Clerkenwell’s squalid and toil-infested ways

Clerkenwell’s squalid and toil-infested ways

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As part of Literary Footprints 2017, on Wednesday 11th October Jen Pedler will be revealing The Nether World of George Gissing’s Clerkenwell. Booking details are on her walks page, meanwhile Jen has given us a little taster of what to expect.

Walk the streets of Clerkenwell today with a copy of George Gissing’s 1889 novel The Nether World in your hand and you are transported back to the Clerkenwell of the late nineteenth century.

At the start of the novel a returning traveller finds himself in the graveyard of St James’s Church where “The small trees that grew about it shivered in their leaflessness; the rank grass was wan under the falling day; most of the stones leaned this way or that…” (Ch. 1). The trees have grown larger in the hundred plus years since the novel was written and the graveyard is now a public park with the gravestones, still leaning this way and that, arrayed around the edges. The church itself, though, is still much as it would have been in Gissing’s day.

At the top of St John’s Lane stands “the embattled and windowed archway which is all that remains above ground of the great Priory of St John of Jerusalem.” (Ch. 6). This “monument of old time”, as Gissing describes it, had fallen into disrepair by the late nineteenth century but was saved when it was bought by the revived Order of St John. It’s now a fascinating museum, well worth a visit.

Walking through its arch brings us to St John’s Square, which hardly seems like a square at all. As Gissing says: “Of all areas in London thus defined, this Square of St John is probably the most irregular in outline. It is cut in two by Clerkenwell Road…” (Ch. 6). The road had been built shortly before Gissing wrote the novel, sweeping away slums as well as chopping the square in half.

In Gissing’s time the square was occupied by workshops where could be found “Workers in metal, workers in glass and in enamel, workers in weed, workers in every substance on earth, or from the waters under the earth that can be made commercially valuable. (Ch. 2) Many of the old buildings are still there but now house a hotel and restaurants.

In Clerkenwell Close we can still find the Horseshoe pub where “… a little slight girl, perhaps thirteen years old” is sent by her bullying mistress to buy “a pint of old six”. (Ch. 1) Drink is the downfall of so many of the characters in the bleak underworld of Gissing’s novel.

Beside Sadler’s Wells Theatre we can walk along Myddleton Passage where, in the novel, a thwarted lover waits in ambush for her rival. While she was waiting “… a policeman came along with echoing tread, and eyed her suspiciously…” (Ch. 8) Perhaps one of the policemen who scratched their numbers into the wall – Victorian graffiti that is still there today.

These are just some of the locations featured in the novel that can still be found. But Shooters Gardens, the mouldering slum at the heart of Gissing’s Nether World, has completely disappeared.

In fact, it probably never existed at all but was a pseudonym for a warren of slum dwellings nestling in the area below Bowling Green Lane. Toward the close of the novel we learn that the slum’s days are numbered and that “… in the spring there would come wholesale demolition, and model-lodgings would thereafter occupy the site. Meanwhile the Gardens looked their surliest; the walls stood in a perpetual black sweat; a mouldy reek came from the open doorways…” (Ch. 28)

The ‘model lodgings’ referred to are almost certainly the Clerkenwell Peabody Estate, built in the 1880s on land acquired for slum clearance by the Metropolitan Board of Works. Steps lead into the estate from Bowling Green Lane. Was this once the entrance to Shooters Gardens which “To enter from the obscurer end, you descended a flight of steps…”? (Ch. 8)

These are the “squalid and toil-infested ways” of Clerkenwell, trodden by the characters in Gissing’s novel. Follow in their footsteps and hear readings from the novel on Jen’s walk.

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