Jack Straw’s Castle

The following appeared in the 1912 volume: “Hampstead, its historic houses, its literary and artistic associations” by Anna Maxwell

Beyond the flagstaff and on the same side of the pond stands the “Castle” Hotel where the Court Leet met. Concerning the full title of this inn, it is extremely doubtful whether Wat Tyler’s chief captain ever came to Hampstead at all : no historic record of his visit exists. In the authentic chronicles of the reign of Richard II., Jack Straw certainly came to Highbury, and pulled down there the house of the Knights Hospitallers. This fact may have given rise to the old tradition that he set fire to the Priory of the Knights of Jerusalem, near to the old church at Hampstead. It is quite possible that his intention to do so was one of the insurgent sins told to his priest in his confession detailed in the true account of Wat Tyler’s rebellion.

Professor Hales bids us conceive of ” Jack Straw’s Castle ” as a merely poetic expression, and one which is found as a tavern sign in Oxfordshire, and which is possible in any part of the country, on the strength of ” Jack Straw ” being a generic name (which might in effect be Hodge the Ploughman), and bearing, as it were, a relative position in agricultural districts to the Jack Tar’s Tavern in a seaport.

Contenting ourselves with fact, and with the nineteenth century, we know that Charles Dickens wrote to John Forster :

You don’t feel disposed, do you, to muffle yourself up, and start
off with me for a good brisk walk over Hampstead Heath ? I know
of a good house where we can have a red-hot chop for dinner, and
a glass of good wine.

‘ This note,” adds Forster, ” led to our first experience of ‘ Jack Straw’s Castle,’ memorable for many happy meetings in coming years.” As one of the results of Dickens’s visits to the Heath we have the statement that ” Mr. Pickwick traced to their source the mighty ponds of Hampstead, and agitated the scientific world with his theory of tittle-bats.”

About the year 1730 a racecourse was laid behind the ” Castle ” Inn : this course, being earlier than those of Epsom and Ascot, became a place of widespread popularity, bringing crowds of varying social degrees, which rendered Hampstead more or less unbearable to its refined residents, at the season of the Heath’s greatest charm.

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