There’s nothing like a death-defying Dame

Nicholas Cahill explores the life of the fortunate Alice Owen, whose philanthropic acts 400 years ago still impact on Clerkenwell today

Walk into any old boozer in Clerkenwell, and I bet at least one of the regulars knows the story of Dame Alice Owen. She is a true local legend.

Her story is often told. It was the middle of the 16th century and Alice was a young girl, out walking with her maid one day in the fields just south of Islington. She saw someone milking a cow and decided to give it a try herself. But as she rose from the milking stool, she had a narrow escape. One of the archers practising nearby shot an arrow which, fatefully, pierced the crown of her hat. On recovering from her shock, she vowed that “if she ever lived to be a Lady, she would erect something on that spot in commemoration of the great mercy shown by the Almighty in that astonishing deliverance”.

Well, as it happens, Alice, who was born Alice Wilkes in 1547, did go on to become a Lady and, later in life, the maid reminded her of her vow. Alice, by now a serial widow who had amassed a large fortune, kept her word by found­ing almshouses for 10 poor widows and a school for 30 poor boys on the site of her near-miss in Clerkenwell.

Her story is recorded in many history books but the most entertain­ing, and romantic, version of it was published in 1791 in the Clerkenwell periodical The Gentleman’s Magazine. It suggests that the archer was none other than Thomas Owen, the last and most distinguished of Alice’s three eventual husbands. His deed, according to the magazine, was avenged by Cupid, who went on to shoot an arrow back at him, inflicting a much deeper wound than any Alice had been caused. If this is true, Owen, a judge, paid great penance for the accident, as he had to wait for Alice to marry and outlive two other men before she eventually wed him.

Alice’s husbands before Owen were Henry Robinson, a brewer, and William Elkin, an alderman (30 years her senior). These respectable marriages allowed her to use the title Dame, engaged her in producing 12 children and provided her with considerable wealth. Her link to the City guild of brewers, through her first marriage, was import­ant to her throughout her life.

In 1608, at the age of 61, Alice took the first steps to fulfilling her childhood promise. She bought one of the fields south of the Angel known as Ermitage Field. It extended south from a passage by The Welsh Harp (now The Old Red Lion) to Rawstone Street and was bounded by St John Street to the west and Goswell Road to the east (note, the area still has a Hermit Street, an Owen Street and an Owen’s Row). A year later, she transferred ownership of the estate to a trust, appointing “her friends” The Worshipful Company of Brewers as sole trustee. She then commissioned the building of the almshouses and, shortly afterwards, the school, where City and Islington College stands today.

In 1613, “The Free Chapel and School of Alice Owen, of London” opened its doors and Alice issued her “Rules and Orders”, stipulating how it was to be governed. Of the 30 pupils, 24 were to come from Islington and six from Clerkenwell. None of them were to pay a fee. She was to appoint the master; after her death, the Brewers would do so. The Brewers were to visit the school every year, after which the pupils were to be given 30 shillings’ beer money. Bearing in mind that beer was safer to drink than water back then (see page 19), this was not quite as radical as it sounds…

The following month, she died. But her legacy lives on, 400 years later. The school expanded and evolved over the centuries and, in the 1800s, became a high school for both boys and girls. It still exists today, as the well-known Dame Alice Owen’s comprehensive (Spandau Ballet went there), although it has now moved to Potters Bar. It is still faithful to Alice’s original Rules and Orders. Every year, between 20 and 25 school places are reserved for children living in Clerkenwell and Islington.

The Brewers’ company remains the sole trustee, with responsibility for appointing the head. And its members still visit the school every year, at Easter, to hand out beer money. That’s no doubt one tradition the pupils are happy to respect.

With its 400th anniversary coming next year, the school is keen to hear from its alumni. For more information, visit