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 by a man called Oliver Bland.

At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, apparently, In 1992 it was bought by a man called Julian Humphreys, who redesigned the ground floor as a recreation of an 18th century coffee house, installing the panelling, the pews, the Delft tiles and the scrubbed floor we see today. The premises ran from January 1995 to August 1996, under the name The Jerusalem Coffee House, a nod to local history, after which Humphreys leased it to the newly opened St Peter’s Brewery of Bungay in Suffolk for 25 year. it became a coffee shop, before the premises were brought in 1996 by  The brewery had been started by John Murphy, the founder of the branding consultancy Interbrand (which gave the world the Hob-nob, inter alia). Murphy and he wanted a London outlet to be able to show off his beers. for his newly opened brewery, St Peter’s, near Bungay in Suffolk. He chose as the name for his pub Humphreys suggested to Murphy that he rename the place the Jerusalem Tavern, a name long associated with the area: three other Jerusalem Taverns have operated within three hundred yards of the present pub, though the most recent predecessor closed around a century ago.

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So who IS the most popular beer blogger in Britain?

How do you measure popularity in the blogging world? Wikio believes it has the answer: take each blogger and assess “the number and weight of the incoming links from other blogs”. It then produces a ranking of “the most influential blogs in the UK and Irish blogospheres”.

But having seen my own Wikio ranking bwoing wildly up and down over the past three months on the basis of what I know (because I track the links into my blog) are tiny, tiny differences in the numbers of links being made from one month to the next, I don’t believe Wikio rankings are actually reflecting anything meaningful. And yes, because I have a big ego (or I wouldn’t be a blogger), I do look at people higher than me in the Wikio listings, and think: “I can’t believe HE’S more influential than I am …” (Incidentally, if you believe you may be the “HE” referred to there, don’t worry, chances are it’s someone else. Or not.)

Is there a better way of measuring blog popularity? Well, sheer numbers of visits is a good one: and you can gather that information for any website, by entering its url at Webdatah here and within 60 seconds or so out will pop your global website rank courtesy of Alexa (which is part of Amazon). Now, Ron Pattinson is not the only nerdy number-cruncher who can whip up an Excel spreadsheet around here, so after some tedious data-gathering, I can now present to you the Z-A league table (that’s Zythophile-Alexa, not Zak Avery) of British beer bloggers, as ranked by Alexa’s measurement of average daily visitors and pageviews for the past month.

(Update: indeed, now I’ve checked even further down through Wikio’s listings, a site it reckons is only the 22nd most influential beer blog in these islands IS ACTUALLY THE FOURTH MOST VISITED. Which downgrades Wikio’s methodology even further, to me: because if you’re the fourth most visited, you ain’t merely the 22nd most influential …)

So here is the (updated)

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The patron saint of English brewers

The patron saint of brewers is usually given as St Arnold of Flanders or his near-namesake St Arnould, bishop of Metz. But English brewers have their own (unofficial) saint: Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated in the 12th century in his own cathedral by four knights acting on the supposed instructions of King Henry II.

Thomas Becket, martyr, saint and brewer

Thomas was born in or about 1118 – quite probably on December 21, St Thomas the Apostle’s Day – in a house in Cheapside, London, between streets that are today called Ironmonger Lane and Old Jewry. His father, Gilbert, a wealthy former merchant and property owner, was born in the village of Thierville in Normandy. Whether Becket was the family name, or a nickname given to Thomas, sources disagree: in his own lifetime Thomas called himself “Thomas of London”. (The style Thomas à Becket, incidentally, seems not to have been used until after the Reformation).

In 1139 Theobald of Bec, who was also from the Thierville area, became Archbishop of Canterbury, and his patronage undoubtedly helped the young Thomas of London. However, the 13th century historian Matthew Paris, a monk at St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire, said Thomas was given his first post in the Church by the Abbot of St Alban’s, Geoffrey de Gorron (or Gorham). Geoffrey supposedly made the young Thomas the priest at St Andrew’s church, Bramfield, a small village about five miles north of Hertford, an appointment some historians say took place in or around 1142.

While at Bramfield, its village historians claim, Thomas brewed ale using water from the old vicarage pond. This was described in the 19th century as “a little bricked-in muddy pond in the vicarage farmyard”, and it is still known as Becket’s pool or Becket’s pond. If this sounds unhygenic (particularly as tradition also says Becket and his monks used to wash in the pool), using pond water to brew ale and beer was a very common practice. The farmer-diarist John Carrington, whose son ran the Rose and Crown at the nearby village of Tewin, took water from his farm pond at Bramfield to make his harvest ale with as late as 1800. The village clerics also drank home-brewed ale for hundreds of years – one history of Bramfield says the vicar still brewed his own beer until the 19th century.

Unfortunately for Bramfield, other sources put Thomas as a student in Paris from the mid-1130s or so until around 1140 or 1142, not in Hertfordshire. After that, it is said, he was then working in London as a clerk for a kinsman with the wonderful name of Osbert Huitdeniers, or Eightpence. Osbert seems to have been what passed in the 12th century as a banker. By 1146 Thomas had won a place in the household of Archbishop Theobald as a clerk, presumably through his father Gilbert’s Thierville connections (Gilbert had apparently, by this time, lost all his wealth, possibly in a fire). As evidence in favour of the Bramfield connection, however,, shortly before Thomas was killed in the cathedral at Canterbury, he is said to have reminded the then Abbot of St Alban’s that it was his monastery that gave the Londoner his first “honour”, the “ecclesiola” (“little church)” at Bramfield, when he was young and poor.

It is quite possible Thomas was given the appointment, and with it the priestly income, when he was working for Theobald, but a deputy stood in for him to perform the actual duties of the priest at Bramfield. On the other hand, after Thomas’s assassination, when he was made a saint, a Saxon well at Bramfield church was renamed the Holy Well of St Thomas, and attracted pilgrims for its reputed healing powers, again suggesting a close connection between the saint and the village.

In 1154, after six or more years in Theobald’s service, Thomas was appointed by the Archbishop as Archdeacon of Canterbury, a post worth around £100 a year. This was a substantial sum in 12th century England and showed that Thomas, now in his mid-30s, was highly regarded by the Archbishop. His new post did not last long, and he had clearly impressed the right people: just a few months later the newly crowned Henry II, then only 21,pulled Thomas from the Archbishop’s staff and made him Chancellor, one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom.

For eight years Henry and Thomas worked together, developing a close friendship. At one point, in 1158, Thomas visited France on Henry’s behalf to demand the hand of the French king’s daughter for the English king’s eldest son (who was only three – though the sought-after bride herself was just a few months old). Thomas took with him a deliberately extravagent cavalcade designed to proclaim the glories of England. It included 250 footmen singing anthems in English, 28 packhorses bearing gold and silver plate, English-bred mastiffs, greyhounds and hawks, grooms holding monkeys dressed in English livery and, according to a widely-quoted passage supposedly from a contemporary chronicler, two chariots “laden solely with iron-bound barrels of ale, decocted from choice, fat grain, as a gift for the French, who wondered at such an invention, a drink most wholesome, clear of all dregs, rivalling wine in colour and surpassing it in flavour”.

The passage is significant in suggesting that ale before hops could travel, and could keep the fortnight or more it must have taken in the 12th century to get from England to the French king’s court. It also shows that, on special occasions at least, ale casks were hooped with metal.

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