Oliver Twist: Through Clerkenwell


Oliver Twist Walk – A wander through Dicken’s Clerkenwell and Smithfield

OLIVER TWIST is perhaps Charles Dickens’s most enduring work. It was originally published in Bentley’s Miscellany in monthly installments from February 1837 until April 1839. The first novelisation of the tale appeared in 1838, six months before the serialisation was completed.

It  tells the story of the orphan Oliver set against the sordid underbelly of the London criminal world. Dickens loved to walk around London exploring its hidden nooks and crannies, and he found inspiration in some of the city’s most down-at-heel and notorious neighbourhoods providing invaluable social and historical record of this unique part of London during the Victorian era.

Such was his eye for detail that it is still possible to take to the streets of London armed with a copy of Oliver Twist and see the streets through which you are walking just as they would have appeared to the residents of Victorian London.

We are going to follow in the footsteps of Oliver and the Artful Dodger, as the latter guides Oliver through the narrow streets of London to lodgings at a “respectable old gentlemen” ie. Fagin’s Den.

“As John Dawkins objected to their entering London before nightfall, it was nearly eleven o’clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.” (Oliver Twist, Chapter VIII)

After we have visited the area of what was once Fagin’s Den we will explore further the area of Clerkenwell and its associations with Oliver.

The Walk

Start: The Angel  Underground
Finish: Farringdon Underground

Distance: Approx 3 Miles

Come out of the Angel Tube at the main entrance onto Upper Street.

Turn left and cross Pentonville Road onto St John’s Street.

Look behind you and you will have a good view of the Angel on the corner of Pentonville Road. The Angel was the last great coaching inn of the Great North Road, approaching the City of London. If arriving at dusk it was advisable to lodge for the night, for one’s own safety, rather than travel the short distance into the City. Often used by drovers on their way to Smithfield. Oliver and the Dodger would have passed the rebuilt Angel (1819).  After the railways had made coaching inn’s a thing of the past it was converted into a hotel. In 1899 The Angel was rebuilt again as a Lyons Corner House, and since 1981 it’s been the Co-Op Bank.

The Angel Inn, now a Co-op Bank
The Angel Inn, now a Co-op Bank

Recorded as early as 1170, St John Street was the start of the main route north, out of the City, from Smithfield. Famously lined by taverns up to The Angel, nowadays the Old Red Lion is the only one remaining, having been rebuilt in 1899 on the site of an inn dating back to 1415.

The Red Lion Pub - St Johns Street, Islington
The Red Lion Pub

Cross over the pedestrian crossing near the Old Red Lion and turn down Arlington Way.

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) lodged in Arlington Way with his family as a child. His father and mother were music hall stars and Chaplin Snr regularly appeared at Sadler’s Wells.

On the corner of Arlington way and Rosebery Avenue stands the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Sadler's Wells
Sadler’ Well – as seen today from Rosebery Avenue

Founded by Thomas Sadler in 1683 on the site of a mineral spring in 1683. By the beginning of the 18th century, visitors to Sadler’s Wells could see entertainments that included jugglers, tumblers, rope dancers, ballad singers, wrestlers, fighters, dancing dogs and even a singing duck.

Sadlers Well
The Sadler’s Wells that Oliver might of known. Note the River Fleet which now flows under Rosebery Avenue.

In 1765 Thomas Rosoman had the theatre rebuilt so that it could stage high-calibre opera productions. However, it wasn’t long before the beer brewed from the spring waters became the primary attraction rather than the shows. In the 1830s Dickens wrote: “The theatre was in the condition of being entirely delivered over to as ruffianly an audience as London could shake together…Fights took place anywhere, at every period of the performance.”

Today the building you see dates from 1998 and is known worldwide for outstanding dance productions.

Turn right down Rosebery Avenue

Opposite is Spa Green Park, a tiny surviving piece of greenery on what was the edge of London.

Rosebery Avenue was built by the London County Council in 1889 and named in honour of its Chairman (and future Prime Minister) Lord Rosebery, this late Victorian thoroughfare would clearly not have been trodden by Oliver and the Dodger. Their route south-west from St John Street would have been through back alley slums.

Walk till you reach Tysoe Street and turn left into it, and take the first turn right into Exmouth Market.

Exmouth Market
Exmouth Market

There has been a market here since the 1890’s and today it has a good range of independent shops, cafes and stalls.

In Dicken’s time it was known as Exmouth Street – named after the Exmouth Arms Pub built around 1816.

Exmouth Arms Pub, Exmouth Market
Exmouth Arms Pub, built 1816. |It is quite possible that Dickens popped in here for a quick bevvy.

Grimaldi, the well known clown, lived at No 8 between 1820 – 1832. He did summer seasons at Sadlers Wells which Dickens had watched as a child. A young Dickens edited Grimaldi’s memoirs.

Just before the Holy Redeemer Church turn right into Spa Fields Lane, which will lead you to Spa Fields Park.

This lane will lead you to Spa Fields
This lane will lead you to Spa Fields

It is worth a small detour to visit Spa Fields, especially if you have children with you, as there is a fun Telly Tubby inspired play area on the left hand side of the park, and on the right there is tennis courts, green gym and table tennis.

Near the main entrance there is an information board detailing the history of the park – take  a read.  Spa Fields became a notorious burial ground in the late 18th and early 19th century. In 1777 the land around the Spa Fields Chapel was leased to the Marquis of Northampton. He then turned the acquired two acres into a graveyard. It was calculated that the land could offer a decent interment to around 2,722 adults. But by the time Oliver walked nearby it had more than 80,00 people buried.

Once you have finished at Spa Fields and Exmouth Market head to the crossroads with Farringdon Road.Cross over and stand outside the old Fire station. Opposite is Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.

This was the site of Coldbath Fields Prison.

Oliver and the Dodger would have been aware of Coldbath Fields Prison. The Victorians were worried about the rising crime rate: offences in Britain went up from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840.So lots of new prisons were built and old ones extended.Coldbath Fields Prison (named after a local well) was the largest in the country and it could house 1800 local criminals. It was known as a tough prison. The prisoners were made to face up to their own faults by keeping them in silence and make them do repetitive tasks such as walking a treadmill or picking oakum. It closed in 1877.

Coldbath Fields - the deperate prisoners working at the Treadmill
Coldbath Fields – the desperate prisoners

In Dickens time Farringdon Road was known as Coppice Row but was originally known as Codpiece Row. The Victorians often changed street names to protect sensitive sensibilities. |Here are some other local examples: Pasing Alley was Pissing Alley, Ray Street was Rag Street, and Corporation Row  had been Cut Throat Alley!

Turn down Farringdon Road and walk until you reach Ray Street on your right. Head towards The Coach and Horses on Ray Street.

The Coach & Horses Pub, Ray Street. f it is quiet you may hear the River Fleet flowing below the pavement.
The Coach & Horses Pub, Ray Street. If it is quiet you may hear the River Fleet flowing below the pavement.

This area was Hockey-in-the-Hole and the worst kind of criminal slum or rookery.

The pub’s location, was right on the bank of the River Fleet. Today the river runs underground – you can hear it through a drain outside.

On this very spot was the bear garden of Hockley-in-the-Hole, a purpose-built arena for watching bear-baiting. The pub was right next door; it’s so old that the room over the bar was originally on the second storey, and the beer-cellars were habitable apartments. There was even a secret passage connecting with the river bank.

Turn left up Herbal Hill (which is opposite the pub) and cross Clerkenwell Road via the crossing, bear left, then take the first right into Saffron Hill. Turn right onto Hatton Wall, left under the covered passage into Hatton Place, and on arrival at the wall with the bricked up windows look through the grey gates.

You have just walked the route along which the baying crowd, later in the book, brought Oliver Twist having captured him on suspicion of stealing Mr Brownlow’s handkerchief.

No 15, which offers no hint that this was once the front entrance of the Hatton Garden Police Court, the original of the ‘notorious’ police office, to which Oliver was brought.

He was ‘led beneath a low archway and up a dirty court’ to be taken in through the back door of a ‘very notorious metropolitan police office’, where he was brought before the magistrate Mr Fang. It was also along here that Nancy came, at the request of Fagin, tapping the cell doors with her keys endeavoring to locate Oliver.

Oliver Twist on trial at Hatton Gardens Police Station, by George Cruishank.
Oliver Twist on trial at Hatton Gardens Police Station, by George Cruishank.

Mr Fang was based upon Mr A S Laing, an infamous magistrate working here between 1836 and 1838.

Near here was Field Lane.

By the time of Oliver Twist , Field lane and its surrounding streets eg Saffron Hill, were established rookeries and known as a center for fences (receivers of stolen property).

Here’s Oliver’s thought of Field Lane: “A dirtier or more wretched place he had ever seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There was a good many small shops: but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out of doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper … were the public houses … drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth.”

A vivid article from the Illustrated London news of 22nd May 1846 conveys something of the atmosphere of the place.

“Many of our readers are in no doubt familiar with the densely-peopled, dirty, confused, huddled, locality…. Many of them have, we doubt not, been bewildered amid its dingy, swarming alleys – have emerged from its squalid courts, crowded with tattered, sodden-looking women, and hulking unwashed men – clustering around the doors of coarse, low-browed public houses; or seated by dingy unwindowed shops, frowsy with piles of dusty, ricketty rubbish, or reeking with the odour of coarse food – lumps of carrion-like meat simmering in greasy pans and brown, crusty-looking morsels of fish, still gluey with the oil in which they have been fried…

In Clerkenwell, there is a grovelling starving poverty. In Clerkenwell broods the darkness of utter ignorance. In its lanes and alleys the lowest debauch-the coarsest enjoyment – the most infuriate passions – the most unrestrained vice – roar and riot. The keeper of the ‘fence’ loves to set up business there – you see the stolen handkerchiefs fluttering in his den. Low public houses abound, where thieves drink and smoke… The burglar has his ‘crib’ in Clerkenwell – the pickpocket has his mart… It is the locality of dirt, and ignorance and vice – the recesses whereof are but known to the disguised policeman, as he gropes his way up ricketty staircases towards the tracked housebreaker’s den – or the poor shabby genteel City missionary, as he kneels at midnight by the foul straw of some convulsed and dying outcast”

 Seven Dials by Gustav Dore. The Seven Dials was a rookery in the West End, but this gives us a feel to what Field Lane would of been like.
Seven Dials by Gustav Dore. The Seven Dials was a rookery in the West End, but this gives us a feel to what Field Lane and the surrounding areas would have been like.

Field Lane was demolished during the Holborn Viaduct development. It stood somewhere very close to Saffron Hill.

Exit back onto Saffron Hill.

Saffron was actually grown here during the Middle Ages; its use was to hide the taste of rancid meat.  The area immediately west of Saffron Hill was dominated from the late 1200’s by the estate of John Kirkby, who built the original chapel of St Etheldreda.  He became the Bishop of Ely and ever since, this small part of Holborn has stayed within the jurisdiction of the bishopric.

Towards the end on the right is the One Tun Pub, rebuilt in 1875, which claims to be the original of the Three Cripples, a favoured haunt of Fagin and Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist – their HQ. A well know Jewish fence called Ikey Solomons who frequented the area at that time was the model for the character of Fagin. It was somewhere along this narrow street that Fagin had his den.

Fagin's Den with Fagin, Artful Dodge and an apprehensive Oliver, by George Cruishank.
Fagin’s Den with Fagin, Artful Dodge and an apprehensive Oliver, by George Cruishank.

Turn right into Greville Street, left onto Hatton Garden.Look for a bent, old gas lamp, turn left down the narrow alleyway.

Lamp post Hatton Garden
A very old, bent lamp post!

Pause alongside Ye Olde Mitre Tavern which was built in 1547, for the servants of the Bishops of Ely, It is famous for having a cherry tree, (now supporting the front) that Queen Elizabeth I who once danced around with Sir Christopher Hatton.

Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern

Follow the alleyway onto Ely Place. Turn right and you will see St Etheldreds – an ancient chapel built in 1250.

Turn around and turn left , cross over Farringdon Road, onto Charterhouse Street that will lead you to Smithfields and its Grand Avenue. This is the main hall and has an interesting display of the history of Smithfield.

Smithfield Market
Smithfield Market

Here, with the brutal Bill Sikes, Oliver experiences market day. Dickens clearly felt no affection for the market. Smithfield was then a dangerous place but its days were numbered. In 1852 an Act of Parliament was passed for the construction of a new livestock market and, three years later, the Metropolitan Cattle Market opened on Copenhagen Fields, Islington. “The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above… Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house…and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.” (Oliver Twist, Chapter XXI)

When you have finished exploring Smithfield go back to the Grand Avenue and cross onto Cowcross Street and follow it until you reach Farringdon Station. Look out for the Rookery Hotel on your right – has a small historic display in the window.

Cross over to Turnmill Street.

Turnmill Street was seen as the Rookery centre, the locals knew it as ‘Little Hell’.

The building of Farringdon Underground was responsible for the start of the demolition of the rookeries. One contemporary estimated that at least one thousand houses had been demolished, thereby rendering some twenty thousand souls homeless.

Work began on the line in 1860 to connect Paddington to Farringdon, and it was the world’s first underground passenger railway.

Today, Turnmill Street has little of interest, except for a superb view of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.

At the end of Turnmill Street cross over onto Clerkenwell Road, and turn right and then first left into Clerkenwell Green.

Clerkenwell Green, with St Jame's Church.
Clerkenwell Green, with St Jame’s Church.

Clerkenwell Green was the setting for one of the pivotal events in Oliver twist, Oliver’s initiation into the picking of pockets. Mr Brownlow was reading a book at a stall as the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates and Oliver ‘were just emerging from the narrow court, not far from the open square in Clerkenwell, which is yet called, by some strange perversion of terms “The Green”… ’ Oliver watched in horror ‘his eyelids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman’s pocket; and draw from thence a handkerchief… ’ Dodger and Bates escaped, leaving Oliver to take the blame.

Mr Brownlow at the bookstall at Clerkenwell Green, by George Cruishank.
Mr Brownlow at the bookstall at Clerkenwell Green, by George Cruishank.

Clerkenwell Green is also the location of the Middlesex Sessions House where, later in the story, Mr Bumble the Beadle is involved in an ill-fated legal hearing before “the quarter-sessions at Clerkenwell [sic].” Built in 1779, this grand grade II-listed building is now home to the Central London Masonic Centre.

Middlesex Sessions House
Middlesex Sessions House

This imposing Georgian building was once the largest and busiest courthouse in England until 1920. The building consisted of two large court rooms, dungeons for holding prisoners, and a grand living space for the resident judges. In contrast to the judges’ lavish quarters, the basement cells were tiny. One of these cells remains today, and is currently used as a linen cupboard – so you can imagine how cramped these chambers were. In its day, Middlesex Sessions House had a reputation for being one of the harshest courthouses in the country. A 78-year-old woman once received seven years for stealing a joint of meat. A 20-year sentence was not unknown for stealing a pair of boots. Stocks were positioned on the nearby green, where drunkards were placed to be ridiculed by the public. All types of perpetrators passed through its doors, from petty thieves and protestors arrested on the green, to hardened criminals. If you were convicted and punished with ‘Transportation’ you would be marched in chains down a tunnel to Newgate prison, before being placed on a boat to Australia.

From Clerkenwell Green turn into Clerkenwell Close and you will see St James Church.

St James, dating from 1778–82, One notable feature is the 19th  Century iron ‘modesty board’, placed strategically around the base of the stairs to the left of the entrance, to prevent the gentlemen of the parish looking up the ladies skirts as they ascended the stairs! Also noteworthy are the huge blackboards that show charitable bequests from long-dead parishioners to the poor of the parish.

Go down the steps to exit the church, turn left through the gate and walk to the far steps that lead up to a bricked off doorway.

Cut through the church garden –  onto St James walk and walk left . You will see a large building that was once Hugh Myddleton School.

Hugh Myddleton School (now flats) - once the site of Clerkenwell House of Corrections
Hugh Myddleton School (now flats) – once the site of Clerkenwell House of Corrections

This was once the site for the dreaded Clerkenwell House of Detentions – a place of dread, no doubt, for Oliver and his contemporaries.

Originally three storeys high with a network of underground tunnels, it was one of the most important and busiest prisons in Victorian London taking in over 10,000 prisoners a year. Accommodating men, women and children on remand, it they passed beneath a grisly replica head hung on the gates of the main prison “symbolising criminal despair, and the words “Look into despair, all ye who enter here.”

On 13 December 1867 its exercise yard was the target of a gunpowder explosion instigated by members of the Fenian Society in an attempt to aid the escape of Richard Burke, an arms supplier to the Fenians. The blast killed twelve bystanders and wounded 120 in Corporation Row; some of those responsible were executed, with ringleader Michael Barrett ,  the last person to be publicly executed outside Newgate prison .The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage.

The prison was demolished in 1890 to make way for the Hugh Myddleton School (which itself has now been converted into flats). The vaults beneath though , remained , and during the Blitz the tunnels were re-opened as air raid shelters. In 1993, a small section  was opened as a museum but has since closed. various films, such as the recent Sherlock Holmes, have been filmed in catacombs.

Turn left into Clerkenwell Close, walk past the Horseshoe Pub and nearby is Pear Tree Court. This narrow court is from where the Dodger, Bates and Oliver emerged to pick a pocket or two. Today this late Victorian Peabody Estate still has the feel of the original setting. American philanthropist George Peabody established the trust in 1862 ‘to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis and to promote their comfort and happiness’.

Pear Court Clerkenwell
Pear Court

At the end of the court, on Farringdon Lane, is the pub Betsy Trotswood  but that is another story!

Betsy Trotswood, Clerkenwell
Betsy Trotswood Pub, named after a character from Dickens book David Copperfield.

Turn right onto Farringdon Lane. At No 16 Farringdon Lane (Well Court), visible through a window, is an old well rediscovered in 1924, having been lost for centuries. This is “Clerkenwell” – where the local area gets its name from. Clerkenwell name comes from clerks Well, a spring of pure water on the east bank of the Fleet which in the Middle Ages was associated with the Company of Parish Clerks.

Cross over the crossing, follow Tysoe Street to Farringdon Tube where this walk ends. If you have the time why not catch visit Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street.

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Historical self guided walks around London