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Old Red Lion: Lefty radicals, cow dung and sword duels at Islington’s oldest pub

PUBLISHED: 12:19 18 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:41 18 October 2016

Damien Devine with artefacts from the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub's 600-year history. Picture: Dieter Perry

Damien Devine with artefacts from the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub's 600-year history. Picture: Dieter Perry

Dieter Perry

The Old Red Lion is Islington’s oldest pub – and possibly London’s, too. From cow dung to sword duels, James Morris delves into its 601-year history.

The Old Red Lion Theatre Pub in St John Street. Picture: Dieter Perry The Old Red Lion Theatre Pub in St John Street. Picture: Dieter Perry

One thing guaranteed to unite Islington tenants is the spiralling cost of rent in the borough. And not much has changed since 1500.

Damien Devine, executive director of the Old Red Lion theatre pub, carried out extensive research as part of its 600th anniversary celebrations.

“One of the funniest anecdotes is actually the oldest record,” he says.

“It was in the London Metropolitan Archives. It showed a 27-year argument, starting in 1500, between the licensee and landlord about the cost of rent.

“It just goes to show that no matter how far back you go in history, it’s the same old story.”

At the town hall tomorrow night, Damien will gave a talk to Islington History and Archaeology Society. It was part of ongoing celebrations marking six centuries of the pub and its amazing heritage.

Historical sources differ, but the Old Red Lion, in St John Street, is possibly the oldest pub in London, having opened in 1415.

A painting, circa 1880, of the Dame Alice Owen Alms House with the Old Red Lion pub next door. Picture: Damien Devine A painting, circa 1880, of the Dame Alice Owen Alms House with the Old Red Lion pub next door. Picture: Damien Devine

It was where, in the beer garden, Thomas Paine wrote parts of the revolutionary “Rights of Man” in the 18th century. It is just one example of a long-standing association with left-wing politics.

Andrew Gardner, chairman of the history society, says: “Radicals could organise, gather and rally at the Old Red Lion because it was outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. It would be safer.

“Funnily enough, this political heritage continues today, as we in Islington continue to elect radical politicians!”

The Old Red Lion opened as a result of a 15th century food crisis, says Andrew.

“The City had grown so much that it couldn’t feed itself. So drovers came in from other parts of the country towards Smithfield Market.It meant this part of Islington, near to the City, started to grow.

“With an influx of people coming through, they needed to be fed, watered and entertained. That’s why the Old Red Lion was built.”

The pub is not the only lasting legacy on the borough, adds Andrew: “In St John Street were the ‘finishing yards’ where the cattle would be fattened up.

Damien Devine with artefacts from the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub's 600-year history. Picture: Dieter Perry Damien Devine with artefacts from the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub's 600-year history. Picture: Dieter Perry

“But don’t forget Islington was mainly fields at this time. High pavements were built so people didn’t have to walk through the poo and dung as the cattle were driven to the slaughter.

“Those high pavements remain in some parts – there are visible traces of what was going on at the time.”

It first operated as a theatre pub in the late 19th century, but Andrew claims: “The Old Red Lion wasn’t elitist. It was a small capacity, like most of the theatre pubs in Islington which are generally between 60 and 110.

“These smaller venues would often be favoured. You could build a relationship with your audience, whereas in the West End they might be stuck up in the gods.”

Asked for the pub’s most bizarre story, Damien regales: “In the 1570s, where there were no mortuaries. There had been a sword duel round the back, and someone was fatally wounded.

“The body was laid in the cellar for a couple of days before the judge visited. It transpires that the only thing he was concerned about was whether correct etiquette had been followed in the duel – nevermind that someone died!”

For more information about tomorrow’s talk, visit islingtonhistory.org.uk

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