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Jerusalem Passage looking towards St John’s Gate.

While researching a slot for BBC Radio London’s Robert Elms show, I turned to Geoffrey Fletcher’s London, published in 1968, for his account of Pluto, the ‘tea-and-coffee-brewing gas lamp’ that for a brief period in 1899 stood where Roseberry Avenue and Exmouth Street meet. Pluto is mentioned in a chapter titled On Foot in Finsbury and my re-reading of this particular piece inspired me to set out on a perambulation of my own around this unique area of the mighty metropolis.

I should perhaps point out here that although I was born at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the City of London, I’ve spent the majority of my life living in the old London Borough of Finsbury, with an EC1 postcode to prove it. This is an area I know intimately. I have walked its streets, man and boy, always eternally grateful to grow up in a working class district of central London positively dripping with history and boasting a rich tradition of radical politics.

As a separate borough Finsbury sadly no longer exists. It was swallowed up by Islington in 1965 following the London Government Act of 1963 and promptly stripped of much of its identity, although some of us are still inclined  to declare  Altiora petimus when the occasion demands it.

But Finsbury as an area, despite its modest size, still has much to offer and I will no doubt return to the subject in the future. For now, however, I will follow in Geoffrey Fletcher’s footsteps.

He started his adventure all those years ago at Mount Pleasant, where can be found the giant Royal Mail sorting office of the same name, once the largest in Europe. The Apple Tree pub, which he described as ‘a typical London local’, is still with us, as are a row of 18th century houses that he also mentions. For me, strictly speaking, this isn’t Finsbury at all. Indeed part of Mount Pleasant is actually in the London Borough of Camden, and pre-1965 would have been in the old London Borough of Holborn.

From Mount Pleasant Fletcher headed for Exmouth Street. I am old enough to remember when Exmouth Street was still a genuine London street market, complete with fruit and veg stalls, hardware stores, a butchers and a pie and mash shop. There was even a Wimpy. It was never as boisterous, or as busy, as Chapel Market half a mile or so up the road, but it still had an honesty and integrity about it. It catered for the local working class population and, as such, had a genuine sense of purpose.

Over the past 15 years or so the place has been gentrified almost beyond recognition and these days my heart breaks just a little bit more with every visit. Today’s Exmouth Street is soulless, absolutely soulless. It is a triumph of style and fad and fashion over substance. Even the Exmouth Arms has been turned into a craft beer bar.

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The Holy Redeemer, Exmouth Street.

The Holy Redeemer is still with us, thankfully. Fletcher was rather taken with the church back in 1967, writing that ‘the silver candle-sticks and the stations of the cross make it hard to realize that the cabbages and cauliflowers, bananas, brussels and budgie foods of Exmouth Market are pressing close outside.’

A few yards along from the Holy Redeemer Fletcher reached Manze’s pie and mash shop. ‘Visit it and have a bash at sausages and mash or eels and mash,’ he instructed his readers. If only. Manze’s, or Clark’s as it was later known, closed last year and on my recent stroll an eatery called Blackfoot occupied the premises. This place is run by someone called Allegra McEvedy, who as a chef I believe enjoys a modicum of celebrity. Blackfoot, described in the Evening Standard as a ‘lauded’ ‘pork restaurant’, hasn’t displayed anywhere near the same staying power as Manze’s or Clark’s and, once more according to the Standard, is soon to close its doors. Perhaps Ms McEvedy should have put saveloys on the menu.

A peek through Blackfoot’s windows seems to reveal that some of the original wall tiles are still in situ, although the ‘boxes like those of the old coffee houses’ appear, regrettably, to have been ripped out.

From Exmouth Street, via Myddelton Street, Fletcher made his way along Sekforde Street, admiring the ‘Pall Mall Renaissance’ of the Finsbury Bank for Savings along the way. Sekforde Street remains a handsome thoroughfare, largely unspoilt, and the Finsbury Bank for Savings is as dandy as ever.

 

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Surviving entrances to the old Hugh Myddelton School.

Alas the 18th century terraced houses he admires in Corporation Row, opposite the old Hugh Myddelton School, have disappeared. But the school, which stands on the site of the old Clerkenwell House of Detention, survives, now housing an adult education centre. The school’s outer wall also remains, with separate entrances marked for ‘Special Girls’ and ‘Girls & infants’. Around the corner in Clerkenwell Close there is a third surviving entrance, this one for ‘Cookery & Laundry.’

Clerkenwell Green, for Fletcher, was one of his ‘favourite haunts in London.’ There is very little green to be seen here, apart from a few mature London plain trees, but there is still some accuracy almost 50 years on in his view that the Green has ‘an indefinable country town air lingering about it.’

The old Middlesex Sessions House that Fletcher mentioned was shrouded in scaffolding on my recent visit, but the church of St James, late 18th century and by James Carr, looked as magnificent as ever. Sadly, the ‘fish-and-chip shop, near the steep little alley going up to the church’ is these days but a distant memory.

After strolling along the (still) wonderfully atmospheric Jerusalem Passage and visiting St John’s Gate, Fletcher ended his tour in Clerkenwell Road at the Italian church of St Peter. This is very definitely Little Italy and most certainly Clerkenwell, although I suggest as far as Finsbury is concerned it is cusp.

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The parish church of St James, Clerkenwell.

Geoffrey Snowcroft Fletcher, to give him his full name, has been accused by some of being condescending to the London working class he often wrote about and illustrated, of ‘slumming  it.’ Certainly his oft repeated claim that the majority of his many books on the capital were written in ‘cheap caffs’ where ‘the cups of tea are thickest and sweetest’ should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

But there is no doubting that the record he left, in pictures and in words, of a London that has now been mostly lost is an invaluable and often endearing one. If you come across any of his London books in second hand or charity shops they are well worth adding to your collection.

 

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