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Colin O’Brien’s Clerkenwell Car Crashes

June 21, 2011
by the gentle author

Accident, daytime 1957

When photographer Colin O’Brien lived at Victoria Dwellings on the corner of Clerkenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd, there was a very unfortunate recurring problem which caused all the traffic lights at the junction to turn green at once. In the living room of the top floor flat where Colin lived with his parents, an ominous “crunch” would regularly be heard, occasioning the young photographer to lean out of the window with his box brownie camera and take the spectacular car crash photographs that you see here. Unaware of Weegee’s car crash photography in New York and predating Warhol’s fascination with the car crash as a photographic motif, Colin O’Brien’s car crash pictures are masterpieces in their own right.

Yet, even though they possess an extraordinary classically composed beauty, these photographs do not glamorise the tragedy of these violent random events – seen, as if from from God’s eye view, they expose the hopeless pathos of the situation. And, half a century later, whilst we all agree that these accidents were profoundly unfortunate for those involved, I hope it is not in poor taste to say that, in terms of photography they represent a fortuitous collision of subject matter and nascent photographic talent. I say this because I believe that the first duty of any artist is to witness what is in front of you, and this remarkable collection of pictures which Colin took from his window – dating from the late forties when he got his first camera at the age of eight until the early sixties when the family moved out – is precisely that.

Yesterday, I accompanied Colin as he returned to the junction of the Clerkenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd in the hope of visiting the modern buildings upon the site of the former Victoria Dwellings. To our good fortune, once we explained the story, Tomasz, the superintendent of Herbal Hill Buildings, welcomed Colin as if he were one of current residents who had simply been away for the weekend. Magnanimously, he handed over the keys of the top flat on the corner  - which, by a stroke of luck, is currently vacant – so that Colin might take pictures from the same vantage point as his original photographs.

We found a split-level, four bedroom penthouse apartment with breathtaking views towards the City, complete with statues, chandeliers and gold light switches. It was very different to the poor, three room flat Colin lived in with his parents where his mother hung a curtain over the gas meter. Yet here in this luxury dwelling, the melancholy of the empty rooms was inescapable, lined with tired beige carpet and haunted with ghost outlines of furniture that had been taken away. However, we had not come to view the property, we had come to look out the window and after Colin had opened three different ones, he settled upon the perspective that most closely correlated to his parents’ living room and leaned out.

“The Guinness ad is no longer there,” he commented – almost surprised – as if, somehow, he expected the reality of the nineteen fifties might somehow be restored up here. Apart from the blocks on the horizon, little had changed, though. The building on the opposite corner was the same, the tube embankment and bridge were unaltered, the Booth’s Distillery building in Turnmills St still stood, as does the Clerkenwell Court House where Dickens once served as cub reporter. I left Colin to his photography as he became drawn into his lens, looking back into the midst of the last century and upon the urban landscape that contained the emotional history of his youth.

“It was the most exciting day of my life, when we left,” admitted Colin, with a fond grin of reminiscence, “Canvassers from the Labour Party used to come round asking for our votes and my father would ask them to build us better homes, and eventually they did. They built Michael Cliffe House, a tower block in Clerkenwell, and offered us the choice of any flat. My parents wanted one in the middle but I said, ‘No, let’s get the top flat!’ and I have it to this day.  I took a photo of lightning over St Paul’s from there, and ran down to Fleet St and sold it to the Evening Standard.”

Colin O’Brien’s car crash photographs fascinate me with their intense, macabre beauty. As bystanders, unless we have specialist training, car crashes only serve to emphasise the pain of our helplessness at the destructive intervention of larger forces, and there is something especially plangent about these forgotten car crashes of yesteryear. In a single violent event, each one dramatises the sense of loss that time itself engenders, as over the years our tenderest beloved are taken from us. And they charge the photographic space, so that even those images without crashes acquire an additional emotionalism, the poignancy of transience and the imminence of potential disaster. I can think of no more touching image of loneliness that the anonymous figure in Colin O’Brien’s photograph, crossing the Clerkenwell Rd in the snow on New Year’s Eve, 1961.

After he had seen the interior of Herbal Hill Buildings, Colin confided to me he would rather live in Victoria Dwellings that stood there before, and yet, as he returned the keys to Tomasz, the superintendent, he could not resist asking if he might return and take more pictures in different conditions, at a different time of day or when it was raining. And Tomasz graciously assented as long as the apartment remained vacant. I understood that Colin needed the opportunity to come back again, now that the door to the past had been re-opened, and, I have to confess to you that, in spite of myself, I could not resist thinking, “Maybe there’ll be a car crash next time?”

Accident in the rain.

Accident in the rain, 2.

Accident at night, 1959.

Snow on New Year’s Eve, 1961.

Trolley buses, nineteen fifties.

Clerkenwell Italian parade, nineteen fifties.

Firemen at Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Have a Guinness when you’re tired

Colin’s photograph of the junction of the Clerkenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd view, taken yesterday, from Herbal Hill Buildings that now stand on the site of the former Victoria Dwellings.

Colin O’Brien sees his childhood view for the first time in fifty years.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

More photographs by Colin O’Brien

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

Travellers’ Children in London Fields

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

30 Responses leave one →
  1. Melvyn H. Brooks permalink
    June 21, 2011

    Fascinating. We used to have regular ‘bangs’ at the junction of Wilton Way and Greenwood Road, Hackney. No “Stop Sign” or “Give Way”. No-one had a camera handy. I was aways amazed at the amount of dirt that was dislodged from the old bangers involved.
    I continue to enjoy SpitalfieldsLife. Many thanks.

  2. julie permalink
    June 21, 2011

    brilliant

  3. Don Whelan permalink
    June 21, 2011

    Were these snaps taken from the old Daily Worker building in Faringdon Road? If they were it brings into question the aesthetic consideration. Is this article the begionning of the fight back? Or are they a late manifestation of futurism? My father worked for many years for Scruttons in Little Britain nearby and also drove for Carter Patterson and never met these difficulties at this junction. Don Whelan

  4. June 21, 2011

    Fascinating pictures. I have much the same view, half a mile to the north when Clerkenwell Road crosses Goswell Rd/Aldersgate Street. The same too regular crunches, the same arrival of police and emergency vehicles. Two deaths at least since I arrived in late 2008.

  5. Don Whelan permalink
    June 21, 2011

    My earlier comment was a little whimsical and in haste as it was done just as I was going out this morning, may I continue in a more relevant vein now that I have better time. The article was referred to me by a friend who felt that an item on Clerkenwell would interest me as a former dweller there.
    I lived in Clerkenwell until I was four years old (1939) when we moved to Canonbury. My closest connection to the photos is by my Uncle Wally who worked at Wilkinsons the Gold Ring makers in St Johns Street? from when he was invalided out of the Territorials because he lost a leg at the first battle of Mons in 1914 until he retired. He was the best card player I have known and wore silver spring armlets just like a gambler. He would raise his trouser leg to show his artificial one and suggest we children should post a penny in one of the holes, which we duly did with much amusement. For us it brought him out of the condition of strangeness and into one of warm acceptance and understanding; we don’t do that sort of thing so much now. My reference to the new revolution is an echo of Clerkenwell Green and the Marx Memorial Library and going further back to the London Correspondence Society. I was so interested in the Italian Procession with memories of Saffron Hill.

  6. Jimmy A permalink
    June 21, 2011

    Apparently there has been a plan afoot to pull down the old Booth’s building that still stands in the background to all of these pictures. The proposal is that it is replaced with a glass and metal office block. Does anyone know whether a decision has been taken?

  7. Don Whelan permalink
    June 21, 2011

    -To continue. I have now had my spaghetti bolognese as evening meal for that wouldn’t wait and it is now 6pm. My father was brought up as an Irish Roman Catholic in Clerkenwell and lived there during the Italian immigration into the area. There was much rivalry between the two groups; dare I say fisticuffs? My father in consequence understood a little Italian and would go to his regular Italian Barber at the end of Exmouth Market opposite Mount Pleasant and near the RC Church. The Barber of course was a friendly man but would speak Italian to his Italian customers whilst trimming my father. My father would say ‘ I heard that Giussepe and you are wrong’. ‘Wod der yer min Albert? ‘ he would say. ‘Never you mind, I understand all you are saying’ said father. You see my father was a little paranoid with regard to the Italians and although they were on our side during the Great War and they too suffered immense casualties, they were incomers and therefore under suspicion. But my father used that Barbers for perhaps forty years during his time at Smithfield and would drive as a treat his Smithfield Guvner’s Maserati to take the family out for a run when it was occasionally offered. He would say ‘ Boy (to me) – that is a good tool’. We would sometimes travel down from Canonbury to see the Procession and mother would be delighted. Although I say my father was an Irish Catholic it doesn’t really place him, for he was first generation English and a stalwart Londoner. He left church attendance shortly after marriage and never went again, nor did it figure as an issue in his life, for his younger brother still observed the Faith and Dad would never upset things for he respected such deep feelings.

  8. Don Whelan permalink
    June 22, 2011

    Ref Jimmy A – Cannot find any update info on the City of London Corporation Planning site regarding the Booths Building. The next resort should perhaps be to ‘The Larder ‘ restaurant in St John Street that is the information distillery on all things Gin. Perhaps an enquiry should be made to the Queen’s Press Office as Booths Gin is still by appointment, and they will be interested. I see that Diageo are to expand their Chicago Plant substantially so that must be another tot to the prospective totter. Personally I never drink Booths as it was made years ago, as too oily and with too much flavour and tended to a headache. Booths should not be too chilled so as to release the flavour. It does not make a good martini and if shaken will discolour when put up to the light. But when stirred with French Vermouth is said over-time to re-grow any head of hair. Can Clerkenwell still claim its purity of water or was the impurity, Gin’s essence of character? Juniper is a febrifuge in limited doses therefore Gin should always be drunk the morning after – if you have the constitution.

  9. June 22, 2011

    its the little things that count – details that would normally be taken for granted if we were at ground level show up differently from a birds eye view

    to a modern day greek living in the chaotic world their country finds itself, things like ‘look both ways’ written on the road in large bold print will not be seen just as a reminder to all of us that it is our responsibility to be careful, but it is also a clear sign of the responsibility the state has also taken to ensure its citizens safety…

  10. Don Whelan permalink
    June 22, 2011

    London Gin

    Hogarth set his brush against it, preferring beer,
    He would not have known its instructive cheer,
    For then it was an opiate dousing fear,
    Did not the ‘Holland’ soldiers make it clear
    That a dram before the melee settled near,
    Could stifle the pounding cannon on the ear?

    Your London Gin will not be bettered in its flavour,
    It does not usually affect behaviour,
    Except in those who disregard it savour
    To find that wilful negligence as craver
    And excuse themselves with obscurantist haver;
    To drink and drink beyond the decent waiver.

    Let us then to celebration take our course
    And with Bacchus joining us in gambolling force
    Raise our glasses to that Dry Gin of London source,
    A Gin that quelled the Hussar on his Balaclava horse
    To defy all fate and into the mouth of death
    Ride crying ‘For England’ with his dying breath.

  11. Don Whelan permalink
    June 22, 2011

    Dear Maria, I feel a comment is needed to your soulful paragraph of today. What you say of the view of things is very pertinent to both the photos presented in the ‘Spitalfields’ and to the current crisis in your homeland. Yes to look all ways, left and right, up and down but most of all to look to yourselves as a Nation – a Nation with an illustrious and inextinguishable history. It is imperative that Greece is not made use of as the scapegoat to the International Financial Crisis by the Bankers’ Ramp; it is also necessary for Greece to resist the insistence on wholesale privatisation of its assets by this ramp in order to pay off its hypothetical debts. I say hypothetical for the debt is largely a debt of debt engineered by the financial markets prior to October 2008. We do not want Nations to be globalised; each country must retain its own ways – yes some degree of an open market must be permitted, but not to the extent of losing its identity and distinction. It is time to call a halt to unfettered competition where ‘big’ money calls the tune and serves only its selfish self. Who are these people; are they democrats? No, no ,no, – they are plutocrats and have no regard for decent civilisation beyond their floating yachts need to tie-up now and again and take on stores and fresh water. They are greedy Boyars, pirates of the worlds financial seas. Only yesterday was it, that we turned out the Tsars, dispossesed the Juntas and established Democracies. Where is Pericles at this time? Where in Greece is the Zorba whose energy will lift the Nation to defiance. Let the EU go; it is set up to exploit the smaller Nations. Big is not better. Rally to your nearest Ouzerie, order sardines and olives and lift your spirit with a glass of Sans Rival. You say there is not such in London, then open one, I will be your first customer. Bring your glorious Greek sunshine here.

  12. alberto umbridge permalink
    June 22, 2011

    The chimney is the for the steam driven accumulator supplying power to the LMS Farringdon Goods warehouse directly adjacent to the station – The buildings shell – although the building itself was destroyed some years before – stood until the early 1980s – these photos are a very fine time capsule – be nice if there were also some pics showing the Saturday book market that existed between the Betsey Trotwood and the junction – its also lovely to see the Italian community’s presence in the pics, Bravo !!!

  13. Don Whelan permalink
    June 23, 2011

    Thank you Alberto for mentioning the book market. I got my first small set of Ruskin there, that petite pocket edition in pink cloth and so well bound; they still look like new on my shelves fifty years later and the onion paper is a joy to turn. The Circle Line is an intriguing and wonderful record of London, peeking here and there from underground in fascinating revelation of the past. During the second world war we boys would travel all day on the underground when not at school, but not misbehaving. The Circle Line was favourite because the ins and outs and high bastions of brick gave a feeling of ancient Rome – the Catacombs. and Caraculla Baths. Farringdon was particularly conspicuous with its majestic brick alcoves perhaps better than at Baker Street. And of course the circuitous track put up creaking noises and lurches of amusing surprise. Oh and the many unexplained stops for red lights to await an oncoming train; it did not disconcert us for we were willing timefree victims of the day. The supreme Underground delight for us was the sudden rush into daylight on the Northern Line at Golders Green, an evocation of our thrust into birth to this fascinating world. Let us hope against hope that the Circle Line is never bricked over – it is a possibilty if some trendy cycle lane is ever needed. New York and Paris had or have their Elevateds but London has its Cuttings. We always started out at Essex Road an evocation of sinister loneliness and echo and the musty smell of the tunnels still call up for me a sexual frisson of the unexpected not unlike May blossom.

  14. Don Whelan permalink
    June 24, 2011

    I can’t stop. If we only consider photo number 1 – It certainly brings to mind Stanley Spencer especially in the position of the side- on upset black van like a Dinky Toy and the disorganised crowd of onlookers. It has Spencers zany impact . And the chiaroscuro is supportive so well of this print. Its luminous quality lifts it out of its time (1950s?) and suppresses the dowdy usual image of that black and white era. Why do I always want something to be other than it is? Because I have no place of rest?

  15. June 25, 2011

    Magical. Thank you.

  16. Mary Brown (Donovan) permalink
    June 25, 2011

    I was born in Dundee Buildings, Briset Street just off of St John Street in 1952. The old buildings are not there now as it is an office block and I don’t know when they were pulled down. I haven’t been able to find any photos of Dundee Buildings so would be interested to see some. I remember going to the Italian processions in the fifties where we always met up with family and friends. I can remember lots of “bomb” sites around the area. Very interesting to see all the old photos.

  17. July 1, 2011

    Even though these pictures of collisions are just mere ghosts by now, I still find it hard to look on them – there’s something about all the energy in vehicles that I find shocking when it all comes to a violent stop; it’s like someone popping a balloon that you’ve been told to trust in.

    More cheerfully, it’s interesting to see how the bridge over the railway which was once four lanes of two way traffic is now just one lane each way. Where the very wide pavement to the left is there used to be a separated cycle path but that’s gone now too. The bridge is now a real bottleneck at rush hour for cyclists heading home to the East.

    I really like the picture of the Italian parade – just look at how many children are there! I wonder if they were all locals living in the area? It’s difficult now to imagine central London being filled with families.

  18. jimmy permalink
    August 16, 2011

    Hi My dad and granmouther lived at 25 Dundee Buildings in 1911, would that been the same place you lived at? love to have anything you have on the place thanks Jimmy

  19. August 23, 2011

    FANTASTIC. Lived in Clerkenwell most of my life went to St Catherines opposite Victoria Dwellings so this has brought back so many memories. I still remember those flats and the Italian church. Live in Ireland now.

  20. September 14, 2011

    How random – just this morning I couldn’t get through this junction because there had been an accident.

    Might be time for someone to sort out this centennial accident hotspot?

  21. Jane Piesse permalink
    January 7, 2012

    My Father in law was born in 5 Dundee Buildings, He was John Piesse, John died in 1992 and my husband would love any information on the buildings or anyone that may remember John, we went up to St Johns arch and walked down Briset St last sunday with our son trying to think of how it may have been back then. Any info anyone??

  22. steve permalink
    March 2, 2012

    I remember living in Dundee Bldgs until i was seven (left there in 1966) on the fourth floor
    i think, all i know it was a long way up those stairs, (i used to have to wear a caliper on one
    leg and a iron boot on the other) mind you i could still get around pretty quickly

    I vaguely remember all the parties that we used to have when my parents and relations and strangers even, used to come home from the pub.

    The toilets were at the end of the landing, quite cold in the winter i remember, but the
    one thing that stands out was the smell of pine disinfectant was always present because
    it must have been one of the cleanest landings in the capital, and all the neighbours
    took their turn cleaning it, (unlike today unfortunately)

  23. Richard Starling permalink
    May 29, 2012

    Great photos, but can I just remark that the picture of the fire in The Victoria Buildings captioned in 1950s (which was incidentally, The Metropolitan pub below), must have been in or after 1962, as particularly the Austin/Morris 1100 style cars shown weren’t introduced until 1962. It is not my intention to detract from the fact that these are fantastic historical pictures. But dates do need to be correct if stated.

  24. January 20, 2013

    Dear Colin,
    Wonderful photographs.
    I lived in Farringdon road buildings just up and accross the road.
    i had friends in Victoria Dwellings.
    Do you remember the buildings at all?
    I live ther from 1952 (when I was born) to1973.
    Yours sincerely,
    Patricia

  25. Gareth Jones permalink
    January 23, 2014

    These photos are a delight.
    Ann,my sister,use to go to “Hugh Myd`s” ! My parents had a cafe known as “Central Dairy”just opposite Britton St.
    Such lovely times (1940`s to 1960`s).
    Anything to do with Clerkenwell fills me with “hiraeth” – Welsh for nostalgia.
    Sincerely,
    Gareth

  26. Lyn Anderson(nee Dallanegra) permalink
    June 9, 2014

    My grandparents had the Italian café in Briset Street in the 1940′s and 50′s.Would love to see a photo of it.

  27. Lyn Anderson(nee Dallanegra) permalink
    February 10, 2015

    WOULD LOVE TO SEE A PHOTO OF BRISET STREET IN THE 1950′S.CAN ANYONE TELL ME THE NAME OF THE BUSINESS WHICH STOOD ON THE CORNER NEAREST ST.JOHN’S?

  28. jodie collins permalink
    October 27, 2015

    Hi Ann,
    I me you few years ago when you visited my nan ( Ivy Dallanegra)
    I would love to know if you have received any photos of the tea rooms?

    Look forward to your reply
    Jodie

  29. Robert permalink
    September 5, 2016

    Dundee Buildings…No 14…3rd. floor. Date 1929 (my birth) till evacuation…1939.
    Anybody keen to chat, remember and reminisce, try me at Robert.southey.btinternet.com . All the places are still fresh to me, Hugh Mydleton infant, junior and senior school. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, St ,John’s Lane…………everywhere in walking distance. I smashed the fire glass when the filmmaker and furrier flight on fire at Barbican on 1938. Boy could I go on.
    Don’t forget….Robert.southey@btinternet.com

    Happy days,………….Robert

  30. Liam Mckenna permalink
    November 9, 2016

    Dundee buildings No 23 5th floor I remember the outside toilets two to a balcony the Victorian wash house no one used and on hot days the kids were washed in the tin baths outside. We left around 1965 I would have been 8 then with my five younger siblings. That’s six children and my parents living in two rooms and no electricity in our flat. A few years later l went back with my brother to find the place deserted we only moved to banner street

    Liam

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