History of Clerk’s House, 118 1/2 Shoreditch High Street

In the shadow of St Leonard’s Church is the charming Clerk’s House, no. 118 1/2 Shoreditch High Street.

Today it’s been transformed into a contemporary gallery so I took the opportunity to have a look inside.

But first, a little more about the history of Clerk’s House, which is inextricably linked with the church of St Leonard’s Shoreditch.

History of Clerk’s House

The current church was built in 1736-40 by George Dance the Elder but there’s been a church here since at least the 12th century.

It can be seen on the ‘Agas’ Copperplate map from the 16th century.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org

The medieval church was demolished shortly after its tower collapsed c.1716 but during the 16th century there are records of a house within the churchyard which was a home for the priest then later local residents.

Image Credit: 18th Century Print (Public Domain)

The current Clerk’s House was built in 1735, making it a contender as the oldest surviving house in Shoreditch.

I couldn’t find any former residents, but according to the Booth poverty map the Clerk’s House was classed as red, it Middle Class and ‘well-to-do’ during the late 19th century.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org

In the map above, just to the right of the churchyard is the sun-like shape of Arnold Circus and the Boundary Estate which I’ve written about here.

A darker side to Clerk’s House history is its use as a watch house for the adjacent burial ground.

Before the Anatomy Act in 1832 gave doctors a legal supply of fresh corpses, Watch houses were used to survey churchyards and deter any would-be grave robbers.

Today Clerk’s House is grade II listed and is occupied by Emalin gallery. They have a further eye-catching Shoreditch location; The Lazarus Building at 192 Shoreditch High Street.

Inside Clerk’s House

Inside I was happy to find that it was satisfyingly wonky and despite the generally whitewashed interior there’s clearly been an attempt to preserve some original features.

I understand that they need clean walls to enable the artwork to shine, but I can’t help but prefer the shabby ‘private’ spaces that hint of the centuries of use.

Another treat was the different perspective out onto Shoreditch High Street, contemplating the changing view for the many inhabitants over the years and getting a closer look at the old Wells & Company Commercial Ironworks.

Built in 1877 this was the showroom, shop and factory of Edward Wells who ran a wholesale ironmongers making stoves, ranges, guttering and pipes, but also decorative accessories for the furniture trade.

The architects were Fowler & Hill who constructed the eclectic building and there’s some lovely detail in amongst the tiles. Not so lovely is the ‘subtle’ addition of a modern window, cutting out the ‘o’ and ‘r’ of works.

Back to Clerk’s House, there’s one element that has an incredibly history.

From the outside, the front door looks like many of the glorious Georgian front doors among the Wood-Michell Estate in Spitalfields. Today you can find examples on Elder, Wilkes, Princelet and Fournier Streets.

However St Leonard’s Church confirms that this door was in fact a side door of the original Medieval church, repurposed here.

It’s hard to appreciate its age now that it’s been painted in stark white but you can see ancient-looking hinges to the far left and a very old security bolt across the gap

This side door in the church would’ve been used by St Leonard’s parishioners including the acting community that once clustered around the playhouses here, The Theatre and The Curtain.

That means members of the Burbage family and even William Shakespeare himself may have walked through this door!

For more history and a look inside St Leonard’s Shoreditch I can recommend this blog from Caroline who runs the brilliant website, Flickering Lamps.


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Related Blog

A short walk from Clerk’s House is another charming (though much later) building which has also been transformed into a gallery. You can read about its history here.

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