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.