The news that the BBC is planning to launch EastEnders into high definition by burning down the Queen Vic later this year – possibly with a host of regulars inside – will have left regular viewers in shock. Real East Enders should be used to it however – our historic pubs have been disappearing for decades. So bad has it got that former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who is to challenge former Bethnal Green and Bow MP Oona King for the Labour nomination for Mayor next time round, has launched a campaign to stop the closures.
It’s a handy way to have a pop at Tory incumbent Boris Johnson of course. Livingstone commented that: “The Mayor must do far more to support London’s pubs, working with councils to use planning powers to protect pubs, lobbying the government for new legislation and encouraging more community ownership of pubs.” But politics aside, Ken has a point. This year we learned that a third of East End pubs had closed since 1997. There are 210 left, but it’s a drop in a pint glass to the thousands there once were.
Go back to the 1750s, when London was in the throes of its ‘gin craze’ and William Hogarth was parodying the drinking habits of Londoners, and there were an estimated 15,000 drinking establishments in the town. Estimates today of licensed premises in the city put the number somewhere under 4000 and in precipitous decline. Factor in that Hogarth was wielding his brush and palette in a city of just 700,000 while London today has ten times that population and it does rather put the horror stories about permanently sloshed 21st century Londoners in the shade.
For the East End once had a pub on every corner (the favoured spot). There are dozens lost in the last 20 years alone. Many have adapted to the times. It’s harder to complain about the loss of a drinking house when it’s been converted to a cafe, like the Turks Head just off Wapping High Street and a former neighbour of two of the area’s most successful survivors – the Town of Ramsgate and the Captain Kidd. These are still after all places where local people can meet and get a bite to eat after all. Former regulars of the Britannia on Chapman Street, Shadwell may wonder whether their area really needed another fried chicken outlet in its place. But the new owners might break off for a second from frying another bucketful of Jamie Oliver’s worst nightmare to observe “What regulars?”
Because that’s the problem, as sociologist Frances Canty explains: “We aren’t using pubs like we did. We’re drinking a lot, and new pubs and bars are opening successfully all the time, especially where they target a specific niche. A visit there then becomes a decision we make, like we might decide to visit a theme park, or the cinema, a concert, go to the supermarket, go to the gym, watch TV or a DVD. There are dozens of choices these days, and you can’t simply throw open your doors and expect the locals to come and while away their evening.” Add to that the supermarkets’ relentless price-cutting, soaring overheads, red routes and the smoking ban and it gets ever harder to make a pub pay.
Hence the baleful motto that sits alongside the names of many of our former boozers when you look them up: ‘converted to residential use’. People are now happily domiciled within the former Britannia at 232 Cable Street, the Crown and Dolphin at 56 Cannon Street Road, and the Colet Arms at 94 White Road. Walk through any grid of Victorian streets in London and you see the telltale signs – a rounded-off corner site, big windows with heavy sills where pints used to rest, perhaps the flat plaque of concrete on the wall where the pub sign used to be painted.
Perhaps worse is the legend ‘now replaced by a supermarket’, like the Australian Arms at 18 Bigland Street or ‘demolished and replaced by an office block’, like the China Ship at 4 Orton Street.
And of course those Victorian pubs had names you just don’t get anymore. Aldgate alone had a brace of Almas, one at 41 Spelman Street, now used by the Providence Housing Trust. Another at 67 Princelet Street, which suffered the indignity of many an attractive corner pub of the era by simply being boarded up. But who or what is Alma? The Battle of Alma probably, the first battle of the Crimean War, when Lord Raglan defeated the Russian army of General Menshikov. London pubs always loved a military campaign – think of the raft of Trafalgars and Waterloos, the Lord Nelsons and Dukes of Wellington. That whole curious naming system is a peculiarly English thing and was given a helping hand by Richard II, who in 1393 ordered that pubs put signs outside their premises: “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.” Now the pub became obvious to the ale tasters and indeed the largely illiterate Londoners – for whom the picture on the sign had to immediately reflect the name of course. Those swinging boards then became an artform in themselves.
For centuries before, Londoners had been gathering at the inns and taverns that would mutate into the modern ‘public house’. We’d brewed ale in the Bronze Age, then the organised Romans established ‘tabernae’ along their new system at roads – an early historic version of the service station. The Anglo-Saxons had alehouses that grew from private homes, and the Saxon alewife would put a green bush up on a pole to let people know her brew was ready – a forerunner of the modern pub sign. So popular did they become that in 965 King Edgar decreed there should be no more than one alehouse per village. By the early Middle Ages there was a shortage of good inns in London. Numbers grew and regulation came when the Hostellers of London were granted guild status in 1446, evolving into the Worshipful Company of Innholders. After the chaos of Hogarth’s time came what many would see as the pinnacle and the most typical London hostelry – the oak, tiled and polished brass palaces of the Victorian public house. This was a time of massive expansion for London, and of course all those workers needed a drink.
Also, of course, some of those pubs just weren’t very good. Every time you’re tempted to wipe away a tear as you pass a Victorian pub pressed into use as flats or a car park, remind yourself of the fusty beer, sticky carpets and unvisitable toilets that saw many a licensed house off. But we’ve lost some superb names: the Bombay Grab and the Jolly Butchers, the Three Swedish Crowns and the Blade Bone. And what on earth do the Hand and Flower or The Horns and Horsehoe signify?
Perhaps in the end you have to say that the best remain (though some very good pubs have gone with them). So the East End still has the Prospect of Whitby and the Grapes, the Pride of Spitalfields and The Old Dispensary … which is actually rather new. Because, almost as fast as an old pub closes, a new hostelry seems to take its place. The East End, as ever, moves on.