Secret London: Part III – East End Pub Crawl

Who fancies a ship at the rubber?

If you’re wondering what on earth that means, you were clearly not born within the sound of the Bow Bells (neither was I by the way – I am a ‘Mockney’). For those of you who understand Cockney Rhyming Slang, you will know I just asked if you would like a pint of ale (“Ship full sail” or just “ship”) at the Pub (“rub-a-dub” or just “rubber”).

London has some great pubs and your best chance of meeting authentic Cockneys (other than in Essex where many of them seem to have escaped to) is in one of the old school boozers in the East End. Here are three examples I visited last night:

The Black Lion, Plaistow

If you want authentic, you won’t get much better than The Black Lion. My drinking buddy, above, is posing against one of London’s oldest and best preserved coaching taverns in London.

The pub is nearly 600 years old and boasts many claims to fame in its long history, including that the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, used to stable his horse, Black Bess, in what is now the function room just a few years before he was finally caught in Yorkshire and hanged in 1739.

The clientèle seem to be genuine locals in the main. The bar staff come from a limited pedigree as well with only a few landlords running the pub across the span of the last 100 years. In fact, from 1929 until 1997 (a staggering 68 years) a lady called Milly Morris worked as a bar maid and was happy to recount the many  stories she had accumulated over the years including during the war where she would continue serving pints as bombs dropped destroying her neighbourhood around them.

The pub is rare in that it still houses its own boxing club and gym, “the West Ham Boys”, which produced Olympic Gold medallist, Terry Spinks, and has also been used as a training gym for Barry McGuigan and Nigel Benn.

The Gun, Docklands

Whilst a relative youngster compared to the Black Lion – a mere 250 years old – the Gun can boast some pretty impressive history of its own. Most significantly, Britain’s greatest Admiral, Lord Nelson, used to frequent the pub and use the upstairs rooms to get up to mischief with his mistress.

The pub was also an important meeting place for smugglers and it still has a secret staircase complete with spy-hole to make sure the Cold Chill weren’t coming (sorry – I mean the Old Bill or Police – I just can’t help my mockney ways).

Much of the interior of The Gun was destroyed by fire in 2001. Since then, the pub has gone upmarket and is largely used as a drinking hole for the suits from Canary Wharf (including me – you can see The Gun from my office). The beer garden overlooks the Thames with the view dominated by the O2, as you can see below with me enjoying a Pig’s Ear (you surely don’t need me to translate that?)

The Isle of Dogs may have been partly gentrified by the money from Canary Wharf, but the Borough of  Tower Hamlets still has some the highest levels of poverty in the country. You do not have to travel far from the steeples of Mammon to see signs of both poverty as well as relics from the area’s past as a major industrial dock.

The Blind Beggar, Whitechapel

On 9th March 1966, a man walked into The Blind Beggar and approached another man sitting at the bar. The seated man sneered “Look who’s here” but was then shot in the head just above his right eye by the man who had entered the pub. The murderer calmly walked out again in full view of everyone else in the pub.

The dead man was George Cornell, a member of the notorious Richardson’s gang. The murderer was Ronnie Kray, half of the even more notorious Kray Twins. Despite a large number of eye witnesses, including Cornell’s friend Albie Woods sitting right next to him, not a single person would testify against the most feared man in London. Nevertheless, Ronnie Kray was eventually found guilty of the murder and spent the rest of his life in prison (he died in 1995). His brother, Reggie, would later join him after murdering Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie (brutally stabbing him in the face and chest after his gun jammed) in Stoke Newington.

The Blind Beggar is named after Henry de Montford, the son of one of the most powerful men in England, Simon de Montford. Legend has it that Henry was blinded in battle in 1265. Despite being nursed back to health by a baroness who would become his wife, the high-born Henry fell on hard times and became a beggar at the Bethnal Green crossroads.

Despite its dark history and its chandeliers, unfortunately The Blind Beggar today shares neither the authenticity of The Black Lion, nor the sophistication of The Gun. However, all three pubs are fantastic extant reminders of London’s rich and often dark history that can be found just while having a pint.

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