Clerkenwell was once known as London's Little Italy because of the large number of Italians living in the area from the 1850s until the 1960s.
Clerkenwell took its name from the Clerks' Well in Farringdon Lane
. In the Middle Ages, the London Parish clerks performed annual mystery plays there, based on biblical themes. Part of the well remains visible, incorporated into a 1980s building called Well Court
In the 17th century South Clerkenwell became a fashionable place of residence. Oliver Cromwell owned a house on Clerkenwell Close
, just off the Green. Several aristocrats had houses there, most notably the Duke of Northumberland, as did people such as Erasmus Smith.
Before Clerkenwell became a built-up area, it had a reputation as a resort a short walk out of the city, where Londoners could disport themselves at its spas, of which there were several, based on natural chalybeate springs, tea gardens and theatres. The present day Sadler's Wells has survived as heir to this tradition.
Clerkenwell was also the location of three prisons: the Clerkenwell Bridewell, Coldbath Fields Prison (later Clerkenwell Gaol) and the New Prison, later the Clerkenwell House of Detention, notorious as the scene of the Clerkenwell Outrage in 1867, an attempted prison break by Fenians who killed many in the tenement houses on Corporation Row
in trying to blow a hole in the prison wall.
The Industrial Revolution changed the area greatly. It became a centre for breweries, distilleries and the printing industry. It gained a special reputation for the making of clocks and watches, which activity once employed many people from around the area. Flourishing craft workshops still carry on some of the traditional trades, such as jewellery-making. Clerkenwell is home to Witherby's, Europe's oldest printing company.
After the Second World War, Clerkenwell suffered from industrial decline and many of the premises occupied by the engineering, printing publishing and meat and food trades (the last mostly around Smithfield) fell empty. Several acclaimed council housing estates were commissioned by Finsbury Borough Council. Modernist architect and Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin's listed Spa Green Estate, constructed 1943–1950, has recently been restored. The Finsbury Estate
, constructed in 1968 to the designs of Joseph Emberton includes flats, since altered and re-clad.
A general revival and gentrification process began in the 1980s, and the area is now known for loft-living in some of the former industrial buildings. It also has young professionals, nightclubs and restaurants and is home to many professional offices as an overspill for the nearby City of London and West End.
Amongst other sectors, there is a notable concentration of design professions around Clerkenwell, and supporting industries such as high-end designer furniture showrooms.