The Jerusalem Tavern at 55 Britton Street, Clerkenwell, EC1, many people’s favourite London pub, is like one of those old knives that have had two new handles and three new blades. From one direction it is one of London’s ancient hostelries: its roots lie back in the Crusades, and the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, which dominated Clerkenwell until the time of Elizabeth I. Looked at from another direction, however, the pub is younger than any of its customers.
The Jerusalem Tavern’s interior, with its worn green-painted settles, dark oak floorboards, old tiles set in the walls and ceilings the colour of well-smoked kippers, certainly looks as if Samuel Johnson might pop in any moment from his job as a freelance writer round the corner at the Gentlemen’s Magazine to meet the poet Oliver Goldsmith for a refreshing quart of porter. However, it has only been licensed premises since 1996: this pub can barely remember anything but a Labour government.
The building is authentically early Georgian, though, and Johnson might well have passed by on his way to work. It was built in 1719/20 as one of a group of townhouses on a piece of open ground that had originally belonged to the Priory of St John. The new street was then, and for the next couple of hundred years, called Red Lion Street, after a tavern at the top of the road, on Clerkenwell Green. The developer was a lawyer called Simon Michell, MP for Boston, whose father was from Somerset, and the Red Lion Street homes were reckoned to be “the best class of houses erected in his time in Clerkenwell”.
Around 1810 a shop front was inserted into the façade of Number 55, and the premises became a watchmaker’s: Clerkenwell was a centre of watchmaking from around or before the start of the 18th century, and there were several watchmakers in the street. Over the years Number 55 has had a variety of occupants: from 1952 it was the headquarters of a book publishing company, Burke & Co, and in the 1980s it was used as an architect’s offices.
At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, apparently, it became a coffee shop, before the premises were brought in 1996 by John Murphy, the founder of the branding consultancy Interbrand (which gave the world the Hob-nob, inter alia). Murphy wanted a London outlet for his newly opened brewery, St Peter’s, near Bungay in Suffolk. He chose as the name for his pub one long associated with the area: three other Jerusalem Taverns have operated within three hundred yards of the present premises, though the most recent predecessor closed almost a century ago.
The original Jerusalem Tavern, in full the St John of Jerusalem Tavern, was a short walk east of Clerkenwell Green, on the top right-hand or north-east corner of Jerusalem Passage at it enters Aylesbury Street. The blasting through of Clerkenwell Road in 1878 has wrecked the ancient geography of this section of London, but Jerusalem Passage was originally the street that led to the “Little Gate of St John”, the northern entrance into the Priory of St John of Jerusalem (the saint otherwise known as John the Baptist).
The priory was founded in the 1140s on five acres of donated land just outside the City of London that stretched, as far as I have been able to ascertain, from the present day St John Street down to the Fleet river. It was the local branch of an international order of Knights Hospitallers which had its roots in Jerusalem in the middle or so of the 11th century, and which became a formal organisation in 1099. The Knights, who wore, originally, black cloaks marked with a white cross, were eventually pushed out of the Holy Land, and the Near East, by the soldiers of Islam. They were granted a home on Malta by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, with a rent to be paid to the King of Spain of one falcon a year (which gave Dashiell Hammett the idea for the story of The Maltese Falcon).
Back in England, the Clerkenwell priory, including its great mansion house, had been burnt to the ground in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt, and its prior, Sir Robert Hales, beheaded by the rebels for his part (as Lord High Treasurer) in imposing the hated poll tax. It bounced back, and early in the 16th century, in 1504, a substantial south gate was erected to guard St John’s Lane by the then prior, Sir Thomas Docwra. However, in 1540 Henry VIII added the priory to his general nationalisation of church property: it was a wealthy institution, owning, for example, St John’s Wood (which is, of course, named after the priory) and having an income of two or three thousand pounds a year. Although Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary, had it opened again, under Elizabeth I it closed for good and most of the priory buildings, except for the south gate, were gradually demolished.
It ought to be possible to declare that the St John of Jerusalem Tavern at the top of Jerusalem Passage, just outside the priory’s north gate, was in existence during at least some of the four centuries that the Priory of St John of Jerusalem was operating as the English base of the Knights Hospitallers. Its description as a tavern, a name originally restricted, in medieval England, solely to those places licensed to sell wine, hints at an ancient establishment. The priory (which, incidentally, like most or all religious houses, brewed its own ale: one year it used 225 quarters of oats in brewing) was a popular place for the nobility to stay when they were visiting London, and guests over the centuries included King John, the future Edward I and Henries IV and V. At least some of those retainers who accompanied the royal guests and other noble travellers lodging at the priory must have looked to slip out for a quick Gascon red or Rhenish white, and the tavern, if it existed then, would have been perfectly placed to supply their wants.
Certainly religious houses and taverns went together. The nearby Charterhouse monastery off Smithfield, owned by the monks of the Carthusian order, had four taverns just outside the monastery walls, which were supplied with water from the monastery. It seems perfectly possible that the St John of Jerusalem Tavern bore the same relationship to the Priory of St John that those four taverns bore to the Charterhouse. There was another old tavern on the south side of the priory, in St John’s Lane, the Old Baptist’s Head (which seems to have inspired the signboard of the current Jerusalem Tavern), and which only closed around 1944: its name, too, suggests an intimate link with the priory, making, potentially, a pair of taverns just outside the priory walls to match the four outside the walls of the Charterhouse monastery.
However, there appears to be no evidence for asserting that either of these two drinking places were open when the priory was in its pomp. The Old Baptist’s Head does not seem to have existed as a tavern before the 17th century, and the earliest mention I have been able to find for the Jerusalem Tavern is from October 1692, when the Middlesex justices were ordering that the road (now Aylesbury Street) between the St John of Jerusalem Tavern and St John Street be paved with stone. Less than 70 years later, in 1758, the tavern was pulled down so that Clerkenwell Parish Schools could be built on the site.
Immediately after the St John of Jerusalem was demolished, William Newell, the landlord of the Red Lion on Clerkenwell Green that had given its name to Simon Michell’s Red Lion Street, rechristened his premises the Jerusalem Tavern: in 1759 the London Chronicle recorded that the annual “Feast of the Cockneys” (there’s an event I’d like to see revived) had been held at the Jerusalem Tavern, with singing by the St Paul’s choir, the money raised going to the new parish schools. Very probably Newell was encouraged to change the name of his pub because of the existence of several other Red Lions in the area, including one in St John Street to the east and one in Holborn to the west.
Newell died soon after the renaming (his widow remarried in 1762), but the Jerusalem Tavern continued without him. It was a meeting-place for the local Freemasons’ Lodge, and in 1769 they showed their support for the kind of radical politics Clerkenwell has often been known for by electing John Wilkes (born in Clerkenwell, where his father owned a gin distillery) a member of the Lodge, though he was in prison at the time for upsetting the government of George III. This second Jerusalem Tavern was known for supplying fine wines, as a tavern should be. In 1787 a 16-year-old Wiltshire lad called John Britton was apprenticed by his uncle to the tavern’s owner, Mr T Mendham, as cellar boy. Britton later achieved fame as a virtually self-taught antiquarian and expert in architecture and topography who would be involved in the authoring, jointly or on his own, of almost a hundred books. The six years he spent working in the Jerusalem Tavern were honoured in 1936 when Red Lion Street was named after him, to stop the confusion with other Red Lion Streets nearby.
It looks as if the second Jerusalem Tavern closed some time soon after 1794, and the name was transferred again, this time to premises actually in the east turret of the still-standing south gate of the priory. In 1731 St John’s Gate had become the offices of the newly launched Gentleman’s Magazine, where Samuel Johnson worked from 1738 to around 1745. The magazine moved to Fleet Street in 1787. Its then part-owner, David Henry, had married William Newell’s widow: it seems more than possible that this connection had something to do with part of St John’s Gate becoming the new Jerusalem Tavern. Exactly when the third incarnation of the Jerusalem Tavern started is unclear, but it was certainly in place by 1801, when an Old Bailey court case featured a man arrested for trying to sell a counterfeit seven-shilling piece to a policeman at the Jerusalem Tavern, St John’s Gate.
The tavern had a tendency to vary its name: in 1825 it is referred to as “The old St John of Jerusalem”, “occupied and kept by Mr William Flint, who formerly carried on the business of a printer in the Old Bailey.” (There was another St John of Jerusalem in St John Street, north of Aylesbury Street, which was running by around 1839 and only closed in 1992.)
In 1845 St John’s Gate, by now literally dilapidated, was condemned as being dangerous, and it was proposed to demolish the building, However, a public fund was started to raise the money to repair and embellish it, and over the next two years the stonework was replaced and the crenellation along the top, which had disappeared some time in the previous 180 years, was restored, all at a total cost of “upwards of £130″.
From 1848 the landlord of the Jerusalem Tavern was Benjamin Foster, and his name appears on the signboard in a photograph of the gateway taken around 1860. The tavern’s porter was supplied by Reid’s, one of the biggest London porter brewers. Reid’s brewery was a short distance to the west across the Fleet, in Liquorpond Street (one of several streets that disappeared when the Clerkenwell Road was built). The ale at the Jerusalem Tavern came from Huggins’s brewery in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street), off Golden Square, near what is now Piccadilly Circus.
Foster was an antiquarian manqué, and it was said of him in 1858 that “a great portion of the interior of the tavern has lately been restored to its original state by Mr Foster at a considerable expense.” It may have been Foster who started the annual “Boar’s Head Feast” every Christmas at the Jerusalem Tavern, which was still going in 1869. It was probably Foster who declared that an old chair found on the premises was the very one that Dr Johnson had sat in when he was writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine. Hem. Walter Thornbury, writing in 1872, said of Foster that after he arrived at the Jerusalem Tavern he “hunted up traditions of the place, and, indeed, where they were thin, invented them.” Foster actually wrote a book on Ye History of Ye Priory and gate of St John, published in 1851. He died of apoplexy in 1863 and was apparently followed at the Jerusalem Tavern by his son-in-law.
In 1873 a revived version of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem regained ownership of the priory’s south gate, and in 1876 the Jerusalem Tavern apparently moved to newly built premises alongside the gate. (The following year the Order founded the St John Ambulance Association, which still has its Secretariat at St John’s Gate.) The Jerusalem Tavern appears to have continued running until the First World War, but it looks as if this third incarnation finally closed about 1915.
A fair degree of misinformation has grown up around the tangled history of the Jerusalem Tavern, much of it linked to Thomas Britton, the so-called “musical small-coal man”, who lived until his death in 1714 on the opposite side of Jerusalem Passage to the original Jerusalem Tavern. Despite his trade as a coal-seller he was a self-taught musician who founded a music club in Jerusalem Passage that attracted the likes of the composer Handel, among other distinguished visitors. At least one specialist book on London street names claims, wrongly, that Britton Street is named after Thomas, and others have asserted that Handel and other guests of Thomas Britton’s musical events at his home in Jerusalem Passage were patrons of the original Jerusalem Tavern opposite. Possibly they were: but there is no evidence for it. There are even websites that, apparently totally confused, seem to think the current Jerusalem Tavern has been licensed premises since 1720.
That anyone could think it was a genuine 300-year-old pub is a tremendous credit to John Murphy and his team. The Jerusalem Tavern shows you can give a new pub character: the fastidious might wish to condemn it as fake, but I include myself as one of its very many fans, and I’m pleased whenever I have an excuse to call in for a pint of St Peter’s: I always hope they have porter available, so that I can sip the black stuff and imagine I’m waiting for Samuel Johnson, wig awry, breeches shiny from sitting on a chair all day, to call in on his way home.