Book Review from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
Reds on the Green: A Short Tour of Clerkenwell Radicalism. by "Fagin" Past Tense Publications, £2.00.
It was water that named Clerkenwell; a village with several wells, one of which, the Clerk’s Well, that gave its name to the area. The River Fleet ran through, from its sources on Hampstead Heath to where it enters the River Thames near Blackfriars Bridge.
First mentioned in this brief account of Clerkenwell, is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where Wat Tyler and the rebel peasants ransacked the Savoy Palace in the Strand, home of John of Gaunt, then the Fleet Prison, crossed into Clerkenwell and set fire to the Priory of the Order of Saint John. In 1665 refugees from the Plague, and in 1666, from the Great Fire of London, moved northwards from the City to Clerkenwell. By the late 17th century, there had been an influx of craftsmen into the area, including many watchmakers and locksmiths. Clerkenwell soon became a slum in which thousands of poverty-stricken workers scraped an existence. Parts of the area were notorious for beggars, casual labourers and prostitutes. In the 1800s, the police rarely went into the part of Clerkenwell known as the Rookeries.
Clerkenwell Green became famous, or maybe infamous, for meetings and demonstrations. In 1838, when the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned from their transportation to Australia after being pardoned, some of them were welcomed by a large demonstration on the Green. Indeed, it was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London, and was the central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force. In November 1867, there were two demonstrations to protest against the death sentence on three Irish Fenians in Manchester, who were later hanged at Strangeways Prison. In 1882, a large cache of Fenian arms were discovered at St John Street, nearby.
The pamphlet Reds on the Green notes that in 1871, there were meetings supporting the Paris Commune, and for the Commune’s duration, a red flag hung from the lamp-post on the Green. In 1884, the Social Democratic Federation held meetings there. By the end of the Victorian era, it was a major centre for regular soap-box speakers, as well as a venue for open-air radical meetings and demonstrations.
The author gives a brief account of a number of radical mavericks, such as Dan Chatterton and the anarchist-communist Guy Aldred, who were born and grew up in Clerkenwell. Mention is made of The House (no. 37 Clerkenwell Green), built in 1738, where William Morris and Eleanor Marx addressed crowds from the balconies of the building, and which, since 1933, has housed the Marx Memorial Library. Mention is also made of. a certain V Lenin and his wife, Krupskaya, who used the offices of SDF’s Twentieth Century Press to edit the paper Iskra in 1902. (It is noted that Lenin established a state-capitalist dictatorship.)
The pamphlet concludes with an Appendix of recommended pubs to visit in Clerkenwell. It is well illustrated and is obtainable from: Past Tense Publications, c/o 56A Info Shop, 56 Crampton Street, London, SE17.
Peter E. Newell