The Jerusalem Tavern, Clerkenwell: a short history

The Jerusalem Tavern in its third incarnation, around 1860

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.

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The best ever poem in praise of the pub

I caught up with the episode of the Culture Show devoted to the pub just in time via BBC iPlayer (it’s gone now, curse you, BBC) and was very glad I did, not just for the brief glimpse of the marvellous Kathryn Tickell (pity it had to be because she’s on Sting’s latest CD, still …) but for the quite brilliant poem by Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned specially for the programme.

It’s called “John Barleycorn”, it was described as “A lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, and Duffy, the current Poet Laureate, is worth her butt of sack for this poem alone. I’ve transcribed it below, with some shots from the almost equally good little video essay that accompanied Duffy reading the poem. My reproducing this undoubtedly smashes through copyright law like a scaffold pole through a pub window, but I thought it was so fantastic it deserved a continuing audience, and if you do borrow any of it, fair use only, lads, eh.

A few comments first: the start of the poem refers to the traditional folk song “John Barleycorn”, of course, which makes me believe Duffy has been a habituée of folk clubs as well as pubs. As far as I can tell, every pub name mentioned is a real pub – the Corn Dolly, for example, is in Bradford, the Flowing Spring is near Reading, the Moon and Sixpence (named for the Somerset Maugham novel and/or the film) is found in several places, the Wicked Lady (also named for a film) is in Hertfordshire, the Bishop’s Finger in London.

Considering how much time poets have spent in pubs, there’s very little poetry ABOUT pubs. This is one of the very best. Continue reading

The check is on the post

Time to give another popular pub name myth a thrashing. There are more than 150 pubs around Britain called the Chequers, which puts it into the top 30 pub names, and yet the explanation given in most pub name books for the origin of the sign is complete cobblers.

The likeliest source of the problem seems to be Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which declares that “the arms of FitzWarren [that is, blue and gold checks], the head of which had the privilege of licensing ale-houses in the reign of Edward IV, probably helped to popularise this sign.”

Almost every writer has repeated this story without making any checks (pun intended). Brewer’s itself looks to have nicked the claim from the Gentleman’s Magazine, which printed the story of the FitzWarrens, their chequered arms, and alehouse licensing as the origin of the pub sign in September 1794. However, every claim in the tale is nonsense. For a start the Warenne (not FitzWarren) family, Earls of Surrey, whose arms were indeed “chequy azure and or”, died out in the direct line in 1347, during the reign of Edward III, more than a century before Edward IV.

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Wrecking the reputation of Griff Rhys Jones

Thanks to Griff Rhys Jones, one of the “myths” pages on this blog saw a sudden spike in hits last night and today, as large numbers of sceptics turned to Google to check out one of the claims in the gurning comedian’s new BBC television programme on The World’s Greatest Cities.

Dr Butler's head

Dr Butler’s head

The first episode was on London, and one of the places Griff visited (how does a man with such a Welsh name have such an English accent, btw?) was the Old Dr Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue, near Moorgate, in the City. The pub is named after William Butler, the physician to James VI of Scotland and I of England, and “Doctor” Butler (he never actually qualified), who died in 1618, was famous for inventing a “purging ale” that containing seven different herbs and roots, which was described in 1680 as

“an excellent stomack drink [which] helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink listed the ingredients as betony (a bitter grassland plant), sage, agrimony (a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass (a seaside plant high in Vitamin C, also used to make scurvy-grass ale), Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (a dandelion-like bitter plant that continues to be used in herbal cough mixtures) and horseradish, which were to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation.

The name “Butler’s Head” indicated that the pub sold the doctor’s ale (and not, as the programme last night apparently claimed, that he owned the pub – there were once at least two other Butler’s Heads in London, including one in Telegraph Street, the other side of Moorgate, which only closed in the late 1990s). Today the Dr Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue is a Shepherd Neame outlet, and last night’s programme showed the launch of a new “herbal” beer at the pub.

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The inn-significance of the Red Lion

Karl Pearson, whose sesquicentenary was celebrated earlier this year, is an excellent example of how extremely intelligent people can hold deeply stupid beliefs. Pearson was a huge and important figure in the development of mathematical statistics, he founded the Department of Applied Statistics at the University of London, and his writings on science influenced Einstein’s thoughts about light and time. He was also a eugenicist and Aryan supremist with irredeemably racist views about “lower tribes” that would rightly get him dismissed from any university today. On the credit side, he turned down a knighthood from George V, and he delivered an excellent motto for those of us sometimes accused of trivial pursuits: “Not one subject in the universe is unworthy of study.”

Many would regard the study of pub names as an insignificant field of enquiry, but I like to paddle in its shallows – I’ve a dozen books on the subject, including an “original” Larwood and Hotten (all right, 12th edition, 1908). Sometimes I feel I ought to join the Inn Sign Society. However, I cure myself of this urge by logging on to the society’s website, and the unthought-out nonsense that is peddled there on the origins of common pub names makes me want to slap someone.

Here’s what the ISS says about the Red Lion, often claimed to be the commonest pub name in Britain (though at around 650 examples it is probably just beaten by the Crown):

… most Red Lions originate from the reign of James I. Already James VI of Scotland when he ascended to the English throne in 1603, on arrival in London the new king ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of public importance – including taverns, of course.

Let’s just forensically dissect this claim. First, is there any evidence at all that James VI/I made such an order?

No.

Second, would there be a sensible motive for him to make such an order?

No, quite the opposite. James had been the heir presumptive to Queen Elizabeth since the death of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587, but it had never been certain he would be offered the crown, and while he arrived in London with a fair degree of goodwill from the bulk of the English population he would not have pushed the fact that they were now ruled by a king from another country in their faces by insisting that Scottish red lions be put up everywhere.

Third, if such an order had been made, is it likely it would have affected pub and inn names?

No – if all the “buildings of public importance” bore red lions on them (and incidentally, the ISS’s statement begs the question that a tavern would be seen as a “building of public importance” anyway, a highly questionable assumption), then how could you tell, if someone said “I’ll meet you at the Red Lion”, which “Red Lion” was which?

So, to sum up on the ISS’s statement that the Red Lion pub name comes from a decree by James 1 in 1603: there’s no evidence for it, it doesn’t make sense historically and it’s nonsense from a practical direction as well.

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