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The Best Old Pubs in London

Updated on November 24, 2012

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 pre date 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, 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.

The Widow's Son Has a Sad History

The unloved exterior hides the story of a much loved son.
The unloved exterior hides the story of a much loved son. | Source

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 the Widow. Her son was a sailor, some suggest that he was away 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 Notorious Blind Beggar at Whitechapel

Source

The Blind Beggar, East London

A marker337 Whitechapel Road, London -
337 Whitechapel Rd, Poplar, Greater London E1 1, UK
get directions

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 have 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 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 is a Pub with a Grim History

A suitably sombre photograph of the Ten Bells
A suitably sombre photograph of the Ten Bells | Source

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 eighteenth 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.


One of London's OIdest Pubs, The Prospect of Whitby

The Prospect of Whitby viewed from the River side.  The tower of St Paul's Church can be seen behind.
The Prospect of Whitby viewed from the River side. The tower of St Paul's Church can be seen behind. | Source
A marker57 Wapping Wall, London -
57 Wapping Wall, Poplar, Greater London E1W 3, UK
get directions

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. In 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.


Interviews with Staff and Regulars at the Prospect of Whitby

A Pub with a Literary History: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

The wonderfully gloomy interior of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
The wonderfully gloomy interior of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese | Source
A markerYe Old Cheshire Cheese, Wine Office Court, Fleet Street, London -
Wine Office Ct, City of London, EC4A 3, UK
get directions

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 thirteenth 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!


The Great Pub Poll

What makes a good pub?

See results

Comments

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  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi oceansider - glad you enjoyed the stories behind these pub, I enjoyed writing about them. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it.

  • profile image

    oceansider 5 years ago

    Hi Judi,

    Thank you for writing about these pubs.....I especially liked the story about the widow's son, but all of the pubs you wrote about sound really interesting......voting up!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Michael - hope you enjoy your pint! I'm afraid my tips will be out of date - I've been away from London too long!

    Many thanks for taking the time to comment, it's appreciated.

  • charmike4 profile image

    Michael Kromwyk 5 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

    Thanks judibee - I'm going to add these ones to my list for the next time I'm in London. Any tips on the house speciality? Cheers Michael

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Susan - if you ever make it over to London, I'll do my best to meet you at the Widow's Son then!

    Thanks very much for commenting, always appreciated.

  • Just Ask Susan profile image

    Susan Zutautas 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    I found all the history on these pubs so fascinating. I would love to be able to visit them especially the Widow's Son.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Goodlady - how exciting to work in Fleet Street! I am not at all East End by birth, but did live there (Bethnal Green & Bow) for a few years - I could see the Widow's Son from my flat in Bow. Sadly, many pubs are becoming corporate, chain pubs, but I hope a few hold out.

    Thanks for commenting, it's always appreciated!

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

    Used to work in Fleet St, so a liquid lunch at the' Cheese' was a daily thing. (Or the Mucky Duck). My father was an East End boy (at birth) and always dragged me round the great old pubs when he visited : not strange that I can't quite remember which ones!

    Oh I do love a proper British pub, love love. Nostalgic making Hub. Pinned it and voting in all the right places now.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Wilderness - yes, we Europeans are spoilt for historical sites. Hope you get to London some day, it's well worth the trip!

    Thanks for taking the time to comments, I appreciate it :-)

  • wilderness profile image

    Dan Harmon 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

    That's really neat that such things still exist. In the US we think something 100 years old is something to get excited about, but of course far older buildings and sites are to be found throughout Europe.

    These old pubs are something I would truly love to see in London. One day, perhaps.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Barry - a pub would be the best place to be this evening! Gale force winds and torrential rain - the dog and I did not enjoy our evening walk! Would far rather be in Oz!

    Thanks for your comment, it's appreciated :-)

  • barryrutherford profile image

    Barry Rutherford 5 years ago from Queensland Australia

    loved reading this made me feel homesick !

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hello Val - glad to hear that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese lives up to its reputation, thanks for the recommendation.

    Many thanks for your comments :-)

  • ValL profile image

    ValL 5 years ago from UK

    I just love Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street - I bring any visitors there as it is such a quaint, old British pub. Highly recommended, a must-see.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Imogen - you're right, we either tell stories about pubs or tell stories in them. Either way, we love our pubs!

    Thanks for your comments :-)

  • Imogen French profile image

    Imogen French 5 years ago from Southwest England

    a great hub,judi bee, and a very interesting tour of london and it's history. many great english stories seem to revolve around a pub at some point!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Tillsontitan - glad you enjoyed my vicarious pub crawl! Thanks for your kind comments :-)

  • tillsontitan profile image

    Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

    Pub crawlers rejoice, Judi Bee is on your trail! What a well written hub loaded with information. Americans think they have history but when you can date back to the Romans, THAT'S history! Very interesting backgrounds included as well. Voted up and interesting.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Brian - so glad you enjoyed the hub and I appreciate your comments. I hope you make it to the Widow's Son and enjoy a pint (or two) at the Prospect of Whitby. Don't blame you for steering clear of the Ten Bells - I'm sure that if they had caught Jack the Ripper, the story would have died down. I think the mystery of his identity keeps the story alive (and overshadows his victims).

    Once again - thanks for the comments, much appreciated

    :-)

  • Brian Burton profile image

    Brian Burton 5 years ago

    A real pleasure to read. After reading this, I would love to visit The Prospect of Whitby and have a pint or two. But, my favorite, and I seriously may work this into my travel plans, is to visit Widow's Son pub. What a sad, but beautiful story.

    Now, I will not be seeing The Ten Bells. While I appreciate history, something about it just seems wrong. I guess it is the glorification of a very evil creature. No thanks! Guess I'm uptight, but oh well.

    Great article. Voted up, interesting, beautiful, etc etc.

    Loved it!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

    Hi Movie Master - I think the Widow's Son has the best story too, a pity the brewery doesn't lavish a little care on the building. I just added Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese to the hub today, the name alone is too good to pass up!

    Thanks for your comments :-)

  • Movie Master profile image

    Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

    A great tour of the London pubs and some fascinating history!

    I love the story of the hot cross buns!

    Many thanks for sharing and voting up, best wishes MM

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Good morning Epigramman - what a lovely start to my day to find your very kind comments, thank you very much! Hope you enjoyed your bitter and thanks for the Facebook link - much appreciated :-)

  • epigramman profile image

    epigramman 6 years ago

    ..another fine and most fascinating hub subject by you Miss Bee, the ultimate tour guide, and I will send this world class hub now on a tour of my own - and post your great work of research and history to my FACEBOOK page with a direct link back here and toast you and your health with a pint of bitter from lake erie ontario canada 9:45pm

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Hi Husky - I've just commented on your Museum of Fine Arts hub, which is rather marvellous. Thanks for returning the favour :-)

    Yes, I guess you are right, a good pub has a perfect mix of all four ingredients. I might go for a good atmosphere though, if pushed.

  • profile image

    Husky1970 6 years ago

    If I ever make it to London, these pubs will be on my list of potential places to visit. In your poll, actually all of the choices are important and voting on just one was very difficult. Went with the staff, but the beer has to be good and the atmosphere decent. If the latter two are good but the staff is poor, I would not want to frequent the establishment.

    Voted up and interesting.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    My pleasure, hope you get to visit the UK again soon :-)

  • gryphin423 profile image

    gryphin423 6 years ago from Florida

    I am tucking this information for my next trip to the UK, thanks for sharing :-)

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Hi doodlebugs - I wouldn't write Dublin off just yet - it has a magnificent tradition for boozers! Tough call though :-)

  • doodlebugs profile image

    doodlebugs 6 years ago from Southwest

    I was thinking of a trip to Ireland to "pub crawl" but now thinking London might be the best place for that.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    @ mjfarns - thanks for the compliment :-)

    @ Miss Belgravia - thanks for your comments - hope you enjoy the East End!

    @ Paraglider - you're right, you can't complain about a lack of variety in London.

    @ JamaGenee - I didn't realise those tours were so scary! Maybe next time you are in London you can try again ;-)

  • JamaGenee profile image

    Joanna McKenna 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Drats! I didn't stop in at any of these hubs when I was in London. Did *see* the Prospect of Whitby on the City Cruise out to Greenwich, and would've made it Ten Bells if I hadn't wimped out of the JTR tour at the last minute. The last pub on a pub crawl in Chelsea the night before was creepy enough and put me off for a repeat the next night! ;D

  • Paraglider profile image

    Dave McClure 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

    The Ten Bells and the nearby Commercial Tavern are two of my favourite London Pubs. But there are so many good ones. Londoners are spoiled for choice!

  • Miss Belgravia profile image

    Kathleen 6 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

    Lovely hub about some sacred places -- I've visited the Ten Bells and Prospect, and will add the others to my to-do list.

  • mjfarns profile image

    mjfarns 6 years ago from Bloomington, Illinois USA

    Great hub!!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Hi Louise - I haven't spent much time in West London, apart from some brief staff training at the Miss Selfridge in Ealing Broadway many, many years ago. There are quite a number of Brits on Hubpages - there was a forum thread or a question about it a few weeks ago and lots of Brits put their hands up.

    Am I journalist? You have made my day! No, I support children with Special Needs in my local secondary school.

    Thanks for your comments, much appreciated.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Thanks Seeker7 - praise from you is praise indeed!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Thanks for the comments Donna - good to hear that England is on your to do list. I know I am biased, but it's the greatest place to visit!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Hi Tireless Traveller - thanks for your comments. You're right, there are plenty of places to drink around the world, but good pubs are little worlds in themselves.

  • LouiseHomHeals profile image

    LouiseHomHeals 6 years ago from London, UK.

    Hi Judi,

    Very interesting. I live in London too (West) and didn't realise there were a few Brits writing on these Hub pages. I love old pubs and the history of London. Haven't been to these but must do so. You are a really good writer. Are you a journalist?

    Louise

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    What a wonderful journey into the pub land of London and some glorious - and on occasion - sad history. This was a really fascinating and enjoyable excursion!

    Voted up + awesome!

  • profile image

    Ghaelach 6 years ago

    Morning Judi.

    Now this brings back some memories.

    In January 1970 i spent 6 weeks in Dock street at the seamans mission. Was doing a course in Popular.

    We used to visit the Prospect of Whitby regular. After 40 years if i remember correct there was a stage about half a meter deep along one wall. The chairs where turned sideways so the entertainers sat sideways on playing their guitars or what ever he did.

    While we where there they had a hawaiian group of three men. They had flowery shirts, had a south sea look about them and had tatoo's all over, they where also very large men. That was when i fell in love with Hawaiian music.

    If my brain doesn't play tricks with me there was money notes pinned all over the walls and one wall was full of mens ties chopped off and nailed to the wall.

    Lovely memories.

    Take care Judi and have a nice day.

    LOL Ghaelach

  • DonnaCosmato profile image

    Donna Cosmato 6 years ago from USA

    Excellent hub! Visiting England is on my bucket list...and I'm adding these pubs as well! Thank you for not just sharing but making it sound so appealing. The maps are an nice additional touch. Kudos!

  • tirelesstraveler profile image

    Judy Specht 6 years ago from California

    Pubs intrigue me. They have a mystique that until recently you were hard pressed to find outside Brittan. Enjoyed your hub. London certainly has a rich and sordid history.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Been down that way on a trip to Houston many years ago!

  • Mentalist acer profile image

    Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

    Awesome..I Live In Lake Charles Louisiana And Have Tasted Some Fabulous Home Brew From Some Places In New Orleans.;)

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Mentalist acer, would it surprise you to know that I graduated from Slidell High School just across the Lake from New Orleans. Spent prom night on a bar crawl around the Vieux Carre! The joy of a misspent youth :-)

  • Mentalist acer profile image

    Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

    Thanks For Taking Us On A Pub Crawl Judi...They Have Some Awesome Brew Pubs In New Orleans.;)

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Hi France Travel, thank you very much! Hope you enjoy the pubs - look forward to your review.

  • France Travel Inf profile image

    France Travel Inf 6 years ago

    Great hub! We visit London frequently so I am adding these to my list of things to do!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Between us we have nearly got the set then! I used to live in East London while I was at college. Visited the Blind Beggar a few times and lived within sight of the Widow's Son. Did walk past the Ten Bells, didn't go in and haven't been to the Prospect of Whitby.

    Thanks for your comments, much appreciated.

  • itsmonkeyboy profile image

    itsmonkeyboy 6 years ago from London, UK

    Great hub! I've been to the Ten Bells before but there's never enough time for all the pubs in London! I'm pretty sure I've been past the Prospect of Whitby as well but not in it. I can see I'm going to have to visit a few more though, thanks for the reviews, very informative.