A narrow side street in Clerkenwell lined with small houses is also home to a magnificent example of 19th-century philanthropic housing.
The land around this part of London was acquired by Alice Owen, a thrice-married lady who in 1598 used her accumulated wealth to buy a plot of farmland for a hospital for poor widows, and vested the rest of the land in the Brewers Company.
The choice of Brewers Company is probably because her first husband was a member of the Company, and the location due to a legend that she narrowly escaped death when an arrow pierced her hat when playing in the Islington fields.
The Brewers Company still owns a large swathe of land around the area, and Dame Alice Owen’s Foundation makes annual donations to charity of around £700,000 from the income it gets from the land.
The land remained largely fields until the 18th century and was slowly built up by the Company as a mix of workshops and housing for people working locally. The block of tenements is the last survivor of several similar blocks built in the area in the 1870s-80s.
Each of these blocks can be very neatly dated as to when it was built, thanks to the heraldic plaques over the three main entrances, showing completion dates of 1871, 1876 and 1882. Although all three share the same design, they were constructed at different times, by three different firms, William Cubitt & Co, Ebenezer Lawrance and B. E. Nightingale respectively.
The blocks were probably designed by Edward B.Martineau, Surveyor to the Company, with a street facade executed in a brick Gothic style, mixing stocks with yellow and red dressings.
Although the flats have been described as small, they did come with a modest luxury for the time, private toilets. What’s not visible from the ground is that the flat roofs also contain shared patio gardens for each block. The crests of the Brewers Company are a dominant feature above each entrance, and while this was built as social housing, it’s a very grand way to enter the blocks of flats.
Today, the block is managed by Islington Council and is Grade II listed.