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Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser-known stories from EC1

The area known as Moorfi elds, just east of the Barbican, was not an attractive one in years gone by. It was basically a swamp, to which rogues escaped when in trouble (it was just outside the City walls, and therefore just outside the rules that governed within them). In the 12th century, this swamp was used as an open-air laundry room by washerwomen; in the winter, its frozen-over waters would attract young people, who used shinbones (presumably not human) for ice-skates.

The name Moorfields makes us think of the famous eye hospital but long before that ever came into being, the area boasted a hospital of a very different nature: the mental institute the Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam as it was nicknamed. (Confusingly, the eye hospital, which is no longer in Moorfields but now on the City Road, actually started life in Clerkenwell’s Charterhouse Square.)

The swampy land, being so close to the prosperous City of London, was highly sought after and many attempts were made over the centuries to drain it. Finally, in 1606, that idea was discarded in favour of raising the ground by three or four feet – using dry rubbish, aka 17th century landfi ll. It was then grassed over, and trees and shrubs were planted. It was transformed and became, unofficially, London’s first public park.

If Clerkenwell has two lives – one during the day, one at night – there was once a place that truly united the two, where the days merged and the hours slipped away, and “last night” somehow morphed into “this afternoon”.

That place was Trade, the groundbreaking gay nightclub that opened at Turnmills exactly 25 years ago. Turnmills was the first venue in the UK to obtain a 24-hour music and dance licence, after Trade’s founder, Laurence Malice, saw the need for a safe and legal gay dance club that opened when other clubs closed. So Trade would open at 4am on a Sunday morning, and the party would go on until 1pm on Sunday afternoon.

By the mid-Nineties, Trade had become one of the most popular and infl uential clubs in London, attracting both gay and straight clubbers, as well as celebrities like Madonna and Grace Jones. Its popularity saw it expand out of Clerkenwell to hold events across the UK and the Balearics; it featured in TV documentaries and released dance albums. But just as every wild Saturday night must turn into a bleary-eyed Sunday afternoon, the Turnmills lease came to an end in 2008. The building has since been turned into an office block.

Smithfield has always been associated with death – of animals, for the meat market, and before that, of people, in public executions. 

One of the women who met her fate there, in 1441, was Margery Jourdemayne, a witch known as The Witch of Eye Next Westminster, or Old Mother Madge. She was of lowly stock but extremely popular for her spells services. She’d been imprisoned at Windsor once, and was released on the condition that she didn’t meddle in hocus-pocus any more. But she did, and with members of the royal family, and that was her downfall.

Eleanor Cobham, the Duchess of Gloucester (said only to have secured her marriage to the Duke by literally enchanting him with Margery’s help), and three religious men of her court were accused of using astrological divination to predict an imminent death for Henry VI. Since the Duke of Gloucester was next in line to the throne, it was seen as a great act of treason. Margery and the three men were put on trial. Thomas Southwell died in prison, Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, and Margery was burnt at the stake. John Home, the third man, was pardoned.

Meanwhile, Eleanor, whose marriage was declared invalid, was made to do public penance, walking the streets dressed in black and carrying a wax taper. Lucky let-out.


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