The Bishop’s Boozy Bender: a Christmas Tale

During the run-up to Christmas 2006, the Bishop of Southwark reported to police that he had been the victim of a shocking street mugging, in which he had been seriously injured and robbed of several personal possessions including his ceremonial crucifix. A few days later, a very different story emerged of what had happened, and it turned out to be an absolute cracker of a yuletide yarn. But was it true?

Featuring a pub-crawl, a drinking song, and an idea for an appropriate festive beverage, Soul City Wanderer investigates ‘the curious incident of the Bishop in the night-time.’


Over the years, churchgoers have got used to prelates who preach parables from the pulpit on the evils of drink, only to be snapped shortly afterwards, attending some civil function fully three cassocks to the wind. Indeed, alliterative ‘Boozy Bishop’ headlines are now a stock-in-trade for Fleet Street subs, who recognise how their readers enjoy spluttering with indignation at the hypocrisy of sanctimonious sermonising.

It was Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark from 1959-1980, who first cemented the image of the mashed mitre in the Anglican arena. Stockwood most famously made headlines when he appeared on a controversial 1979 TV chat show accusing the Monty Python team of blasphemy for their movie Life of Brian. But it was his reportedly prodigious capacity for alcohol that raised eyebrows, with the Synod unsettled by such claims as “the drunker he became, the sharper his memory”. The Labour politician Tony Benn recalled “amusing” parties at the Bishop’s Streatham residence. Here, Stockwood was reputed to have a wine cellar that mirrored the hierarchy of the Church of England, with vintages divided by quality into sections for Laity, Clerical, Bishopric and Royalty. More worryingly for the Anglican council, was that he had also revealed the drinking habits of his fellow clerics in wine writer Cyril Ray’s periodical The Compleat Imbiber.

Stockwood wasn’t averse to be seen with the ‘demon’ in public places either. Newspaper images from 1963 entitled the “Men of the World” show Stockwood in a drinking session with fully-frocked clergymen at the Anchor pub on Bankside in Southwark. In particular, Stockwood was an active agent in an infamous illegal afterhours session held at the George pub on Borough High Street in the 1960s. It was attended by one of his favourite drinking pals, none other than Princess Margaret. The incident was described in Pete Brown’s 2012 book, Shakespeare’s Local. The author explains how Stockwood defended his actions by declaring, “Anyone would think there’s one law for princesses and bishops, and another for the rest of us.”

Rev Stockwood and Princess Margaret with the landlord of the George pub on Borough High Street.

But the most notorious incident involving a Bishop of Southwark was the one that concerned Stockwood’s replacement Thomas Butler. On December 6th 2006, the 66-year-old prelate contacted the police to reveal that he had been attacked the previous evening by unknown assailants in a violent street robbery, in which he’d suffered several injuries, a loss of memory, and a loss of several personal possessions including his briefcase, his mobile phone and his ceremonial crucifix.

Given his status and position as a pillar of society, the police took the complaint very seriously and launched an immediate investigation. However, after interviewing several key witnesses, a very different version of events began to filter through, and it heavily contradicted the Bishop’s account. The full story may never be known, but we can be ascertain a pretty good idea of what happened by piecing together the available facts. To do that, we must set the backdrop, and go back to Thursday, November 30th 2006.

Hop Exchange building on Southwark Street

On that afternoon, the memorial service of the brewery magnate John Young took place at Southwark Cathedral. It was one of the largest gatherings of British beer industry heavyweights that had ever been seen, and as likely, would ever be seen again.

Southwark had been carefully chosen for such a commemoration. It has strong historic ties to the brewing industry. Ever since medieval times, hops had been carted up the Old Kent Road to the London marketplace. Echoes of erstwhile merchant trading are redolent in the Hop Exchange building on Southwark Street and the LeMay Hop Factors headquarters on Borough High Street.

Ghostly reminders of famous pubs are found in the alleyways off this thoroughfare: The Tabard, the inn from whence the pilgrims set forth in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; The Queen’s Head, the sale of which helped fund the establishment of Harvard University in America; and the aforementioned George, likely to have been frequented by William Shakespeare, and a section of which still stands. Southwark was even chosen as a movie location for perhaps the most famous fantasy pub, the Leaky Cauldron in the Harry Potter series.

The Anchor brewery

Southwark Cathedral is just a tankard’s throw from where once stood the biggest beer plant in the world: the Anchor Brewery. It was established in Shakespearean times, right next door to the playwright’s famous Globe Theatre. By 1850, it covered 10 acres. The huge brewhouse was 1/3 mile in circumference. The site also included a malt store, coal cellar, furnace, boiler house, cooling room, cooperage, cleaning sheds, cask sheds, offices, stables and an export warehouse on the river Thames, which when demolished, revealed the remains of Roman warehouse that had been used to store… beer!

At its peak, the brewery’s 24-hour operation saw the production of over seven million gallons of beer annually (56 million pints). It was a major attraction with over 10,000 visitors a month. Famous tourists included King Edward VII, Napoleon III and Otto Von Bismarck. A diplomatic incident occurred here in 1849 when the visiting brutal Austrian dictator General Haynau was attacked by employees. The Italian revolutionary Garibaldi later visited the brewery staff to personally thank them.

However, the only thing now served is local memory. The last barrel of Courage Best left the plant 20 years before John Young’s memorial service. And just 10 weeks before his thanksgiving mass, the last ale had been brewed at the famous Young’s brewery in Wandsworth. For the south London beer industry, it was truly the end of an era.

The commemoration started early doors when mourners piled into the nearby Wheatsheaf pub, a Young’s house. After a ‘proper’ lunchtime session they made their way through the bustling Borough Market to join a huge congregation of over 500 mourners inside the cathedral. Owners and representatives of Britain’s most famous breweries were in attendance including Brains, Fullers, Hall & Woodhouse, Hook Norton, Shepherd Neame and Wadworths.

The service was of course, conducted by our friend, the Bishop of Southwark, Thomas Butler. The more historically-minded amongst the congregation may have noted that his surname was somewhat appropriate, as it derives from a medieval courtly position that originally meant the officer in charge of wine and beer. In his eulogy, the Bishop told of his own affination with the industry when he revealed that he had started his career as a clerk in a brewery. He recounted being taught a valuable life-lesson there of how to ‘pace’ oneself. The gospel reading was also thoughfully chosen. It was the account of the wedding of Cana, when the booze ran out and Jesus saved the day by turning the water into wine.

After the service, the Bishop hosted a reception in a marquee attached to the side of the cathedral. There was a copious amount of champagne available for the multiple charging of glasses. In addition, umpteen barrels of Young’s beer had been delivered especially for the occasion by a dray pulled by four black shire horses. No-one could accuse Bishop Butler of not being able to organise a piss-up for a brewery. Suffice to say, Old John Young was given a proper send-off, and a good time was had by all.

Irish Embassy, Grosvenor Place. Phillip Perry CC license BY-SA 2.0

But all this is merely a prelude to the main event. Five days later, on the afternoon of Tuesday December 5th, the Bishop attended a Christmas party given by the Irish Embassy, which is sited just behind Buckingham Palace in London. Dressed in a suit and red clerical-collared shirt befitting his station, the Bishop spent several hours enjoying the convivial hospitality. As the Guinness, spirits and wine freely flowed, he ended up more than a little ‘animated’. Witnesses reported him slurring his words, repeatedly loudly announcing himself as the Bishop of Southwark, and clumsily manhandling other guests.

Sometime around 9pm, amid persuasion and protestations, the Bishop was ‘encouraged’ to leave, much to the embarrassed Ambassador’s relief. Apparently, the Bishop’s intention was to return to his private residence in south London. However, about half an hour later, he reappeared on the other side of the city, wandering along the dark and desolate streets behind London Bridge railway station, with a bruised face and clearly the worse for wear.

Suchard Freehouse bar, Crucifix Lane. Kake CC license BY-NC-SA 2.0

On Crucifix Lane, on the outskirts of Bermondsey, he clambered into the back of a parked car setting off its alarm. The vehicle’s owner raced out from a nearby bar to find the Bishop sprawled over the back seat. The owner was then taken aback by a barrage of his children’s soft toys which the Bishop was now flinging at him. The owner demanded: “What are doing in my car?” only to be stunned by the now legendary reply: “I’m the Bishop of Southwark. It’s what I do.”

With the help of the bar manager, the prelate was hauled out of the vehicle, and a fractious street argument followed as a group of onlookers gathered. The situation calmed and the Bishop flopped down on the kerb, ignoring all offers of assistance. Suddenly, he scrambled back to his feet and crossed to the other side of the lane claiming he was actually the Bishop of Woolwich.

Totally oblivious to the trail of chaos he had left behind him, he then staggered off under the railway arch towards Holy Rood Street. Somehow from here, he found his way back to his residence in deepest south London. He wasn’t dropped off in a cab, so he either took a late train from London Bridge to Streatham, or the Northern Line tube to Tooting Bec.

Crucifix Lane by Daviddje CC license BY 2.0

A couple of weeks after the incident, the press got wind of the story. Unfortunately, the mystery deepened with subsequent incorrect media reports. In the Daily Mail’s investigation which appeared on December 20th 2006, there were a number of discrepancies in the Bishop’s movements. For example, it was reported that the embassy reception was held in Mayfair. In fact, it took place a good walking mile away in Belgravia. The address of the Bishop’s residence, his final stop, was also incorrect. But most unfairly, the report stated that the Bishop conducted the John Young memorial service earlier that same day, when it had actually taken place several days earlier, as laid out above. However, what could not be disputed, was that the Bishop’s antics of that fateful evening were now being sown into legend.

Six months later, an inquiry into the incident was set up by Church of England. It was a shameless cover-up. There was not much of a case to answer. The police had turned a blind eye and taken no further action. The Bishop was exonerated by the Church from any wrongdoing as lawyers advised that nothing could be proved. In fact, with the Bishop claiming he had absolutely no recollection of the evening’s events, it was even suggested by his defence that the entire episode may have been the consequence of him suffering from a neurological condition known as ‘transient global amnesia’.

I’ll leave the last words on the matter to probably the most reliable witness, the owner of the car that the Bishop had crawled into (who the inquiry investigators had inexplicably not called to testify). In an interview with reporters, he gave short shrift to the theory of the Bishop’s ‘transient global amnesia’: “I know steaming drunk when I see it, and he was steaming drunk… there is no doubt… the man could hardly stand up… he stank of booze.”


Now, Southwark is a place close to the heart of the Soul City Wanderer. Back in the 1980s, I spent many an afternoon ‘networking’ in the local pubs as part of a working baptism. I have also been conducting guided walks around the area since before the Bishop’s famed wanderings.

But this story has always fascinated me. Over time, as with all good legends, inaccuracies and other minor factual errors have found their way into subsequent publications, and certain details have been embellished to fit the narrative of this festive fable. So far be it for me to let the facts stand in the way of a good Southwark story, or indeed, stand in the way of a mini-industry (festive pub-crawls now take place with revellers resplendent in t-shirts emblazoned with the legend: “I’m the Bishop of Southwark. It’s what I do.”).

So, in tribute to the seasonal shenanigans, here is Soul City Wanderer’s own 10-stop pub crawl, one most likely match to Bishop Butler’s route on that December evening, together with an alliteratively titled drinking song in tribute.

If you wish to partake in a libation after each verse, how about a glass of Smoking Bishop? It’s a type of mulled punch which contains port, red wine, citrus fruits, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace and nutmeg. Scrooge mentions the beverage in the closing lines of A Christmas Carol. See the recipe here. Cheers and Merry Christmas!

George pub on Borough High Street

The Bishop’s Bender pub crawl

  1. Horse & Groom, Groom Place (off Chapel Street).
    Closest pub to the Irish Embassy which is on the corner of Grosvenor Place & Chapel Street. The nearest mainline rail station is Victoria. Nearest tube station is Hyde Park Corner.
  2. Grenadier, Wilton Row.
    Then, from Hyde Park Corner tube stn take the Piccadilly Line one stop to Green Park and change for the Jubilee Line. Alight at London Bridge and exit onto Borough High St.
  3. The Old King’s Head, King’s Head Yard.
  4. The George, Borough High Street.
  5. The Southwark Tavern, Stoney Street (Borough Market).
  6. The Wheatsheaf, Stoney Street (Borough Market).
  7. The Globe Tavern, Bedale Street (Borough Market)
  8. The Bunch of Grapes, St Thomas Street.
  9. The Horseshoe Inn, Melior Street.
  10. Shipwrights Inn, Tooley Street (via Bermondsey Street)
    London Bridge mainline rail and tube station is on Tooley Street.

The Ballad of the Boozy Bishop
At the Irish embassy, with Christmas in full swing,
I told ‘em I’m a man of god, so kiss my holy ring,
And when they tried to make me leave, I raised a ballyhoo,
Singing, “I’m the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do.

And then from Hyde Park Corner, I carried on my spree,
Piccadilly, Pickled, and on the Jubilee,
Across the mighty river Thames, I met my Waterloo,
Singing, “I’m the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do.

In the southern part of town is where I get my kicks,
London Bridge is falling down, I lose my crucifix,
Passers-by avoid me, as I come stumbling through,
Singing, “I’m the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do.

I found a car to sleep in, I didn’t mean no harm,
I crawled onto the back seat, but set off the alarm.
The owner pulled me out, and shouted: “who the hell are you?”
Singing, “I’m the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do.

The next day in my sermon, to justify my loss:
I told ‘em I was stumped at where I’d left my holy cross.
“I still remember nothing. I haven’t got a clue.”
Singing, “I’m the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do.

So at Christmas-time remember, this very sober tale:
When you’ve been drinking too much wine and too much holy ale,
There’s just one explanation, to give the boys in blue:
Singing, “I’m the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do.


Sources:
Benn, Tony. The Benn Diaries: 1940-1990 (May 1963).
Brown, Pete. Shakespeare’s Local. MacMillan, 2012.
De-La-Noy, Michael. Obituaries: The Right Rev Mervyn Stockwood. The Independent (Oct 23, 2011).
Heald, Tim. Yet Another Death in Venice (2014).
Time Magazine (May 30, 1969).
https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2006/12/07/John-Young-slips-the-surly-bonds-of-earth acc May 2018.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-423811/So-did-happen-drinks-embassy-Bishop.html acc May 2018.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/why-didnt-boozy-bish-get-bashed-480834


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Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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