wiped out during the Blitz while at Red Lion Court. But it was only in 2001 that it left the area for Hove, after nearly 150 years here. It’s now run by Stanley’s grandson Martin Lawrence. Its delivery van, incidentally, is a Forties milk float nicknamed Florence.

Sick of politicians? Sometimes it’s worth remembering the MPs who really did help society. Take Thomas Wakley, who died 153 years ago. He was the MP for Finsbury for 17 years, from 1835. By profession, he was a coroner and a surgeon. He was so outraged by the wrongdoing he witnessed among his peers, he set up The Lancet magazine, in 1823; today, it’s the go-to medical weekly.

The Lancet was outspoken and Wakley regularly found himself battling lawsuits. He challenged the Royal College of Surgeons to the point that its public funding was withdrawn, and he labelled homeopaths “audacious quacks”. Wakley also crusaded against poverty, flogging in schools, rotten boroughs, the adulteration of foodstuffs, cruelty in prisons… He even bid, ahead of his time, for shops to open on Sundays.

Another cause was the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for whom he petitioned the government for a pardon. In 1834, six farm workers were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia after setting up an agricultural trade union in secret. After massive protests in Britain (setting up unions was no crime), they were allowed home, arriving in Clerkenwell Green to cheering crowds.

Wakley was certainly a man who stood his ground. In 1820, a gang set fire to his house. The insurance company claimed Wakley had started the fire himself. He fought this, of course – and won. A fi rebrand he may have been, but he was no firestarter.