Survey of London: Secrets of the streets
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 12/04/2008
Christopher Howse celebrates the return of a monumental guide to
# In pictures: The London survey
Clerkenwell is full of secrets. It is the London village with most
surprising medieval survivals - the hidden Charterhouse, like a
transplanted Oxbridge college; St John's Gate, resembling the entrance
to an ancient walled town, and the Well itself, with its healing
waters, rediscovered in 1924 in a lane next to the Underground railway.
A stroll into the past: Clerkenwell's Exmouth Market (1968)
In the past two decades, Clerkenwell has turned from a post-industrial
enclave of decay and poverty to the estate agent's upwardly mobile
dream, full of warehouse conversions, desirable Georgian streets and
cleverly keyed-in new flats. Now the ancient parish of St James,
Clerkenwell, is packeted up in two splendid volumes by the resurrected
Survey of London.
There is rejoicing at the publication next week, after years of work,
of these 800 learned pages. The Survey had been a bit in the doldrums
since the GLC, its former protector, was abolished.
Now its publications have been taken on by Yale University Press, with
the backing of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The
Survey's work comes under the behemoth English Heritage. But if a
perfect ménage can be imagined between a quango, a publisher and an
educational charity, this is it.
It comes at a time when more people take a serious interest in
architecture. The Survey is a Pevsner for grown-ups. It is madly
While Nikolaus Pevsner gave a paragraph to a building or a page to a
church, the Survey brings out fat folio volumes for each of the old
parishes of London, with supplementary volumes for single buildings
such as the London Charterhouse (due next year). It is a grand project
comparable to glorious monsters of British scholarship like the Oxford
English Dictionary and the Dictionary of National Biography.
A strange man, CR Ashbee, founded the Survey in 1894. He was a
socialist and arts-and-crafts practitioner, and the son of a collector
of pornography. Ashbee's collecting instincts went into gathering data
on old buildings before they were demolished.
He saw a palace built for James I in Bromley-by-Bow pulled down in
1894, and he was determined to stop an almshouse, Trinity Hospital in
Mile End, going the same way.
It was the subject of the first monograph in the Survey, and it still
"Ashbee got together with friends to record old buildings within 20
miles of Aldgate pump," explains Andrew Saint, now general editor of
"He thought they might do it in 10 years or so." After 114 years, the
series is up to volumes 46 and 47 (of which 31 volumes are already
Saint, who made his career in Cambridge and took on the editorship two
years ago, is planning volumes for Woolwich and Battersea.
"We haven't ventured south of the river since 1956," he says.
"But with the backing from the Mellon Centre, Yale can publish a
volume every couple of years with luck. We'll be more thematic with
Battersea. In Clerkenwell we cover pretty well every bloody building."
He says it with pride.
As well he may. For the first time, 800 photographs, colour or
historic black and white, are integrated with the text instead of
sitting coldly in a section of "plates". One sepia photograph from
1910 shows draymen standing by loaded wagons next to new tramlines in
St John's Street, where a century later restaurant-goers eat
sweetbreads and suckling pig from nearby Smithfield.
Clerkenwell is good at hiding its treasures. Beneath St John's church
lies one of London's finest 12th-century structures, a crypt chapel
built for the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem.
The river by which Clerkenwell stands, the Fleet, is buried where once
it rolled a "large tribute of dead dogs to Thames", in the words of
Alexander Pope, who in the reign of George II staged his imaginary
Olympics for dunces by its stinking waters. It was a fine joke on the
developers of the Underground in 1862 when the Fleet burst open, swept
away their workings and filled the tunnel with sewage.
By then, Clerkenwell was renowned for hundreds of workshops making
clocks, watches and scientific instruments. In Pentonville Road, John
Betjeman's father's firm, G Betjemann and Sons, showed off its
rosewood cabinets and its patent lockable tantalus, designed to stop
servants and younger sons getting at the whisky.
"Clerkenwell's population reached its height in the late 19th
century," says Saint.
"Then skilled workers began to move away, and more of the houses went
into multiple occupation. The first half of the 20th century was a
rotten period for the people left."
Today, the hub of yuppiedom is Clerkenwell Green. On one side, in a
former neo-classical charity school of 1738, stands the Marx Memorial
Library, with 40,000 volumes from the dustbin of history.
Even grander is the former Middlesex Sessions House of 1780, above
which rises the steeple of St James's church (by the local architect
James Carr). This cluster, with its old-fashioned pubs, does feel like
a village. But a street or two away are dives for clubbers. Takes all
Professor Saint jumps with enthusiasm for Finsbury Health Centre,
designed in 1938 by Berthold Lubetkin, best known for the penguin pool
at London Zoo. I can't see it myself. But if anything can convince me
of its worth, it's the Survey of London.
# The Survey of London: Vol 46, South and East Clerkenwell, and Vol.
47, Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville, are published this month by
Yale (£135 for the pair)
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