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The Best Old Pubs in London

Judi loves visiting pubs and sharing the best locations with others.

Let's explore some of London's more unusual and unique pubs!

Let's explore some of London's more unusual and unique pubs!

A Brief History of Pubs in London

Londoners have been selling beer since before the Romans arrived and current estimates are that there are up to 7,000 pubs in the Greater London area. The oldest date from the early 17th century, though there are very few that predate the Great Fire of 1666. No one is quite sure which establishment can claim to be the oldest. Some have been rebuilt on original sites, and some have been known by a string of different names. What is certain is that some pubs have a more unusual past than others. Here are a few of London's most unique historic pubs.

An Old Pub of East London: The Widow's Son, Bow

The Widow's Son pub has a sad background. The site was originally occupied by a cottage in which lived a widow. Some suggest her son was a sailor fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Before he left on what proved to be his last voyage, he made a promise to his mother that he would be home for Easter. When Good Friday arrived the widow made a hot cross bun in readiness for her son's return. He did not return but nevertheless, she made a bun each year until her death. After her death, the buns were found hanging from the rafters.

Around 1848, a pub was built on the site of the widow's cottage. Subsequent landlords have upheld the tradition of keeping a hot cross bun each year. On Good Friday, a serving member of the Royal Navy adds a new bun to the collection and there are prayers, singing and a celebration. The rafters now hold many rock-hard old hot cross buns in memory of the widow's son.

The pub itself is not prepossessing and looks slightly run down. That doesn't stop sailors, history buffs and locals enjoying a pint at the pub. The pub can be found at 75 Devon's Road, Bow handily located for the Dockland's Light Railway Station.

The East End's Historic Blind Beggar Pub, Whitechapel

The Blind Beggar sits at the corner of Whitechapel Road and Cambridge Heath Road on a site originally occupied by the Mile End tollgate and later by a tavern. The current building is a fairly recent addition to the East London landscape, being built in 1894, but in its relatively short history, it has managed to attract a fair deal of attention, both good and bad.

The Blind Beggar's first claim to fame is that it was outside the earlier tavern that William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, preached his first sermon around 1864. He later built a Mission House a few doors away; the Salvation Army still has a large Whitechapel Mission building on the site.

Around the turn of the century, the pub was frequented by a gang of pickpockets who named themselves after the pub. Inevitably, violence sometimes flared, and in 1904, one of the gang members killed another man by stabbing him in the eye with an umbrella.

More recently, in 1966, the Blind Beggar hit the headlines in spectacularly gruesome fashion. The Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie, were notorious East End gangsters and their rivals were the Richardson gang. Tensions ran high between the two gangs, particularly after George Cornell publicly called Ronnie a "big fat poof". On the evening of 9 March 1966, Ronnie walked into the Blind Beggar and shot and killed Cornell whilst he drank at the bar. Ronnie Kray calmly walked out of the pub whilst the jukebox played "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" by the Walker Brothers. The Krays were arrested and convicted of the Cornell murder as well as other crimes.

Unlike the Widow's Son, the Blind Beggar is a well-looked-after and attractive pub these days. It has been sympathetically redecorated in a Victorian style and is a comfortable meeting place for locals and tourists alike.

The Ten Bells, Spitalfields in London's Historic East End

The Ten Bells has stood at the corner of Commercial Street and Fournier Street since the mid-18th century. Unlike many pubs, it has retained its original name, other than for a few years between 1976 and 1988. Its name during those years reflected its claim to fame—The Jack the Ripper. The name reverted to the original after a lengthy campaign by a group opposed to the glorification of a murderer.

Jack the Ripper terrorised London's East End during the late 1880s and at least two of his victims, Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly. By extension, perhaps Jack himself, frequented the Ten Bells. It is not speculation that Jack's victims drank at the pub; it was mentioned in police reports and witness statements.

The pub does not play down its role in the Ripper history. A display board lists the victims' names and there are plenty of newspaper clippings to read too. Naturally, the Jack the Ripper tour industry makes regular stops at the pub too.

The pub has been refurbished in recent years but retains some fine original features, notably some painted tiling.

In this photo, the Prospect of Whitby is viewed from the River side. The tower of St Paul's Church can be seen behind.

In this photo, the Prospect of Whitby is viewed from the River side. The tower of St Paul's Church can be seen behind.

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, an Old Pub on the Thames

This pub, on the banks of the Thames, dates from around 1520. It has had at least two other names: The Devil's Tavern and The Pelican. The current name is derived from a hulk that was moored nearby in the early 19th century. It was around this time that the pub was rebuilt following a fire, although the original stone floor remains.

The pub has been notorious throughout its history. From Tudor times onwards, it was the haunt of sailors and smugglers as well as the local criminal fraternity. During the 17th century, it was the regular drinking spot for Judge Jefferys, the Hanging Judge. The pub still hangs a noose in the window in remembrance of him!

Just as gruesome is nearby Execution Dock, where pirates were tied to posts and left to drown, their bodies being left in situ until washed over by three tides.

Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens are known to have visited the pub and artists Turner and Whistler both sketched views of the river from the windows.

Nowadays the pub is attractively decorated and evokes a maritime feeling. Like Turner and Whistler, you can sit in the balcony above the river and gaze out, listening to the gentle lapping of the tides.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the pub counts a number of illustrious literary figures amongst its patrons, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W B Yeats. Secondly, the interior of the pub is largely unspoilt, boasting dark wood-panelled walls, a labyrinth of corridors and staircases plus open fireplaces, all of which conjure a charmingly atmospheric picture of a bygone era.

The first building to occupy the site was a 13th-century Carmelite Monastery and it is thought that the vaulted cellars once belonged to the old monastery. After the monastery closed, the site was filled by a tavern, The Horn, which burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666. The present pub was built the following year.

One of the pub's most famous regulars was allegedly Samuel Johnson, who lived around the corner. Johnson's portrait, his chair and a copy of his dictionary are all on display. The names of other famous customers are to be found on plaques on the wall, whilst outside next to the door is a list of the monarchs who have reigned since the pub reopened after the Great Fire.

And why is the pub named after a cheese? I am afraid I have no idea!