Tag Archives: London pubs

The Nonce

Many of London’s pub names have a royal connotation: The Royal Oak, The King’s Head or The Crown, it dates back to the time when many were illiterate, and the depiction of a well-known image enabled patrons to identify each hostelry.

The Duke of York pub in Fitzrovia continues this tradition, but with an unusual twist.

It displays the only known sign with the image of Prince Andrew (the current Duke of York) on its sign.

Operated by the 200-year-old Suffolk brewers Greene King this pub was first licensed in 1767 and then rebuilt in 1897, and is tucked away at the top end of Rathbone Street.

In 2014, Prince Andrew, the present Duke of York, permitted his likeness to be used on the pub sign. Russian-born American artist Igor Babailov, known for his commissioned portraits of world leaders and celebrities, duly painted the pub’s sign. The painting is now thought to be the only pub in the world featuring a likeness of a living member of the Royal Family.

Fitzrovia, the place of my birth, was also where the literary and artistic crowd hung out, Donovan, Ian Dury, Rod Stewart, Paul Jones, Johnnie Ray, and John Lee Hooker were also regulars, as was David ‘Del Boy’Jason.

In the 1940s and 50s the Duke of York’s clientele had regular encounters with so-called razor gangs and novelist Anthony Burgess is thought to have used his wife’s 1943 experience of razor gangs forcing her to drink copious amounts of beer in his later novel, A Clockwork Orange.

Milking the area’s reputation for knife crime, landlord Major Alf Klein initiated male customers by snipping off their ties, the collection grew to over 1,500. His great dane, named Colonel, starred in the title role in the film Hound of the Baskervilles, apparently, it was partial to drinking customers’ beer.

Despite being stripped of all of his titles in 2021 due to his association with financier and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Andrew’s image remains and after commissioning the painting the publican has no intention of replacing it any time soon.

According to Adrian Brune on her Substack blog, in Soho, locals now colloquially refer to the pub as “the Nonce”.

Nonce (n.) Prison slang a rapist or child molester; a sexual offender.

Featured image: The exterior of the Duke of York pub in Fitzrovia, bearing the image of Prince Andrew, the present Duke of York by Ethan Doyle White (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why are pubs on street corners?

Why are London pubs so often situated on street corners, and why didn’t developers hardly ever construct pubs in the middle or halfway down a terrace?

The whole building of the pub is always divided into several sections: saloon or lounge, parlour, public bar, snug, counter, and beer engine. Most of the time, one side is allocated for a saloon or lounge, while the public bar is exactly that. The parlour or saloon is mostly reserved for business persons, and they used to sit here with a modicum of privacy and discuss business matters, away from the riff-raff in the public section. In addition, many public houses also provided limited accommodation and a beer garden.

Landowners controlled large pieces of land and worked with developers through the leasehold system. The landowners let plots out to the developers, who paid for the construction of long terraces, and the developers borrowed to pay construction costs.

The pubs, therefore, were built first to house, feed and water the builders. In the worst case, the pub and its licence could be flogged off to pay for finishing the terrace.

The developer could lend building money to plumbers, glaziers and construction workers who’d do the work on each other’s homes for free – so everybody won. And the pub remained on the corner after they’d all finished, ready to provide them with a social focus. Thus the pub was there first and last, throughout the lives of those who lived in the terraces.

Odd fact: Griffin Park, where Brentford FC play, is the only football ground with pubs at all four corners.

The Bag o’ Nails on the corner of Lower Grosvenor Place by Alan Hughes (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The widow’s son

Just up the road from Beaumont Square is the Widow’s Son in Devons Road which is a Grade II* listed public house built in the 19th century with an interesting history, featuring a Christian festival behind its name.

The story is that a widow’s house previously stood on the site. Expecting her sailor son home from the sea during the Napoleonic wars one Easter, she naturally baked him a hot cross bun, but unfortunately, he did not return. The widow lived in hope and next year made another bun, and so on.

It was commonly believed at that time, that bread or buns baked on Good Friday would never grow mouldy and had a marked medicinal value, it was also not unknown for such items to be hung up.

After her death years, stale buns were found hanging from a beam in her cottage, inevitably the house became famous for its collection of buns, and when in 1848 a pub was built on the same site it was naturally called the Widow’s Son and the custom continued; each year a sailor bringing another bun to be hung from the pub’s ceiling. The tradition almost ended when ironically the lease on the Widow’s Son ran out a week before Easter, with developers wanting to turn the site into yet another a block of flats.

Thankfully the tradition is back at the Widow’s Son after the enthusiasm of the new landlord and the participation of sailors from the training ship HMS President which is permanently moored alongside the Victoria Embankment.

You can see the current, currant buns (sorry!) in the net.

Featured image: The Widow’s Son, Public House, Bow, a grade II listed public house on Devon’s Road, opposite Campbell Road, by David Anstiss (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A bitter pill for all

Once was the time that every Londoner knew who Doctor Butler was, and the alleged restorative properties of his famous brew.

Such was his fame a number of London pubs carried his name.

[A]LAS ALL BUT ONE HAVE GONE or become a generic pub/restaurant. The last survivor to carry his name is to be found in Mason’s Avenue in The City.

The surviving establishment has a good reputation according to Fancy a Pint who give it four-stars which would not be the case if the hostelry still served up the good doctor’s celebrated ’purging ale’.

No qualifications

‘Doctor’ Butler had no medical qualifications, but that didn’t stop him selling an evil concoction of laxatives that included senna, liquorice and scurvy grass (a type of cabbage) all mixed in a strong ale and allowed to ferment for three days.

First produced in 1616 the brew laid claim to treat all manner of maladies:

An excellent stomach drink, it helps digestion and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs and is therefore good against colds, coughs, phthisical and consumptive distempers, and being drunk in the evening it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.

With medical science in its infancy King James, when suffering from sciatica reached for a jug of the doctor’s purgative concoction. Its powerful effects took the King’s mind off his original ailment, and when he emerged from his House of Ease awarded Butler a position in court as his physician.

Unfortunately, the powerful laxative didn’t work on King James’s son Henry dying from typhoid.

Old Doctor Butler The success with the King’s bad back encouraged Butler to branch out offering clients the benefit of his expertise. Epilepsy was cured by firing a brace of pistols near the unsuspecting patients face – thus scaring the malady enough to leave its host.

The current incumbents practising in Harley Street might be pleased to discover that should plague return to London, plunging one’s patient into
ice-cold water effects a cure.

Dropped into the Thames

But should that prove unsuccessful an alternative treatment is to drop the infected patient through a trapdoor on London Bridge allowing them to fall
into the Thames.

Doctor Butler’s Medicinal Ale was sold across London from taverns displaying Doctor Butler’s Head on their signs. Remarkably it was available long after his death – he presumably declined the ale’s medicinal benefits upon his own death bed.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 22nd July 2014

Gallic Snug

French HouseAlthough the bar was called York Minster until quite recently most had known it as The French House and it’s had a Gallic feel since it opened in 1914. In the Second World War it became the favoured watering hole of General de Gaulle while he was organising the Free French forces. It was while using the bar as a homely headquarters de Gaulle wrote his famous speech ‘À tous les Français’ urging his countrymen to keep alive ‘the flame of French resistance’. Ironically its frontage was blown out in an air raid.

After the war, the Soho bar gained its reputation as a haunt for the heavy drinking, louche bohemian, with regulars a celebrated roster of artists, writers, wits and eccentrics including Aleister Crowley.

[I]n 1984 it became clear the York Minster’s fame had spread worldwide when the real Minster (the cathedral in York) suffered a catastrophic fire and donations for repairs destined for York Minster began arriving at the bar from around the globe.

When the landlord redirected the funds north to Yorkshire he discovered the Bishop of York had for many years been quietly receiving unsolicited cases of claret intended for Gaston Berlemond a Belgian who had bought the pub in 1914.

The French House sells more Ricard than anywhere else in Britain and only serves beer in half-pints, except for on April the first, when a recent custom has been that Suggs serves the first pint of the day.

Picture from Tired of London

Information gleaned with more than a little help from my favourite London app Black Plaques: Memorials to Misadvanture:

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 26th February 2013