The Museum Tavern

Visiting London – fancy a drink?

London has more bars than Handel’s Messiah, but if you are a bird keeper and fascinated by the legend of the London Fancy canary, there is one that is sure to hit the right note: the Museum Tavern on Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury.

Why?  The Museum Tavern is the last surviving establishment that provided a home for a Fancy canary society, devoted to what we now call the London Fancy canary.  This is where they held their meetings, and probably where they held their annual prize show.

That society was the Hand-in-Hand, one of the most prestigious canary societies in the capital.  Membership was by invitation only and limited to about 15 breeders; they were the elite.  Its original base was the Freemason’s Tavern in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which was demolished when the second Freemasons’ Hall was built in the 1860s.  Apart from its masonic connections, the building is famous for being the venue where the inaugural meeting of the Football Association was held in 1863.  The FA were newbies; the Hand-in-Hand had been meeting there long before that.

We don’t know when the Hand-in-Hand moved to Bloomsbury, but we do know that it was based at the Museum Tavern between 1858 and 1864 thanks to a series of clues that a combination of history and chance has left us to solve.  If that sounds like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, you’re right, but more of him later.

Our good fortune starts with a book written about this very pub: A History of the Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, by John N. Henderson (1989).  It contains no references to canaries, but everything else you might want to know about the tavern is here.

Museum Tavern external

The Museum Tavern is the oldest pub in Bloomsbury, starting life as the Dog and Duck in 1723.  Rocque’s map of London (1746) shows that much of Bloomsbury was still pastoral: the fields to the north were popular for duelling, dog fighting, rioting, gambling, and (as the name suggests) duck hunting; there were even instances of highwaymen holding up coaches in the vicinity.  Things changed in 1759 when the British Museum, based on the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, was established directly opposite the Dog and Duck.  The landlord, sensing a marketing opportunity, changed its name to the British Museum Tavern a few years later.

The tavern was rebuilt in 1798 and again around 1855 to a design by William Finch Hill, an architect better known for his theatres and music halls.  This is the structure that still stands today.  Externally, little has changed, but while there have been many subsequent interior alterations, the pub still retains its Victorian character.

Karl Marx was almost certainly a customer in the British Museum Tavern’s early years.  He, and fellow revolutionaries, had a reputation for smashing things up when drunk and disorderly, which may explain why only one of the original mirrors of the Victorian back-bar remains.

Museum Tavern interior

Another visitor, in spirit if not in person, was Sherlock Holmes.  In Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892), the famous sleuth and his trusty companion Dr. Watson visited the ‘Alpha Inn near the Museum in Bloomsbury’ to interview the landlord.  The Alpha Inn is generally accepted by Holmes enthusiasts to be based on the Museum Tavern, and fictional landlord ‘Windigate’ on George Blizzard, the real landlord.  All this detective work reminds me that it is time for the next clue in our mystery tale.

Around the same time that Karl Max was going on pub crawls in Bloomsbury, a canary and pigeon fancier named B.P. Brent, was corresponding with Charles Darwin who was writing The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868).  This formed the first section of his great work The Origin of the Species.

In 1864 Brent published his own, less ambitious, work The Canary and other Song Birds.  Brent may not have changed our perception of mankind’s place in the world, as Darwin did, but for canary fanciers his book is no less valuable because it tells us a lot about the activities of prize canary societies in London. Not least, it contains the Rules and regulations to be subscribed to and observed by the Members of the Society called the Hand-in-Hand, for promoting, improvement and beauty of the breed of Fancy canary birds; held at the Museum Tavern, Bloomsbury.

The Rules are undated, but we now come to the final piece of good fortune that helps us to solve the mystery: the British Museum Tavern changed its name to the Museum Tavern in 1858.  We can therefore be confident that the Hand-in-Hand was still active between 1858 and 1864 when Brent’s book was published.

Mr Hook, the person who supplied Brent with a copy of the Rules, was one of the exhibitors who had sent London Fancies (their new name, which Brent also uses) to the first All England Show in Nottingham in 1857.  That was the year when the world of bird keeping changed.  The old ways, upheld by the Hand-in Hand, were too narrow and restrictive to appeal to Victorian bird fanciers.  Thanks to the rapidly growing rail network, canary breeders not only had several varieties to choose from, but also had the means to send them to any show in the country.  The writing was on the wall, and the years when the Hand-in-Hand made the Museum Tavern its home, were also its last.

The Museum Tavern itself has faced threats of extinction over the last 150 years: the Victorian temperance movement, two world wars, licensing restrictions, commercial competition, and the insensitivity of a series of pub chains and their interior designers.  Fortunately it is now designated a Grade II listed building, which should ensure that the Museum Tavern will retain the Victorian splendour so familiar to the members of the Hand-in Hand.

Why not call in and raise a glass to their memory? Cheers!

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