BY TOBY PORTER
In the bad old days, saying somebody had big bones was a none-too-subtle insult.
But you can also say that about the Brockley Jack pub – whose unique artefact suggested that, if you went into the pub, you would have a whale of a time.
For a few months, though, the hostelry’s unique selling point – its 180-year-old whale shoulder bone – went mysteriously missing.
How do you lose something the size of a car bonnet, though?
How had it been replaced in the Brockley Road pub by a TV screen, showing overpaid soccer stars kicking not footballs but cute cats?
Had it been pinched, dumped or sold?
Legend has it the pub, which has been around for centuries, was the haunt of buccaneering bandits who stereotypically stole from rich stagecoaches and made aristocratic ladies swoon.
They were probably just ugly syphilis-racked addicts who couldn’t pull a fast one, though.
But its most memorable feature is the whale shoulder bone, shown in countless photos and paintings through the decades.
The bone was restored 15 years ago by Ben McCrea – he stripped the paint off it and maintained it until his death on June 12 2019.
Its disappearance provoked some head-scratching, because – make no bones about it – locals seem to have been told different stories about what happened to it.
Resident Ian Richardson, of nearby Ommaney Road, said: “It’s a unique heritage item and mentioned often in local histories and national pub histories. It predates the current pub’s building in 1898.
“It would be hard to overstate what a part it has in community consciousness in the area.
Greene King, the chain owners, recognised it as such in 2008 when they refurbished and stabilised the piece and remounted it on the wall.”
The Brockley Jack Pub Twitter account said on February 11: “It was dangerously hanging of the wall and to heavy to fix so auctioned of to locals for charity well over a year ago”.
Another resident, Nicola Johnson, told the We Love SE4 Facebook page: “[It] had been replaced by a TV.
When [a friend] enquired where the whale bone was, she was told that it had been ‘auctioned off to locals for charity well over a year ago’.”
But on Monday, Ben’s daughter-in-law Lisa Barber told the Facebook page that Ben’s son Jamie has had it in his garage since last June.
Lisa added: “My father-in-law passed away and on his one-year anniversary last year we went to the pub and found out they were going to throw the whale bone away.”
She told the South London Press this week: “There was lots of paperwork with the bone, apparently and we were told they would send it to us, but they have not.”
Lisa and a nature conservation trust, Fourth Reserve, are now planning to install it in a nearby church, next to a planned nature reserve in Green Chain Walk.
“We thought it would better staying in Grove Park than going to the Horniman Museum, which was another suggestion,” she added. “I don’t know why the pub said it had been auctioned off because that was never the case.”
Her partner, Ben’s son Jamie, said: “We visited for my dad’s anniversary and found it was not on the wall. We asked if we could take it away – we were surprised they let us.
It means so much to everyone.
Now wherever it goes, I want to scatter my dad’s ashes in the same location.”
The whale bone is the only surviving artefact from when Brockley was a rural Kentish hamlet, before the Victorians developed it into the London suburb of Crofton Park.
The inn had be previously known as The Crooked Billet in the 18th century, and The Castle in the first-half of the 19th century.
Legend has it that the pub was frequented by numerous dastardly highwaymen including the infamous Dick Turpin. But it was named after Jack Cade, leader of the 1450 Kentish Uprising.
Photographs from the 1890s show the bone nailed to a dead elm tree outside the pub.
It was first mentioned in 1864 but was probably in place much earlier.
It may have been found during the building of a canal from 1801-09 on the route of what is now the London Bridge rail line between Brockley and Honor Oak stations, which runs beside the pub.
There were also suggestions it was the shoulder blade of Black Bess, Dick Turpin’s horse, or from a circus elephant, or from an implausibly large sheep.
Main Picture: Lisa Barber and Jamie McCrea; and of the whale bone