The Haunted Pubs of London by Christopher Winn

You never know who you’re going to meet in a pub, that is one of their joys. Although in London, possibly the most haunted capital city in the world, the chances are that many of the characters you might come across in some of the city’s best loved pubs will have been propping up the…

You never know who you’re going to meet in a pub, that is one of their joys. Although in London, possibly the most haunted capital city in the world, the chances are that many of the characters you might come across in some of the city’s best loved pubs will have been propping up the bar for a lot longer than you can imagine. For instance, should you find yourself standing next to Cedric at the Grenadier in Belgravia, then mind you don’t burn your hand on his cigarette, as happened to a Scotland Yard detective a while back — a nasty surprise considering that smoking is no longer allowed in pubs and Cedric died 200 years ago.

The Grenadier was built in 1720 as an officers’ mess for the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot Guards, later known as the Grenadier Guards, and while such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington and George IV were entertained by the officers upstairs, lower-ranking soldiers would drink and gamble in the cellar. One of these soldiers, Cedric, was caught cheating at a game of cards and was beaten to death by his comrades. Despite the fact that concerned drinkers have been trying to pay off his debts ever since by attaching dollar bills to the pub ceiling, Cedric haunts the Grenadier to this day, moving objects around overnight, moaning in the cellar, smoking at the bar and even being pictured with his face pressed up against the pub window.

Don’t be shocked if you are ordered to stand and deliver at the Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath. The father of highwayman Dick Turpin was said to have been the landlord of this historic 16th-century tavern and Turpin used it as a hideout. He now clatters around upstairs while his horse, Black Bess, gallops around the car park. Downstairs, you may have your sleeve pulled by Black Dick, a regular who was run down and killed by a horse and cart outside the pub and has been trying to get served ever since.

When it comes to getting served, bar presence is important, although not perhaps the type of presence frequently seen hanging around in Victorian garb behind the bar down at the Old Bull & Bush in Hampstead. Originally a farmhouse built in the 17th century and granted a liquor licence in 1721, the pub was being restored in the 1980s when the builders discovered a skeleton bricked up in a wall, along with a selection of Victorian medical equipment. He was taken away and given a proper burial, but seems reluctant to leave his old haunt. One thought is that he could have been Jack the Ripper who got trapped while hiding in the basement along with his tools.

Jack the Ripper turns up again at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields. Not in person, but one of his victims, Mary Kelly, is alleged to have picked up clients here while another, Annie Chapman, is thought to have had a drink here before she was murdered in a nearby street. And then there was landlord George Roberts who was murdered with an axe, and reports of a baby found dead upstairs. It could be any of them who terrorises staff in the upper rooms or moves objects around in the bar and stirs up sudden blasts of icy wind, felt by bar staff and customers alike.

CHILLS AND THRILLS

If, after all this talk of ghouls and ghosts, you could murder a pint, then try the Rising Sun near St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, the pub of choice for a gang of 19th-century body snatchers, who would drug well-oiled customers, kill them and then sell the bodies to the hospital for medical research. The ghostly snatchers are still at it, apparently, going after the barmaids living upstairs by pulling the duvets off their beds and running icy hands down their backs while they are showering.

Barmaids often seem to feature. A Spanish barmaid at the Flask in Highgate in the 18th century hanged herself in the pub cellar after an affair with the landlord. She now plays with the lights, smashes glasses and breathes down customers’ necks, while her presence is said to send a chill running through you quicker than a cold lager.

Always fun, of course, is a lock-in, when the landlord invites favoured customers to a private drinking session after hours. One particular lock-in, however, proved less than enjoyable. This occurred at the Viaduct Tavern in Holborn, the last original Victorian gin palace in the City of London, built to celebrate the opening of the world’s first flyover, Holborn Viaduct, in 1869. The building that was demolished to make way for the pub was a jail and some of the prison cells were left intact and are now used as cellars. Both staff and customers claim to have heard bangs and tortured screams coming up from down below, and one night in 1996 the manager went down to tidy up and was locked in when a ghostly hand slammed the cellar door shut behind him and the lights went out. He was trapped there for hours until his wife came down to see where he was and pushed the door open quite easily from the outside.

Last orders goes to the oldest pub in London’s Mayfair, the Coach & Horses, an 18th-century coaching inn where some customers still arrive the old-fashioned way. Many a time patrons have looked on indulgently as a coach and four pulls up outside before realising with horror that the coachman is headless and the grinning passengers are grisly skulls. One way to drive people to drink.

As you can see, London certainly has no shortage of haunted pubs for those who like to chase down their tipple with a spirit or two. And if you start talking to a stranger in a London pub, don’t try to spin them a yarn because they will probably see right through you.

 

Christopher Winn is the author of the bestselling I Never Knew That book series, which began with I Never Knew That About England and was followed by volumes on Scotland, Ireland, Wales, London, the River Thames and many more. The latest in the series is I Never knew That About Coastal England (Ebury Press, 2019).

Favourite pub: Refectory Milford, Surrey