Like Italy has long played the role of my wonderfully seductive mistress, England shall forever hold the part of being my loving life long companion. I think Charles Dickens, The Beatles, and tea did it to me. I’ve been obsessed with that trio for eons. My first adventure across the pond occurred at the same time that my initial Italian one took place – towards the end of college. Like Italy’s language and culture attracted me, England’s history, literature and music grabbed me by the collar. And it was during this first journey that I discovered those wonderful pubs that are so engrained in British life. Their presence, role, and ability to tell a story captured my attention forever.
Being an American, I never thought I was ready (or worthy) of telling the story of British pubs because it wasn’t my story to tell. I felt the same about any foreign drinking den, for that matter. But as I’ve matured and developed my knowledge about the history of taverns, saloons, and pubs in the United States, I’ve slowly attempted to dip my toe into that pond. I wanted to do everything I could to educate myself and I wanted to move beyond just London and really sought to explore any corner of the UK. With the power and the beauty that is the internet, I befriended some fine Brits interested in similar things. I was able to learn from them in ways I never expected. They exposed me not only to new historic pubs, but to new towns and cities. And new histories. Well, new to me. It was exciting and I was in! And then, one day, it happened. I was invited to meet, sit, and talk with members of the Pub History Society of the United Kingdom. Without question, I headed to London in May 2013. What I thought would be a short formal meeting turned into an afternoon – and evening – of unbelievable pub history banter with people that treated me as if they had known me since the days of King Henry VIII. They also led me on an extraordinary pub crawl. Yes, good friends already. I learned about each and every nook and cranny of each and every pub we entered. I was exposed to new neighborhoods, with each telling a different story. I was introduced to all sorts of characters – past and present. And everything that unfolded before me as the night went on provided me with new insight into England’s history. In the end, I walked away not only with a serious ale buzz, but I also walked away having new friends, an incredible experience, and an invitation to join the Pub History Society. This, my friends, was like a homecoming. I had arrived.
I think about that trip, the experience, and those pubs often. One of most historic pubs we visited was Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It’s OLD and the kind of place I could sit in for hours and hours and hours. That Charles Dickens guy was a regular too. But as my new friends, Steve and Chris, told me about its history, I kind of fell in pub love. There was jus so much to it. So I asked Chris Murray, Editor of the PHS, to tell it again, just for you. Enjoy his words – they go awfully well with a fine English ale. And cheese. And pudding. And parrots.
The Olde Cheshire Cheese: The Pudding, the Parrot and the American Connection
By Chris Murray
If one pub in London may be singled out as having preserved its links to 19th century tavern tradition, then surely Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese of Fleet Street deserves that accolade. This venerable inn has been a chop house possibly since its rebuild in 1667, the year after London’s Great Fire, and may boast of being the site of a place of refreshment as far back as 1528. The site itself has a much older history, since the vaulted cellars are obviously early medieval and may have belonged to a 13th century monastery. Its heyday has been variously assigned to the 18th century when it is presumed that Samuel Johnson the lexicographer and great wit, the English Noah Webster, visited with his circle, or the 19th century when the Cheese became a must-see destination for London tourists both British and foreign, particularly American. However a case may be made for the 20th century too as the mythology behind the history and ritual of the pub was elevated to the status of legend. Guide books would often state as fact snippets such as; “Charles II ate a chop there with Nell Gwynne”, without much provenance to back up the assertion. Of course no London pub of such an age would be without a connection to Shakespeare being mooted:
“…and while there are no positive proofs, there are authentic legends (sic) that Shakespeare spent many hours here, being near to his theatre in Playhouse Yard, Ludgate Hill.”
The Blackfriars Theatre, built on land expropriated by Henry VIII from the Dominican Order on the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early 1500s, was indeed nearby, but this hardly lends credence to the association of the Bard with The Cheese. Of course since Shakespeare died in 1616, the reference in any case is to the building previously on the site.
The ticklish question of Doctor Samuel Johnson’s association with The Cheese has been a subject of debate amongst Cheese-ites. The consensus is that although no certifiable proof exists that Johnson visited the place, the fact that he lived a hundred yards from the venue at one time and his clubbable character strongly suggests that he must have been a patron. It is ironic that Johnson’s literary works have largely gone out of favour, that his Dictionary has been superseded and that he is largely known through the biography written on him by Boswell. That he was a great wit and a warm human being is without question however.
In 1897, an unknown author writing in New York’s Scribner’s Magazine describes how a visitor might feel, on entering The Cheese:
“The tide of affairs has left him stranded on an oasis of peculiar charm: – a low-ceilinged room, brown as an old meerschaum, heavily raftered, and carrying to the sensitive nostril the scent of ages, the indescribable aroma inseparable from these haunts of geniality; wide windows, white-curtained on two sides, and, smiling upon the new-comer; the merry glow of the fire in the old grate, flirting tiny flames upward that caress the steaming, singing kettle hanging just above. The old copper scuttle glints with the fitful gleams upon its burnished, pudgy sides; the floor spread abundantly with sawdust softens the sound of foot-falls. The white table cloths make the note of tidiness, relieving the prevailing low tone of the room.”
“In an atmosphere of good-fellowship, the frequenters of today converse over their chop and pint, or perhaps before the cheery fire nurse their knees in reflective mood, drawn together by the same instincts that animated this delightful company of old.”
A veritable fetish has been made of the Cheshire Cheese pudding, a concoction that has attained almost mythical proportions. Such times as when the fabled pastry was assembled were designated Pudding Days, what else! In The Book of the Cheese, a small publication first put out by Thomas Wilson Reid in 1886 but which went through many editions, a whole chapter was devoted to the pudding. An American connection was immediately implied by the opening lines of that chapter, in the slightly supercilious language of the times, where the superiority of English behaviour over American is implied:
““How do you make it?” asked a fair American of the proprietor, with the amiable curiosity we somehow expect in our Transatlantic cousins. The answer is not recorded, for in the manner of making chiefly lies the specialty of the Old Cheshire Cheese. The hand of the proprietor himself compounds the ingredients in a secret room, secure from the gaze of even his most inquisitive attendants.”
Overtones of alchemists transmuting base metals into gold! In fact the main ingredients of the famous pudding are known:
“Of all the changes brought about by the rolling year, however, none is so popular as the advent of the pudding, though it means frost, and damp, and cold winds. The pudding (italics for ‘the,’ please) has no rival in size and quality. Its glories have been sung in every country. The pudding ranges from fifty to sixty, seventy, and eighty pounds’ weight, and gossip has it that in the dim past the rare dish was constructed to proportions of a hundredweight. It is comprised of a fine light crust in a huge basin, and there are entombed therein beef-steaks, kidneys, oysters, larks, mushrooms, and wondrous spices and gravies, the secret of which is known only to the compounder. The boiling process takes about sixteen to twenty hours, and the smell on a windy day has been known to reach as far as the Stock Exchange. The process of carving the pudding on Wednesdays and Saturdays is a solemn ceremony.” (From The Sportsman, March 30th, 1887).
“Once, and once only was that pudding dropped. Alas, the sad day! In the room sat an expectant hungry army of fifty men. The waiter, bearing in triumph the pudding, appeared smiling on the scene. His foot slipped, he tripped, the pudding wavered, and then bowled along the floor, breaking up and gathering sawdust as it went. There was a breathless silence. The proprietor dropped the upraised carver, stood speechless for a moment, and then went out and wept bitterly. The occasion was too much for him. One after another the awed and hungry crowds put their hats on and departed, with sorrowful faces and watering mouths.”
If Robert Burns’ epithet applied to the Scottish haggis; “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!” is to be accepted, then surely the Cheese pudding at least deserves to be its lieutenant.
From The Book of The Cheese, again:
“Old ‘William,’ for many years the head-waiter, could only be seen in his real glory on Pudding Days. He used to consider it his duty to go round the tables insisting that the guests should have second or third, ay, and with wonder be it spoken, fourth helpings.
“Any gentleman say pudden?” was his constant query; and his habit was not broken when a crusty customer growled:
“No gentleman says pudden.”
In 1891 a reference is made to the Cheshire Cheese’s pudding on the “other side” of the Atlantic, in the Court Journal (London) for April 4th, where it was reported that one Mr Burras (possibly stock-broker Howard Kissam Burras) residing in New York had been so taken with the dish that he ordered one to be delivered to the United States. He had organised a party with the pudding as its centrepiece but alas! The delicacy was impounded with the recently introduced McKinley Tariff cited as the reason. This restrictive imports Bill had been passed on the instigation of ill-fated US President William McKinley, destined of course to die at the hands of an assassin. When after a week the injunction was lifted, the pudding was assessed an estimable success, in no way incommoded by its incarceration.
William Henderson’s lively verse of 1890 sums up the reverence in which this pastry was held:
But the pudding! – oh my!
You look on with a sigh,
As is comes piping hot,
From the cauldron or pot,
Oh the savour, the taste,
Of its lining, its paste!
How it wells, how it swells!
In its bosom there dwells
Food for gods, meat for men,
Who resort to Moore’s den.
“Moore’s den” is a reference to the gloriously named Beaufoy A Moore, landlord of the pub at the time. Not content with lyric praise, Henderson also had set to music (by Bostonian J H Wadsworth) another paean to the meaty colossus, Ye Pudding’s Requiem, also in 1890, of which the following excerpt gives us the flavour, as it were:
‘Twas on Saint Andrew’s Day,
Our way thro’ Fleet Street lay,
We sniff’d the pudding then!
We scorned all foreign fare,
True British fare was there,
To “cut and come agen.”
Our landlord carved with manner grave,
Brave portions to each guest he gave,
Nor thought he of his booty,
Nor thought he of his booty,
Along the boards the signal ran,
“Charlie” expects that every man
Will pay and do his duty,
Will pay and do his duty.
This song is a parody of The Death of Nelson, a patriotic effort by Samuel James Arnold (1774-1852) from the opera The Americans, made famous by the heroic British tenor John Braham (1777-1856).
Another American reference to the pudding comes from a small guide; London’s Restaurants by “Diner-Out” published in 1924:
“The Cheshire Cheese” is the magnet that draws all overseas visitors to Fleet Street, especially those from the land of Prohibition. How reverently they ascend the worn step that leads from Wine Office Court to the sanded interior, and gaze upon the very table where “the great lexicographer” was wont to sit, and his very chair! And how they relish the steak and kidney pudding, and admire the old blue plate when, after having plied a hearty knife and fork, they can at last see it!”
Aside from the venerable waiter, William, whose portrait hangs on the wall of the downstairs bar, probably the most famous resident of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is the much lamented parrot, Polly. “Diner-Out”, again, tells us:
“(The) parrot is probably known as far afield as the house which it adorns. Its language is said to have improved considerably since the end of the Great War and the demobilisation of the troops.”
As a postscript, Polly’s demise is noted:
“After suffering for several months from pneumonia, the parrot died on October 30th, 1926. It had been at the “Cheese” for upward of forty years.”
As The Book of the Cheese has it:
“His quaint ways, clever talk, and general intelligence made him famous all over the world.”
On Polly’s death, it is said that over 200 newspapers published an obituary. The Bolton Evening News had this to say:
“So far as a grey and scarlet South African parrot can achieve greatness, this bird did. For forty years it was the biggest personality in Fleet Street. No really illustrious visitor to this country failed to secure an audience, at which the parrot always took the honours. It was a gifted talker, even by the highest Army standards, and besides such side-tricks as imitating perfectly all the sounds of a public bar, not only swore like a cavalry sergeant major, but obviously knew the right time to do it.”
“Once Princess Mary insisted on being introduced to “Polly”. It had to be done, but it aged the manager. If anyone had mentioned the Kaiser the King’s daughter would have heard things not mentionable to a drunken cow-puncher.”
A newspaper, The Saturday Review, set a competition for an epitaph for the parrot. The winning entry, by G Rostrevor Hamilton (a noted poet of the Great War and later Sir George Rostrevor Hamilton) is as follows:
The Cheshire Cheese Parrot.
“Non Omnis Moriar”*
The pop of corks, the gurgle of wine,
Kissing and human speech were mine,
Accomplishments that could not save
Me from the dry and silent grave.
Enough! No maudlin tear be shed:
Not all of Polly shall be dead.
Though silent, here upon the shelf
I stand – in memory of myself.
*”I shall not wholly die” (Horace 65-8 BC)
The last verse is a reference to the stuffed parrot which may be seen in the downstairs restaurant today. Whether this is the original Polly has been open to debate.
The Cheese today, though messed around with a bit since a re-jig when Yorkshire brewers Samuel Smith took over ownership, still retains the patina of a 19th century public house. The worn stone steps and subdued lighting are witnesses to the shades of hundreds of merry carousers. The main bar is still recognisable from postcards of the early twentieth century. As a young man in the 1970s I remember sawdust and Marston’s Pedigree pale ale and busy talk from the newspapermen from the nearby presses and lawmen from the Old Bailey courtrooms across the way. The pub nearly always had an American visitor or two on the premises, indeed the “Yanks” have become part of the history of the place.
The pub plays much on its connections with famous celebrities of the past; Dickens, Thackeray, Goldsmith, Pope, de Quincey et cetera, not to mention Kings and Queens and Prime Ministers and Presidents. Yet it is a living pub and though most definitely a tourist attraction, it is more than that. It is a place of refuge, reflection and refreshment still.