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London Pub Reviews:
The Viaduct Tavern (020 7600 1863) is at 126 Newgate
Street, London EC1. Tube: Chancery Lane or Barbican, then a five-minute walk.
Open weekdays and evenings, with good pub lunches served between noon and 3pm.
The Viaduct can also be booked for private functions at weekends, with no hire
charge and a minimum £1,000 spend on drink and catered food.
Food and Beverage News.com
London boasts 4,500 pubs and bars and the ones I like best are
brimful with history - though at the thought of the more gory stuff I may well
need a stiff drink… and then possibly another.
One of my favourite watering holes is also pretty much my local. It's the
Viaduct Tavern, a wonderfully well-preserved gin palace built at the same time
as the Holborn Viaduct alongside, a spectacular span opened by Queen Victoria in
Designed by City surveyor William Heywood, the 1,400ft viaduct bridging the
valley of the long-covered River Fleet, and connecting Holborn and Newgate
Street, is a marvellous marriage of Victorian art and engineering. It took six
years to construct and cost the truly royal sum of £2.5m.
The bridge crossing Farringdon Street - from which the painted cast-iron
supports rise up like the vaulting of a medieval cathedral - is decorated with
noble bronze statues representing Commerce, Agriculture, Science and Fine Arts.
Four Italian Gothic cum Scots Baronial turret houses stood at the corners of the
span, two and a half of them still surviving - though the losses must be
returned as a preservation/restoration priority.
In remaining turret niches there are statues of Henry Fitzailwyn, the first lord
mayor; Norfolk's Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham
College; Sir William Walworth, the lord mayor who stabbed Wat Tyler; and Sir
Hugh Myddleton, pioneer of the New River Estate which developed Islington.
Pity the queen - breaking into an eight-year-and-still-going-strong mourning
period for her beloved Albert with a rare public engagement - couldn't have had
a refresher at the Viaduct Tavern's bar. She might have admired all the
mahogany and the mirrors and the gilt, though an interior design deemed palatial
by the brewers also had an air of the grand bordello. The sober monarch would
certainly have been surprised to find that a state-of-the-art public house had
become the first public building in London with electric lighting.
Then again, she couldn't stop long. For she was opening Blackfriars Bridge on
the same day - before diving back into the successive seclusion of Osborne and
But it's back to the Viaduct Tavern for me…
Gin palaces first appeared around 1830, and by the 1850s London had about 5,000
of the glamorous, gaudy and bawdy pubs where the more louche members of the
upper classes could mix with the low-life. Charles Dickens lived nearby as
a bachelor and newlywed, and who wrote Pickwick Papers in a High Holborn house
now occupied by the majestically Gothic offices built for the Prudential
Assurance Company. He could have been thinking of the Viaduct when, in Sketches
by Boz, he wrote of a gin palace being “perfectly dazzling when contrasted with
the darkness and dirt we have just left”.
Now Grade II listed, the Viaduct Tavern remains perfectly dazzling, while most
of its rivals are long since bombed, bulldozed or wrecked by wretched
brewery-wrought refits. Oil paintings of four alluring maidens echo the symbolic
figures on Holborn Viaduct - though Miss Science is more than slightly the worse
for wear, with a wound to one buttock caused by a soldier's bayonet or bullet
during the heady party celebrating the end of the first world war.
At the rear of the bar there is a mahogany and etched glass pay booth where a
dragon of a landlady would sell tokens which could be exchanged for gin via
waitresses attending at the tables. This procedure kept the cash away from
possibly light-fingered staff and also carefully limited the gin so that
customers didn't become too light-headed.
This splendid establishment had a reputation to maintain, after all. Surviving
mirrors look worthy of the Moulin Rouge - though in fact they are superior to
Paris, given their edging decoration of 24 carat gold and silver. Gleaming
with crimson paint, the ceiling is made of beaten copper secured in place by a
gold-topped iron column like the tent of a desert sheikh.
Such an extravagant display of good taste was a fabulous façade, for in a room
upstairs there was a thriving opium den. The upstairs rooms could also be
rented out by the hour - and not just for the reason you might think, but also
for the outlook.
For the Viaduct Tavern had an unrivalled view of Newgate Prison across the
street, a historic hellhole in which Norfolk's Elizabeth Fry had lately been a
ministering angel. It would finally be demolished in 1902 to make way for the
But in a sense the inn missed its moment, for just when it was opening the
public executions on the crossroads outside - which had drawn huge crowds of
baying, drunken spectators - were being ended, with Dickens among the revolted
protesters. Henceforward the killings were to take place inside the
prison, where many other inmates were quietly succumbing to 'gaol fever' and
But then neither was the Viaduct a mere observatory on the hideous nature of
historic British justice. For it occupied part of the site of the Giltspur
Street Comptor - a sheriff's office with a debtors' prison attached.
Designed by George Dance in 1791 and demolished in 1853, the underground prison
held up to 20 detainees - sometimes entire families - to a 12ft by 6ft cell.
The only ventilation and light came from a hole in the ceiling to the street
level, where friends and relatives might drop in food and money, and where those
without connections would beg for alms from passers-by, even grabbing at their
ankles. (But those free souls who liked to see felons hanging would also tip
unmentionable substances down that tiny chute.) One jailer described the
opening of cells in the morning with “the stench being enough to turn the
stomach of a horse”. Amazingly, five of these cells remain, as they were
perfect for pub cellars. When they're not too busy, bar staff are happy to give
customers guided tours.
Some are still used for storage. But one damp, cold and darkened dungeon (the
vent to the street now blocked) is eerily empty. Around the edges there are
shelves which seem to have been designed for crates of beer or cases of wine but
which were in fact ledges for human beings. No wonder the place is said to be
And now I definitely need a drink - though not, for me, the amazing variety of
gins available in this old gin palace (not even the Victorian Hot Toddy with
tanqueray, cloves, cinnamon and citrus).
This is a Fuller's pub, so I'm here for the beer.