" I don't know of too many Wetherspoons which have toilets on the ground floor", said my eighty-nine year old Dad. Possibly not the greatest opening line ever in a Blog, but I bet you're intrigued?
I'm not absolutely certain how the conversation came about, but I think we must have been discussing the relative merits of locations within the ubiquitous pub chain. These conversations usually start if a new one has been visited and for those that don't know, Wetherspoon's forte is to repurpose old or unique buildings for their no nonsense, value beer and food offerings. My local was once a rather large cinema, but the chain converts banks, theatres, chapels and office buildings.
Obviously once achieving a certain age the placement of the toilets is quiet a big deal (As I myself am beginning to realise!), but I was able to counter this with, "Well I can think of one straight away, The Sir John Oldcastle in Hatton Garden". My Dad thought briefly and said, "don't think I've ever been in that one, where is it?". I explained that it's on the corner of Farringdon Road and Greville Street, but he couldn't bring it to mind. I've been in there countless times, but I couldn't think what the building had been in a previous life.
And there the conversation could have ended, except he asked how my latest audio tour of Clerkenwell was coming along, both he and my Grandfather had worked in the area in the print trade and the history of it interests him. I'd spent nearly three months researching, writing, testing, recording and finally publishing From Righteous to Wretched: A Clerkenwell Tale and so I told him it was available for him to listen to. I then asked him if he knew about something I'd found out about the area, including it in the tour and also writing a blog entry about it. Bacon Mania deals with the proliferation of what were known as Bacon Stoves in the area around Cowcross Street in the 19th century.
He said that he wasn't aware of the whole story, but he does remember working in a building in the early 1960s where the printing company was on the ground floor and a bacon wholesalers in the basement with offices on the top floors. He went on to say that the hours that both businesses traded were opposed, as the wholesalers would have done most of it's daily business well before employees of the print works turned up for the day shift. The only reason he knew it was trading in bacon was that late one afternoon a fire broke out in the basement.
The first that the printers knew about it was the lovely smell of cooking bacon which seemed to be permeating through the whole building, but after a while this turned to a less than pleasant burnt odour and finally clouds of smoke started to find their way through the floorboards into the print works. He doesn't remember there being a fire alarm, just a leisurely evacuation of the building. Most of the workers, my Dad included looked at it as an opportunity to finish early and go to the local for a pint, so most employees detoured to the locker room to collect their clothes.
The sight that greeted the arriving Firemen must have been a strange one. The building now well alight with smoke billowing from open windows on the top floors and just around the corner a mass of mainly young men all getting changed in the street. Apparently you weren't allowed in the pub in your overalls, so everyone had to change before going for a drink.
Having received their drinks, most filed out of the pub (probably the One Tun in Greville Street) to watch the firemen fighting the blaze. My Dad remembers that they were hampered in setting up and climbing their ladders by the power lines for the Trolley Buses which ran alongside the building. Nobody had thought to alert the bus company to ask for them to turn off the electricity. The firemen had to position their ladders just inches under the live cables and then climb up the underside of the ladder until they had passed the audibly humming live wires. Apparently nobody was harmed and the fire was soon under control and he remembers a bit of a party mood after the event as some of the fireman popped in for a quick one. It was a few days before anyone could return to work and apparently the smell of burnt bacon permeated the entire building for months.
I'd mentally noted down the story for future use in the blog, and when he finished I said, "that's a good story, where was the building?", to which he replied "On the corner of Greville Street and the Farringdon Road. It was a strange building with a curved frontage". Opening up Google Maps I pointed at the spot and said, "Was it here?", the answer was affirmative. I was pointing at the location of the Sir John Oldcastle, you know, the Wetherspoons with the toilets on the ground floor.