A Brief History of the Great Pubs of London

My story “A Brief History of the Great Pubs of London” is in the anthology Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke, sales of which go to English PEN, and which is about to go “out of print” (out of digital?) in about a month. The story is also one of three I currently have listed at the annual Locus Poll.

So, for a bit of fun, and to help any visitors to London decide on a suitable drinking place, I present it for you here. It took years of research. Years!

Great Pubs

 

Art (c) Gary Northfield

A Brief History of the Great Pubs of London

By Lavie Tidhar

The Pilot Inn, Greenwich

There is no evidence to suggest that the Pilot Inn (est. 1801) was the place where that barrel of brandy first came.

Certainly, these are the facts as we know them: that Vice-Admiral the Right Honourable Horatio Nelson, fighting at Trafalgar, was fatally wounded; that his last words were “God and my country”; that his body was then pickled in a casket of brandy mixed with camphor and myrrh; that his body was then carried back to London, removed from its preserving spirits, placed in a coffin, and put on display in the Painted Hall in Greenwich, for three days and three nights; and that the casket of Nelson’s Brandy had, in the interim, disappeared.

The Pilot Inn would have been a new pub at the time, being merely four years in existence at the time of Nelson’s death. We know it was popular with smugglers and ruffians of all sorts throughout the course of the nineteenth century. Beyond that we know little; we can merely postulate.

A story is told of a group of men and women who meet, once a decade, in one or another of London’s pubs. They have been meeting this way for just over two centuries. They come singly, in the night, when the fog sings upon the old stones of old London, and the moon is burnished like a copper coin. They have met this way on the night the young Victoria was crowned; and met again a decade later, during the Panic; and again, a decade later, at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny; and so on down the ages. They have seen Jack come and go, seen the introduction of electric lights to the capital’s streets; they had seen the zeppelins and the planes of the Luftwaffe and the erection of the Wheel. They have seen kings and queens come and go.

Their numbers have fluctuated over the years. Occasionally one or two do not show, and are chalked as lost on the blackboard of this unofficial club. Rarely if ever will a new member be admitted. The surviving members guard the source of their longevity with jealousy.

Picture the scene: the hushed night, the pub reserved, on this of all nights, for a private function. The guests come in, one by one. A fire burns quietly in the hearth. Smoke fills the air, the carpets, worn, swallow the sound of footsteps. Hats and scarves are placed away. Members murmur to one another. Exchange news and gossip of the past decade. Tally those who have come, those who are lost to time. And wait.

Slowly a hush settles. Movement stops. All eyes turn to the bar where the Keeper stands.

Quietly, ceremoniously, he brings out the casket.

Tongues wet suddenly-dry lips. There is a shuffle, as of old brittle papers. Eyes blink, shine, wrinkled hands reach, almost unconsciously, forward.

The Keeper brings out a small wooden cup. With shaking fingers he opens the tap, gently, letting a trickle of the brandy – but just a trickle! – into the cup. All eyes are on him. He lifts the cup. Puts it to his lips. Closes his eyes. Sips.

Ahhhhh…

A sigh passes through the assembled members. The Keeper opens his eyes, and nods.

One by one they come to sip of Nelson’s Brandy. Who knows how long it will last? Some say the casket is half full, still. Some say it is three quarters empty by now. The men and women on that night depart the way they’d come, alone, in silence. But London is full of such societies and clubs.

The Mad Hatter, Surbiton

Recently changed both name and owners. Situated on the Ewell Road, near the ancient fish ponds and opposite a very good Indian restaurant. Notable mainly for a drunken night the current compilers of this guide spent there several years ago in the company of some burly debt collectors and a rather attractive young lady.

Surbiton, a leafy suburb situated on the outskirts of London, in the county of Surrey, is known primarily for its good schools, a cottage industry of adult films, and for the 1970s television sitcom The Good Life.

Less well known is the story of Sebastien St. John, an eighteenth century Knight Templar who, it is said, came to Surbiton (then a notorious den of prostitution serving the London gentry) on secret pilgrimage. It is told that, after visiting and spending a night’s vigil at the fish ponds on the road to Ewell, and taking ale at a hostelry on the site of today’s Mad Hatter, he disappeared. Competing versions of this story nevertheless all agree that St. John was carrying a holy relic of some kind. Some believe it was the Grail, which had been given into the safekeeping of a local brothel-keeper. Others argue for Excalibur, which is said to reside at the bottom of the fish ponds, waiting for a true knight to come and claim it.

Whatever the truth of the story, the Mad Hatter offers a range of ales and lagers on tap and has a beer garden at back. It is pleasant in summer.

The Nell Gwynne, The Strand

Tucked as it is down Bull Inn Court, just off the Strand (on the side of the Adelphi Theatre), this pub is all but invisible to the common pedestrian.

The hurly-burly of the Strand rises and falls like the breathing of London itself. Down that mighty avenue come hansom cabs and barouche-landaus, horses and carts, later replaced by automobiles belching smoke, hybrid cars or double-decker buses. Protesters march along the road, waving placards. Tourists come to gawk and take pictures and enjoy the best of musical theatre the capital has to offer.

The Strand is a major artery of the city of London. But down Bull Inn Court the Nell Gwynne sits in silent splendour, untouched by the sun or by crowds, a place of myth and uncertainty, itself built on the site of the older Bull’s Head pub, where Nell liked to take her drink. It is a tiny scar on the flesh of London, on the mighty arm of the Strand.

It is true Nell Gwynne, the famed actress and mistress of King Charles II, used to come here for her ale. And to this day actors from the nearby theatres sit in that tiny, musty room, along the black polished wood counter, beside scenery men and bricklayers, and make, in time, the hazardous journey to the Nell Gwynne’s tiny bathroom, down a steep flight of stairs, under a low ceiling one must stoop under like a peddler before the king. It is said that knowledge of the pub can never come to a person by chance; that it is invisible to all until such a time as the knowledge is transferred, and one is brought to the pub by another who knows the way. It is a refuge from the world, a hidden pocket in this megalithic city. It is a place of calm, and of reflection.

Then there are the magicians who go there.

Underneath Charing Cross Station, a stone’s throw away, there lies a maze of abandoned shops on the level of the underground station. Excavated in the nineteenth century, it has since become the hangout of the homeless and the desperate, a place with the smell of rough sleeping about it. At the end of one dark, echoey corridor there lies a shop as hidden as the Nell Gwynne itself. It is a shop of magic, for both professional and amateur magicians. It was established in 1898 by Lewis Davenport, a magician, not to be confused with the American Davenport Brothers. Like the Nell Gwynne, unless you know it is there, you will never find it.

The Davenport Brothers came to England in the 1860s, bringing with them their famous spirit cabinet. Spiritualism had enjoyed a boom at that time, first in America and then in the British Isles. Could the brothers really contact the dead? The results of a contemporary investigation by the Ghost Club (est. 1862) were never released.

Davenports’ remains the major magical shop in the United Kingdom, and amateur magicians meet there every second Friday. Some find their way to the Nell Gwynne, where acts of magic are routinely performed in the dark interior.

It is said the Davenport Brothers’ spirit cabinet had been buried underneath the pub; and, at certain times, that various spirits make their presence known in that establishment.

When going, exercise caution. It is just possible the gentleman in the period clothes sipping his beer next to you will evaporate like morning mist if you turn your head; or that the pale lady serving drink will regale you with an inappropriate and anatomically precise story regarding Charles II.

A good range of beer is served, however, and the occasional magician, ghost, or stage actor is usually harmless.

The Red Lion, Soho

Now a cocktail bar under new management and a different name. The Red Lion (est. 1793) stands opposite the Pink Pussycat Club and the Windmill Theatre, where nude tableaux vivants were staged by Vivian Van Damm during the Second World War. The Windmill currently hosts nude table dancing.

The Red Lion is famous as being the pub where Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. Marx worked on his magnum opus in the room upstairs, eventually venturing into the bar below for a drink, or several.

Less well known is the fact that, at the same time, the Red Lion was home to occasional gatherings of time travellers, most of a revolutionary bend. Unlike Crucifixion Tourists or JFK Assassination Enthusiasts, these self-confessed Marxists came to the years of the 1850s to meet the great man and, occasionally, even buy the drinks.

The disappearance of this pub and its replacement with an overpriced cocktail bar is a crime, feel the current compilers of this guide; and one, moreover, that shall see its perpetrators first against the wall when the revolution finally comes.

The Angel, St. Giles Circus

Last stop-over for the condemned as they were led to be hanged. The Angel has a residue of wasted lives; it permeates the walls and the long counter; sometimes, in the downstairs toilets, one can still hear screams. The beer is flavoured with human anguish. One often feels choked on going there. Service can be slow.

The current compilers of this guide miss the days when one could smoke a cheap cigar while sitting in front of the fire at the Angel. And the lack of public hangings in nearby St. Giles Circus means Londoners now must find other forms of entertainment.

The Fortune of War, Smithfields Market

If there is a rule we, as compilers of the present guide value above all others, it is this: never eat at a London pub.

The Fortune of War was popular with body-snatchers. It was located at Pie Corner, on the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane. The Great Fire of London (1666) was said to have terminated at the Fortune of War.

Notorious regulars included John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields and James May, known as the London Burkers. They would steal corpses from nearby graveyards and, when one was not available, sometimes find victims who could be persuaded into becoming corpses with the aid of a blunt instrument.

The snatchers – also known as resurrection men – would often bring their trade into the Fortune of War, storing the corpses in the back room while they enjoyed a pint in the front. The corpses were then disposed of to the various local medical schools.

Demolished in 1910 following a zombie infestation.

The Princess Louise, Holborn

As James Laver wrote, in “Women of 1926”: Come drink your gin, or sniff your “snow”, since Youth is brief, and Love has wings, and time will tarnish, ere we know, the brightness of the Bright Young Things.

And he knew what he was talking about.

It is a Victorian building: chintzy, sordid, dirty, and rather charming, full of burnished brass surfaces, odd, faded prints and carpets scuffed by decades of shoes. In the Roaring Twenties it was a place where the Bright Young Things could come and buy their snow: chief amongst their suppliers were Big V and Brixton Peggy, who were arrested there by the police in a single productive raid.

A listed building, it has changed little over the century or more of its existence. It is a favourite of various small and obscure London societies, playing host, variously, to a British folk music revival in the 1960s and to meetings of the British Fantasy Society in the late nineties and early noughties. On alternate Black Sabbaths the pub welcomes the London Society of Necromancers and shuts to regular visitors as pentagrams are drawn, chickens are sacrificed, candles and incense are lit and the dead of London are summoned, however briefly, to tell their tale.

The beer is reasonably priced.

Waxy O’Connor’s, Soho

One of the oddest, psychogeographically speaking, of all London pubs, “Waxy’s” is a nightmare maze of up and down stairs, hidden rooms, levels and half-levels, basements, attics, tilted rooms, hidden rooms, swapping rooms, trapdoor rooms and rooms that extend into other dimensions and alternate realities. It was constructed from plans drawn by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and is the best known focal point in London for timeslips.

One may enter Waxy O’Connor’s at one end, walk up and down a set of stairs, half-turn, swim through an underground sea to the other shore and exit the pub at another London entirely. A mapping expedition sent in 1955 into Waxy’s emerged in 1993 from the same exit. Only a fragmented recording remains from the initial interview with the sole surviving member, replicated below:

“A desert, yellow sands to the horizon … images shaped in bronze, giants towering

above us … the moons! The moons! … I am Ozymandias, king of kings … we

lost Bertram to the winged flying women … then we were back in the pub and

having a pint but we lost Ollie when he went to the toilet … never came back …

we opened the first door we came to … seven years on that horror island! … never

go into the closet… eyes the size of mountains, growing like cancers … found the

bathroom in ’79, but took a wrong turn again … lost Samuelson to the volcano

God … must … must go … must go back.”

The pub serves a range of beers and, of course, Guinness on tap. The clientele includes tourists, transdimensional visitors and the occasional molemen.

The Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden

AKA The Bucket of Blood. One of the oldest pubs in London. Crowded with tourists. The pub food is indifferent. The poet Dryden, who wrote “Lovers, when they lose their breath, bleed away in easy death,” was a regular. It was here, in 1679, at the narrow alleyway beside the pub, that Dryden was attacked and beaten by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. In the nineteenth century the pub was a popular spot for bare-knuckle boxing.

It is said it was here that Sherlock Holmes fought three rounds with the prize-fighter McMurdo, chronicled in the Dr. Watson’s memoir The Sign of the Four. A regular tradition of the pub was to celebrate Dryden Night every December sixteenth. However this has not been done in the past couple of decades, a thing which the current compilers of the guide thoroughly regret.

The White Swan , Richmond-Upon-Thames

One of the current compilers of this guide’s favourite pubs. We could tell you where it is but then you might try to go there yourselves. A quiet country pub complete with log fire, a good selection of draught beer and the occasional shaggy dog or screen personality (naturalist David Attenborough is a local). The White Swan can occasionally get busy during rugby season in nearby Twickenham, but is otherwise a place for calm reflection, the joyful enjoyment of the finer things in life – but probably not, as on one long ago yet memorable occasion, a place particularly suited for dropping ecstasy in.

The Crypt, St. Martin ’s-in-the-Fields

Not a pub in the traditional sense but we like it, having spent at least one boozy occasion there. Also they serve a mean apple crumble with custard.

An eighteenth century crypt below the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, it has high stone arcs and a hushed but convivial atmosphere. Rumours that this is where Count Dracula made his abode upon arrival in England on board the Demeter are probably false, though it is worth noting many of the staff are notoriously pale. Vampire aficionados do make pilgrimage to the otherwise quiet cafe, and the use of flashlights, like the carrying of wooden stakes, is discouraged.

Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, The Strand

Though primarily a dining establishment rather than a pub, this venerable institution – featuring an excellent bar complete with live piano music – was the favourite restaurant of Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. Watson, embodying into popular culture the immortal words, “When we have finished at the police-station I think that something nutritious at Simpson’s would not be out of place.”

Every year thousands of ardent Sherlockians flock to Simpson’s, where one is free to discuss such controversial topics as “What was Watson’s middle name?” or “Was Sherlock really in Tibet?” It is considered good manners to tip the piano player.

Like those Sherlockians, we – humble compilers of this present volume – would not pass the chance at something nutritious at Simpson’s nor, indeed, at any of the pubs so far surveyed. London is a city whose lights burn brightest at the pub. In coldest winter, in the midst of war, in snow and sleet or rare and unexpected heatwave, the pubs are always open, waiting to welcome you in.

We merely advise our readers that smoking is no longer permitted indoors, that summoning spirits is generally frowned upon in polite society, and that drinking in moderation, though admirable in itself, is hardly in keeping with l’esprit de corps.

Cheers!