A century on, historian Mark Aston looks at writer Arnold Bennett’s ‘dingy’ and ‘sordid’ Clerkenwell and finds that some themes have persisted…
By Mark Aston
This year we commemorate the centenary of the publication of Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett (1867–1931). It’s a claustrophobic exercise in post-World War I ‘slum fiction’, and an intense psychological exploration of obsession, in which the author backdrops a sordid and down-at-heel Clerkenwell. Did Bennett, however, intensify the district’s known down-to-earth, working-class character solely for literary effect? Or was his work, as one contemporary review suggested, “the last word in detailed actuality?” Certainly, the author’s depiction of Clerkenwell 100 years ago starts with a jolt of reality.
“On an autumn afternoon of 1919 a hatless man with a slight limp might have been observed ascending the gentle, broad acclivity of Riceyman Steps, which lead from King’s Cross Road up to Riceyman Square, in the great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell”. So begins Bennett’s story of miserly second-hand bookseller Henry Earlforward, the main protagonist. Set in in the north-west of the district, the titular steps (now Grade II-listed Gwynne Place), where Henry kept his shop, is based on the thoroughfare that leads up from King’s Cross Road to Granville Square – Bennett’s ‘Riceyman Square’.
Literature has not always been kind to Clerkenwell. In this period of post-First World War austerity, we witness Henry Earlforward dream of the area’s golden, bygone age of a “murmuring green land of medicinal springs, wells, [and] streams with mills on their banks” but, in reality, he, wife Violet and maid dwelled in a “dingy and sordid neighbourhood where existence was a dangerous and difficult adventure in almost frantic quest of food, drink and shelter, where the familiar and beloved landmarks were public-houses”. This echoes Dickens’ Oliver Twist’s of 1837, where the first impression of Clerkenwell was, “a dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen…”. Worse, in The Nether World (1889), George Gissing describes the area as “barely human”.
Contemporary press reviews, however, promoted Riceyman Steps’ gritty realism: “The scene is laid in sordid surroundings … a sombre corner of Clerkenwell” said the Western Daily Press. The narrative is “weighed down by temperamental flaws, flaws… curable in Mayfair, but which, in Clerkenwell, dragged these poor creatures to their doom”, said the Daily News. Decisively, The Truth newspaper considered Bennett’s work “the last word in detailed actuality”.
From 1900, Clerkenwell was under the administration of the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury. By 1923, Finsbury’s diminishing population was estimated at 77,280 with its daytime workforce population around double this figure.
Its residents were no strangers to hardship. At the end of the 19th century, Charles Booth’s poverty survey noted that Finsbury was one of the poorest and most overcrowded districts in London; 45 per cent in poverty compared to a London average of 31 per cent, with over 53 per cent of inhabitants living in overcrowded conditions.
Conditions were no better in the aftermath of World War I. The people of Finsbury and Clerkenwell faced a difficult future. The continuing lack of decent housing, ongoing unemployment and economic challenges prevailed into the 1920s, and the deprivation that had characterised the area at the end of the 19th century had continued into the next.
At the time of Riceyman Steps’ publication, the findings of the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) endorsed what residents already knew – that the borough’s housing problem was chronic and among the worst in London. On one hand, there were a large number of poor ‘submerged’ people, living handto-mouth, who could not pay an economic rent for houses or tenements. These were accompanied by a class of people who could pay an economic rent, but resorted to stinting on food and clothing. On the other hand, due to its proximity to the City, land in the borough was so expensive that proposed housing schemes were rejected simply due to cost. Here is an example from the MOH’s report presenting a plea from a Clerkenwell resident desperate for accommodation:
“I have a wife and eight children in two very small rooms measuring 12 feet by 10, owing to the lack of space four of my children sleep in one bed and four in another. I have been 20 miles of London to seek a place… I work night work… and myself sleep in an arm chair”.
Fortunately, a better home for this family was found in Ilford. At each meeting of Finsbury Council throughout 1923, properties were recorded where serious health concerns had been raised: verminous rooms, smashed windows, leaky roofs, insufficient WCs and accumulated filth. At 1923’s end, 212 dwelling houses were deemed unfit but not so dangerous that they could not be inhabited.
In parallel, Bennett wrote: “I do think you’re a little hard on Riceyman Square,” he [Henry] said …She [Violet] replied gaily and firmly: “Not one house without a broken pane!” Although their loyal charwoman and maid servant Elsie Sprickett’s squalid lodgings in Riceyman Square were comparatively spacious with three families (ten people) living in a total of nine rooms, “the landlord of the house was too poor to do necessary repairs”. Two decades earlier, Charles Booth’s survey found the square (Granville) “fairly comfortable”, its inhabitants enjoying “good ordinary earnings” but, a little to the south, Bennett remarks that “Coldbath Square easily surpassed even Riceyman Square in squalor and foulness”. This a definite decline in living standards since Booth declared Coldbath Square a mixed inhabitation, “some comfortable, others poor”.
Squalor and acute welfare problems went hand-in-hand with housing issues. In 1923, Finsbury’s infant mortality rate stood at 60.7 per 1,000 births; the highest in London being Holborn at 79/1,000. Causes of death included measles (357 deaths in 1923), diphtheria (317) and tuberculosis (193). Suggestions for reducing the infant mortality rate included open air nurseries, a massage clinic, day creches, cooking classes and lectures and instruction in Italian for Clerkenwell’s substantial Italian population. Another concern was the lack of public baths and laundries in the borough. By 1918, every borough in London had one or the other or both, except Finsbury. Discussions about providing these facilities began in 1923 but, as with new housing, were shelved due to cost. It took another five years before the issue was properly tackled, when an incoming Labour council recognised the desperate need for action:
“Out of 20,005 families living in the Finsbury Borough in 1929, 4,917 shared a single room and 7,253 lived in two rooms. Most had no bath or wash house. 4,248 families lived in block dwellings with need of a better bath and washing facilities. Of the Borough’s 12,000 dwellings no more than 500, or 4 per cent, had private baths”.
However, it was not until 1933 that the people of Clerkenwell finally got their own purpose-built bath house in Merlin Street. Meanwhile Ironmonger Row Baths had opened two years earlier in the south of Finsbury.
The late 1920s witnessed positive improvements of housing and welfare conditions, with revenues from businesses supporting the municipal provision. A Maternity and Child Welfare Centre was built on Pine Street in 1927 and in the same year, the council’s first effort to provide decent modern accommodation resulted in Grimaldi House in Calshot Street. Although the latter was woefully small, rehousing just 15 families, it was a start. The next decade brought much-needed housing improvements, such as the completion of the Margery Street Estate in 1933 where one of the estate blocks was named Riceyman House – extraordinary, given Bennett’s uncomplimentary portrayal of Clerkenwell a decade earlier.
Bennett did not disguise the fact that he and his characters found Clerkenwell dingy and sordid, and, while the author’s depiction of the district may be the last word in ‘detailed actuality’, in reality, it was reports from the MOH and Finsbury Council that presented the authentic and truly despondent nature of the area. Improvements eventually arrived and citizens said goodbye to the deprivations of the 1920s. Now, while poverty remains, 100 years later, EC1’s fashionable character is far removed from the fictional vérité of Riceyman Steps. What might Arnold Bennett and Henry Earlforward make of the “great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell” today? I think they would be pleasantly surprised.