The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Four

St John’s Square, EC1M

On the southern corner of Clerkenwell Road and St John’s Square to the west of St John Street stands a rather splendid building known as Penny Bank Chambers and to emphasise the point, above the entrance is a row of terracotta pennies with the bank’s name embossed on them. The Penny Bank was a Yorkshire creation, founded in 1859 in Halifax by Colonel Edward Akroyd, with the laudable aim of encouraging the working classes to save. They sought to do this by being sited on the main thoroughfares of towns and cities, opening in the evenings and accepting deposits of less than a shilling, hence the name.

Princess Christian of Schleswig Holstein, no less, laid the foundation stone to this particular building in May 1879 and it opened for business a year later. For her troubles, the princess received a commemorative trowel, inlaid with silver pennies and a figure of working man with a bank book. I’m sure she treasured it. There was an even more philanthropic idea behind the Clerkenwell branch.

The development of the Clerkenwell Road in 1879 saw the demolition of many of the slums in the area, creating a housing crisis. The upper floors of the Bank were to provide tenements for artisans “of regular employment”. Families of up to ten would occupy a living space comprising of up to three rooms and the expectation was that they would deposit any spare cash they had with the bank. Laudable as the idea may have been the scheme lasted barely ten years but it left its mark on the area and the internal design of the building. The National Penny Bank itself was wound up in 1914, although the Yorkshire element became the Yorkshire Bank.

Stepping into St John’s Square, you cannot fail to notice a large arch. This is pretty much all that remains of the priory of St John, the English headquarters of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, established in the area in around 1144, from which the square derives its name. Modern Clerkenwell Road bisects St John’s Square and from John Rocque’s map of London, produced in 1746, the Square was that area to the north of what is now Clerkenwell Road, the rest being noted as St John’s Court. The earliest reference to the Square appears in a deed from 1712.

A priory so close to London had its drawbacks. It was often in financial straits because it had to entertain the occasional visiting royal, associated courtiers, the Grand Prior, and a motley crew of pensioners. In 1381 it was set on fire by Watt Tyler’s revolting peasants and rebuilding was not completed until 1504, although the priory was usable enough to host the Royal Council in 1485 in which Richard III decided against marrying his niece, Elizabeth of York. The 1504 reconstruction included the grand south gate, although what we see today was almost completely rebuilt by the Victorians. The Elizabethan historian, William Camden, described as “a palace” with “a very fair church, and a tower-steeple raised to a great height, with so fine workmanship that it was a singular beauty and ornament to the city”.

Despite its splendour, the priory fell foul of Henry VIII’s reformation, although it was one of the last monastic houses to be dissolved, in March 1540. It was then used to store the monarch’s tents and part of his wardrobe (he was a big man, after all) and royal builders had their master’s permission to loot it for building materials. On her accession the Catholic Mary allowed the Hospitallers to return to their erstwhile site but her death and the return to Protestantism meant that they were quickly expelled and the property repossessed.

Over time, the area was populated by the more genteel sorts but from the 18th century tradesmen moved in. There was a distillery, established by Israel Wilkes, the father of the radical politician, John, and, on the western side of the Square, a printing works, established in 1750 by John Emonson and, as Gilbert & Rivington’s, was still in business in the early 20th century.

With some careful observation and a vivid imagination, though, you can still imagine what the Priory might have looked like, even today.

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