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At Dirty Dick’s

January 9, 2012
by the gentle author

These are the dead cats that once hung behind the counter of the celebrated “Dustbin Bar” at Dirty Dick’s Old Port Wine & Spirit House in Bishopsgate. It is a location that holds a special place in my affections as the first pub I ever went into in London, one day after work at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Although this was longer ago than I care to admit and regrettably the cats in this picture had already gone by then, yet I still recall the sense of expectation, entering the narrow frontage and walking back, and back, and back through the warren of rooms with sawdust on the floor – descending ever deeper into the bowels of the city, it seemed. And I can only imagine how this strange drama might have been enhanced by the presence of umpteen dead cats suspended from the ceiling.

This was how it was described in 1866 – “A small public house or rather a tap of a wholesale wine and spirit business…a warehouse or barn without floorboards – a low ceiling, with cobweb festoons dangling from the black rafters – a pewter bar battered and dirty, floating with beer – numberless gas pipes tied anyhow along the struts and posts to conduct the spirits from the barrels to the taps – sample phials and labelled bottles of wine and spirits on shelves – everything covered with virgin dust and cobwebs.”

Yet all was not as it might seem, because the presence of these curious artefacts was not due to unselfconscious eccentricity, it was an early and highly successful example of what we should call a “theme pub.” Established in 1745 as The Old Jerusalem, the drinking house took the name of Dirty Dick’s in 1814 and adopted his story along with it. The original of Dirty Dick was Nathaniel Bentley, a successful merchant with a hardware shop and warehouse in Leadenhall St in the mid-eighteenth century. After his bride-to-be died on their wedding day – so the legend goes – he never cleaned up again, never washed or changed his clothes. “It’s of no use, if I wash my hands today, they will be dirty again tomorrow,” he declared. Bentley died in 1809, and the Bishopsgate Distillers appropriated this story of the notorious dirty hardware merchant, adorning their bar with dead cats and cobwebs to perpetuate the legend.

Charles Dickens knew Dirty Dick’s and was fascinated with this myth of one who sealed up the door on the wedding breakfast and left the cake and table decorations to acquire dust eternally. In a letter to the printer of his weekly publication “Household Words” dated 30th December 1852, he wrote “Don’t leave out the Dirty Old Man, he is capital.” And it has been suggested that Nathaniel Bentley was the inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations.”

Dirty Dick’s was rebuilt in the eighteen seventies, though the cellars are of an earlier date, and now the bizarre artefacts are banished to a glass case, yet it is still worth a visit. Explore the wonky half-timbered spaces and seek out the secluded panelled rooms at the rear, where you can enjoy a quiet drink away from the commotion of Bishopsgate to contemplate the ancient coaching inns that once lined this street, long before the age of the train and the motor car.

Nathaniel Richard Bentley – the origin of the myth of Dirty Dick.

Part of the adjoining City Corner Cafe was once an alley leading into Dirty Dick’s adorned with a series of these mosaics which illustrated the tale.

Dirty Dick by William Allingham

A Lay of Leadenhall

In a dirty old house lived a Dirty Old Man.
Soap, towels or brushes were not in his plan;
For forty long years as the neighbours declared,
His house never once had been cleaned or repaired.

‘Twas a scandal and a shame to the business-like street,
One terrible blot in a ledger so neat;
The old shop with its glasses,black bottles and vats,
And the rest of the mansion a run for the rats.

Outside, the old plaster, all splatter and stain,
Looked spotty in sunshine, and streaky in rain;
The window-sills sprouted with mildewy grass,
And the panes being broken, were known to be glass.

On a rickety signboard no learning could spell,
The merchant who sold, or the goods he’d to sell;
But for house and for man, a new title took growth,
Like a fungus the dirt gave a name to them both.

Within these there were carpets and cushions of dust,
The wood was half rot, and the metal half rust;
Old curtains—half cobwebs—hung grimly aloof;
‘Twas a spiders’ elysium from cellar to roof.

There, king of the spiders, the Dirty Old man,
Lives busy, and dirty, as ever he can;
With dirt on his fingers and dirt on his face,
The dirty old man thinks the dirt no disgrace.

From his wig to his shoes, from his coat to his shirt,
His clothes are a proverb—a marvel of dirt;
The dirt is prevading, unfading, exceeding,
Yet the Dirty Old Man has learning and breeding.

Fine folks from their carriages, noble and fair,
Have entered his shop, less to buy than to stare,
And afterwards said, though the dirt was so frightful,
The Dirty Man’s manners were truly delightful.

But they pried not upstairs thro’ the dirt and the gloom,
Nor peeped at the door of the wonderful room
That gossips made much of in accents subdued,
But whose inside no one might brag to have viewed.

That room, forty years since, folks settled and decked it,
The luncheon’s prepared, and the guests are expected,
The handsome young host he is gallant and gay,
For his love and her friends are expected today.

With solid and dainty the table is dressed—
The wine beams its brightest—flowers bloom their best;
Yet the host will not smile, and no guest will appear,
For his sweetheart is dead, as he shortly shall hear.

Full forty years since turned the key in that door,
‘Tis a room deaf and dumb ’mid the city’s uproar;
The guests for whose joyance that table was spread,
May now enter as ghosts, for they’re everyone dead.

Though a chink in the shutter dim lights come and go,
The seats are in order, the dishes a row;
But the luncheon was wealth to the rat and the mouse,
Whose descendants have long left the dirty old house.

Cup and platter are masked in thick layers of dust,
The flowers fallen to powder, the wine swath’d in crust,
A nosegay was laid before one special chair,
And the faded blue ribbon that bound it is there.

The old man has played out his part in the scene
Wherever he now is let’s hope he’s more clean;
Yet give we a thought, free of scoffing or ban,
To that Dirty Old House and that Dirty Old Man.

(First published by Charles Dickens in Household Words, 1853)

Nathaniel Bentley, Eccentric Character & Hardwareman of Leadenhall St – the well-known Dirty Dick

Photograph of City Corner Cafe copyright © Patricia Niven

Archive pictures courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. January 9, 2012

    Incredible – I’ve worked literally just around the corner from Dirty Dicks (Devonshire Square), for ten years (on and off) and never knew the back story of Dirty Dick or the building. I’ll have to pop in for a drink again soon. Also thanks for the Flower Arrangers post – another venue I knew nothing about..

    Hope to see you in Pellici’s again soon

  2. Ros permalink
    January 9, 2012

    Another piece that is so interesting, and you’ve selected the illustrations, facts, Dickens links and poem so well to go with it. I’ve passed that pub so often and now I know so much more.

  3. jeannette permalink
    January 11, 2012

    reminds me of havana.

  4. January 13, 2012

    Very enjoyable, well researched and interesting piece.
    Love the theme, love the pictures.
    Thanks eb

  5. isabella permalink
    August 13, 2012

    I love Dickens and also love the maybe connection of the link re Great Expectations and Dirty Dicks not caring after his bride died how sad.

  6. Tony Avon permalink
    March 22, 2013

    Note modern signage does not include an apostrophe in the Pub’s name. Can we draw any conclusions from this?

    Early pictures, handbills etc are wonderful btw.

  7. September 1, 2013

    I seem to remember that back in the ’60s or early ’70s there was a “lucky cat” that could be stroked with alarming results, but the minimal research I’ve done hasn’t found anything. Do you know of it?
    (I just did a radio piece on it so I hope it’s not just the result of an over-active imagination)

  8. September 1, 2013

    the link to my piece got eaten so lets see if this works
    http://www.howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=464

  9. Peter Webb permalink
    November 3, 2013

    Hi I know Dirty Dicks from way back in 1960′s. We used to go in there on out way to white heart lane on match days. Also my father Bert Webb was bar manager there in the 1950′s. I still have a couple of items telling story of Dick.
    Peter Webb

  10. paul Johnson permalink
    April 30, 2016

    My dad was in the army in 1947 and drank in the cellar bar and also got free food for him and his three mates in the cafe above dirty dicks then revisited it in 1960 with my mother during their honeymoon,can anyone tell me what happened to the cafe?.

  11. miss c hardy permalink
    May 3, 2017

    there was a dirty dicks in chester during 2nd world war where my mother drank with friends while working at western command.Was it copied from spitalfields ?does any one else remember the place.

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