Rebels, Radicals and Rough Justice: Historic Clerkenwell
St James's Church
Stop here a little while.
This is St James Church. It was built on the former site of the St Mary nunnery, in 1792. The tall steeple was used by local clockmakers to set the time, by looking over London to Greenwich. There they could see the moment when the red ball drops from the top of the Observatory at exactly 1pm GMT. In the past, clock- and watch-making was the main craft trade in Clerkenwell.
There are two interesting memorials inside the church. At the entrance to the nave is a memorial to six people killed in the Fenian explosion of 1867. A group of Irish nationalists, who were members of the Fenian Irish revolutionary movement, exploded a bomb outside the House of Detention where other members had been been imprisoned. They hoped to knock down the prison walls so as to free their colleagues. Instead they caused the death of people living opposite. This caused great outrage and even Karl Marx condemned it. Michael Barrett was convicted of the crime and hanged just three days before public executions were forbidden by law.
Near the altar is a memorial to 66 protestant martyrs who met their death in nearby Smithfield. Their executions took place in the 1400s and first half of the 1500s.
If you have time, it is worth visiting the church. The interior is typical of the protestant style of church architecture with classical columns supporting the galleries and absence of stained glass to let in the light.
Before you head inside, or if you’re keen to move on now, let me show you where to go. Turn away from the church, and walk back down the street. Then just keep heading straight, staying on the left hand side.