38 Cloth Fair, EC1A 7JQ
Nearest tube: Barbican 0.1 mile
Nearest attraction: Museum of London 0.3 miles
A pleasant-looking pub on a quiet Smithfield corner in the shadow of the grand, 12th century church St Bartholomew-the-Great.
EST 1616. Monarch James I
The Rising Sun is thought to have existed from the 17th century under the name of the Starre Tavern. But its darkest period of history occurred much later.
The early 19th century was a relatively enlightened period for Britain when the number of executions taking place each year tailed off from several hundred to just a few dozen. Meanwhile, medical research was improving fast. But hospitals needed fresh bodies for dissection….. and it was the hangman who usually kept them supplied.
Enter the body-snatchers: unscrupulous scoundrels who would prowl through the graveyards at night looking for newly-buried bodies to dig up and sell for research. Unbelievably, this wasn’t a crime in those days – merely a misdemeanor punishable by little more than a fine. But still there weren’t enough bodies to go around. So the resurrectionists had to turn their sights on to the living.
Body-snatchers were said to have used the Rising Sun – initially as a meeting place and then later as a hunting ground. Regulars would “go missing”, apparently after having been drugged and slaughtered for their fresh corpses. Though these grisly stories are unsubstantiated, there was definitely a team of murderous body-snatchers preying on pub-goers in this area at the time.
John Bishop and Thomas Williams pleaded guilty to selling up to 1,000 bodies to anatomists over a 12-year period in the early 1800s. Most were taken from graveyards but some – such as a boy found sleeping in the Smithfield pig-market and a Lincolnshire lad innocently drinking nearby – were drugged and murdered.
The Lincolnshire boy was taken from the Bell tavern and a second pub – The Fortune of War – was also implicated in body-snatching. Both inns are now long gone but both were a stone’s throw from the Rising Sun. So it’s perfectly plausible that the body-snatchers preyed there too.
Bishop and Williams were hanged for murder on December 5 1831 and their bodies were sent immediately for dissection. How they must have laughed at the irony.
The Rising Sun is pleasantly appointed and brightly lit, but I still found the atmosphere to be brooding and somewhat unsettling. This could have been psychosomatic on account of all that body-snatching (see above) but also because of the ghostly tales associated with the pub: of bartenders hearing the sound of running footsteps upstairs while clearing up after their evening shift; of female bar staff sleeping on the premises and registering a “ghostly presence” plucking at their bedclothes. And then there was the landlady busy showering upstairs when the bathroom door opened, the shower curtain pulled aside and an ice-cold hand ran down her back. Literally a spine-chilling experience.
The other stuff
Brewery: Samuel Smith’s
Open: Every day
Food: Lunchtimes and evenings Tuesday-Friday, lunchtimes only Saturday-Monday
The regularly-used dartboard adds a homely, local touch to this old-fashioned pub. The upstairs room is an awkward mish-mash between bar and restaurant but if you can ignore the tale of those running footsteps it is a pleasant-enough space with magnificent views of the church next door.
For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?