Wednesday Talks

From Priory to Pub

Museum of the Order of St John Hannah Agass, Learning and Access Officer

In 1504, St John’s Gate was built as the new southern entrance to the inner precinct of the Priory of the Order of St John. The Priory, established in the mid twelfth century, was the Order of St John’s English headquarters. It was an extensive site (ten acres), housing a Priory Church, kitchens, a great hall, dormitories, and the Prior’s Hall.

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The Priory of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, taken from Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1656 engraving.

In 1540, the Order’s Priory in London was dissolved, Henry VIII seized the Order’s properties in England and the Court of Augmentations sold them off for the crown’s financial profit. Henry used the priory buildings in Clerkenwell to store his ‘toils and tents for hunting and for warres’ and then gave it to his daughter Mary, to use as a palace. Under Elizabeth I, the site was home to the offices of the Master of the Tents and Revels, whose duties included licensing plays for public performance.

Under James I, the Gate became a private dwelling, leased for life to Sir Roger Wilbraham, Master of Requests (a Court of Requests judge). It continued to be occupied by members of Wilbraham’s family until the eighteenth century when, as a result of the industrialisation of the area (the arrival of clock and watch makers and printing houses) the fashionable families began to leave Clerkenwell for the new suburban developments of Soho and St James. In the place of the great abandoned houses, rows of terraced houses were erected, homes for the tradesmen now working in the area.

In the early eighteenth century, there were at least seven printing houses on St John’s Lane, including one in the west tower of St John’s Gate. Owned by the Holt family, the printing press itself was situated in the room over the arch (now known as the Council Chamber).

The Council Chamber, 1909
The Council Chamber, 1909

The Holt family’s printing presses were taken over in 1731 by The Gentleman’s Magazine, edited by Edward Cave under the pseudonym Sylvanus Urban. It was Cave who coined the term ‘Magazine’ to describe a periodical, and for many years his monthly publication served as a handbook for the stylish and intelligent gent about town. The magazine bore St John’s Gate as its masthead and enjoyed a high literary reputation, with contributors including a young Dr Johnson.

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Front cover of the Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1731

In addition to housing the Holt’s printing press, in 1703 the Gate also became a place of public refreshment, as the east tower became a coffee house run by Richard Hogarth, father of painter William Hogarth. Coffee houses were extremely popular at the time, however Richard Hogarth decided that, to distinguish his coffee house, people frequenting it would need to speak in either Latin or Greek. In 1708 the business failed and Hogarth and his family were thrown into a debtor’s prison, although the coffee house remained under different ownership.

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Coffee House at St John’s Gate, 1860 from Walter Thornbury’s ‘Old and New London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places. Volume 2’,

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Gate’s clientele had moved on to harder drinks and publican Newel turned the coffee house into the Old Jerusalem Tavern. Clerkenwell was a reasonably respectable area boasting new residences and industry as well as being within very close proximity of the bustling Smithfield meat market. The need for food and drink in the area meant that the pubs flourished. St John’s Street alone boasted 35 pubs and in the 1760s, the Old Jerusalem Tavern expanded from the Gate’s east tower to include the room now known as the Council Chamber.

The Gate’s heritage was also a huge attraction for the Victorian clientele, especially at a time when references to the military orders appeared throughout popular culture and were perceived as part of a romantic age of chivalry. The publicans took full advantage of the interest in the buildings heritage, one even selling a ‘Chivalrie Gin’. The Tavern’s interior was also full of historic artefacts and works of art pertaining to the building’s history particularly, under Benjamin Foster, landlord of the Old Jerusalem Tavern between 1848 and 1863. In 1851, Foster’s book ‘Ye History of the Priory and Gate’ was published, in which he records the numerous discoveries made during the excavations for drains and new houses.

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Ye History of ye Priory and Gate of St John, Benjamin Foster, William Pickering, London, 1851.

Foster adorned the Gate with armour identified as representing two of the Order of St John’s Prior’s, Sir Thomas Docwra and William Weston, as well as 54 portraits of the Order’s Grand Masters. There was also a large oil painting under the archway, of the ‘Knights about the time of Edward Fourth leaving the Hospital for a grand Jousting’ which remained until 1888. It was not just the Order’s history however that Foster celebrated and within the tavern, he even exhibited what was claimed to be Dr Johnson’s chair.

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Interior View of the Arch. Ye History of ye Priory and Gate of St John, Benjamin Foster, William Pickering, London, 1851.

The Old Jerusalem Tavern was also home to several societies including, the Urban Club, originally called ‘The Friday Knights’. Members of the Urban Club (whose number may have included Charles Dickens) were particularly interested in the Gate’s literary connections including Samuel Johnson, Edward Cave and William Shakespeare, many of whose plays were licensed here by Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney. The Urban Club held an annual commemoration of Shakespeare’s birthday and decorated their meeting room with a bust of Shakespeare and large portraits of Johnson and Goldsmith which, according to the inventory, were still in the room when the newly revived Order of St John bought the freehold to the Gate in 1873.

Black and white photograph of the Jerusalem Tavern circa 1890
Photograph of St John’s Gate c. 1850

Sir Edmund Lechmere, one of the founders of the modern Order of St John, paid £9,000 to buy the Gate, of which £2000 was for the pub license and stock. Lechmere then gradually sold the building to the Order through shares in a company called ‘St John’s Gate (Clerkenwell) Company Ltd’. On 18th March 1874, the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem held its first meeting in the Gate. The arrival of the Order did not immediately spell the end for the pub, which remained a part of the east tower until 1886. After this point, the tavern vacated the Gate and moved into number 27 (currently home to the Museum Office and St John Ambulance Gallery), which was designed by Richard Norman Shaw at Lechmere’s instruction. The Order now had the entirety of the Gate and the Tavern remained in business in the neighbouring number 27 for another 28 years before eventually closing in December 1914.

 

Sources:

Various Annual Reports of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem

Hogarth’s London, Robert Simon FSA, Gresham College (accessed 22/09/2017)

Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell, Edited by Philip Temple, Yale University Press, 2008

Ye History of ye Priory and Gate of St John, Benjamin Foster, William Pickering, London, 1851.

An Illustrated Guide to the Remains of the Ancient Priory, and the Present Parish Church of St. John at Clerkenwell, Thomas W Wood and Henry W Fincham, Phillips, London, 1903

Volume II Old and New London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places, Walter Thornbury, Cassell & Company limited, 1889.

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