Today, after 15 weeks of lockdown, an old London friend returns: The George Inn in Southwark. Soul City Wanderer notes his personal attachment for this famous pub, and its historic significance.
Back in the 1980’s, I started my illustrious career in a warehouse in Borough, the area immediately south of London Bridge. As a health-conscious young man, I drank in many of the establishments there, but four I remember in particular: The Bell in Webber Street, where my workplace would hold its functions. It’s now gone. The Winchester Arms, on Great Suffolk Street, a printing industry pub, where I remember they used to list all the names and addresses of those who’d crossed the picket line during the 1986 Wapping printers’ dispute. It’s now gone. The Hole in the Wall, on Borough High Street, a lively pub where you would start off on a Friday evening before a crawl down the Old King’s Road. It’s now gone. And finally, The George, which was one of the last drinking options for workers who used London Bridge station to get home. Unlike the others I have mentioned, The George is still there. And it’s been there forever. It’s a survivor.
The George is London’s last galleried coaching inn, and in its present form harks back to 1676. But its significance goes beyond a historic date, and for that you have to understand the area’s strategic connection to its boozy past.
When the Romans began to build the first London bridge, they had to protect its construction from unfriendly Celtic tribes. Thousands of workers and troops were stationed on the south bank of the river, which became, in effect London’s first settlement. The first inns were built in Southwark to quench the thirst of these new locals.
For the next 1,700 years of London’s history, there was only one permanent crossing over the Thames, and that was London Bridge. When visiting London, the world would land at Dover or Chichester, travel up on the old Roman roads, then be funnelled towards the city via the bridge.
In medieval times, at the sounding of the evening curfew bell, the gates of London Bridge were locked. Travellers arriving after this time would have to find accommodation for the night. Those making a journey south from the city, wishing to make an early start, would also stay the night in Southwark, avoiding the early-morning traffic gridlock on the bridge. Consequently, a profusion of inns and taverns did a roaring trade on Borough High Street. Indeed, records show that in 1619, the number-one occupation in Southwark was ‘innkeeper’.
Ghostly reminders of other famous pubs now lost are found in the alleyways off Borough High Street: The Tabard, the inn from whence the pilgrims set forth in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Queen’s Head, the sale of which helped fund the establishment of Harvard University in America, and the White Hart which featured in Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 2.
But there is another reason for area’s strong historic ties to the brewing industry. Ever since medieval times, hops, the key ingredient to beer, have been carted up from the Kent countryside to the London marketplace straight through Southwark. Echoes of erstwhile merchant trading are redolent in the Hop Exchange building on Southwark Street and the LeMay Hop Factors headquarters on Borough High Street.
Not so long ago, Southwark was also the home of the biggest beer plant in the world: the Anchor brewery. It was established in Shakespearean times, right next door to the playwright’s famous Globe Theatre. At its peak, the brewery’s 24-hour operation saw the production of over seven million gallons of beer annually (56 million pints). It was a major attraction with over 10,000 visitors a month. Famous tourists included King Edward VII, Napoleon III and Otto Von Bismarck. By 1850 it covered 10 acres. The huge brewhouse was 1/3 mile in circumference. The site also included a malt store, coal cellar, furnace, boiler house, cooling room, cooperage, cleaning sheds, cask sheds, offices, stables and an export warehouse on the river Thames. When the latter was demolished in the 1980s, it revealed the remains of Roman warehouse that had been used to store… beer!
The George is really the last reminder of this heritage. Yet, it’s a minor miracle it has survived at all in its present form. In 1859, the governors of Guy’s Hospital purchased it for just over £9,000. It was then leased out and part of the yard was rented to the Great Eastern Railway Company for use as a depot. In 1874, the railway company agreed to buy the property for £10,000. The north and east sections of the yard were demolished, leaving only the south section standing, as seen today. Fortunately, this part came back into private ownership and was eventually presented as a gift to the National Trust in 1937.
If you want to know more about The George, I recommend Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown (MacMillan, 2012). Unfortunately, despite the book’s title, there is no absolute proof that the playwright used this pub. It would be wonderful to think he was a regular, but it’s all conjecture and a little bit of fun. However, the book is impeccably researched, and there is sterling work in pushing back the earliest date for which we have a record of the pub’s existence to the 1480s.
Interestingly, the author uses the ‘Trigger’s Broom’ conundrum to discuss whether The George has always been the same pub at all, considering it has been rebuilt several times throughout its history. In which case, isn’t the nearby Old King’s Head pub, which was rebuilt in the 1880s (and is also on the same plot as its medieval original), also a contender as Shakespeare’s local? Indeed, archaeological remains indicate it has stood there as far back as Roman times, so might I suggest a rival claim for ‘Caesar’s Local’?
Anyhow, I digress. Whether or not The George felt the shadow of the bard, today it survives in the shadow of the Shard.
Welcome back, by George!