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Better than a curate’s egg

Don’t know about you, but my go to in the pub snack department is the good old pork scratchin’, nothing better with a pint. I’ve had a dalliance now and again with Bombay Mix, those little pretzels and even the classic cheese biscuits, but if there’s a crunchy, greasy, salty and sometimes hairy mouthful of heaven on offer then it wins every time, unless……….

Not as prevalent in the good old fashioned London boozer as it once was but something that can be found in the classier hostelry is the thoroughbred in the pub snack stable; the pickled egg! Oh I do like a pickled egg alongside a packet of ready salted crisps, although there are rules involved. Pickled in white vinegar, not malt and never from a new jar, the length of time that this thing of beauty sits in the jar is linked to it’s texture, aroma and taste. Half way down the jar is your starting point anything from there is a bonus.

The reason that I relate this waffle is that I came across a rather strange fact the other day. You’d think that pickling in terms of preserving food stuffs is millennia old, in fact it’s credited to the Indians around 4,000 years ago, but in the UK it was slower to catch on. The pickling of walnuts is not really noted in the UK until the early 1700s, with preserved lemons and oysters predating them by around 60 years. Now I’m not saying that these are the dates that these pickled foodstuffs were first invented, but they are dates noted when they were brought into the nations consciousness in terms of recipes for the same being printed in books and pamphlets. Shakespeare is said to have invented the phrase in a pickle, which means to get into a sticky situation, It was used in The Tempest, so that would date it to around 1611, with direct quotes including: “How cam’st thou in this pickle?” and “I have been in such a pickle”.

But back to the egg. I’m sure toothless crones had been pickling such for centauries and stashed away in many hamlets and villages in the country would be containers containing the preserved eggs, but one place that it was not so well known, or it appears even practiced was London. The reason I say this is because of a text I found while researching a new tour around the area of Clerkenwell.

Crawford’s Passage, or Pickled Egg Walk as it was known in the 17th century, was a small narrow lane, leading from Baker’s Row into Ray Street, rejoicing in certainly a very eccentric name. Half-way up stood a small public-house which became known as the Cock & Pickled Egg, because the landlord of the time introduced to his customers a local delicacy from his home county of Dorsetshire. Such a newsworthy event it turned out to be that the pub attracted some of the highest in the land and It is said that Charles I during one of his suburban journeys once stopped here to taste a pickled egg, which he declared after tasting it, “Was a fine and good companion to cold meat“. Although it sounds cosy the pub was a notorious haunt for the criminals of Clerkenwell. I’ll tell you a story of one of them, who’s life of crime was a bit like the curates egg; good in parts.

On the night of the 29th May 1809 William Lowe had been carousing several Clerkenwell taverns and entered the Pickled Egg to play a game of skittles or Skettles as they were then known with some friends. On the surface it looked like any other lad’s night out full of banter and ribaldry, but Lowe apart from being a habitual thief and not a particularly good one, as he always seemed to get caught more times than not had a secret, one known only to him and that was that he had no business being in Clerkenwell or for that matter in the United Kingdom. Lowe had previously been convicted of stealing a travelling trunk and had been sentenced to transportation.

Before he set sail he was apparently offered the chance to join the army and to serve abroad for seven years, a chance that he jumped at and was taken from Newgate Goal to join a regiment based on the Isle of Wight. It would seem that as embarkation time drew nearer William got cold feet and decided to do a runner and based himself in the dark dingy tenements and alleys of Hockley in the hole a small district within Clerkenwell and here he stayed unnoticed for about six months. That is until his ill fated lads night out.

As he enjoyed his game of skittles and much alcohol he was seen by a fellow customer who had originally arrested him for the theft of the trunk. Richard Limbrick the local watchman was in fact enjoying an evening off when he spied Lowe in the Pickled Egg and recognising him as a convicted felon spent no time in arresting him and transporting him to the Magistrates at Bow Street.

While in the dock of the Old Bailey Lowe made quiet a heartfelt and erudite speech to the jury saying that he had been tricked by the authorities and on joining the regiment had found that he was to serve not for seven years as promised but for life, which usually meant twenty to twenty five year, so he decided to run away, stating that he intended to lead an honest and blameless life from then on.

His words, however passionate they sounded fell on deaf ears and the jury found him guilty of breaking the terms of his conviction. The judge Mr Justice Chambre passed down the sentence which for the unlucky Lowe was death, but his luck turned just a little as the Jury recommended mercy, so perhaps his statement to them had helped him. William was taken away and spent time in Newgate Gaol before being transported for life to New South Wales aboard the ship Ann.

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