31 January 2023

Did Dirty Dick ever meet
Miss Havisham in a pub in
Bishopsgate with Sir Robert Peel?

Dirty Dick’s pub on Bishopsgate has existed for over 200 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have often walked out of Liverpool Street station in London, heading towards the East End, to be greeted by Dirty Dicks and Sir Robert Peel.

Well, not personally, but by the buildings that continue to display their names – a pub and a former pub.

Charlotte and I were in London the week before last for an ordinand in the Diocese in Europe who is currently placed in Budapest and who is following a course based in Cambridge.

We decided to have a pub lunch and ended up in Dirty Dicks, a pub on Bishopsgate, just across from Liverpool Street Station, and that claims to date back to 1745.

The pub is just a stone’s throw from Shoreditch, Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane , and is a well-known meeting place for people working in the City. Bright electric scarlet letters spell out the name of Dirty Dicks – without an apostrophe. But, if like me, you have wondered who was Dirty Dick, my questions were answered over lunch.

Nathaniel Bentley (1735-1809), commonly known as Dirty Dick, was an 18th and 19th century merchant who owned a warehouse and hardware shop in Leadenhall Street in London. He may have inspired the character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations after he refused to wash following the death of his fiancée on their wedding day.

Bentley had been quite a dandy in his youth, earning the nickname the Beau of Leadenhall Street. He was blissfully happy to be getting married to the woman he truly loved, and he put much effort into planning their wedding reception. He laid the tables with blue and white, her favourite colours, along with flowers, wine, cutlery, and their wedding cake.

On the day of their wedding, shortly before heading to the church, Nathaniel put on his morning suit. Little did he know, he would never take it off. There was a knock at the door. His fiancée had died that very morning.

Nathaniel broke down. He locked the door of the reception room and would not allow anyone to enter, much less clear anything away. He refused to take off his suit, or to wash himself – ever again.

He lived in squalor for the rest of his life. ‘It’s of no use,’ he said. ‘If I wash my hands, they will be dirty again tomorrow.’

Nathaniel grieved this way for the rest of his life. His house, shop and warehouse became so filthy that he became a celebrity of dirt. Any letters addressed to ‘The dirty Warehouse, London’ were delivered to him. He stopped trading in 1804. He died at Haddington in 1809, still heart-broken, grief-stricken and dressed in the sad, flimsy rags that were once the morning suit he was to be married in. He was buried in Saint Peter’s churchyard in Aubourn, Lincoln.

‘Welcome to Dirty Dick’s, Home of the Infamous Legend’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Bentley’s warehouse was later demolished. But the pub he once owned on the east side of Bishopsgate, that was later known as the Old Jerusalem. Dirty Dicks is a recreation of Bentley’s former warehouse and shop. Successive owners capitalised on the legend, and by the end of the 19th century the owners were producing commemorative booklets and promotional material to advertise the pub.

One report in 1866 described the pub: ‘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.’

The contents, including cobwebs and the mummified remains of cats and rats from the original warehouse, were originally part of the cellar bar. They have since been tidied away into a glass display case.

The pub had to undergo a degree of deep cleansing to comply with health and safety regulations in the 1980s, almost 200 years after Dirty Dick died.

A few doors away, at No 178 Bishopsgate, the Sir Robert Peel is former pub and a building that has also seen interesting times.

I wondered whether earlier proprietors of the former pub had any connections with Tamworth. But it seems to have taken its name from Sir Robert Peel from Tamworth, who was twice Prime Minister. He established the Metropolitan Police in 1829, two years after the death of ‘Dirty Dick’. The city of London police force was formed 10 years later.

Bishopsgate police station is close by at No 182, and there has been a station house or police station in Bishopsgate since about 1737. The pub dates back to the Georgian period. It may have been rebuilt ca 1900 and had a major refacing about 1930, when the windows were replaced and the tiled front added.

The ground floor front suffered the standard anonymising of the second half of the 20th century, but the picturesque tiling on the upper floors remains. The pub has since closed and the ground floor is now closed convenience shop.

But Sir Robert Peel still casts his eyes across Bishopsgate from the floors above.

Sir Robert Peel continues to gaze across Bishopsgate although the pub has been closed for many years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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