Was the Blue Lion, Grey’s Inn Road, known by the locals as the Blue Cat because of the utterly unconvincing inn sign, 1 the worst pub in late Georgian London? Well, the short answer seems to be no- it was the third worst. In 1816, the House of Commons, increasingly panicked by the state of law and order in the metropolis, organised an investigation and took evidence from William Fielding, Justice of the Peace and father of Henry Fielding the author and crime fighter. The subject was the most criminal public houses in London in the last twenty years. The Blue Lion was one of the contenders- the Dog and Duck, and the Temple of Apollo had dishonourable mentions, but the Lion was third, and it was especially mentioned that it had been a terrible place for more than twenty years.
We know that this is not an exaggeration, although we have to rely on the memoirs of a criminal confidence trickster to prove it. In around 1798, it was the haunt of James Hardy Vaux, an ultra confident minor criminal who spent his evenings silently watching the immoral lower classes plot and carouse. He was fifteen. Hundreds dated their ruin from this pub, said Vaux. It was full of ‘thieves, sharpers and other desperate characters with their doxies’. He sat in the corner smoking a pipe and listened to their increasingly understandable criminal conversation, but not interacting with them. Later he wrote a book based on his interactions with criminals; the fact that we know the criminal slang of the late Georgian era is down to the inhabitants of this famous public house and the unusual literacy of the criminal Vaux.2
A little like today, it was the immediate environs of the pub that were the most dangerous, not the inside of the building itself. Violent robberies could not be committed without risk on the people in the pub; it was the unwary street traveller who was the main victim. Prostitutes worked inside and outside the pub, but mostly outside. Stolen goods could be fenced in any low public house, but there were plenty of pawn shops in Holborn that would take luxury goods, no questions asked. The Blue Lion may have been a refuge for criminals, but the crime spilt out elsewhere, all over Georgian London. The pub was a home to criminals rather than a home for crime.
Another set of specialised thieves made the Lion their home now and then. One Sunday in 1812, the criminal Joseph Naples made a note in his diary;
Went Look out at Blue Ln. &c. did not go out Jack Bill & Tom Drunk the reason as Ben said for not going out.
A ‘look out’ was a search to spot burials, and there was indeed a burial ground next to the Blue Lion, St Andrews graveyard. Naples and his friends were cold hearted grave robbers and would have felt at home in their local hostelry, although, as their diary shows, they robbed corpses from many places in their manor.
So fencing, robbery, and prostitution were the top three crimes, but the boundaries were fluid because the same people were committing all of them, and much of the action would take place in one of the passages and dead ends around the pub. This is where the Reverend Harris was frisked, mobbed and robbed by prostitutes at 7pm on an evening in mid November 1817. It had been dark for two hours, and the reverend took a shortcut through the most insalubrious part of London. Two ladies of the night pushed him into an alley and he gave them sixpence each to leave home alone. Now knowing now that he had more than a shilling on him, they followed him, embraced him again to have a feel of his financial assets and robbed him of bank notes and seventeen shillings in silver.
The silver would have been very welcome, but the banknotes would need experts to dispose of them- they would have been drawn by an individual who would have noted the number and could cancel it quickly, and/or would have contained the name of people who endorsed it later, creating an unfortunate paper trial for anybody trying to use them. The girls probably did not have the connections to deal with the notes themselves, but they would not have had to look too far for criminal expertise. It may not have been in the Blue Lion; there were lots of other places.
On a non-sensationalist note, it must be remembered that hundreds, if not thousands of people would have negotiated these streets without being attacked. My research noted six robberies in the decade 1811-1820-not really a crime wave. Our first victim, the reverend Harris, hailed from Battlebridge, which may sound like a rustic village in Kent or Sussex, but it was the old name for King’s Cross, and he would have known of where he walked, and the streets of Battlebridge were certainly no safer.
The area around the Blue Lion was perhaps more dangerous than average, however. There were fields nearby, and the passages were easily blocked at both ends, making ambush and robbery quite easy. Three seemed to have been the magic number when it came to robbery. When law stationer William Carr walked past the pub at eleven in the evening on a November night in 1822, he was accosted by a man and two women who stole a handkerchief (value 5 shilling) and then ran away into the fields. Rather than put his loss down to experience, he chased them. This was a mistake;
This was clearly a set up. Mr Carr was naïve, but sensible enough to call the local police patrol, who found the unimaginative thieves in the next-but- one nearest public house to the scene of the crime.
So, footpads like these infested the area. They were little like highwayman, but without the myths that attached to them; lacking a horse as a fast getaway, and not being able to exploit the fact that their potential victims were confined in a metal box, instead their method was to use extreme violence to scare the victim into submission and make them think twice about any subsequent appeal to the authorities. When both murder and robbery could attract the same death sentence, this brutality made perfect sense.
It is clear that many crimes would not have been recorded because of the robbers’ threats or the fatalistic belief that the authorities would not retrieve their goods. Often it was better to advertise in the newspaper.
Some other examples; in 1810, Mr William Hill, poulterer, was robbed at double gunpoint by two ‘stout Irishman’ with a pistol to his mouth and left ear – ‘he gave them all the cash he had and they made off’ said the Star (20.10. 1810). Sensible man!. In 1813 a ‘Heniker Bantley’ was brought up for robbing a Mr Hall of a gold watch, gold chain, gold seal, silver snuff box and silver spectacles. He had two criminal compatriots to avoid it being a fair fight.
The area was also a base for house thieves; one event it in 1814 gives an usual insight into their modus operandi by listing their equipment.
Our next robbery victim was the only one who actually visited the pub. Mr J Brockwell, a legal clerk had been there since 11pm and walked home in the fields towards Bagnigge Wells, believing that he was the only person who knew that he had £200 pounds in his coat. The favoured numbered of three footpads beat him up, took his money and left him for nearly dead.
This was not the end of the story. A week later, a group of drunken women turned up at Mr Kirks Ham and Beef Shop in Bath Street and throw loads amount of gold and silver coins around. The constable was called and some stolen notes were found in their pockets, with a note endorsed by a William Goodwin. This paper trail led the authorities to the original robbery of Mr Brockwell. These notes should have been processed through a criminal network rather than stuffed in the pockets of the locals. Popping into the Lion did not seem to occur to them.
The only known case of crime inside the pub was in 1822 when a man called Marsden, was found guilty of buying four forged one pound notes for twenty-five shilling in coin. This was a far more serious crime than fencing, and one which attracted the death penalty, which was the sentence in this case. It was probably never carried out- it hasn’t been checked- as these overinflated, then commuted draconian sentences were part of the grotesque pantomime of Georgian justice, holding people in fear of a system that was cruel but deliberately inconsistent, so the poor knew where the power lay.
The same year saw the beginning of the end for the Bloody Code of draconian punishments and the end of the Georgian crime wave. The truth is that things had been slowly getting better anyway. When William Fielding complained about the Blue Lion in 1816 he was looking backwards. The state was now investigating in places that were left alone twenty years earlier. The same Mr Read of the Hatton Garden Police who helped Mr Carr must have been keeping an eye on the pub. A month earlier, Read had visited the pub and arrested seven women for soliciting outside the Blue Lion; a remarkable four claimed to be called Sarah. The criminal still had places to hide, and the Blue Lion was a more popular place than most, but now that the state was chasing them, it was more difficult to be notorious.
1 Thornbury, G. W (1881) Old and New London
2 Vaux, J.D A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language ( 1819)
Please consider my books on the Georgian and Victorian Era
The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here
Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here
Radical Victorians – the clue is in the title, but it concentrates on reformers who remained mostly unappreciated in their life time
Voices of the Georgian Age– the social history of 1720-1820 Britain told through the stories of 17 very different individuals. Amazon link