site unseen : The Marx Memorial Library
Friday 12 May 1995
Clerkenwell Green is one of the capital's most charming spots. Even though not very green, it is bordered by some splendid buildings. Around the corner, for instance, is the well where medieval clerks once performed plays - hence the name 'Clerk's Well' or Clerkenwell.
At the bottom end is the old Georgian Sessions House or law court where Mr Bumble came in Oliver Twist. It is now a conference centre owned by the freemasons, which explains why so many suits can often be found heading inside armed only with Identikit black briefcases. Stand here long enough and you may well see the real British Establishment going about its business.
But the oldest building on the Green is a charming design of 1737 which was originally built as a Welsh Charity School. Wealthy Welshmen, worried by the unruly behaviour of their poorer countrymen, set up this institution in order to prepare the boys for the rigours of the Royal Navy and to teach the girls about domestic service.
In the 19th century, 37 Clerkenwell Green was occupied by a radical working men's club, which was unusual in admitting women to its premises. It then became a socialist printing press and hosted many left-wing gatherings. The great William Morris - poet, designer, socialist - visited No 37, as did most of the top Bolsheviks, fleeing from oppression in Czarist Russia.
Lenin came here between April 1902 and May 1903 to proof read illegal copies of the journal Iskra before they were smuggled back into Russia - visitors are still shown the tiny room where he worked.
In 1933, the building was taken over by the Marx Memorial Library, who ever since have upheld one distinctive if now thoroughly unfashionable strand within British socialism.
But whatever one's politics, the exquisite proportions of this Georgian building cry out to be admired. The 1960s brought inevitable plans for demolition, but a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman helped save the day.
Now, there is one of those juxtapositions which make London's history so endlessly fascinating: what would Lenin and Betjeman have made of each other?
The Marx Memorial Library is on the north side of Clerkenwell Green, EC1
Andrew John Davies
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