The Secret History | Bears, Bards and Brazen Hussies

Dive into EC1’s enticing past with these short tales of bears, bards and brazen hussies.


Gentrified though it is today, Clerkenwell has been well acquainted with the seedy side of life for most of its existence. One of its dodgiest areas was Hockley-in-the-Hole, near today’s Ray Street, which historian Richard Tames describes as “a miry tumble-down thoroughfare lined with squalid courts, where low life rarely came any lower”.

It had its own low-life entertainments on offer – all of which involved fighting of some sort: cock fighting, dog fighting, sword fighting, fist fighting. The latter was sometimes between two women, who would be made to hold half a crown in each hand to stop them from resorting to scratching.

There was bull-baiting too and, in some shows, the onlooker’s every anti-RSPCA whim would be satisfied when bull was pitted against dog. The dog might have fireworks strapped to its back and the bull might have a cat strapped to its tail, just to make the proceedings that much more lively.

But even a bull is no match for a bear. The Clerkenwell bear garden, almost as famous as the capital’s principal one in Bankside, opened in the 1640s and gave Hockley-in-the-Hole added allure over the decades. In fact, the place became so popular in the 18th century, it is worthy of mentions in both Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. No doubt a large part of this attraction was down to the fact that, in 1709, the owner of the bear garden was eaten by one of his charges. Quite a spectacle that must have been.


Over the centuries, St John’s Gate has been a lot more than just a gate. In the eighteenth century alone, it was a coffee house, run by the father of the artist William Hogarth (see Post, issue 4), the home of the UK’s first men’s mag, The Gentleman’s Magazine, for which Samuel Johnson worked, and a pub, The Old Jerusalem Tavern. Nowadays, it’s a museum and wedding venue.

In Elizabethan times, it was the office of the Master of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tilney, or Tylney – he was the man Elizabeth I put in charge of previewing, and censoring if necessary, new plays. The gate, originally built as part of a large medieval priory, could only be used in this way, of course, because her father had handily dissolved all the monasteries…

Tilney’s task was to look out for potentially treacherous or riot-inducing content, and he insisted that the plays were not only performed in front of him but also done so with the complete works – full make-up, moving scenery, lavish costumes and all. To this end, he even employed a permanent Officer of the Wardrobe and a whole team of carpenters, painters, embroiderers and tailors. No doubt hosiers, too.

Tilney was a powerful man. He was permitted to insert scenes, imprison actors and playwrights and close down playhouses for good. It’s no wonder that he reportedly earnt up to 10 times his annual salary in bribes. But it is thanks to him that we know that Shakespeare (who was far too clever to fall into any of his regulatory traps, naturally) would certainly have been a regular visitor to our neck of the woods, along with his many esteemed contemporaries. For that, we owe him some applause.


When you’re wandering around the displays at Clerkenwell Design Week’s new venue, the Priory Church of St John, you’ll come across something less appealing but equally eye-catching. It’s in the church’s medieval crypt and is the tomb, or what’s left of it, of William Weston. Weston was the last prior of the St John priory, which stood on the site. He died on 7 May, 1540 – the very day Henry VIII dissolved it. The cause is said to have been a broken heart, though theory has it that it was a stress-induced heart attack.

His tomb is striking in that, instead of featuring the usual noble and youthful sculptural representation of the body beneath, it shows Weston as a skeletal corpse (luckily, without the maggots). Though it seems an unusual choice – but perhaps a fitting one for a man in despair – it does conform to a tradition of the time, that of the “memento mori” cadaver tomb. Above it would have been a sculpture of the living man and the whole grand affair would have been colourfully painted.

The idea behind these tombs was to make the connection between life and the after-life, and to show that we’re all equal in death. A point, you’ll see, that is still well made by Weston’s today.


Although it is steeped in history, Clerk­enwell doesn’t have much of a royal connection. But it can boast of visits from Charles II, and there was one, plain (or rather, not so plain) reason for this: Nell Gwynne.

Nell, the real-life Cinderella of the Restoration, was either very wise or very lucky, or both. How else could she have made the incredible social journey from illiterate daughter of a brothel-keeper to orange-selling wench to one of the most renowned actresses of her age to the favourite mistress of the king?

Nell, either wisely or luckily, owned a grand house in Bagnigge Wells, a rural retreat north of EC1 (King’s Cross today). It was named after the Bagnigge river (as the Fleet was then called) and two springs there, which were both owned by the parish of Clerkenwell. Thanks to its clear waters, the village later became a popular spa destination.

Today, the name Gwynne Place is a small reminder of the area’s now unimaginably peaceful past. At 63 King’s Cross Road, next to the Gwynne Place bus stop, is a stone plaque that is said to have come from Nell’s house. The carving on it says: “This is Bagnigge House, neare The Pindar Wakefeilde 1680”. The Pindar is thought to have been a local inn. At the house, Nell supposedly enter­tained Charles with “little concerts and breakfasts”. And a lot more besides…


Go to the gym? Like to pound the treadmill? If you find it a sweat, just think of the purpose for which it was originally invented – that should help to keep you going.

Clerkenwell was the proud owner of the very first treadmill, in the 1830s. It was installed at Coldbath Fields Prison, where Mount Pleasant post office is now, as a form of hard labour. For the Victorians, who were increasingly keen on punishment as a deterrant but increasingly unkeen on the expense and hassle of transportation and execution, building prisons and making them tough was the answer to the rising crime rate. Coldbath Fields was a large prison with not only a cruel-sounding name but also a cruel reputation.

Besides putting up with the damp, grime and general unpleasantness of their surroundings, inmates had to walk the wooden treadmill, which powered plant at the prison, for eight hours continuously. They were allowed five minutes off for every 10 minutes on. To make matters worse, they had to do it in total silence (all part of the regime).

The other favourite hard-labour task at the prison was picking oakum, which involved painstakingly separating strands of tarry rope fibre, also in silence. At least working the treadmill kept the criminals fit – each eight-hour stint would see them climb the equivalent of 8,000 feet. That’s nearly Ben Nevis twice over.

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