Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green

He gave his name to one of the most famous, or infamous, pubs in Britain, and is now a byword for the East End, even for people who have never been here. But who exactly was the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green?
The story itself is shrouded in legend, and set in a Bethnal Green vastly different from the chaotic and overcrowded slum it became in the 19th century.
Bethnal Green is first mentioned in an Eighth Century deed. One Mathilda le Vayre of Stepney is listed as having a home in ‘Blithehall’, and making a grant of the house’s courtyard.
By the Middle Ages, however, Bethnal Green was rather isolated from London, a quiet little village and rather grand. There were manor houses and mansions in the surrounding countryside and cottages cluster- ed around the green itself.
In the 1200s, one of those manor houses belonged to Simon de Montford – the young lord who is today remembered by Montford House, a red-brick block of flats on the north side of Victoria Park Square.
His story, and how he went from landed gentry to poor beggar, became hugely popular in early Tudor times, and was given a new lease of life by Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which was published in 1765.
Simon was a soldier in the service of the king, and fought at the Battle of Evesham, in the West Country, in 1265. According to the legend, he fell at the battle and was found wandering, blinded, by a nobleman’s daughter. She nursed the wounded soldier back to health, they fell in love and were married.
In time a daughter arrived, but although Besse was beautiful she couldn’t find a husband – the problem being her father. Besse was courted by four suitors; a rich gentleman, a knight, a London merchant and the son of an innkeeper.

Most of them withdrew their suit when they met Montford to ask for the old soldier’s consent to the marriage.
Montford’s reduced circum-stances were related through a popular song of the time:
“My father, shee said, is soone to be seene
The siely, blind beggar of Bednall-green,
That daylye sits begging for charitie,
He is the good father of pretty Besse.
Hie makrs and his tokens are knowen very well;
He alwayes is led with a dogg and a bell;
A seely old man, God knoweth, is he,
Yet he is the father of pretty Besse.”
In a predictably medieval twist, the courtly knight was the only man who could see past the seeming lack of a decent dowry to the woman he loved.
He received his reward, as the couple received a dowry of £3,000, plus £100 for Besse’s wedding dress. The benefactor? Grandfather Henry, who was still a rich man.
The legend persisted. Samuel Pepys visited fashionable Bethnal Green to stay with his friend, Sir William Ryder; Ryder’s house occupied the very same spot as the Montford mansion. The great diarist records the occasion on June 26, 1663:
“By coach to Bednall-green, to Sir W Ryder’s to dinner. A fine merry walk with the ladies alone after dinner in the garden; the greatest quantity of strawberries I ever saw, and good. This very house was built by the Blind Beggar of Bednall-green, so much talked of and sang in ballads.”
By 1690, the Bethnal Green beadle bore the badge of the Blind Beggar on his ceremonial staff. And in the 18th century every pub in the area bore the image of the beggar on their signs. Even Kirby’s Castle, a lunatic asylum, was dubbed the Blind Beggar’s House in 1727.
Kirby’s Castle was demolished to make way for post-War redevelopment, Montford’s House is buried in mystery, and today only one pub bears the sign of the Blind Beggar.
But Besse is remembered in Besse Street, the mayor bears an image of Simon and Besse on the borough’s ceremonial badge and, most famous of all, in 1966, the Kray twins and the unfortunate George Cornell sealed the Blind Beggar in the nation’s folklore forever.
With thanks to London’s East End: Life and Traditions, by Jane Cox, Phoenix Illustrated, ISBN 1-85799-956-8, £9.99.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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5 Responses to Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green

  1. David Graer says:

    very informative, apparently my great grand father, Charles Henry Graer, was either the manager or licensee of the pub, he was born 1875 died 1963, therefore was there in 1900 to say 1950.
    is there any information as to the staff re same etc.
    this would be greatly appreciated, also any other info re the pub.

    regards david graer.

  2. Lorraine says:

    Hi David
    Our family may also have some history with this pub.
    It would be my great great grandfather. Apparently they owned/ran
    5 pubs in East London or nearby.
    I have tried searching records but with no luck. This may be because they ran these pubs under managers names.
    Any information on brewery records etc would be most welcome.
    Regards Lorraine.

  3. Alec Gifford says:

    Fascinating stuff! Did you know that this pub was owned at one time by Bobby Moore?

  4. Karen Trimingham says:

    Bobby Moore owned the pub called The Salmon and Ball in Bethnal Green. My parents ran The Green Man also in Bethnal Green. I am trying to contact people from Bethnal Green namely Maureen Unstead and her cousin.
    My name was Karen Stewart and my mother ran a dance school in the late 40,sand early 50.s I now live in Canada.I would love to hear from my old friends.

  5. Margaret Russell says:

    A family called Heath ( son Christopher ) ran this pub in the 60s about the time of the Krays and Cornell and McVitie…….

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