The Crime Readers' Association

‘Taking to Drink with Dickens’ by JC Briggs

7th October 2022

I was studying my map of London in 1850 to find the end of the Blackwall Railway where Dickens and Jones must alight in pursuit of a murderer. I needed a tavern in which the murderer could be holed up. The Gun, maybe – handily close for a shoot-out. Maybe the Artichoke right on the water’s edge. That name set me thinking about the curious names of London pubs. There are quite a few Artichokes listed in The Post Office Trade Directory for 1852. Dickens, whose office was in Wellington Street, just below Bow Street, must have known the Artichoke in Drury Lane. He was an avid theatre goer, and the Theatre Royal was one of his favourites. The name apparently came from a sister of Henry VIII who loved them and persuaded her gardener to name his inn after them. There is still a Queen’s Head and Artichoke in Albany Street. Dickens surely must have gone into at least one of the fifty Queen’s Heads scattered about – one, oddly, with a French Horn.

I recently came across The Food of London by George Dodd (1856), a compendium of dizzying statistics about the sale and consumption of food and drink in 1850s London. I could tell you how many pipes of wine were imported in one year, or how many chests of tea, or the hundredweight price of butter, even the price of artichokes. But I won’t. It was pubs I was after, and Mr Dodd is my man. There were 4,400 publicans in London, he tells me, and 1,400 beer sellers – not surprising given the shocking state of the water. In Lower Shadwell High Street there was one pub for every six dwelling houses, including The Albion, landlord, the gentlemanly William de Burgh.

The fifty Queen’s Heads I found ain’t nothin’ compared with George’s ninety King’s Heads and their seventy Arms. Seventy Georges, too, and seventy Royal Dukes, one Czar’s Head, seventy White Harts, sixty Horses, Black, or White, sixty-five Coaches with attendant Horses, one hundred and twenty Lions of various colours, fifty Crowns, two with Cushions, and fifty-five more with Roses. And a few Thistles.

There was the Crown in Vinegar Yard where the Punch magazine writers met – the editor, Mark Lemon, was one of Dickens’s closest friends and there’s a Crown pub in Bleak House. Mr Dodd tells me that Cheshire cheese was the best-selling cheese, hence, perhaps the name of one of Dickens’s favourites, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. Sometimes he went up to Hampstead to see his friend, the artist, Clarkson Stanfield. On the way, he must have passed the Sol’s Arms – that became another pub in Bleak House where the inquest on the death of Nemo is held. The Friend in Hand was in Russell Square where Dickens’s friend, Judge Thomas Talfourd lived.

Plenty of Grapes, of course, including The Grapes in Narrow Street, Limehouse, which has hardly changed from the days in which Dickens drank a pint there. No music and great fish and chips, by the way. The back room and upstairs are full of pictures of Dickens, and copies of his books. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens named it The Three Jolly Fellowship Porters where Miss Abbey Potterson served her Purl and Dog’s Nose, both mixtures of gin, spices, and ale. I found Three Jolly Gardeners, Carpenters, and Bakers, and Butchers, too. It must be the drink as makes ’em so cheerful. Mr Dodd is good on threes as in Three Colts, Compasses, Caps, Cups, Doves, Goats, with or without Heads, Feathers, Kings, Kingdoms, Mariners, and Pilgrims, Canterbury bound. Sailors, too.

Fagin met Bill Sikes in the Three Cripples near Newgate Prison – Dickens based this pub on The One Tun which is still there. He refers to the Magpie and Stump in Pickwick Papers, but that was possibly the Old Black Jack in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The real Magpie and Stump was by the Old Bailey – over your twopenny ale, you could get a good view of the hangings. It’s still there – the pub, not the gallows.

Dickens knew Limehouse well – his godfather, Christopher Huffam, lived in Church Lane, and as a boy, he spent a lot of time exploring the river and the wharves. He must have passed the Five Bells and Bladebone. The Prospect of Whitby claims to be the oldest pub on the river and there’s the Town of Ramsgate; either possibly the site of Execution Dock where the pirates were hanged, and their bodies left until three tides had washed them. The Horns is, aptly, at Cuckold’s Point. As you can imagine there were a great many Anchors near the river, one with Hope, most without. And Bells, usually three, but two and five, seven, and eight – on the run, Bill Sikes paused for a beer to steady his nerves at the Eight Bells in Hatfield. The Bells all recall ships and sailing. And Compasses again, one with a Goat, and a Ship Aground to go with all the dozens of other Ship Inns, with or without Shovels, Shears, or Stars, and one with a Whale in Wapping.

There are some more odd couples, too: the Green Man and French Horn, the Goose and Gridiron, the Horse and Dolphin, the Horseshoe and Magpie, the Magpie and Pewter Platter, the Crown and Leek – Welsh, perhaps. And one of the oddest is the Sash and Cocoa Tree in Finsbury Square, landlord William Monk, daughter Maran. The Valentine and Orson was in Southwark in 1803 and beyond, though there was an earlier one in the eighteenth century which held the meetings of an antiquarian society. Perhaps, it was these learned gentlemen who came up with the name. The story of Valentine and Orson is French, and concerns abandoned twin boys, Valentine brought up at court and Orson in a bear’s den. You can guess the rest.

There’s the George and Vulture in Cowper’s Court which is almost unchanged since Dickens’s day, and is full of pictures of him, and a bust which stares out at you from a window. Naturally, I went in once – for a lemonade rather than purl. In Poultry just along from Lombard Street, there was in the 1840s the curiously named Thirteen Cantons – a nod to the East India Company whose headquarters were just in Leadenhall Street. The Cross Keys in Wood Street, Cheapside, was where the Rochester coach came in and Dickens recalled how he arrived there as a ten-year-old on The Commodore, packed in damp straw – the smell of which never left him. Mr Pickwick and his companions set off from the Golden Cross in the Strand.

Dickens frequented The Rainbow, too. George offers his own rainbow – thirty Green Mans, sixty Red Lions, one Red Cow, any number of White anythings, and one Black Cap, acres of Black Bulls, Dogs, Eagles, and Lions – not so many as red ones – one Orange, two Orange Trees, three Mulberry, and one Lemon. There are fifteen Blue Anchors and six Blue Posts, apparently marking places where once you could hop into a sedan chair, and several Blue Lasts, but it was at the Blue Boar where David Copperfield ended his journey from Yarmouth.

There are a lot of pubs in Pickwick Papers, including the old coaching inn, The Belle Sauvage, off Ludgate Hill, supposedly named for Pocahontas who stayed there. Nearby at St. Paul’s, Dickens once arranged to meet his friend and biographer, John Forster, according to one of Dickens’s letters, “at The Shakespeare”. Lots of Shakespeare pubs, of course, and Shakespeare’s Heads. There’s a Ben Jonson’s Head, too, in Goodman’s Yard in Goodman’s Fields in The Minories. Dickens must have known the pub because he wrote about a visit to Goodman’s Fields in a letter to Miss Coutts. The actor, David Garrick, is immortalised at the Garrick’s Head in Bow Street, not far from the office of Household Words in Wellington Street. One Henry VIII’s Head in Southwark – serves him right.

Dickens became a shorthand writer at Doctors’ Commons where in Knightrider street there was the Old Parr’s Head. Old Tom Parr was reputed to have lived until the age of one hundred and fifty-two, at some time in the fifteenth century. Later in life, though not at Parr’s age, Dickens thought he might be a barrister and took his dinners at Middle Temple. He often passed under Temple Bar where he might have had a glass at The Antigallican – named, it seems, to commemorate the Napoleonic wars, and loathing of the French, I imagine. I found four Antigallican pubs in the Trade Directory, but there were more French Horns, one with a Rose.

Disguise mandatory for The Two Spies in Catherine Street, a step away from the Drury Lane Theatre. Could that have been on Dickens’s mind when he invented the two spies, Barsad and Cly, in A Tale of Two Cities? There were two more Two Spies in St. Giles’s, and Three Spies in Haymarket. Hopeless spies, clearly. They might have been French. There was a Spanish Patriot in Lambeth, and in Hampstead again, The Spaniards Inn where Mrs Bardell is arrested in Pickwick Papers. And the poor Turkish Slave in Brick Lane.

There’s probably two of everything in the six Noah’s Arks provided by friend George. Birds of the air and beasts of the field are everywhere. The Raven and Sun, Eagles, one or two with Child, Crows, Swans – black or white, Bulls – sometimes pied, one Red, Bears – mostly brown, Foxes – one with Peacock, one Fish, one Cat, Dogs with Ducks, and Ducks, dirty.

But most singular are, of course, the one-offs. The Snowshoes in Chelsea – why? one asks. And who was Pinder of Wakefield to have a pub named for him? An associate of Robin Hood, it seems. The earlier pub dates from 1643, the present building from 1878. Appropriately, Rob the Rich, Feed the Poor Karl Marx was a regular, he who said of Dickens and some of his fellow novelists that they had given to the world ‘more political and social truths’ than had any politician or moralist. Imagine Dickens and Marx quaffing a half in the Pinder on Gray’s Inn Road. Not far from the Household Words office in Wellington Street – and Marx was in London by 1849. “Up the workers!”

Of whom, The Running Footman (he had nothing to lose but his chains) was in Berkeley Square. No Nightingale, though. That was near Regent’s Park, run by Mrs Lucretia (!) Baldock. I don’t suppose she asked, ‘What’s your poison?’ One Essex Serpent, one Lilliput Hall, one Frying Pan, and there could only be one Tippling Philosopher – no doubt deep in thought and contemplating the World Turned Upside Down on the Old Kent Road.

And the Charles Dickens pub at St Katharine’s Dock? It might look as if the Inimitable had supped there, but, alas, it’s modern. It was once a warehouse. My Man With The Load Of Mischief (Oxford Street), George Dodd himself, will know what tonnage came in there. Did I mention the four million gallons of beer stored at one brewery in London? Thanks George, you’re a marvel.

For more about JC Briggs and her books click here.






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