Secrets | September-October

Check out our regular page revealing a trio of lesser- known stories from EC1.


The London School Board of the late Victorian era not only achieved a huge amount for the city’s population, it also built some rather attractive buildings.

Set up by the government in 1870 in recognition of the need to educate more working-class children, it built around 400 schools in its 30 years. Its architect for many years, Edward Robert Robson, oversaw the majority of these. Robson thought that a school should look good on the outside (to aid positive attitudes to learning) and work well on the inside. This sometimes meant using even the roof space as a playground. He saw his creations as secular “sermons in brick”.

The former Hugh Myddelton School on Sans Walk (now flats) is an example of his work. As the biggest and grandest board school to date, it was the first to be opened, in 1893, by royalty. Some thought that this brought it good karma, the school’s site being that of the old House of Detention prison. The Clerkenwell Workshops building opposite also belonged to the board – for its general stores. As the stone carvings still show above the doorways, it had a “furniture dept”, “stationery dept” and “needlework dept”. The stores building was converted into crafters’ workshops by a foresighted Mike Franks in the Seventies – turn to page 26 for our interview with him.

History reveals that the Welsh came to settle in London over many a century. They didn’t tend to congregate in specific areas – such as the Italians on Saffron Hill, for example – so there’s evidence of their influence and culture all over the capital. In fact, the first book to be in the Welsh language was published in London, not Wales (in 1546).

In our part of town, there’s the London Welsh Centre on Gray’s Inn Road, of course. And the building inhabited by the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green was originally a Welsh charity school. Then there are two former dairies, both still with their aesthetically pleasing original shop frontages. Lloyd & Son at 42 Amwell Street is now a hairdresser’s called BHC, and French’s Dairy at 13 Rugby Street is now the Maggie Owen jewellery shop. 

Many of the Welsh went into the dairy trade when they arrived here, because of their farming backgrounds. By 1900, it is thought that half the dairies in London were Welsh- owned, and hundreds of them were still going post-war. French’s is also famous for being opposite the house (18 Rugby Street) where Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath lived in the Fifties, just after they were married. Look up Hughes’s poem “18 Rugby Street”.

Emily Faithfull is known as a great pioneer of the women’s movement in the Victorian era – and her triumphs were all Clerkenwell based. Faithfull was concerned specifically with employment rights. Impressively, she managed to get herself trained as a typesetter (a man’s job in those days) and set up her own printing press, The Victoria Press, in Great Coram Street in 1860. It printed mainly the English Woman’s Journal and poetry books. True to her principles, she immediately offered apprenticeships to young girls. 

Things went well and in 1862 Faithfull bought a steam press and moved the company to better premises, at 83 Farringdon Road. The following year, she launched Victoria Magazine – a vehicle for promoting her emancipation ideas. Queen Victoria gave it her nod of approval, no less (well, it did sycophantically bear her name…). But soon after that, Faithfull became caught up in one of the most high-profile divorce cases of the time. Admiral Henry Codrington applied for a divorce from his wife Helen, one of Faithfull’s best friends, on account of her adultery.

In defence, his wife claimed that her husband had tried to rape Faithfull when she was once staying with them. Faithfull at first agreed to testify to this, in support of her friend – but knew better and later withdrew. She carried on her work but her reputation, sadly, never fully recovered.