Past imperfect

At home in a north London suburb the only evidence that Britain was recovering from war was a broken fence panel. A stray German bomber had dropped its stick on nearby railway sidings, and a stray piece of shrapnel broke the top off a feather board.

In a road where one was expected to keep a pristine garden, my father resolutely left the broken tooth as evidence of our home’s sacrifice in the war effort.

[H]aving spent my youth at a first class school staring out of the window I left at 15 without a qualification to my name. So coming to Clerkenwell at that tender age proved a working and cultural shock. As the junior apprentice one would be expected to run errands – sandwiches, sundries and ciggies – while you endeavoured to spend as long out of the office as you could get away without your absence being noticed.

Walking to a supplier in Clerkenwell Green one day (the shop is now Dans Le Noir? where visually impaired waiters serve at table while you eat in absolute darkness) I passed a tenement building with damp running down the walls, washing hanging limply from balconies and children playing outside wearing ill-fitting clothes. It was a shock, for deprivation to me was one’s inability to purchase gob-stoppers.

The tenements have been demolished and the new flats have a Yo-Sushi restaurant beneath.

This was post-war London, not the Swinging-Sixties so beloved of writers, but a monochrome of dirty ramshackle buildings brought about by decades of neglect and pollution.

Another errand was to type founder Stevenson Blake on Aldersgate Street not far from where William Caslon set up London’s first type foundry

William Caslon

Their building had been occupied by them since 1871 selling to the newspaper industry and had survived seeming intact from the Blitz. Its neighbours had not, for behind the shop was a mass of rubble stretching seemingly for as far as the eye could see with only the fire station surviving giving some perspective of the wasteland’s vastness.

The Barbican complex now occupies this bombsite.

It was to be the coldest winter for 200 years, opposite our factory were Peabody Buildings with no efficient heating or insulation. Giant stalactites of ice some 100ft in length formed on the outside pipes. The poor residents of Clerkenwell having endured 6 years of war would have no water until Easter.

The area had a cosmopolitan persona. A thriving Italian community had established itself in Clerkenwell since 1850; St. Peter’s Catholic Church, continental delicatessens and even an Italian Driving School the Scuola Guida Italiana.

We didn’t realise it at the time but post-war Clerkenwell prosperity was declining. The engineering, printing, publishing and meat and food trades left as did many of the decedents of those enterprising Italians.

The good old days?  The past was certainly imperfect. Now residents live in new or refurbished buildings. The whole area has a feel of energy about it. A major train station is being constructed at Farringdon and it is claimed that the area has the highest concentration of architects and building professionals in the world.

4 thoughts on “Past imperfect”

  1. Interesting, but having walked quite a lot of Clerkenwell recently I find it has a somewhat secretive feel, or perhaps it is just less ostentatious about its prosperity than other areas!

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    1. I rather like that undiscovered aura that Clerkenwell still retains, but trust me it will soon be ‘discovered’ when CrossRail arrives at Farringdon
      Thanks for the comment

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  2. Hi David _ I hope that you are keeping well. I loved this article (Past Imperfect) and it made me think of The Old Holborn tobacco factory on the corner of Leather Lane. As a kid I could smell it from a couple of hundred yards away and the smell got stronger the closer you got to Leather Lane. At the other end of Leather Lane on the corner of Hatton Gardens lived Gamages, the department store. Both were to fade away in the 60’s. Perhaps you could discover some history of Leather Lane and the surrounding area buildings?
    Good luck and keep on keeping on.

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    1. I remember smelling the tobacco in the early mornings emanating from the Old Holborn factory, at the time I was working opposite. Another curio was that a tobacconist on the corner of Leather Lane and Clerkenwell Road had a brass tube on the counter from which at the top a gas flame emitted, thus encouraging the customer to lit up.

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