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Charterhouse: ‘Hogwarts of Clerkenwell’ opens to public for first time

PUBLISHED: 11:32 01 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:38 01 February 2017

Charterhouse has opened to the public for the first time. Picture: Lawrence Watson

Charterhouse has opened to the public for the first time. Picture: Lawrence Watson

Archant

In the heart of Clerkenwell is a hidden palace. The Gazette went along as Charterhouse opened its doors for the first time in 660 years.

Charterhouse School pupils were said to have played football in this corridor, leading to an early version of the offside rule. Picture: Lawrence WatsonCharterhouse School pupils were said to have played football in this corridor, leading to an early version of the offside rule. Picture: Lawrence Watson

Islington’s border with the City is incredibly historic. But take a walk around Clerkenwell and it’s easy to feel a little disheartened.

The streets retain their ancient beauty. But with expensive coffee shops and eateries snapping up any vacant space, it’s all starting to feel a little commerical and faceless.

Among all this it’s easy to forget about the incredible heritage of Charterhouse, in Charterhouse Square.

This would be understandable – as it has been closed to the public for its entire 660-year history. Until now.

On Friday, this assembly of historic buildings opened its doors for the first time: an event that had been five years in the making with the Museum of London.

The Gazette went along for a tour, and heard from curator Cathy Ross.

“This place has a feeling of time in the air,” she says. “It has gone from a monastery to Tudor mansions to a school to an almshouse, as it has been for 400 years.

Brothers in the Charterhouse almshouse, which have operated there for 400 years. Picture: Lawrence WatsonBrothers in the Charterhouse almshouse, which have operated there for 400 years. Picture: Lawrence Watson

“Anyone over 60 can live here if they are single and need financial help. You just watch out for vacancies and fill out a long form.”

She continues: “An awful lot of British history has happened here.

“The English Reformation, for example [when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope], was such a dramatic time in 16th century London.

“The Catholics were the biggest landowners but were overthrown, and Charterhouse was taken over by the state. The monastery was knocked down and given to the wealthy followers of Henry VIII.

“Eight monks refused to recognise Henry VIII as head of the church. They were martyred in a gruesome public execution – and the prior’s body was nailed over the Charterhouse door as a warning.”

A boarding school was on the site between 1611 and 1872. And Cathy, who has seen letters from pupils to their parents, reckons it was “all a bit Harry Potter”.

“Some of it is sweet, with ghost stories, but it also looked like a hard life. They would have to follow strict rules and be up at 6am. Some thrived, others found it very hard.

Charterhouse has opened to the public for the first time. Picture: Lawrence WatsonCharterhouse has opened to the public for the first time. Picture: Lawrence Watson

“William Thackeray [novelist, author of Vanity Fair] hated it and called the ‘slaughterhouse school’.

“But Robert Powell went on to form the Scouts and I like to think his experiences here informed his interests: giving young boys something to do outdoors.”

Today, Charterhouse retains its original characteristics thanks to post-war planners, Cathy says.

“In the Second World War, Charterhouse was hit by an incendiary bomb. It was re-built to look just like it was before the fire.

“The architects had a choice: they could have gone for a completely modern building. They decided against it, and you can contrast this with the Barbican nearby, which also suffered bomb damage but was completely redesigned.”

Charterhouse is now open Tuesday to Sunday, and Cathy says it will be a perfect fit. “This is one of few monasteries in an urban landscape. And now it’s part of Clerkenwell being a tourist attraction.

“Clerkenwell, don’t forget, had no status when it was a light industrial area. It’s only in the last 20 years when the industrial buildings have been turned into expensive flats.

“Charterhouse has been hidden from that – but opening to the public fits in with a tourist-y profile.”


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