The roving pub that is no more

The fascinating history of Merlin’s Cave.

By Barbara Jacobson

A lithograph of a crowd of people looking at a man hanging a large scroll out of a window
Detail of ‘Orator’ Hunt speaking from Merlin’s Cave, Cruikshank 1819

All that’s left is the name Merlin Street off Wilmington Square, and if you look closely above the sign there are the remains of a painted ‘Merlin Place.’ These are the legacy of a pub called Merlin’s Cave which existed from at least 1720 on or around the site of Charles Rowan House.

What people might remember is the third New Merlin’s Cave, which from the 1960s became famous for jazz, although it  hosted a range of music, from George Melly to Billy Bragg. This was the last of three versions of the Cave. There’s a good oral history of this last version of Merlin’s Cave on Sandy Brown’s Jazz site

The first, and longest lived pub was Merlin’s Cave, on land which is now the south-east side of Charles Rowan House courtyard. The field path which ran in front of the pub was discovered during excavations in 2001, and this is reflected now as a diagonal line traced in concrete and stone across the CRH courtyard.

It’s not known exactly when the first Merlin’s Cave was built, but it seems to have appeared sometime around or before 1720. John Hooke (or Cook) is a signatory to a lease with the Northampton estate to rebuild an existing pub in 1737. It may also have been called ‘The English Grotto Gardens’ before Hooke rebuilt the pub as Merlin’s Cave.

A very old map and a an old painting of some men in 18th century dress playing skittles.

There are a couple of ideas about how the pub got its name. One theory is that there was a holy spring on the site visited at some time in the distant past by the famous Merlin. Whether Merlin visited or not the hill is generally wet with ‘water coming up by striking no more than six inches down’. The other (more likely) one is that the John Hooke latched on to a general craze for ‘Merlin’s Caves’ around London in the mid-1700s, following from Queen Charlotte’s Merlin’s Cave, a folly built on the grounds of what is now Kew Gardens. Skittles were one of the attractions of Merlin’s Cave garden.

Merlin’s Cave was one of a number of small pleasure gardens built around springs in the area, including Sadler’s Wells, New Tunbridge Wells, London Spa and Bagnigge Wells at the bottom of Margery Street hill. It was most famously used as the focal point of the rallies in Spa Fields 1816-17, one of which resulted in an attack on the Mint and Armory.

In the next two decades houses sprung up around the original pub along the field path, and Barclays built the first ‘New Merlin’s Cave’ on the corner of Amwell Street (Upper Rosoman Street at the time) and Merlin’s Place, probably about 1840, while the old Merlin’s Cave was converted to housing. There is little known about this pub although the excavations turned up part of a pump handle. Merlin’s Place appeared as the home of a counterfeiter in George Gissing’s novel ‘The Nether World’. Census research shows that many residents came from the more notorious slums of St Luke’s and St Giles.

A lithograph showing an aerial view of Clerkenwell and a photograph showing an aerial view of new merlin's cave in 1880

Early in the 20th century the whole site was cleared, originally designated for a new Imperial Tobacco factory. After the First World War, however, in the wake of the police strikes and other social turmoil, in 1929 the Metropolitan Police built one of three married quarters in London, Charles Rowan House, designed by police architect Gilbert MacKenzie Trench. A new New Merlin’s Cave was also built about the same time  across Margery Street, which lasted until 1996. This site is now a block of flats, Merlin’s Court.

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