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The Historic Pubs of London

by Pearl Harris

The history of the Pub goes back to the Romans, who first introduced Tabernae to England, where food, wine and ale were sold.

After the departure of the Romans, Alehouses sprang up all over the country. Ale is a potent brew of malted barley, similar to beer but without the hops. With increasing industrial pollution in England, water no longer was safe to drink, so ale became the drink of necessity.

Inns were run by Monks to feed and house travelers. The Tabard, one of London's most famous Inns, unfortunately no longer exists. This inn was forever immortalized by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400:

"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, ..."

(In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage
To Canterbury with full devout courage...")

In the Elizabethan era, the tavern, which sold only wine, was established. The tavern, in contrast to the alehouse, a place for the working man, catered to a more elite clientele of professionals. It became the fashionable place to be seen. The Anchor and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese are two examples of historic London taverns still open today.

The advent of coach travel necessitated the establishment of the coaching inn, which fed, watered and accommodated passengers, coachmen and horses. The word "pub" was coined by the Victorians for the popular Public House. Today the pub is an English institution. This is the place to meet friends, enjoy a good meal, relax or do business. It is also a place for families, as recent changes in the law allow minors into pubs if accompanied by adults. Some pubs also provide accommodation.

The George Inn

77 Borough High Street, Borough, London, SE1 1NH.

The George Inn

One of London's oldest pubs, situated in Southwark near London Bridge, The George Inn is the city's only surviving galleried coaching inn. It was rebuilt in 1676 after being damaged in a destructive fire. The George Inn was fortunately saved from demolition, unlike its historic counterpart, The Tabard, which was demolished in the 19th century.

However, as rail travel superseded coach travel, a large portion of The George Inn was knocked down by the Great Northern Railway to create space for warehouses. Only the south face was left intact and is now in the care of the National Trust.

The George Inn has several connecting bars on the ground floor. The galleried section, which contained the accommodation for travelers, is now the restaurant. The former Waiting Room for coachmen and passengers is now The Old Bar. The Coffee Room, frequented by Charles Dickens, is now The Middle Bar. On the wall to the right of The Middle Bar, Dickens' life insurance policy is displayed. Dickens mentions The George in Little Dorrit: "..if he (Tip Dorrit) goes into the George and writes a letter..."

Ye Olde Cheshire
Cheese Pub

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

145 Fleet Street, City of London, EC4A 2BU.

"I've seen all of England, " she said. "I've seen Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and His Majesty's Theatre and the Savoy and the Cheshire Cheese...." (Piccadilly Jim- P.G. Wodehouse)

The vaulted cellars of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese are thought to have been part of a 13th-century Carmelite Monastery. The former inn on this site, dating back to 1538, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Most of the pub was rebuilt in 1667.

At the entrance, a board records the reigns of the fifteen monarchs through which Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has endured.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is exactly what one imagines an English pub to be, with its warren of narrow passages and staircases connecting the bars and dining rooms on various levels. Open fireplaces, dark wooden beams and low ceilings add to the cozy atmosphere.

Due to its location on Fleet Street, once home of the newspaper trade, The Cheshire Cheese was the favorite watering hole of journalists, in addition to a host of renowned literary and other well-known personages, such as Charles Dickens, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Thackeray, Pope, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jack Dempsey, Teddy Roosevelt and Polly.

The death of Polly, the parrot (now stuffed) in the ground floor bar whose repute for mimicking customers for forty years was legendary, was announced on BBC radio and in newspaper obituaries around the world.

On display are the chair and dictionary of Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of the pub's most illustrious past customers, whose house is nearby. (See The London of Samuel Johnson.) His portrait adorns the wall of The Chop Room, which is reserved for diners. Fairly recently, a portrait of Johnson and Boswell, his biographer, was discovered in a cellar.

John Galsworthy commented in The Forsyte Saga on the huge pies once served here, which weighed up to 80 pounds, filled with beef, kidneys, oysters, larks, mushrooms and spices. Delicious pub grub is still served in this genuine London pub, well deserving of its epithet, "Ye Olde". The Prospect of Whitby Pub

The Prospect of Whitby

57 Wapping Wall, Wapping, London, E1W 3SJ.

The Prospect of Whitby, originally known as "The Devil's Tavern," was built in 1543 and became notorious during the 17th century as a smugglers' meeting place. Having being destroyed by an 18th-century fire, it was rebuilt and renamed "The Prospect of Whitby" after a ship of the same name that was anchored nearby.

The pub interior is crammed with a fascinating array of ships' relics, including lanterns, ropes and wheels. The dark wood paneling, pewter-topped bar resting on barrels, parts of a ship's mast forming the upright pillars, and flagstone floor all contribute to the pub's unique décor.

It is a rare pleasure to sit out on the small balcony perched above the Thames. Others might prefer the pleasant terrace, from which superb views of the Isle of Dogs and the river may be enjoyed. A rooftop terrace also overlooks the Thames.

The Prospect of Whitby must have been vastly different in past centuries, with its unsavory clientele and surroundings, when the River Thames was packed with countless foreign vessels. Today, the occasional vessel cruises by, the surrounding warehouses have been converted into exclusive apartments and the clientele is a mix of tourists and locals. An up-market restaurant was opened upstairs in the 1950s and has hosted royalty such as Princess Margaret and Prince Rainier.

The Anchor

34 Park Street, Borough, London, SE1 9EF. The Anchor Pub34 Park

Dating from the 1600s, The Anchor, with a famous past clientele, is situated in Bankside close to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern Gallery. Extensive modernization and enlargement of this ancient tavern resulted in the creation of an additional large bar in the walled courtyard. A Premier Hotel was constructed at the rear, somehow overshadowing the original historic pub. The bars on the left, however, are still well worth a visit.

It was from The Anchor that Samuel Pepys viewed the Great Fire of London in 1666. He fled the intense heat of a boat on the river to seek shelter in "a little alehouse on bankside ... and there watched the fire grow". Dr. Johnson was another regular customer to The Anchor, which has a copy of his dictionary on display.

In 1676, The Anchor was rebuilt after another devastating fire. The entire pub's structure has been added to over the ages, making it a fascinating hive of rooms containing several congenial bars.

The Shakespeare Room is used for functions, while the main dining room provides spectacular vistas over the river and city. A riverside terrace and balcony are other pleasant venues.

More Historic London Pubs:

The Seven Stars, 53 Carey Street, Holborn, London. Built in 1602, this is one of a handful of buildings in this area to have survived the Great Fire of 1666. Situated as it is opposite The Inns of Court and Royal Courts of Justice, The Seven Stars is frequented by the legal profession.

Museum Tavern, 49 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London. Situated opposite the British Museum, on the site of an 18th-century pub, "The Dog and Duck". This popular pub changed its name after the British Museum was built in the 1760s. It was visited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.B. Priestley and Karl Marx.

Grapes, 76 Narrow Street, Limehouse, London. Built in 1720 on the site of a previous pub, this was a working class tavern. It was frequented by Charles Dickens, who immortalized it as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend.

Trafalgar Tavern, Park Row, Greenwich. Built in 1837, this is a magnificent example of a Regency-style pub. It used to be the venue for Whitebait Suppers attended by Members of Parliament. In 1915, the Trafalgar became a seamen's hostel and later a working men's club. It was re-opened as a pub in 1965.

The Salisbury, at 90 St. Martin's Lane, Covent Garden, London. Built as a restaurant, the "Salisbury Stores", in 1892 and later converted into a pub, its extravagant décor includes art nouveau light fittings and cut glass mirrors. The Salisbury is an outstanding example of a Victorian pub.

Ye Olde Mitre, on Ely Place off Chancery Lane, was founded in 1546. It boasts a tree trunk in the front bar, which is said to have been part of a maypole that Elizabeth I danced around!

The Jerusalem Tavern in Britton Street EC1 was the pub of choice of Handel and William Hogarth. This pub stocks some of the best real ales in London.

The Star Tavern in Belgravia is surrounded by mews cottages, which were originally stables. It is thought that The Great Train Robbery was planned here.

The French House on Dean Street W1 was named after the World War II Resistance fighters who met here.

The Prospect of Whitby Pub

London pubs are brimful of history, many of their names reflecting either an historic event or personage. What better way indeed of being transported back through the annals of time than by sipping a refreshing drink in a cozy pub haunted by the ghosts of its past illustrious or notorious clientele?

Related Articles:

A Beginner's Guide to British Pubs, by Graham Hughes

Haunted Pubs of England, by Dr. Gareth Evans

A History of Britain in Its Pub Signs, by Elaine Saunders

The London of Samuel Johnson, by Sean McLachlan

More Information:

Pub and Inn Accommodation Directory

Traditional and Historic London Pubs

Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in South Africa. In 2002, she emigrated to the Czech Republic with her husband, their dog and cat. Pearl resides permanently in the Czech Republic where she works as a freelance travel writer, English teacher and proof-reader. Her main passion is travel. Having traveled extensively in Africa, Europe,the USA and UK, she never intends to stop. Other interests are pets, photography, reading and writing. Pearl, a retired Diagnostic Radiographer, has a B.A. in English and Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL qualification. Her only daughter, a professional photographer, lives in New Orleans.
Article © 2007 Pearl Harris
Anchor Pub © 2008 by Moira Allen; additional photos courtesy of VisitLondon.com and britainonview.com


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