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Monday, 12 April 2010

Behind Bars: London Pubs With A Criminal Past

For the majority of publicans, the most dastardly deed likely to be perpetrated on their premises will be some poor soul lighting up in the loos. But take a good look at your fellow drinkers: could those shady characters deep in conversation at a corner table be hatching a murky plan? Keith Barker-Main takes you on a pub crawl to make your flesh crawl, introducing a selection of pubs that have entertained some of London’s most notorious criminals.


image : groundog at

The Blind Beggar 

337 Whitechapel Rd E1

Although Bobby Moore was briefly to become the landlord of The Blind Beggar, in 1966 he had an England World Cup-winning team to captain. In the final, Bobby’s boys scored four times, while at the Whitechapel pub, an entirely different score was about to be settled. At the height of their reign of terror, news reached the Kray twins that rival gang member George Cornell was holding court at the Beggar. Cornell had committed the serious crime of insulting one of the brothers, calling Ronnie Kray a ‘big fat poof’. To the sound of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore) playing on the jukebox, Ronnie strutted in. "Well, well, look who’s here," he smirked, before dispatching Cornell with a single shot to the head. Nowadays, East End hospitality runs to a shot or two of Bell’s or a pint of London Pride or Old Speckled Hen at this
family-friendly affair.

The Plumbers Arms 

14 Lower Belgrave St SW1

Customers supping Wadsworth 6X or Bombardier at this genteel Belgravia boozer are unlikely to witness anything more sinister than chinless wonders in pinstripes downing gin and tonics. But on a dank November night in 1974, normal service was interrupted by a commotion. Staggering into the saloon bar in her blood-spattered night attire, Veronica Lucan, estranged wife of the seventh Earl of Lucan, announced that her childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, lay murdered in the family home along the street. In the darkened house, the diminutive Lady Lucan had also been attacked, escaping by  showing typical Sloaney sang froid, disabling her assailant via a sharp squeeze of his testicles. Whether it was Lucan who had ballsed up his wife’s murder is a question that Scotland Yard has still to put to the vanished earl. 'Lucky' Lucan fled and is long-since presumed dead or living in Belize, Barbados or Bournemouth according to which pundit you poll.  

The Captain Kidd

108 Wapping High St E1

An attractive wharf-side warehouse revamp of this ancient hostelry belies its grim past. Now a Samuel Smith house with an Anglo-French dining room upstairs, its name celebrates the Scottish pirate who may have been the inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow. After his capture and trial on five counts of piracy on the high seas and one of murder, he was paraded along Wapping High Street on 23rd May 1701, then hung - twice, the rope snapped on the first attempt first  -and left on display swinging from from a gibbet over the Thames at the adjacent execution dock. Kidd’s tarred and feathered corpse was then hung in chains at Tilbury as a warning to would-be pirates. It is also claimed that a modern-day rogue, Barings Bank trader Nick Leeson, used to drink here too.

The Magdala 

2A South Hill Park NW3

As you enjoy your pint of Greene King IPA at this tarted-up local, consider this: had Ruth Ellis lived in France, would her place in the history books have been assured? It was the peroxide blonde’s misfortune to fall foul of the law in 1955 conservative Britain. Separated from her husband, Ellis shacked up with David Blakely, an equally complicated character. Their messy, violent affair deteriorated until on Easter Sunday, Ellis fired six shots at Blakely outside The Magdala. Despite a public outcry, she was hanged - the last woman in Britain to do so. A French paper reported her fate thus: ‘Passion in England, except for cricket and betting, is always regarded as a shameful disease.' 

The Star Tavern 

6 Belgrave Mews West SW1

Perhaps it was this quintessential 19th century London pub’s location – in a delightful mews surrounded by exclusive addresses – that inspired a bunch of get-rich-quick villains. For it is alleged the Great Train Robbery was plotted in the Star’s upstairs dining room. Today’s roast beef and fish and chips were probably also on the menu back in 1963, when Britain’s biggest ever heist took place. A gang held up the overnight Glasgow-Euston Post Office train, escaping with £50m in today’s money. That buys a fair few pints of Fuller’s Discovery or ESB, even at Belgravia prices.

The Spaniards Inn

 Spaniards Rd NW3

Watch American visitors’ faces light up at this ramshackle coaching inn on Hampstead Heath. Not only is it a Hollywood dream of ye olde England, but it also comes steeped in history: Dickens and Byron drank here; Keats composed Ode To A Nightingale in its garden. But which former patron would Johnny Depp choose to play? Dick Turpin, I wager - the notorious highwayman's pistol hangs in the bar. When he lodged here as a boy, he was no doubt planning his future career as he watched stagecoaches pulling up opposite.

The Pembroke Arms

 261 Old Brompton Rd SW5

This decent SW5 gastropub was formerly a notorious den called The Coleherne, a magnet for the S&M leather fraternity, their butch Tom of Finland poise often traduced by lisping diction that owed more to Kenneth Williams. Through the years, these premises have served no fewer than three serial killers, gay men gone rogue who preyed on drinkers within. Pull up a stool at the large U-shaped counter, order a pint of Fosters (or something better) and contemplate the shocking tale of Dennis Nilsen, whose 15 victims’ dismembered corpses were discovered blocking his drains. Shiver at the deeds of Colin Ireland, a hulking homophobe who asphyxiated five men before being caught on CCTV at Charing Cross station, luring one of the unfortunates to his grisly fate. The third candidate for the Chamber of Horrors was young Michael Lupo. Lupo was a good-looking charmer, a fashionable figure around town whose Filofax - to the horror of the CID - was discovered to contain numerous VIP's telephone numbers including, apparently, Princess Diana's private line. Lupo was someone I vaguely knew from the London club scene. He was also a friend of my then flatmate who, we discovered when the shit hit the fan, had invited him for drinks at our shared Battersea apartment – after Lupo had strangled the first of four male victims! It's said Lupo's spree was his revenge against gay men in general, when he discovered he was HIV positive. One of the victims, whose body was discovered in an Earl's Court basement, was an unfortunate street drinker who asked him for a light. Lupo subsequently succumbed to  AIDS while serving his sentence.

The Old Bank Of England 

194 Fleet St EC4

Marble Italianate grandeur, Corinthian columns, glistening brass chandeliers, 18th century-style murals, swagged drapes and ornate decoration at this Fullers house are a joy to behold, as is a carved central mahogany island bar typical of the Victorian era. Once the Bank of England’s legal arm, it is now favoured by office workers and tourists. From a mezzanine lounge gallery, watch them tucking into steak and ale pies. Then give them indigestion by revealing that the former kitchens below were once run by a Miss Lovett, whose locally sourced organic meat was purveyed by boyfriend Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Prince Arthur 

80 Eversholt St NW1

No matter what shade of green the frontage is painted – recently both fluorescent and forest green – the tables outside this easy-going Euston local are a great place to dawdle over a pint of Greene King IPA. The Arthur has a place in modern history. In 1998, Gregory Mills, a one-eyed 28-year-old Australian former barman, was stopped for speeding in America. The Colorado cop, recognising the name from Interpol’s website, called London, to discover that Mills was wanted for questioning over the fatal stabbing of the pub’s Scots landlady, Carol Fyfe, in a £2,500 robbery that went wrong. Extradited to the UK, Mills was convicted of her murder, marking the first time the internet had been useful in such a way.

The Ten Bells 

84 Commercial St E1

No round-up of London crime would be complete without a mention of Jack the Ripper. Although a sympathetic restoration has made The Ten Bells a magnet for Shoreditch trendies today, in 1888 it was favoured by prostitutes such as Mary Kelly, who, along with six other working girls, had their throats cut by the Ripper. Order a pint of Bombardier and mull over the various suspects in an unsolved crime wave that stopped as abruptly as it had started: Queen Victoria’s grandson Eddy, author Lewis Carroll and painter Walter Sickert.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2007