Features History

High Street haircuts: Amwell Street

A centenary after the publication of Riceyman Steps, Arnold Bennett’s Clerkenwell-based novel, Lindsay Duguid reflects on the changes in Amwell Street and its tributaries

Corner of Lloyd Baker Street & Amwell Street
Corner of Lloyd Baker Street & Amwell Street. Photo: Philafrenzy, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Strolling along the graceful upper stretch of Amwell Street, I am often aware of an image from the past, a bright cinematic construction which my memories of the 1980s have made and kept. There is Arthur’s greengrocer with its outside trays of fruit and vegetables on the corner where Wallace and Sewell now is; a GP’s surgery in place of Myddelton’s; Lloyd’s Dairy, largely unchanged in appearance, which used to have a shop window crammed with groceries and a milk-vending machine outside; a bakery on the corner of River Street. King’s the chemist had, and still has, wooden trays for medicines. There was a butcher, a post office, a florist, a newsagent and a betting shop, as well as a corner shop which stayed open late. A cabinet maker and a clock mender were reminders of older days when the street also boasted watchmakers, jewellers and engravers. (There were stories of a butcher doing the slaughtering in his back yard and the manufacture of fairground figures in a shop basement.)

It now seems almost a dream: an elegant unspoilt village street where one could do one’s daily shopping. It was a particularly precious place, since Amwell Street had survived the Second World War bombing raids which destroyed large parts of the surrounding area. Early changes included The Fountain pub becoming Filthy McNasty’s Whiskey Café and the arrival of the shoe designer Emma Hope who had the distinction of being mentioned in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Lloyd’s Dairy became an organic grocer, then a hairdresser. Other amenities included a laundrette and a vet. In 2000 when the street was used as a set for Neil Jordan’s film of The End of the Affair, Graham Greene’s wartime novel, the shop fronts were painted to look soot-stained.

Behind the sunny vision lies another distant image, a blurred black-and-white photographic view of the early Victorian dark brick and stucco dwellings and lodging houses. The street was home to the artist George Cruikshank, a man with various addresses, two wives and a mistress, the father of eleven children, whose famous cartoon of 1829, “London going out of Town or The March of Bricks & Mortar”, shows a gothic style church under a hail of bricks. It was briefly the home of Edward Irving, the charismatic Scottish preacher and early admirer of Jane Carlyle. Before that there was an open reservoir in Claremont Square. The parochial school, funded by local charities, opened in 1830. The Survey of London provides dates and details of the construction of the street when the development was shared between two local landowners: the New River Company had the East side and the Lloyd Baker estate the west side. In 1961 the New River took over the whole street and raised the rents. Olive Lloyd Baker left a record of a visit to her tenants at number 61: “Very sad about Sale. His sister, now ninety-one years old, born in the house. Two customers expressed pleasure at meeting me. They said the Estate made ‘something different’.”

Drapers and watchmakers are things of the past. The street now has three barbers and one hairdresser as well as several interior design outlets. Lloyd’s Dairy is about to become a showroom for modern furniture. It is a long way from Arnold Bennett’s description of “the great metropolitan industrial district of Clerkenwell” in Riceyman Steps (1923). Bennett, who was obsessed with the area, wrote that what was once “a murmuring green land of medicinal springs, wells, streams with mills on their banks” had become a “ hell of noise and dirt” with tramcars, horse drawn vans, a “dingy and sordid neighbourhood”. He was, of course, concerned with King’s Cross Road rather than Amwell Street.

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