This was originally published by the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront newsletter in 2016.
It was while working on Time Out’s annual pub guide in around 2000 that I heard the tale of the Camden castles. A reviewer claimed that there were once four Camden pubs with castle in their name – the Edinboro, Windsor, Dublin and Pembroke – and these had originally been built for navvies digging Regent’s Canal. The gist was that each national group – Scots, English, Irish, Welsh – was assigned a pub to keep them happy, or more precisely to stop them from scrapping with one another. It’s now found all over the internet, with variations. Sometimes, the Caernarvon Castle is included, and often they are said to have been built for the later railway navvies.
It’s a great yarn, but if it seems too good to be true, it’s because it is. The theory is carefully taken apart in the November 2014 newsletter of the Camden History Society by David Hayes who points out that the pubs weren’t built at the same time but “gradually appeared over a period of 130 years”. The Dublin Castle on Parkway, now a music venue, is the oldest. It featured in rates books in 1821 and may just have been frequented by Irish navvies, as the canal was completed in 1820. But next was the Edinboro Castle on Mornington Terrace, which opened in 1839, two years after the railway line to Euston. Not only did this open too late, it had facilities – a tea garden and library – aimed at an upmarket clientele. The Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill opened in the late 1860s and was probably named after its address – 1 Pembroke Terrace – while the Windsor Castle on Parkway was an off licence until 1953, when it reopened as a pub. It’s now a restaurant. As for the Caernarvon, this originally opened as the Pickford Arms – named after a nearby depot – changing its name in around 1870, possibly to join the trend, as Camden pubs became synonymous with castles.
Where then did this rumour came from? To seek an answer, I turned to In Camden Town by David Thomson. This is a diary covering a year in Camden in 1980, combining social history and personal reminiscences. Thomson spends much of his time idling with locals in Camden pubs – the Windsor, Edinboro and Dublin Castle all feature – and he also writes about the building of the canals. However, he never brings the two together, either to spread or dispel the rumour, by saying his favourite pubs were built for navvies. That suggests the story had not yet been formulated.
Of the canal navvies, he writes that “it is difficult to find out much about the… homeless thousands of men who carved the channel out by hand”, noting later that “public inquiries… showed their food, shelter and conditions of work were as wretched as those of the railway navvies later.” This was a dangerous and exhausting life. One accident near Camden in August 1813 saw a cutting collapse, burying a dozen men, several of whom died. “A navvy’s life was less valuable than a slave’s”, says Thomson, who says navvies were “like an invading army but without discipline, tents, billeting officer or commissariat.” Many were Irish and spoke no English. “‘They use only their Gaelic tongue,’ wrote one engineer. ‘And it’s by sign we direct them and thus they have little traffic with the English and keep them apart.’”
Of the railway navvies, Thomson writes. “Navvies were reckless in their leisure. They came and went to the next job in hordes, shared hardships and pleasures peculiar to their homeless life, helped each other in adversity, had a strong sense of justice, were loyal to the gang and to fair employers, and fiercely violent against those who cheated them of food or pay.” The navvies had their own traditions, including “broomstick weddings” – a marriage ceremony described thus in 1846: “It consists of the couple jumping over a broomstick in the presence of a room full of men, met to drink upon the occasion, and the couple were put to bed at once in the same room.”
Navvies were perceived to be heavy drinkers and sporadically violent. At a ceremony in Camden’s Cumberland Basin in 1816 to mark the opening of one section of Regent’s Canal, the navvies “were presented with several hogsheads of beer. Plenty of quarts and pint pots were provided, but not finding these large enough, many held out hats for a full up and drank copious draughts from those.” There were occasional fights – most notably between canal workers in Sampford Peverell in 1811 and Barrow-Upon-Soar in 1794 – as there was among railway workers in Camden in 1846 when a riot broke out between English and Irish labourers at the Round House that lasted several hours and left many injured.
A trip to the Canal Museum in King’s Cross brought more information from The Canal Builders by Anthony Burton. The canal navigators were, he writes, “strangers of uncertain origin” who carved canals the length and breadth of the country using spade and barrow, experience and muscle. Again, he notes how little trace they left on the printed record, as they became “such an accepted part of the landscape that writers and travellers rarely felt it worthy of mention”.
Originally made up of part-time agricultural workers from the English and Welsh farms, by 1795 there were an estimated 50,000 navvies working on the canals, “a mixture of English workers… and a specialised work force from Scotland and Ireland, specifically to work on the canals.” The Irish and Scots were extremely poor and these “roving bands of migrant workers” were much feared, described as “banditti… the terror of the surrounding country” in 1839.
And what of their living conditions? These sound uncannily like that of migrant workers today. Burton says some were encouraged to lodge in the towns in which they worked to defuse some of the fear and friction caused by so many unfamiliar men living close together but most lived in jerry-built temporary accommodation, travelling encampments of 600 or more, with navvies living in “a turf hovel” and subsiding on “dull plain food”. Some canal owners discussed improving conditions, raising places for workers to eat and drink, but only in the form of tents or booths. Many were paid in tokens that could only be redeemed at certain stores, invariably those owned by the canal owners. Would four brick pubs have been constructed for such poorly treated, poorly regarded men who never settled in a single place for long? Not a chance.
A photograph in Michael Ware’s A Canalside Camera shows a group of navvies, dressed in rags, surly and exhausted. The navvies had a terrible reputation, but Burton is sympathetic. “Take thousands of poor, uneducated men, remove them from home and family, send them out to sweat away at hard, dirty and dangerous work, and you cannot be surprised if the end result is a gang of men who frequently find their repose in outbursts of drunkenness and fighting.”
Here it is apparent how – if not when – the story of the Camden castles was formed. Canal navvies would have been prominent in Camden during the first half of the 19th century. They were often drawn from the poorest Irish and Scottish labourers, bolstered by English and Welsh workers. Attempts were made to keep the disparate national groups apart as they were known to fight with each other and the public. They were also famed for consuming heaps of ale, traditions later continued manfully by the railway navvies, who enjoyed a terrific tear up in the centre of Camden in 1846. And so, from these disparate truths, a cohesive myth was born, spun by some enterprising soul with a rich imagination, possibly even a lubricated barfly, enjoying the continuing hospitality of one of Camden’s many, but entirely coincidental, castles.
The Pembroke Castle, Edinboro Castle and Dublin Castle can all be found around Camden Town. The London Canal Museum is at 12-13 New Wharf Road, N1 9RT.