The most disreputable street in London

Here’s a fun fact: the first nightclub in the UK to obtain a 24-hour dance licence was in a building on London’s Turnmill Street, one of the city’s oldest streets, and once considered a byword for depravity.

The Survey of London, produced by London County Council, says that, “Seventeenth and eighteenth-century Turnmill Street in particular had been part of a wider district of ill-repute, known for its high levels of crime and low-life attractions such as bearbaiting and cock-fighting and the associated activities of drinking, gambling and prostitution.” It didn’t get a lot better; the Survey goes on to say that, “Cowcross Street and more so Turnmill Street harboured some of the worst slums of mid-Victorian London.”

A word of explanation before I launch into more depravity: I was sorting through some paperwork recently and came across various articles I had copied from books or cut out of newspapers and magazines. They made me realise anew how easy it is to research something these days: just a few keystrokes and a wealth of information is there for you.

Back in the day, and I’m talking over 30 years ago, when my fascination with London street names started, the absence of the internet meant that I spent many a lunch hour in the local history or reference section of various libraries with books that couldn’t be removed.

A few of these copied pages are from a book by E J Burford, who wrote a series of books about the seamy side of London. This one is called London: The Synfulle Citie, and by tortuous means of non-consecutive pages, Burford led me to Turnmill Street, mentioned in a 14th-century document under the name TryImyl-streate (or Three Mill Street). Apparently it took its name from proximity to the River Fleet, also known as Turnmill Brook because of the large number of mills that it powered.

In Streets with a Story The Book of Islington the author, Eric A Willats, says that before 1925 part of this was Cow Cross (now Cowcross) Street; a popular name for it was Turnbull Street. “Several had been hung, drawn and quartered there by the 15th century,” he goes on to say. “In the early 18th century it was vulgarly and falsely called Trumball or Turnbull Street. In 1658 houses on the western side of the street had gardens leading down to the River Fleet. The street had many courts and alleys but its western side was pulled down for the Clerkenwell Improvements of 1856/7. The street had an ill reputation in the 17th century. Abutting on the street was ‘Pickhatch’ or Pickthatch. a centre in Ben Jonson’s time for pick-pockets and prostitutes.”

The Turnmills building before demolition. Photo: Wikipedia

Farringdon station, where I commuted to and from when I first became obsessed with street names (Bleeding Heart Yard is close to where I worked) has its northern entrance on Turnmill Street, although its main entrance is on Cowcross Street.

In 1886 a building on the corner of Turnmill Street and Clerkenwell Road was used first as a warehouse and stables for the Great Northern Railway Company and then a warehouse for Booth’s Dry Gin distillery. (Clerkenwell Road had been designed to break up the slums of the area, particularly the courts and alleys east of Turnmill Street.)

The new building. Photo: Derwent London

In 1985, the building became the site of a nightclub called, unsurprisingly, Turnmills. The club was the first in the UK to obtain a 24-hour dance licence, and (according to Wikipedia) arguably spearheaded the growth of all-night clubbing in the 1990s. The club’s lease expired and it closed in 2008. Three years later, despite objections from English Heritage, who argued that the building possessed historic and aesthetic value, permission was given to demolish the building and now a new building stands on the site.

4 thoughts on “The most disreputable street in London

  1. beetleypete April 2, 2022 / 9:58 am

    I remember people going to Turnmills Club. I never felt the need myself, mainly because I was in my thirties when it opened, and might well have felt more than a little out of place.
    I was eventually pursuaded to go to Bagley’s in Kings Cross one night in the mid-90s with one of my best friends. We were both wearing suits and ties, and other clubbers kept coming up and asking us if we were the club owners or bouncers! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • thestreetnames April 2, 2022 / 10:02 am

      Morning, Pete. Great image, the suit and tie in a club!😂 All the best, Elizabeth

      • beetleypete April 2, 2022 / 11:19 am

        Yes, we were ‘old school’ diehards, Elizabeth! 🙂

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