The devil may have all the best tunes but he also has the best stories, a fact not lost on Charles Dickens who found inspiration for his most terrifying characters while rubbing shoulders with the denizens of London’s least salubrious drinking establishments.
Anyone inclined to follow in his footsteps could do worse than begin in the now stylish “One Tun Pub & Rooms” whose name Dickens changed to the ‘Three Cripples’ in 1838 to stand in as arch-villain Bill Sykes’s watering hole in Oliver Twist.
Here’s a tour of some of the most notorious pubs in London to raise a glass on your next trip.
Now billed as a “cool pub” with stylish rooms, the One Tun serves English cask ales and excellent Thai food. Farringdon tube is just around the corner while St. Paul’s cathedral and the Barbican center are a short distance away.
From the ‘Three Cripples’ the criminally inclined imbiber should board the Elizabeth Line train at Farringdon and head due east to “The Blind Beggar” in Whitechapel where a pair of psychopathic twins ruled their gang’s ‘manor’ with fists of iron during London’s swinging sixties.
125 Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, EC1N 8QS
Billed as “the most famous pub in England,” the establishment’s infamy was assured when the by then unhinged Ronnie shot and killed George Cornell, an enforcer for rival South London firm, The Richardsons in the front parlor in 1966.
When Ronnie heard that Cornell (who had ill-advisedly called him a “fat poof” a few days before) was having it large in his backyard, Ronnie wasted no time in driving round to sort him out.
While an accomplice fired two warning shots into the ceiling, Kray drew his 9mm Luger and shot Cornell once through the forehead moments after Cornell had uttered his immortal last words:
Well, just look who’s here
337 Whitechapel Road, London, E1 1BU
If you’re still on your feet, stagger out of the Beggar and hail a hackney carriage due west towards another icon of London true crime, the Ten Bells.
Once one of London’s most frequented places in the late 1800s, it was the hangout of prostitutes and pimps and is well known as the place that some of Jack the Ripper’s victims were last seen alive.
While experts ponder if the Ripper himself picked up his victims here, you may prefer to dive into the movie “From Hell” which was filmed on location here and starred Johnny Depp, a tormented detective resorting to the occult to stay on Jack’s bloody trail.
Winning its name from the bells of the ten churches that surround it, the pub was renovated in December 2010 to reveal the building’s Victorian heritage and the interior design that adorned the venue the night the serial killer’s last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, turned her last trick.
84 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LY
A short walk south to Aldgate East tube station and the District Line due west will take you to Sloane Square station. Head north until you reach the Star Tavern where the most audacious heist in British history was planned by Bruce Reynolds aka ‘Napoleon,’ the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.
In keeping with its name, the pub still attracts monied A-listers. But back in the day, the likes of Bing Crosby, Princess Margaret, Peter O’Toole and Diana Dors rubbed shoulders with the criminal gang as they plotted what Bruce ‘Napoleon’ Reynolds later described as ‘my Sistine Chapel.’
After realizing that none of his crew had any experience stopping trains Reynolds brought in ‘The South Coast Raiders’ a gang who rigged track-side signals forcing the London-Glasgow mail train into a siding.
Revered today as cheeky chappies, the gang then attacked the stationary train and clubbed the driver with an iron bar before making off with nearly three million in bangers and mash (cash). That was a lot of pina coladas in 1963.
6 Belgrave Mews West, Belgravia, London, SW1X 8HT
Hampstead Heath is the only park in London where one half expects to be waylaid by a highwayman. Positioned next to the wild and windswept heath, the Spaniards was predictably popular with romantic writers Byron, Keats and Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. It was also much frequented by the roguish land pirates of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the so-called ‘gentlemen of the road.’
The age of the highwayman was mercifully short lived but as late as 1751, one Samuel Bacon was indicted for robbery on the King’s Highway after he was caught less than two hundred yards from the pub. The tree at the end of Spaniards road where he and others were hung and gibbetted is now long gone but records from Old Bailey show multiple arrests of men who plied their trade from the inn.
Stand a round at the bar and a regular may wager that one Richard Turpin aka Dick Turpin, once spied the road for redcoats from the upstairs apartment of his father, the pub’s one time landlord. Romanticised after his fabled 200-mile ride on his lightning-fast horse, Black Bess and subsequent capture and hanging by slow strangulation at York, few Georgian celebrities have retained the enduring appeal of debonair Dick.
Whether his spectral horse really can be heard whinnying a warning from the horse trough across the road is a matter for speculation. The only real crime at the Spaniards is to fail to drain one’s pint fast enough to catch the sun setting over the City of London from Parliament Hill.
Spaniards Rd, London NW3 7JJ
Tom Grass is a screenwriter and novelist living in West Hampstead. His 2013 contemporary retelling of Oliver Twist was made into a Sky films movie starring Michael Caine in 2020.