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Survey of London: Clerkenwell

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This is a guest post from Mark Aston of the Islington Local History Centre, to mark the publication on British History Online of two volumes of the Survey of London covering Clerkenwell.

In 2008, staff at Islington Local History based at Finsbury Library, in the heart of Clerkenwell,  were delighted when the publication of the Survey of London (SOL) two volume-set (Vols. 46 & 47) (covering Clerkenwell) afforded a near-definitive source of reference detailing the history and development of this former inner London parish, now part of the London Borough of Islington. While it was known that this new addition to the well-respected SOL series was being researched, it was still a ‘red-letter day’ when staff first thumbed through the volumes’ 800 or so pages and studied with pleasure the accompanying images.

Not since the publication of William J. Pinks’s The history of Clerkenwell (1865) has such a comprehensive study of one of the oldest inhabited areas of London been undertaken and made widely available. Many books, pamphlets and manuscripts have been produced since Pinks’ history first appeared on Victorian bookseller’s shelves, but none such as the Survey has covered in great detail the places, events and people that have all contributed to make Clerkenwell what is has become today, an enduring and ever-evolving part of the capital.

For over four years now the printed copies of the two-volume set has been a veritable corner stone of information for Clerkenwell at the Centre. Not a day has gone by when staff or enquirers have not reached out to the Survey to begin researching, for example, a local building to discover its origins or to simply better understand the location in which a family historian’s ancestors once lived, worked or played; Clerkenwell was also once a playground for London’s elite and not so well-heeled with its spas, pleasure grounds and theatres – all covered in the Survey! Planners, architects, conservationists, local history societies and resident associations, genealogists, students and the wider public have all found the volumes’ pages the first place to begin when commencing their studies on an aspect of Clerkenwell’s past.

It therefore goes without saying that when staff and I first heard the news from English Heritage’s (and contributor to the Survey) Colin Thom that the volumes were to be made available on British History Online (BHO), including accompanying colour images and architectural drawings, it was extremely welcome. BHO is one of a number of online resources consistently used and recommended by Islington Local History Centre and, without sounding sycophantic, staff really appreciate the wide range of other publications available on the site as well.

While the Centre welcomes approximately 5000 visitors each year through its doors, a large number contact staff for information through our e-mail and online services. To now have the Clerkenwell Survey of London volumes available for consultation on the site is a great bonus. The Centre receives daily e-mails from researchers across the globe but especially those from English speaking countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Many of course are family historians, with ancestors once born and/or resident in Clerkenwell.  As much as staff would like to undertake in-depth research on behalf of these long distance enquirers, it’s unfortunately not practical to do so given the volume of queries and limited staff resources. However, a simple link to BHO will now doubtless help satisfy many questions about the area. In addition, linking to the site will introduce researchers to nationwide reference sources, not just covering Clerkenwell and its environs.

The printed volumes will, of course, remain mainstays of our secondary source collection but the online versions offer even more scope for the researcher. Benefits include keyword searches, hyperlink references within the online text, capability to enlarge (and save) images and the inevitable, but essential, copy and paste facility. While the printed copy has an excellent index, it is naturally limited and an online keyword search highlights results within the text, allowing for quicker access. I especially find the hyperlinked references an excellent feature and a great time saver; the volumes’ extensive references are another very useful attribute, while also providing a superb bibliography for the location. And, the ease at which text can be copied and used, for example, when answering a remote enquiry or when using text in a report, is a great asset – full citation always given of course! The availability of accurate and reliable information found online in publications such as the Survey of London series will, in time, and hopefully, replace the need for researchers heading in the first instant to well-known online encyclopaedias for historical information. While these provide easy and quick gratification, we know that  content can’t always be relied upon and, therefore, should be validated from sources recognised as being reliable by professional academics and researchers, such as those found on BHO.

Finally, I’d like to highlight a couple of entries in the Survey which I think blog readers may like to peruse to learn a little more about the ancient parish of Clerkenwell. At the heart of the area lies Clerkenwell Green; I don’t think that the location has witnessed grass, or any greenery for that matter, in many centuries but the entry’s fascinating account of its history and development almost deserves a separate volume. In its time the Green has played host to, amongst others: a medieval nunnery, a holy well, a lost river, the Peasants’ Revolt, a magistrates’ court, Oliver Twist, radical political meetings, the world’s first public underground railway, Lenin, the Marx memorial Library and some great pubs too! Take a look also at Sadler’s Wells and the origins of this world famous dance theatre – a true survivor in every sense, with its entry providing a thorough description of the various buildings and uses of the location since the late-17th century.

It just leaves me to thank Jonathan Blaney for inviting me to write a few words in salute to the online publication of The Survey of London Volumes 46 and 47: Clerkenwell, and how useful a resource BHO is to those working in and using local history centres, archives, museums and research establishments across the country and beyond.