Under Wraps | Socks, Scarves and Ties

The invention of the cracker, and other local “did you know?” festive facts that are way more interesting than any you might have to read out this Christmas

A Clerkenwell Cracker

Wherever you happen to be when you pull your Christmas Day cracker, don the paper hat and read out the pun-tastic “joke”, think of Clerkenwell. Because it is here that the whole concept of the cracker was invented – by a man with the rather uninventive name of Tom Smith. Often, people’s names reflect their triumphs or line of work, in a Happy Families sort of way (Thomas Crapper, the man who came up with the loo, being the most gigglesome example) and if only he’d been called something like Tom Bang or Jack Cracker (or even Cracker Jack).

Smith was a baker and confectioner by trade and had a shop in Goswell Road. He loved to travel, and it was in Paris that he discovered the bonbon, a sugared almond wrapped in tissue. These sold well for him back in London, especially over the Christmas period, and he decided to add a love motto inside, for added appeal. But this wasn’t enough for the east London entrepreneur. Sitting by his fire one day in 1847, the crackle of the logs inspired him. You know where this is heading… Once he’d devised a way of including a “snap”, sales rocketed (we’re all pyromaniacs at heart, aren’t we?). He called his new product cosaques, after the crack of a Cossack’s whip, and swapped the almond for a gift.

By 1890, Smith had sold 13 million of his crackers, which came in many designs, all in beautifully illustrated boxes. They were made not just for Christmas but also to celebrate major events, including the Paris Exhibition in 1900 and the return of war heroes in 1918. His three sons eventually took over the business, which moved to Finsbury Square, and the crackers evolved to include paper hats and more unusual novelties. These were classy, handmade items, though, and not the mass-produced efforts we know today.

The company still exists (it has moved from the area but it did leave as a legacy the fountain in the square) and in its vaults is a letter from 1927 enclosing a diamond ring from a man who requested it be put into a cracker for his fiancée. He was obviously unlucky in love, as he never came to collect it. If only he had – it might then be the tradition to have a real ring inside every cracker, rather than a naff pink plastic one.


Woolly Tale

Socks, scarves and ties. There must be very few British men who can’t tick at least one of these obvious Christmas boxes once they’ve opened their stock­ing and unwrapped their presents. Clerkenwell proudly caters to all three (though not in an obvious way), courtesy of Drake’s. It’s the largest manufacturer of handmade ties in the UK, and a staunch favourite of the Italians, incidentally, who go for the brand’s top quality and quinessentially English look. Everything the company produces is crafted, in true local tradition. But Drake’s, which has had its factory on Goswell Road for more than 20 years, doesn’t just channel the conventional, time-honoured end of the market. It also supplies Agnès B, as well as Comme des Garçons, for its Dover Street Market outlet.

It wouldn’t be a proper gentlemen’s outfitter, however, if it didn’t sell the whole range of the men’s accessory usual suspects — you can buy shoes and shirts, as well as socks and scarves. The latter have even passed the Tyler Brûlé test: the magazine founder and style arbiter once bought the entire staff of Monocle a Drake’s scarf for Christmas. How’s that for trendy?


Hold the Tonic

We’re all told that Christmas is a time to make merry, and that is indeed what most of us do, particularly when Christ­mas Day with the rellies starts to drag. Not that we need an excuse. Clerkenwell, with its proximity to the Fleet river and its ready market of thirsty drovers on their way to and from Smithfield, used to be known for its brewing. To prove the point, St John Street once had no fewer than 35 inns, taverns and beer houses.

When the brewing industry hit the boomtime in the 18th century, thanks to agricultural advances that led to grain surpluses, EC1 blossomed with gin distilleries. Stone’s, Tanqueray and Gordon’s all set up here in the 1740s, followed by Booth’s in the 1770s (the decorated façade of its building is still there to see in Britton Street). Mega-brewer Whitbread also landed here, in Chiswell Street, as did the Griffin Brewery, on the appropriately named Liquorpond Street (now part of Clerkenwell Road).

Hogarth, who grew up in Smithfield, witnessed the “gin mania” of the time first hand and famously depicted its ruinous effects in his 1751 print Gin Lane. He was also well acquainted with the ruinous effects of coffee…

His father, a former Latin teacher, opened a coffee house in St John’s Gate, where it seems he single-handedly tried to keep the ancient language alive, by insisting that his customers spoke in nothing else. Unsurprisingly, the business didn’t last long and he ended up in the debtors’ prison. What’s Latin for “told you so”?

Top This

There may not be many trees in Clerken­well but, this Christmas, the Post is reclaiming its Angel. You don’t need to be a Londoner to associate The Angel with Islington, as anyone who’s ever looked at the Tube map or played Monopoly knows. It’s Islington all right – but it used to be in the parish of Clerkenwell. The name comes from the old Angel Inn, a coaching inn dating from the 17th century that stood at the top of St John Street, on the corner with Pentonville Road. It was a key staging post on the Great North Road — Hogarth sketched it, Dickens wrote about it and Thomas “Rights of Man” Paine once took a room.

The Angel was set in open land, surrounded by fields where market-goers could rest their animals on their way to Smithfield. It was a dangerous area, a refuge for thieves, rogues and highway­men. For fear of being robbed, travellers on their way out of town would meet at the bottom of St John Street then make their way to the inn under armed guard.

The inn functioned right up until 1921, when it was turned into a Lyons Corner House. It’s said to be the reason why The Angel actually features in Monopoly, as the licensees were having tea there when they were discussing which places to include (Pentonville Road also made the cut). In the game, a property in Islington is worth £100 – how hilarious!

Gift’s from the East

You’ve got to love EC1’s very own Three Kings — Henry VIII, Elvis and King Kong, as depicted on the epony­mous Clerkenwell Green pub’s quirky sign. Presumably, their offerings at the Nativity scene would be wives, song and mayhem: it’s an interesting idea. Gifts around here generally don’t involve frankincense or myrrh, but they do often contain plenty of gold, what with all the jewellery-making heritage and expertise in the area.

Gold is the reason for the rather random stone frieze standing on its own just outside the Barbican YMCA. It depicts in elegant reliefwork the process of refining the metal, and was saved from W Bryer & Sons, a gold-refiners that thrived in the 19th century on the Barbican site (hence the Barbican’s Bryer Court). “Bookbinders’, dentists’, jewellers’ and photographers’ waste purchased”, it used to advertise. Victorian recycling?