The story of Nathaniel Bentley, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Dick’ is a curious one. He was born in 1735, or thereabouts, into a well-to-do City of London merchant’s family. His father owned a successful hardware business with a house, a shop and a well-stocked warehouse in Leadenhall St in Bishopsgate, and he saw to it that his son was given a good education, as befitted his status as a gentleman. Mr Bentley, senior, died in 1760, when Nathaniel was about twenty-five-years old, leaving his son a successful business.

Nathaniel Bentley, also known as ‘Dirty Dick’

So far, so good.

As a young man, Nathaniel was dubbed ‘The beau of Leadenhall Street’ and praised for his good manners and fine clothes. In 1764, a few years after his father died, he visit Paris, where he was welcomed into Parisian society and even met King Louis XV. Politeness and refinement were obviously important to him, and he became and remained a patron of Vauxhall and Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens until the early nineteenth century.

Rotunda, Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, Thomas Bowles, 1754 

But his life then took a curious turn and here it is difficult to sort out fact from fiction. He ceased to be called ‘The beau of Leadenhall St’ and, instead, became notorious for his slovenly dress and ways. He nickname changed to ‘Dirty Dick’. The squalor of the hardware warehouse, where he now lived, hadn’t been cleaned since old Mr Bentley’s death in 1760.

Dead cats hanging behind the ‘Dustbin Bar’ in Dirty Dick’s Old Port Wine & Spirit House, Bishopsgate

Late 18th century pamphlets went to town on the dirt and added some interesting stories; for example, the mysterious dining-room, locked since the sudden death of Nathaniel’s fiancée on their wedding day, leaving the wedding feast still on the table. This was the story which is said to have inspired Charles Dickens’ depiction of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, who deliberately stopped the clock when man she was going to marry jilted her on her wedding day – and also left the wedding feast mouldering on the table.

Dirty Dick’s Alley- nowadays

Nathaniel’s excellent manners seemed to contradict his unkempt and dirty figure and this attracted much attention from the pamphleteers. Unwashed and half-dressed in his shirtsleeves and wearing an ill-powdered wig, he refused to have his house cleaned, claiming that its notoriety was good for trade. He might have had a point. At least, he appears to have had a female fan base from the number of women who visited him, intrigued by the mixture of politeness, his personal dirtiness, and the rumours of his Scrooge-like miserliness. Furthermore, he was supposed to sleep in a coffin.

Dirty Dick’s Corner in the cellar

People were fascinated by the contrast between what he now looked like – and, presumably, smelt like, and his exquisite manners.  In fact the majority of his visitors spoke of the gentlemanliness beneath the grime, politeness being ‘his ruling passion’.

Dead and mummified animals, Dirty Dick’s cellar

As a contemporary piece of doggerel put it:

 

Thou art (’tis said) a very comely man,

 Of polish’d language, partial to the fair,

Then why not wash thy face,

And comb thy matted hair?

 

So what happened to the Warehouse after Nathaniel left 46 Leadenhall St when the lease expired in 1804?

Dirty Dick’s Old Port Wine & Spirit House, Bishopsgate (Centre – with the two vaulted windows at the top)

The canny proprietors of the neighbouring The Old Jerusalem drinking house in Bishopsgate, just round the corner from the Bentley warehouse, knew an opportunity when they saw it. They jumped in, swiftly appropriated the Dirty Dick name, and, Hey, presto! The Old Jerusalem became Dirty Dick’s Old Port Wine & Spirit House. They also adopted Nathaniel Bentley’s story – or, more accurately, what the pamphlets had done with his story, and made sure that the pub’s dirt and grime was intensified by hanging dead cats from the low ceilings, together with allowing dust and cobwebs to festoon the rafters and never cleaning the filthy bars. It swiftly became a popular drinking venue for those who enjoyed slumming it for an evening.    

 

Mummified cat and dead bird in Dirty Dick’s cellar

Dirty Dick’s was rebuilt in the 1870s, though the earlier cellars, some without floorboards, are still there. The hanging cats have now gone but there are a few glass cases in the basement containing some of Dirty Dick’s ‘curiosities’: mummified cats, dead birds and so on, and there are a number of scruffy corners in the cellar if you want a quiet drink in a seedy atmosphere.

Upstairs at Dirty Dick’s Old Port Wine & Spirit House, Bishopsgate

Upstairs is now much classier but still atmospheric.

The rest of Nathaniel’s life is rather sad. After he left Leadenhall St, he moved to Aldgate, only a mile or so away and then to Shoreditch for a further year, where a theft robbed him of much of his money. He left London and moved about fairly erratically ending up in Musselburgh, a small port just outside Edinburgh. He eventually moved to nearby Haddington where he died of fever in 1809. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, at his death he was worth £400, so he wasn’t, as some have had it, a beggar. It wasn’t a huge amount either but he could, if he had chosen, have at least lived in modest comfort.

His is still a very curious story.

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

 

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10 Responses to The Curious Story of ‘Dirty Dick’ (1735-1809)

  • Fascinating, Elizabeth, and rather sad, too. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Thank you for your comment, Melinda. Actually, I’m not sure how much of Nathaniel’s story I believe, particularly him meeting King Louis XV in Paris. Considering how exclusive the court of Versailles was in the 1760s, it strikes me as most unlikely that a merchant’s son, however well dressed and well-mannered, would get an entree to the court without a proper introduction from an English aristocrat.

      I asked my Historian brother about this and he said that King Louis set apart a day of the week when the public could come to Versailles and he made himself available to meet his subjects – so it is perfectly possible that Nathanial Bentley did actually meet him.

  • What an extraordinary tale! I had heard of Dirty Dick’s referred to in novels occasionally, patronised by the male sex, if I remember rightly. But I had no idea of this. It looks uncertain whether the dead cats (revolting!) were there in Dick’s time or if they were put in by the innkeepers who capitalised on his notoriety. Not surprised he was a popular figure. The 18th century gentry liked nothing better than a curiosity, not having a great deal else to think about when they weren’t looking after their estates (in the case of men) or having babies (women obviously). A bit early for my books or I’d put him at once! Thanks for a fascinating piece of info.

    • I’m glad you found it of interest, Elizabeth. I hesitated about doing a blog with such revolting photos! But, in the end, I decided to go ahead; we are going through difficult times and I felt that something as wacky as this might take readers’ minds off the current situation for a few moments. I love doing posts on Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer (very cheering) but I also like my posts to be about a variety of topics.

  • How curious. I suppose Old Jerusalem’s rebranding and subsequent embellishments must be what makes telling the truth of this man’s story so difficult.
    It is indeed a sad story and perhaps also a cautionary tale.
    A very poignant reminder that we all need to take care of our social circles and personal hygiene. Very well selected.
    Thanks as usual Elizabeth.

  • This brought a smile to my face, Elizabeth, as well as a certain memory! I first visited London in 1957. I was 18 at the time and coming from up north, very naive. My friend and I went to stay with someone we’d met on holiday in the summer, a real East Ender, who lived in Flower and Dean Street. Although we visited many places during our stay, including the very popular coffee bars, we also visited ‘Dirty Dick’s’ presumably the one on Bishopgate, as per your photo. There were still many cobwebs and such though I don’t remember any dead animals, we were absolutely fascinated and horrified! I doubt it would be allowed now in the days of ‘elf and safety but still you brought back a vivid memory. Thank you!

    • How fascinating, Anne, thank you so much for your comment which I’m sure my readers will enjoy as much as I do. I can imagine that the Bishopgate area was still pretty rough back in 1957 with the odd bombsite still around, covered in rosebay willow herb. That neck of the woods still has a few dodgy alleyways. On the whole, Dirty Dick’s is now perfectly respectable and, indeed, the first floor is decidedly trendy, though the basement, as my photos show, is still pretty basic – and the dead animals are confined in out of the way cases, hidden in dark corners. You have to know where to look to find them.

  • Thank you, Elizabeth. What a fascinating and sad story you have unearthed. It would be so interesting to know what lay behind his transformation from ‘the beau’ to ‘Dirty Dick’. I’m also intrigued that it seems ladies were not necessarily put off by his slovenly appearance – or as you say, his smell!

    • Thank you for your comment, Eleanor. It appears that Nathaniel had had a very strict upbringing – though what that actually meant we don’t know. He always had a hankering for ‘squalor’ as well as fine dress. Eventually, the squalor won out but his good manners remained a part of his personality. I suspect that there was a lot of ‘re-writing’ of his story in the late 18th century – it was good for business to make ‘Dirty Dick’ as repulsive and peculiar as possible, especially after the business had moved to the pub in Bishopsgate and the original old warehouse was demolished.