Our Little Italy

Clerkenwell - The Dickensian Era

The Clerkenwell area developed quite a reputation as a crime ridden den of thieves.  It was regularly frequented by Charles Dickens who used some of the locations as backdrops for his novels.  In his masterpiece of 1837, Oliver Twist, the “Artful Dodger” leads Oliver to “Fagin’s” den along Field Lane, the southern extension of Saffron Hill, nick-named “Little Hell”.

Saffron Hill is the street in which Fagin housed his notorious “den of thieves”.  The “Artful Dodger” was said to scoot around this neighbourhood, through the maze of squalid streets and alleyways with Oliver following close at his heels while learning the crafty art of picking pockets.  

Here Dickens paints a vivid picture of the public house known as “The Three Cripples” which was frequented by the scoundrel “Bill Sikes”:

“In the obscure parlour of a low public-house, in the filthiest part of Little Saffron Hill; a dark and gloomy den, where a flaring gas-light burned all day in the winter-time; and where no ray of sun ever shone in the summer: there sat, brooding over a little pewter measure and a small glass, strongly impregnated with the smell of liquor, a man in a velveteen coat, drab shorts, half-boots, and stockings, who even by that dim light no experienced agent of police would have hesitated for one instant to recognize as Mr William Sikes.”

Field Lane

Portrait of a young Charles Dickens - 1842

Dickens describes young Oliver’s first impression of  Saffron Hill :    

“A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen.” …… “The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops but their stock in trade appeared to be children, who, even at this time of night, were crawling in and out of the doors, or screaming from the inside”.

Dickens wrote: “Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny: visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go as strangely as they come. Here, the clothesman, the shoe-vamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods, as sign-boards to the petty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.”

A vivid article from the Illustrated London News of 22nd May, 1847

"Many of our readers are in no doubt familiar with the densely-peopled, dirty, confused, huddled, locality.... Many of them have, we doubt not, been bewildered amid its dingy, swarming alleys - have emerged from its squalid courts, crowded with tattered, sodden-looking women, and hulking unwashed men - clustering around the doors of coarse, low-browed public houses; or seated by dingy unwindowed shops, frowsy with piles of dusty, ricketty rubbish, or reeking with the odour of coarse food - lumps of carrion-like meat simmering in greasy pans and brown, crusty-looking morsels of fish, still gluey with the oil in which they have been fried...

In Clerkenwell, there is a grovelling starving poverty. In Clerkenwell broods the darkness of utter ignorance. In its lanes and alleys the lowest debauch-the coarsest enjoyment - the most infuriate passions - the most unrestrained vice - roar and riot. The keeper of the 'fence' loves to set up business there - you see the stolen handkerchieves fluttering in his den. Low public houses abound, where thieves drink and smoke...

Clerkenwell was also well known for its brothels and prostitution.

The burglar has his 'crib' in Clerkenwell - the pickpocket has his mart... It is the locality of dirt, and ignorance and vice - the recesses whereof are but known to the disguised policeman, as he gropes his way up ricketty staircases towards the tracked housebreaker's den - or the poor shabby genteel City missionary, as he kneels at midnight by the foul straw of some convulsed and dying outcast."

For a brief description of the Saffron Hill area by Peter Cunningham, in the Hand-Book of London, 1850” - SAFFRON HILL, go to

Clerkenwell House of Detention  *

“A squalid neighbourhood between HOLBORN and CLERKENWELL, densely inhabited by poor people and thieves. It was formerly a part of Ely-gardens, [see Ely House], and derives its name from the crops of saffron which it bore. It runs from Field-lane into Vine-street, so called from the Vineyard attached to old Ely House. The clergymen of St. Andrew's, Holborn, (the parish in which the purlieu lies), have been obliged, when visiting it, to be accompanied by policemen in plain clothes.”

Next - Clerkenwell Early Italian Immigrants

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