Jacob Whetstone: Landlord, Writer, Chaos Merchant and Baron of London's Bohemia
“Sod The Tower and The Rock, bloody ravens and monkeys. No, the day the cats leave The Wheatsheaf is the day the barrels run dry, it’ll be the end! Or at least it will be for you, Thomas, I can't stand you sober!“ (1) John Betjeman British Poet Laureate, 1906 –1984
187? - 1947
From the day Jacob Whetstone rolled up his sleeves, as publican of the Northumberland Arms, he exerted a charismatic and warping presence upon London’s Bohemia. Amidst the cigar smoke, sawdust, grime and theft Whetstone stood above it all, the clearest head within his crafted chaos; the whores, debtors, artists and ex-pats swarming around him until the bell rang; “Time Gentlemen, please”. Vorticism, The Bloomsbury Group and Modernism all owe Whetstone a debt for his hospitality.
In his tenures at The Northumberland Arms, The Marquis of Granby and The Wheatsheaf Whetstone lived and crafted a myth that is now inextricably woven into his and Soho’s history, a problem deepened by the scarcity of photographs. In references, he is rendered an English gentleman, grinning beneath his waxed handlebar moustache, but carrying a physical presence and a breadth to his shoulders that belayed any suggestion of aristocracy or weakness, the smile beneath calculating eyes. A virtuoso Publican, wherever he worked, the artistic life of London thronged.
The square kilometer known as Fitzrovia lying between Oxford Street, Gower Street, Great Portland Street and Euston Road is currently a wealthy region of continental restaurants and business bars in Regency buildings at the heart of North London. Before gentrification in the 1960’s, the southern area of this patch, from Goodge Street to Oxford Street was the northern, cosier and moodier, end of that legendary den of iniquity, Soho; London’s twin to Greenwich Village and Montparnasse. If you wished to drink with men of letters, hear the thickest of lies and watch the crowds stumble past the prostitutes of Goodge Street, there was nowhere better in The Empire.
In the mid 1870s Jacob Whetstone was born to Quaker parents on the outskirts of Birmingham. Subject to the fierce educational and religious regime of his people he balked young, and made his way down to the capital in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. He ended up working as a bar steward, less than a mile from Whitehall, where a legion of clerks were administrating an empire that covered a fifth of the globe.
The Developing Man at The Lion
In 1847 The Red Lion of Soho had been host to a forum of propagandists, where in smoke filled rooms with beer at hand they discussed a framework for their burgeoning movement, two key attendees, Frederich Engels and Karl Marx, produced a summarizing document, The Communist Manifesto that was carried in hand as revolutions swept Europe the following year. But The Red Lion aged well, and by Jacob’s day the bar still retained a throughput of nonconformist pilgrims. Here, Jacob, as a bar steward, began to affiliate with the artistic types that would dominate his life, but it was also here that he met the subversives that kept the money flowing and the tills ringing, Great Windmill Street was a home for more than one burlesque house.
Conscription to support the Boer War lent Jacob an excuse to flee the country at the dawn of the 20th century. It is extremely unlikely that he met Gavrilo Princip as a child or ate dinner with his family. Travelling gave Jacob a blank canvas on which to paint his own history; It's told that he went to Italy, Spain, France and The Balkans, what is certain is that he developed significant contacts with Publicans in Paris and Berlin that would do him long service.
Management:- The Northumberland Arms, The Marquis of Granby and The Wheatsheaf
“The Northumberland Arms is a decaying Gentlemen’s Club; fabricated from cast iron, burgundy and oak panelling so worn the whiskey has seeped into its grain. The bizarre thing is, before Whetstone arrived, I'm sure it was all quite new" - George Bernard Shaw (2)
Strong beer, colourful company, a piano to rattle out a tune, or more if a composer happened to fall behind it, and a barman who could hold a conversation about your take on the modern novel. The reasons to visit Whetstone were legion, and he lent perk after perk to "his charges". W.B. Yeats, Aliester Crowley and George Bernard Shaw were soon rolling out the door at closing, dropping by for a beer and an argument. Artists drifted across the Channel from Europe’s capitals with Whetstone's address and enough money for a bed and an ale.
Over time the Edwardians evolved into the Modernists, Ezra Pound encouraged Jacob to submit a piece (3) or two (4) to his Little Review, T.S. Eliot developed a taste for gin and tonic; Virginia Woolf is said to have considered Whetstone a repulsive degenerate, but her friends from Keynes to E.M. Forster wandered by from across Tottenham Court Road. Nathan Whetstone (nephew, 1900-1936) was the key that turned his bars into a legend; businesslike, with a knack for converting a Whetstone idea into money. When an aspiring author ran out of food, had a deadline, a furious publisher and rent arrears… Well, the upstairs of The Marquis happened to have a little spare room and an old stool; a cot was thrown together with a typewriter; cats were evicted and a door was locked from the outside. In 3 days a bedraggled writer emerged with a work in hand, Jacob was guaranteed a cut of the payment and Room 26 was born.
Room 26 at The Marquis seeded works, not necessarily writers, artists and poets best, but ones that kept them solvent. It came with a catch: Whetstone wanted a guest appearance. Dubliners, The Man Within, The Swag, The Spy and The Soldier all feature suspiciously charismatic moustachioed barmen; it became a Soho motif to hide Jacob in there. Then Whetstone would take a cut when the money rolled in; it usually helped pay off the tab.
Then the day arrived when a few creditors were on a writer’s back, and he couldn’t give out his hotel room for fear of The Bailiffs. An idea was hatched to give postal addresses to Room 26, and pay Jacob when the money came in. Julian Maclaren-Ross is being chased by the MPs? All mail to Room 26 at The Wheatsheaf.
Papa Kleinfeld at The Fitzroy Tavern had a friendly rivalry for the Bohemian clientèle; and they kept each other innovating through the 20’s. But by 1930 the atmosphere was becoming terser. When Jacob moved to The Wheatsheaf in ‘32, Orwell and an increasingly political crowd came along; darkness began to set in. Before long Nathan was taking visits and meetings at the notoriously anarchistic Café Espagne on Old Compton Street, and soon he vanished south, permanently. The International Brigade drained away a good proportion of Soho's masculine talent, lending their weight to resist Franco.
The Wheatsheaf survived The War mostly intact, The Blitz and the odd V-1 Doodlebug requiring the occasional repaint to the Mock Tudor edifice at the front, or the replacement of shattered windows; The black oak beams would warp, dust and cat hair would shake down into people's pints, but nothing actually hit. The wartime generation; Dylan Thomas, Rayner Heppenstall, Julian Maclaren-Ross, BBC scriptwriters and magazine writers, dragged out their 2 pints a night ration over a whole afternoon and evening. Then drifted over to eat ration-evading "meat" across the road at the Coffee An'. Julian Maclaren Ross, with cane, teddy bear overcoat, suit and sunglasses took up near permanent residence at the end of the Saloon bar; holding forth to all who passed, honing his "anecdotes" for publication. Rationing fuelled the black market, and the black market thrived in Soho, sending dusty money into The Wheatsheafs till.
But Jacob was becoming increasingly hunched and tired, Soho had been more than an occupation. He died of pneumonia ; 14th September 1947.
The Post Office Tower was planned and arrived, Fitzrovia began its decline into banality. A winebar here, an imitation continental cafe there, the rich flavour lost in an environment that could be cut and pasted from Leeds, Lyon, Frankfurt or Milan... Mundane.
Whetstone always had a couple of kittens in the bar from his early days at The Arms, they kept the alcoholics on their toes and would attack anyone who went past drunk and out the other side if they were foolish enough to tread on them. The Blitz left London swimming in strays, and in '42 it is said that the The Wheatsheaf had at least 6 vicious felines wandering around the Tudor woodwork, a threat to all ankles, a tangle of cat hair.
Behind the bar of The Marquis sat a screw cap jar, legend holds contained Prescription Oral Morphine. Disguised behind a strong double brandy it would knock an unruly drunk down before violence began; friends awoke in Room 26, rakes awoke on the pavement. A story(5) that was perpetuated by Papa Klienfeld of The Fitzroy Tavern, holds that a promising young painter, Peter Vansen vanished after his first night at The Marquis; a dosage gone wrong.
"In '42 Maclaren-Ross, myself and Dylan were enjoying a long afternoon session with Nina Hammett (said by Picasso to have the best tits in Europe) in the Saloon bar, when in walks the aristocratic Mrs. Hume, who was besotted with Dylan. Dylan proceeds to dive behind the bar and leaves Julian and me to justify his absence. After a moment Thomas's hand snakes up to grab the pint he's left on the lean-to; and I can't stop grinning.
Fifteen minutes later and Julian is back in full story flow, everything is good, but Jeffrey Hume OBE storms in, in tweeds with an old shotgun and a suspicious mind. All hell breaks loose as he demands an explanation from Dylan. In the chaos, Maclaren-Ross is foolish enough to whack his shotgun with that cane he always carries and the damn thing goes off, leaving a hole in the pine pannelling. Before anyone has got over the sheer noise of the shell, Whetstone has smacked Hume round the back of the head with the sockfull of sand he keeps behind the bar and everything is over. Whetstone looks at us like death himself, and after we carry Hume upstairs and lock him in Room 26, we all get barred...
It lasted about a week, and i'm pretty sure Whetstone flogged the shotgun to pay to replace the panelling." (6) Rayner Heppenstall
Recollections of Dylan: various authors, Hodder 1955
"Fable of smoke and concrete" - Jacob Whetstone: Little Review 17, January 1914
"Vermillia" - Jacob Whetstone: Little Review 29, March 1916
Recollections of Dylan: various authors, Hodder 1955