Did you ever lose your favourite toy when you were a kid? Do you remember the agony, the jealousy of those you knew that still had their toy, and how you wanted to poke someone’s bloody eye out when they suggested that another toy will be just as good? Well, for adults these toys are called pubs and I just lost my favourite.
It was called the Duke of Wellington on Toynbee Street. It was just up the road from where I work — Toynbee Hall — and it was the go-to place for colleagues on a Friday for after-work drinks. Unlike everywhere else round here — where Aldgate East meets Shoreditch — you could get served pretty much straight away and get change from a fiver for a pint.
I would finish work on a Friday at 5pm sharp, leave the office, get to the pub and be sat down with a Strongbow and a packet of cheese and onion in the back garden by ten past.
The link between Toynbee Hall and the Welly wasn’t well documented, but there is one that involves more than just me and a few colleagues going in when the football’s on. In 1901 there appeared a pretty damning article about nearby Dorset Street in the Daily Mail by Frederick Arthur McKenzie, its one-time Far East correspondent. He called it the “worst street in London”.
“[It]… has recently sprung into undesired notoriety. Here we have a place which boasts of an attempt at murder on an average once a month, of a murder in every house, and one house at least, a murder in every room. Policemen go down it as a rule in pairs. Hunger walks prowling in its alleyways, and the criminals of to-morrow are being bred there to-day… The lodging-houses of Dorset Street and of the district around are the head centres of the shifting criminal population of London. Of course, the aristocrats of crime — the forger, the counterfeiter, and the like do not come here. In Dorset Street we find more largely the common thief, the pickpocket, the area meak, the man who robs with violence, and the unconvicted murderer. The police have a theory, it seems, that it is better to let these people congregate together in one mass where they can easily be found than to scatter them abroad. And Dorset Street certainly serves the purpose of a police trap.”
The accusation that Dorset Street was a rough dive was resisted by one Jack McCarthy, one of the street’s dominant landlords. He called a public meeting on 22 July, 1901, in a pub on Shepherd Street, which was the name of the street before Toynbee Street. The pub was the Duke of Wellington.
Dan Cruickshank in his book Spitalfields: The History of a Nation in a Handful of Streets points out that the meeting was filled with McCarthy’s workers and several other businessmen from the area that felt threatened by the Daily Mail article.
He was particularly angered about a part in the article that said this part of Spitalfields was in great need of a lodging house for women and that the Rector of Spitalfields started such a home “for respectable girls”. McCarthy called on the Rector, knowing full well that he would be present in the pub, to tell him where this lodging house was, before laying into him about the lack of support he gave the area.
McCarthy also accused the Rector of taking from the poor. Referencing initiatives by the last Rector, hungry people in the local area could receive food vouchers from the Church and exchange them for something to eat. Under the new Rector, however, according to McCarthy during his tirade, “the poor had to do without their tickets altogether”.
McCarthy then went on to say:
“I don’t see why I should spare those people … whenever the slightest little thing occurs in Dorset Street, the Rector of Spitalfields and the Toynbee Hall people pounce on it like a hungry man on a dinner”.
It’s not absolutely clear what he means, but he’s probably accusing Toynbee Hall and the Rector of using stories in newspapers about criminal activity in the area to boost its own support. I’m sure that wasn’t the case (but I would say that).
Whatever the truth of the matter, I’ve been down the Duke with colleagues from Toynbee Hall many times putting the world to rights, so maybe the pub’s four walls will forever more have only positive stories about us, not the one let out by McCarthy.
Though those four walls are with the Developers now. 29 pubs closed per week on average in 2014. 616 pubs have reportedly disappeared since 2017. Two per day. But only one was our favourite.