Traditional Revolutionaries – why POPse! keeps up with the neighbours

Here at POPse! we’ve been thinking a little bit about the concept of community. We’ve had chequers, origami and colourful posters to entice people in and several people have pressed their faces up against the glass (it’s difficult to tell whether with interest or disdain.) It’s situated in Exmouth market amongst the delicious food stalls, the magnificent Cafe Kick and the excellent Moro. The building itself is a defunct Subway outlet which is perhaps fitting because Subway doesn’t fit in with the general atmosphere of the area. POPse! may be the world’s first pop up think-tank social enterprise but it actually fits in with the tradition of the local area – Clerkenwell – being revolutionary.

Clerkenwell Green in particular has seen a number of protests and has been influential in international policy and politics. For example, Wat Tyler and the peasant revolt camped on Clerkenwell Green in 1381 before meeting Richard II. And it was later the site for an anti-corn laws meeting and for a protest against bloody oppression in Jamaica. There was also a lot of Irish protest there from the Fenians, including a highly violent attempt to free Irish prisoners from the local Clerkwenwell prison (a book published in 2002 claimed that the cover-up of British intelligence during the time made it extremely difficult to know what was really done by whom.) In 1890, the Green saw the staging of London’s first full May Day; organised by the London Trades Council, 28 radical organisations and trade unions.

Marx wrote his ‘Das Kapital’ when he was based in Clerkenwell Green (despite the name, the green hasn’t actually had any grass on it for over three hundred years). The Green is now the site of the Marx museum. Lenin and Trotsky apparently first met at the Crown Tavern on the Green (in the amicable days, far before the former decided to have the latter killed with an ice-pick).

The surrounding area also witnessed a colourful history. Down the road from the Green, Saffron Hill was the place for general vagabonds in the Victorian period: thieves and prostitutes used to congregate there and escape down Fleet river (now Farringdon road) when the law came calling (Dickens also set the character of Fagin there). Nearby there is the vividly named ‘Bleeding Heart yard’ – so called because it was rumoured that the wealthy and beautiful débutante Lady Hatton was murdered by the devil himself posing as a Spanish ambassador during a society ball. Her dismembered body was supposedly found in the yard the next morning, with her heart still beating.

But let’s move from the bleeding hearts and ice-picks to the slightly nicer left-wing happenings. The Guardian was based in Farringdon until a few years ago; the site is now the Free Word Centre, the international centre for literature, literary and freedom of expression with its own, (extremely reasonable) pop up café (teas are only a pound!).

Unsurprisingly, the area was still relatively cheap to rent in the ’80s and ’90s so it became a hub for a number of charities, including Revolving Doors Agency, Clinks, Drugscope, Addaction and the Prison Reform Trust. It retained an eclectic vibe with a mix of architects, media firms and increasingly gentrified cafes. When I started one of my first jobs at a small criminal justice reform charity in 2006, my boss greeted with me with the words ‘Did they have topless models in the lift again?’ Our charity shared the building with a photographic agency that did shoots for Spearmint Rhino. If that isn’t community, I don’t know what is.

Heloise Wood

Heloise Wood is a freelance journalist, social policy expert, and general all round fabulous POPse! contributor.

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