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

1: SABINI GANG
The Beeb has now filmed its next series of Peaky Blinders, its hit drama about a criminal gang in 1920s Birmingham of that name. It’s due out next year.

The show is a blend of fact and fiction; while mob leader Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy) is a made-up character, his gangster nemesis, Darby Sabini (played by Noah Taylor), is not. He was from Clerkenwell.

Sabini (real name Ollovia Sabini) was born to an Irish mother and Italian father on Saffron Hill in EC1’s Little Italy in 1888. He became a boxer, then a runner for local bookmakers, which is how his criminal career took off. He made his money in racecourse protection rackets, gambling and nightclubs.

He became a big name in the London underworld when a mob from the Elephant & Castle came to The Griffin pub on Clerkenwell Road (now a stripclub), the HQ of the Sabinis gang. Sabini broke the rival leader’s jaw.

Sabini, who always wore a flat cap and black muffler, and whose signature weapon was a razor blade, moved to Brighton and is said to have been the inspiration for Colleoni in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

The war, rather than the cops, got the better of him in the end. With his Italian heritage, Sabini was interned as an enemy national when it broke out.

2: CARPETS
In the 18th century, you’d head to Clerkenwell for the best printing, etching, watch-making, enamelling, jewellery-making, you name it. And weaving – this skill was yet another string to the locale’s crafty bow.

The Moorfields area boasted one of the most fashionable and highly regarded carpet-makers of the time. Thomas Moore was described in a well-known book of the time as “an artist”, who “has brought his manufactory of English carpets to such perfection that it far excels the Persian”.

Among his clients was the famous architect and designer Robert Adam. In 1769, Moore was commissioned to make a carpet for the Red Drawing Room at Syon Park in west London, home to the Duke of Northumberland. Not only was it extravagantly detailed in its geometrical pattern (which was based on Roman pavement design) but it was also huge: 10 metres long and 4.5 metres wide.

The carpet is still in the room today (complete with Moore’s name and the year it was made woven into a section of the border) and Adam’s sketch for it is now at the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Moore lived on Chiswell Street, near the Barbican. His factory remained in operation until 1793, when it was sold by his daughter, Jane.

3: THOMAS HARDY
The name “Thomas Hardy” tends to conjure up bucolic images – oak trees, shire horses, hay stooks and the like. But before the author settled in scenic Dorset to write his novels, he spent time in the grubby Big Smoke.

As an apprentice architect in the King’s Cross area, he was assigned, in 1865, the grisly task of exhuming the bodies in the ancient graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, behind St Pancras station. The graves lay in the path of the new Midland train line as it pierced through north London and in the Victorian steam age, nothing stood in the way of progress; the bodies simply had to be moved.

Hardy unearthed a jumble of medieval bones and later wrote a poem (possibly not his best) about his experience: “We late-lamented, resting here, are mixed to human jam/ And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!’”

In the end, the “human jam” was reburied in a pit close to the church, with a circle of broken headstones forming a jagged crown above it. In the middle of these, Hardy planted a young ash tree, which has grown to form a majestic centrepiece. You can visit the “Hardy Tree”, as it is known, in the grounds of the tiny, ancient church.

There, you can also find the tomb of Sir John Soane and his family, which is said to have inspired Giles Gilbert Scott in his design for the iconic red phonebox.

 

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