2 Masons Avenue, EC2V 5BT
Nearest tube: Moorgate 0.2 miles
Nearest attraction: Monument 0.4 miles
After walking past Moorgate’s bland city offices and ugly, built-up streets I was blown away by my first sight of the Old Doctor Butler’s Head. It was tucked down a side street straight out of Dickensian London and everything about it – from the upturned oak barrels and the black beams to the abundant foliage – screamed “Come inside!”.
EST 1610. Monarch: James I
Doctor William Butler was either a pioneering physician or a brilliant con artist. Probably both. And he was also a big fan of pubs.
Born in Suffolk in 1535 he was granted a licence to practise medicine after graduating from Clare College Cambridge. This was somewhat surprising since he held an arts degree. But despite being completely unqualified, practice medicine he did.
Until the age of 68 “Doctor” Butler quietly plied his “trade” from an apothecary’s shop in Cambridge. Here he lived with a servant called Nell whose chief job it was to drag him out of the pub every night after a skinful. But the elderly quack was abruptly forced out of obscurity when he performed a “miracle cure” on a local clergyman. Apologies for the over-use of “inverted commas”, but he merits them.
Anyway, it appears that the afflicted man of the cloth had fallen into an opium-induced coma and been given up for dead. But Dr Butler acted promptly and slaughtered a cow, placing the senseless clergyman inside the “cowe’s warme belly” to cure him. Amazingly, it worked – though how the parson reacted on waking up inside a cow is anyone’s guess.
This remarkable feat attracted the attention of the court and in 1614, James I called on Dr Butler to attend him when he sustained a hunting injury at Newmarket. The monarch must have been mightily impressed with the good doctor who was swiftly appointed to the post of court physician.
So Dr Butler headed for London where he carried on blithely practising his own peculiar brand of medicine using increasingly weird and unconventional techniques. His “cure” for epilepsy, for instance, was to fire off a couple of guns close to the patient’s head to scare the condition out of him. And his acclaimed cold-water remedy for the ague was even more bizarre – he simply pushed the patient into the Thames.
However, his piece de resistance was in combining two of his favourite things – medicine and booze – to create a “purging ale” that contained aniseed, caraway, liquorice and strong beer. Whether this cured anything or not is unknown but it’s quite likely some degree of purging took place after drinking it. In any case, Doctor Butler’s ale became so successful that he acquired a chain of pubs of which the Moorgate hostelry is the last. Sadly, Purging Ale is no longer available on tap.
Though pleasantly dark and atmospheric, the interior of the Old Doctor’s Butler’s did not quite live up to the promise of the outside. In place of the hoped-for snug corners and comfy velveteen benches there were large tables flanked by hard stools and leatherette banquettes. But this is simply nit-picking since the pub is evidently hugely popular with city-workers who were happy to fill every cranny and spill out on to the delightful frontage.
The other stuff
Brewery: Free house
Open: Every day except Saturdays and Sundays
Food: served from lunchtime except at weekends.
The menu was short and uninspiring and my sausage sandwich was more transport caff than gastropub. It also came ready-smothered with brown sauce which seemed a bit of an imposition. I mean, you wouldn’t expect your tea to arrive pre-sugared or your chips to be covered with ketchup, would you? Still, lunch was served swiftly and with a smile – and the food isn’t the main point of this pub in any case.