London Pubs - A Brief History
London has the largest concentration of England's pub heritage. Apart from one or two possible exceptions; none pre-date the Great Fire of 1666. Of course when London was rebuilt it included the construction of many taverns, inns and alehouses. The decades that followed the fire saw England develop rapidly as an industrial nation and the capital drew in those looking for opportunities, as well as those displaced by the mechanisation of farming.
"Cheshire Cheese rebuilt after the Great Fire"
London expanded into the adjacent countryside enveloping rural villages, its population grew exponentially, and its population was a thirsty one. By the mid eighteenth century, for example, Westminster boasted a pub for every 116 people. Improvements in roads and the increased need to transport goods and people for commercial purposes saw the creation of splendid coaching inns across the country and in London in particular. In the towns the working population drank in alehouses, whilst the better off wined and dined in the taverns.
With so many pubs, why have so few survived intact? Perhaps the most significant changes occurred during the 19th century. The railway age had arrived by the mid 1800’s and many of the fine coaching inns were either in the wrong place or simply no longer needed. Steam trains travelled faster, further; a journey of two days by stagecoach, with the required changes of horses and an overnight stay, could now be accomplished in a few hours. All but a handful of London’s coaching inns were demolished, those that survived were either neglected or converted into goods warehouses for the railways.
"The George Inn, two thirds
demolished for railway"
Almost as the coaching inns disappeared, the Beer Act of 1830 (aka Wellington’s Beer Act, for the Duke was Prime Minister) created pubs in almost every street, modest parlours of ordinary houses were opened as pubs; they could not sell spirits, as in part their creation was an attempt the counter the proliferation of gin and gin shops. Some of these modest ‘beerhouses’ are still open in London today, although they are now fully licensed.
Most of the pubs in London we regard as ‘heritage pubs’ were built or reconstructed in the mid to late 19th century when a clamour for pubs began, partly due to suppression of the number of licenses and partly due to expansion of the Burton-on-Trent brewers into London. This period saw hundreds of old pubs demolished or refurbished, to be replaced by the swanky ‘gin palaces’ which have now become the iconic Victorian London pub.
This boom was soon followed by bust at the turn of the 20th century. Alcohol consumption fell and few pubs were built in the early part of the century. The First World War saw further suppression of the pub and the introduction of shorter opening hours, as well as state control of pubs in Carlisle and Gretna. During the interwar years there further consolidation in the brewing industry and the acquisition of pubs by the big brewers who saw it as a means of securing their outlets. Many of these were ‘improved’ by the removal of their Victorian and Edwardian interiors.
All through the 20th century the number of pubs gradually declined partly due to a more sober public, social improvement and other distractions such as restaurants, cinema, sports and motoring. Many of London’s pubs were destroyed during the Blitz in 1940 and post war clearances of large areas of London particularly in the East End.
The 1950’s and 1960’s were decades of modernisation and corporatisation and many pubs again suffered from ‘improvement’ or ‘theme-ing’. This was also the time when forward thinking brewers such as Ind Coope and Watneys were ditching traditional brewing in favour of more reliable and more profitable keg (pasteurised) beers. The Beer Orders Act of 1986 which made large brewers sell off vast swathes of their pub estates put the fox in charge of the hens, the consequences we see with every pub ‘For Sale’ board.
The destruction of traditional pub interiors continues today, a partition here, an etched glass window there. It is this kind of change which is the most insidious and destructive, as it happens almost unnoticed and certainly unannounced; chipping away at our heritage and the character of our nation. Oddly the authentic is often replaced with the fake, airport bars are decked out in dark panelling and brass lamps whilst the genuine article is stripped out to resemble an airport lounge. It is indeed an irony that in a so called ’public house’ the public has no say what happens to ‘their’ pub.
Credit has to be given to some brewers and pub companies who have kept some pubs as ‘heritage pubs’, not always with an eye on authenticity but at least a sympathetic attitude. The Nicholson brand, now in the hands of Punch Taverns, has traded on their pub’s heritage status to great effect, with many of their pubs proudly displayed on this site. Samuel Smith’s, the Yorkshire brewer, is exemplary for their care and investment is some of London’s greatest pubs, in particular the Princess Louise in Holborn, restored to its former Victorian glory.
The pubs listed below have somehow survived a mauling by brewers, developers, Luftwaffe and vandals, with at least a feeling of the ‘real thing’ if not as untouched as we would like. Enjoy and protect!
A Selection of London's Historic Pubs
The George Inn Southwark
. Rebuilt in 1676 this is London’s only remaining galleried coaching inn. Now owned by the National Trust it is a living reminder of the glory days of the coaching inn.
The Princess Louise, Holborn
. This exquisite Victorian pub has been carefully restored by Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith. A bland exterior hides an extraordinary interior, its superb ceramic decoration is breathtaking. The Gents loos are pretty awesome too.
The Black Friar, Blackfriars
. A post Victorian Arts and Crafts marvel, a tongue in cheek whimsy, depicting frolicking friars in pursuit drinking heaven.
Argyll Arms, Soho
. Tucked away near the London Palladium, this small pub has the glitz of a palace. Its partitioned booths are unique, creating an authentic Victorian drinking experience.
Red Lion, Duke of York Street, St. James’s
. Another misnamed ‘gin palace’ similar to the Argyll but majoring in mirrors rather than etched glass. Why cram such a small pub with so much reflective glass? It looks twice the size.
Salisbury, Covent Garden
. A turn of the 20th century dazzler. A riot of etched and cut glass, set off with art deco bronze nymphs. One of London's most elegant pubs.
.A simple alehouse on the Thames. When it was built in the mid seventeenth century it was in the heart of the dock. Well known by Charles Dickens it features as the The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
. A sign outside the pub lists the 13 monarchs that have come and gone since this old tavern was built in 1667. Frequented by Dr. Samuel Johnson, it is one of London's most famous and atmospheric pubs.
Prospect of Whitby, Wapping
. The Devil's Tavern had a fearsome reputation in the 16th century, now it's famous rather than infamous. Tourists flock here for good reason,
Olde Mitre Tavern, Hatton Garden
Sometimes the plainest buildings are the most interesting. The story behind this small 18th century pub is fascinating.
Hand and Shears
. Smithfield A genuine Victorian alehouse in a classic style, no glitz, no embellishment, just lots of character.
. Old photos of this little alehouse show it to be basic and functional. Built in 1830 it was frequented by the Grenadier guards, their barracks were nearby. Superb mid 19th century pewter bar counter.
Prince Alfred, Maida Vale
.Mid 19th century pub, refitted in 1898, its unique facade of curved etched glass, encloses 5 individual bars. Beautifully carved hardwood fittings.
Warrington Hotel, Maida Vale
Richly decorated inside and out in the late 19th century. Ceramics, marble and carved woodwork, come together to make a unique and wonderful pub.
. Small is beautiful at this early 18th century riverside pub. Many famous regulars over the centuries.