The Castles of Camden

We Londoners like to think of ourselves as working hard and playing hard, but our idea of these activities pale in comparison with the 19th century Navvy. The term navvies came from the ‘navigators’ who built the first ‘navigation canals’ several decades before building the railways. By 1850 a quarter of a million workers – a force bigger than the Army and Royal Navy combined – had laid down 3,000 miles of railway line across Britain.

[T]ramping from job to job, navvies lived without adequate housing or sanitation and worked in appalling conditions. In the 1840s there was no compensation for death or injury, this culminated in the Woodhead Tunnel scandal where the death rate among the navvies building the tunnel between 1839 and 1852 was higher than that of the soldiers who fought at the battle of Waterloo.

The harsh conditions and communal living meant that navvies evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language of their own. They built a reputation for toiling hard, fighting, hard living and hard drinking. ‘’Respectable’ Victorians view them as degenerate and a threat to social order.

Despite cruel exploitation and extreme deprivation the navvies achieved amazing feats of engineering, equipped with little more than gunpowder, picks and shovels in 1863 the Underground Metropolitan Railway from King’s Cross to Smithfield was completed, the first underground railway in the world. Huge cuttings had to be dug and lined with brickwork which was then roofed over and the streets above rebuilt, when in operation gas-lit wooden carriages were hauled by steam locomotives.

After a difficult and dangerous day, if they had avoided injury, cholera or typhoid their evening were spent together boozing and gambling with the inevitable fist-fight, which on some occasions necessitated the army being sent in the break up the combatants.

Bitterly divided along nationalistic and sectarian lines interlopers in the pub would be summarily dealt with. As the London-Birmingham railway line was being constructed in the north of the capital, ever anxious to attract customers while keeping trouble at bay four pubs were named after castles located in each part of Britain. Each worker would therefore know he was welcome and could drink with his fellow countrymen.

The Edinboro’ Castle

Bottom left Location: Mornington Terrace

With its large beer garden overlooking the rail tracks this, as you might have guessed, was for Scottish navvies. It is now a gastro pub.

The Pembroke Castle

Top right Location: Gloucester Avenue

Again this backs onto the very rail track built by its early patrons. The Welsh rail workers have given it over to the Hampstead Comedy Club.

The Dublin Castle

Top left Location: Parkway

Once home to Irish itinerant workers this is the most famous. A legendary music venue where Madness made their video for My Girl.

The Warwick Castle

Bottom right Location: Parkway

Home of the English to sink a pint or three of ale with their colleagues, it was renamed the NW1 Bar but now is a Cote Restaurant.

How times have changed in Camden.

Pictures and some background information from Cabbie Rob.


9 thoughts on “The Castles of Camden”

  1. Hi there David,

    As a keen user of pubs in Camden I have always been intrigued by this tale.
    And have always been extremely dubious for numerous reasons. So with the help of the Camden History Society I’m trying to research it to find out if it is actually true or not.

    Can I ask if you’ve seen it documented anywhere? Or have you just picked it up from hearsay and other blogs?
    It is a great story, but I’d really like to get to the bottom of it.

    Many thanks,


    1. As a footnote Al sent me his (very compelling) reasons for not trusting this tale:

      And thanks the links, although I’m not sure The London Encyclopaedia is talking about the same Windsor Castle. From the one on Park Street (now Parkway) you could barely see across the road! Although there were two more Windsor Castles nearby so possibly it was referring to one of them. But I’d be surprised if you could see Windsor from them, even with no modern buidlings in the way.

      I have no doubt that the navvies didn’t get on and enjoyed a bit of fisticuffs, but let me explain in a bit more detail why I’m suspicious of this tale. Firstly, the theory doesn’t make sense. It would stop fights and it would keep the nationalities separate. It doesn’t mention what would stop them going to any of the numerous pubs in the area, and indeed omits to mention the other 5 or 6 Castle pubs in Camden Town at the time!
      But more convincingly the dates don’t tally up for it to work. All four pubs would have to have been built at same time as each other. And at the same time as the railways (Just taking into the account the 3 major mainline construction periods).
      Dublin Castle was open by 1825
      Euston / LBR was built 1836/37
      Edinburgh Castle was open in 1843
      King’s Cross / GNR built 1851/52
      St Pancras / Midland built 1866-1868
      Windsor Castle & Pembroke Castle both opened at some point between 1851-1869 (trying to narrow this down).

      So basically, 3 of the pubs missed out on the first line being built, and only Irish navvies would have been able to slake their thirst free from fights.
      The English and Welsh navvies on the Great Northern Railway very probably would not have their respective pubs built yet.
      And just possibly neither would the same navvies working on Midland Railway!

      But you never know – maybe some firm documentary evidence does exist to back up the idea, or something similar. I’m open minded (not much though!)


    2. Hi David,

      With perfect timing the latest Camden History Society newsletter features this article by a more efficient and knowledgeable researcher than myself. I quote:

      “Those Castle pubs again.”

      The popular theory about the origin of Camden Town’s ‘Castle’ pubs, rightly queried by Tim Matthews (Newsletter 265), has taken root on the Internet. According to the website The railway workers hailed from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, and had a tendency to spar with one another after having too many drinks in the local pubs. The solution? To create a pub to accommodate each country, thus limiting confrontations. And so the Edinboro Castle, Windsor Castle, Pembroke Castle and Dublin Castle were born….”

      The impression is given that the pubs’ advent was orchestrated by the railway company or its contractors, and that all were established at about the same time. In fact, far from being contemporary the four pubs, and the Caernarvon Castle mentioned by Deirdre Yager, appeared gradually over a period of 130 years. A newly-built Dublin Castle (now 94 Parkway) appeared under that name, apparently newly-built, at ’35 Park Street’ in a Sun fire insurance record of November 1821, the policy holder being Charles Turner, a builder of St James’ Place, Hampstead Road. If the pub was, implausibly, meant to attract Irish navvies, they must have been working, not on the later railway, but on the earlier Regent’s Canal. However, the pub’s name, like those of several local streets, may well have been more aristocratically inspired: the Earl of Mornington, Irish peer and friend of the Fitzroys (the ground landlords), had major Dublin connections.

      The Edinboro Castle (57 Mornington Terrace) made its first rate-book appearance in 1839, listed under ‘Stanhope Street’, as the embryonic top end of adjacent Delancey Street. The Scottish capital’s name was routinely shortened to either Edinbr’ or Edinbro’ from the outset. Perched above the London & Birmingham Railway, the pub opened some two years after the opening of the line into Euston and so too late to serve navvies at work on the the railway cutting. With a tea garden, and facilities for the genteel game of lawn billiards, the pub also boasted a library and picture gallery. The latter was revived later in the century by its then landlord, Thomas Middlebrook, as a museum of curiosities, famed for its display of great auk eggs and visited by ‘celebrities’. Saturday evening debates at the pub were sometimes attended by the Lord Chief Justice. So, the Edinboro Castle was hardly a pub designed to attract belligerent labourers, Scottish or otherwise. Nor were its landlords Scots

      The Pembroke Castle (now 150 Gloucester Avenue) first appears in directories only in the late 1860s. The pub appears to have been so named, not to attract Welsh customers, but simply reflected its then address of 1 Pembroke Terrace.

      The Caernarvon Castle at 7-8 Chalk Farm Road (closed and converted into a clothes shop before being gutted in the 2008 Hawley Wharf fire) began life in the mid-19th century with a different name as a ‘hotel and tavern’ named the Pickford Arms, presumably named after the famous firm of carriers who had a depot and offices in Camden Town. It was renamed the Carnarvon (sic) Castle only around 1870.

      As for the Windsor Castle at 32 Parkway (closed and now a brasserie), this became a licensed public house only around 1953, having previously been a beer retailer’s, or off-licence (run by a Mrs Minnie Sleet).

      The overall chronology, and the inclusion of the post-war Windsor Castle in the tale linking the pubs with sparring 19th-century navvies or railwaymen, suggest to me that it is another urban myth, and one of quite recent origin.

      David Hayes. Camden History Society, Newsletter 266.


    3. Thanks Al for ruining a perfectly good urban myth.
      I think that explanation must be regarded as definitive.
      I’ll just have to go on believing that American Robert P McCulloch bought London Bridge by mistake, that surely is correct.


    4. Pesky historians spoiling the fun!
      Thankfully McCulloch didn’t know about Boadicea being buried under platform 10 of King’s Cross or he might have tried to buy that too!


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