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Category: East End pubs

Tales from the Two Puddings

IN 1962, exactly 50 years before Stratford became the sporting centre of the world, Eddie Johnson and family took on the Two Puddings pub in Stratford. It didn’t augur well. Eddie was less than happy about leaving a solid job on the Docks. Chuck in the fact he had never pulled a pint and that his new boozer was colloquially known as the Butcher’s Shop (courtesy of white-tiled walls to facilitate the hosing off of spilled blood each morning) and it might have proved a brief tenancy.

Cover of Eddie Johnson's Tales from the Two Puddings

Tales from the Two Puddings

Eddie, remembering those far-off days in conversation with Robert Elms at the Bishopsgate Institute last week, also remembers that he immediately felt he’d made a mistake. All the more remarkable that he remained landlord for almost 40 years. “I loved it on the docks: we didn’t make a lot of money but we could do more or less as we wanted.” Just as important to Eddie, he was becoming increasingly immersed in the left-wing politics of the time. Working as a tally clerk (the men tasked with checking the quantities of cargoes moving on and off the ships) he aroused the instinctive mistrust of legendary union organiser Jack Dash and his men. Of course, the tally clerks got their share of the contents of ‘accidentally’ broken cases to take home too, and Eddie soon became a trusted colleague, co-opted onto Dash’s strike committee. He was also being groomed to take over the dockers’ Distress Fund, a cause dear to his heart. Eddie had been politicised young, when George Lansbury visited his school (Smeed Road Infants in Bow) to speak to the pupils.

But with two young sons to provide for, wife Shirley was after something a little more secure for the family. Now Eddie was and is no soft touch. A streetwise East Ender, born in Limehouse and raised in Old Ford, he had done his National Service in the Royal Military Police. Back on Civvy Street, he ruefully recalls that he became: “a bit of a hooligan, getting drunk and fighting in dance halls”. It culminated in a near fatal stab wound to the stomach. During his convalescence he met and fell in love with Shirley, who steered him to safer pursuits. But even Eddie, a tall and imposing figure in his eighties and not a man to mess with in his early thirties, wondered what he’d let himself in for as he stood behind the bar the morning after his first Friday night in 1962.

Back in the docks voracious reader Eddie (favourites Orwell, Camus, Tolstoy and Hemingway among others) had been rubbing shoulders with surprisingly well-read dockers who casually namechecked Congreve, Kafka, Byron and Proust. In the Puddings, he was more likely to be leaping over the bar to nip drunken trouble in the bud with a couple of gentle digs. The older Johnson is sanguine about the violence (“it’s the bit I find depressing even now”) and indulges in none of the glorification of the East End gang scene that non-combatants too often fall prey to.

All the same violence and crime were unavoidable elements of East End life, with the Krays becoming occasional visitors. “I liked them,” says Eddie. “Especially Reggie, who was more the affable and easier to talk to of the pair”. Eddie was touched for protection money by the brothers, but swallowed hard and told Ronnie he could protect himself. The twins, to his relief, politely moved on. Meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Kentucky Club in Whitechapel (where Eddie was always stood a drink by the ever-charming brothers) other non-payers were being sorted out behind the scenes with a cement-encased shovel.

Of course there were all sorts of reasons that kept Eddie behind the bar until the turn of the millennium – and only then was he forced out by the machinations of the brewery. Top of the list was the music. The Johnsons had taken over the Puddings primarily to host music nights run by Eddie’s brother Kenny. The pub saw gigs by some of the biggest names in British music: the Who, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Kinks and the Nashville Teens to name just a few, while the disco upstairs pulled in more punters (including Harry Redknapp who met his future wife there). One day Rod Stewart would be downstairs checking out the bands; another would see a young Van Morrison popping in after a Them gig and confiding to Eddie that he hoped one day to be famous.

Most bizarre of all, on the evening of 30 July 1966, a few hours after England had won the World Cup Final at Wembley, who should walk into the pub, order a pint, and quietly drink by himself whilst leaning against the bar but Jack Charlton. Eddie takes up the story, saying: “Norman was one of my most trusted barmen and never told a lie… [but he was] struck dumb and felt too shy to congratulate him on England’s victory!”

Under Elms’s enthusiastic probing, Eddie regales the packed Bishopsgate audience with anecdotes spanning 50 years, though the Radio London presenter would probably admit that Johnson pretty much interviews himself. There is sadness in the stories of course: Shirley has passed away, and so has the third of their four sons, Eugene. And many of the characters who people the memoir have gone, with Eddie musing that “Every other month seems to bring a dreaded invitation to yet another funeral.” But even there is humour. As the coffin of Jackie Bowers (“a friend and one of the best barmen the Puddings ever had”) rolls slowly towards the furnace, ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown began blaring from the crematorium speakers. An echo from the sixties heyday of the Two Puddings.

Frederick Charrington

Frederick Charrington had everything going for him. He was young, tall, good-looking and, best of all, he stood to come into millions as heir to one of the great brewing families of the East End.
But Fred was no idle son of the rich, he also had a conscience and it was this that would change the course of his life forever.
Charrington was born in the East End, baptised at St Dunstan’s, Stepney and raised in 3 Tredegar Place, later re-numbered 87 Bow Road. He was sent to the posh Marlborough public school but returned to the family home in the East End and it was here, as a young man, that the extraordinary coincidence occurred that would lead Fred to renounce his millions and work for the poor.
Passing the Rising Sun pub in Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, Charrington saw a sight within, all too common in the Victorian East End. A woman with her three children in tow begged her husband for money, the drunken spouse hit his wife and Fred, unable to ignore any injustice, rushed in to pull the man off. He paused in horror. There, above the door was the name of the pub’s proprietors . . . Charrington.
He renounced the family millions and dedicated his life to helping the fallen and the falling and to fighting the “evils” that dragged them down – alcohol, poverty and prostitution.
Charrington would parade up and down outside the East End gin palaces, wearing a sandwich board which carried the dire warning “The wages of sin is death”.

He kept watch on the numerous brothels, noting down the comings and goings in his little black book, later handing on the details to the constabulary.
Needless to say, Fred’s public spiritedness was not always welcome and he received many batterings from the prostitutes’ pimps.
And on one unfortunate occasion, the madame of an East End brothel was so distracted by the news that Charrington was approaching with his little black book that she rushed inside her house, had a heart attack and promptly died.
On Sundays Fred would lead his temperance brass band through Stepney and Wapping, stopping to tempt converts at the many pubs along the way – many of them bearing that name Charrington above their door. The throng would grow along the way, and by the end would contain a large number of good-natured and noisy drunks, who found “Uncle Fred’s” regular weekend procession great sport.
Many mocked Charrington, and his opposition to music halls made him appear as one of those grim Victorian philanthropists for whom any entertainment was morally suspect. But he left his monument and one that did immense good for generations of East Enders.
Charrington, having renounced riches, campaigned vigorously to raise cash and build the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End Road. The mission, opened in 1886, fed the poor bodies with bread and cocoa and their souls with evangelistic religion. Before the phrase was ever coined, the mission was a centre of social work and, in 1910, provided Christmas dinner for 850 families.
Fred died in 1936, one of the last survivors of the great Victorian philanthropists. And just a few years later his mission would be gone too – burned down in the fires of the Blitz.

Charlie Brown’s Pub

IT is a familiar landmark to East Enders driving back from Essex, and anyone taking the M11 up to Stansted will have passed over it. But where did the Charlie Brown’s roundabout, one of London’s busiest intersections, get its unusual name?
The roundabout was
certainly not christened after the hero of the Peanuts
cartoon, but after a larger-than-life Limehouse man, who was just as famous in the 19th century as Snoopy’s master was 100 years later. Yet how did the bland and featureless junction come to be connected with one of the East End’s most colourful characters?
The story begins in the 1890s when Charlie Brown, a former boxer, took over the ownership of the Railway Tavern.
The Limehouse pub stood on the corner of Garford Street and the East India Dock Road and it was a popular watering hole for the sailors and dockers who made up most of Limehouse’s
population at the time.
Even among his noisy and outspoken clientele – many of whom were colourful characters with tales to tell – Charlie managed to stand out.
In fact, he was such a loud and extrovert landlord that he managed to stamp his
personality on the pub itself.
As Charlie’s reputation grew, so did the contents of the pub. Sailors would return from their travels with mementoes from every corner of the globe and bring them back to a delighted guv’nor, who would hang them on the wall of the tavern.

And as the collection grew, its fame spread throughout the capital. People would make the trip down to infamous Limehouse, which in the early 1900s was synonymous with Chinatown, white slaving and opium dens, just to view his map of the world.
In June 1932 Charlie Brown died and the ‘uncrowned king of Limehouse’ was laid in state in the pub that had been his palace.
His funeral procession was fit for a king too as 16,000
people went to Bow Cemetery to say goodbye to Charlie.
Charlie Brown’s legacy was a lucrative one, and both his children ran pubs. His
daughter Esther kept the
existing hostelry, while Charlie Brown Jr was the landlord of the Blue Posts, directly
opposite the Railway Hotel.
Both of them erected signs saying that their pubs were the genuine Charlie Brown’s.
In 1938 Charlie Jr gave up on the East End to move to leafier Woodford, taking the name with him of course. The new Charlie Brown’s lay at the end of the Southend to London road which was to become the A127.
But in 1972 the road that had given the pub its reason for being also became the cause of its demise, when the road
intersection was extended and the pub was demolished.
Young Charlie had salvaged many of the famous
mementoes from his dad’s pub, and legend has it they passed on to the Greyhound pub in Harlow, though there is no trace of them today.
By a weird coincidence, it was transport that created and destroyed the original Charlie Brown’s too. The Railway Hotel had been built to serve the old London and Blackwall Railway in the 1800s.
Despite the rebirth of the line, when the Docklands Light Railway was built in 1989,
the Railway Tavern stood
in the way of the Commercial Road extension and so was demolished.
Today, all that remains of the world-famous character, three pubs and a confusion of names is a traffic blackspot on the fringes of London.

Dead pubs of the East End

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.