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The story behind Dirty Dick’s

Dirty Dick’s – The pub in East London that hasn’t been cleaned by anyone for 200 years, where dead cats and dogs adorned the floor.

The name of the pub may seem a bit cheeky, but there is a tragic reason behind it and actually comes from something rather sinister.

Many Londoners & tourists leaving Liverpool Street station and letting their eyes wander down to the left towards Bishopsgate will spot some scarlet letters spelling out the pub name “Dirty Dicks”.

Yes, the omission of the apostrophe in the lights is unfortunate. But the story of Dirty Dick’s is tragic, uncomfortable, and at the same time truly fascinating: this is one of the first 19th century versions of a themed pub.

And the theme? The emotional breakdown of a local man.

Dirty Dick’s real name was Nathaniel Bentley, born in 1735, a successful London merchant and townsman, owner of a warehouse and hardware store on Leadenhall Street.

The great attention he paid to his appearance – along with the women who appeared by his side as if on an assembly line – earned him the nickname “the belle of Leadenhall Street.”

In essence, he was a gambler. Until he met her; the woman he fell head over heels in love with and decided to marry. Unfortunately, since much of this story was passed down orally, her identity has been lost to time, but suffice it to say that he was happy and the relationship was not a sham marriage, as was often very common at the time.

That’s why he had gone to great lengths at the reception, setting the tables in their favorite colors of blue and white, along with flowers, wine, cutlery and, of course, a beautiful wedding cake.

On the day of their wedding, just before walking to the church, Nathaniel put on his robe. Little did he know then that he would never take it off again.

There was a knock at the door. The news that his fiancée had died the morning of their wedding broke Nathaniel’s heart. He locked the door to the reception room and wouldn’t let anyone enter, let alone put everything away.

He refused to take off his robe or wash his hands – or any part of him, or anything at all – ever again.

“It’s no use,” he said. “If I wash my hands, they’ll be dirty again tomorrow.”

This was not a brief appearance of grief. Nathaniel mourned in this way for the rest of his life, and his camp soon fell into absolute filth. Dust and dirt accumulated, spiders built cities out of cobwebs.

Cats and rats died on the floor, and yet he refused to clean or allow others to do so. So he got the nickname Dirty Dick and he and his “grotto” became a kind of tourist attraction in London.

Every letter addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse, London” was delivered to Dirty Dick, who was by now a sort of celebrity of misery.

Although he had changed from a beau to a dustbin, his perfect manners and courtesy remained, making him a typically educated and delightful man with an incongruously slovenly exterior.

Charles Dickens was fascinated by his story, and it is generally believed that he found there the inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

In 1853, he even published a poem by William Allingham about Dirty Dick in his weekly magazine Household Words, which included the lines, “Fine people from their carriages, noble and fair, Have come to his store, not so much to buy as to stare, Though the dirt was so awful, The manners of the dirty man were truly delightful.”

The lease on Dirty Dick’s warehouse expired in 1802 and it took him two years to vacate the premises.

The local businessmen who had begged him over the years to do cleaning and repair work (and even offered to do so at their own expense) must have been delighted to see him leave – but even more excited were the hordes of tourists who rushed in to gaze at the dirty warehouse and catch a glimpse of the wedding breakfast that had remained untouched for decades.

A few years later after Nathaniel died in Scotland, the owners of The Old Jerusalem pub around the corner and owners of the warehouse Nathaniel had once owned, had a bright idea.

They renamed the pub Dirty Dick’s and filled it with cobwebs and cat corpses they had acquired from his warehouse store to recreate the look, capitalizing on the legend, a complete commercialization of a broken heart.

An 1866 description of the pub read: “A small public house, or rather a tap of a wholesale wine and spirits house …. a warehouse or barn without floorboards – a low ceiling with garlands of cobwebs dangling from its black rafters – a dented and dirty tin bar swimming in beer – innumerable gas pipes attached to the braces and posts to convey spirits from the barrels to the taps – sample bottles and labeled bottles of wine and spirits on shelves – all covered with virgin dust and cobwebs.”

Today, of course, Dirty Dick’s has been cleaned, the mummified remains of cats and rats long since hidden behind a display case.

But amazingly, the city’s order for a thorough cleaning of the pub didn’t come until the 1980s, nearly 200 years after Dirty Dick died, still broken by grief, in the sad, threadbare rags of his morning coat.

Have you ever been to Dirty Dick’s? Drop me a line in the comments …
I look forward to hearing from you

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