London pubs: Drinking down the history of the city’s watering holes

by Carmen Allan-Petale

Millions of people frequent London’s pubs each year but how many of these patrons think about the establishments’ history?

One of the best things I love about London, and England in general, is its quaint pubs. No matter how hard other countries may try, the atmosphere of a true British pub is impossible to imitate overseas.

Think low ceilings, warm ale, log fires and rooms filled with laughter.

I'm not adverse to a tipple but what about the history behind the booze?

I’m not adverse to a tipple but what about the history behind the booze?

Dave and I recently went on a tour to find out more about the history of London’s greatest and strangest watering holes. Rather than a pub crawl, for the first time ever we went on a pub tour and aside from a drink at the beginning and the end, we didn’t enter the pubs to drink – instead we learnt about their history by standing outside of them. And it was fascinating!

The Queen’s Head

The tour began and finished at The Queen’s Head, a pub hidden down a narrow alleyway behind Piccadilly Circus tube station.

An interesting fact about the pub is that it was formerly used as a venue for dog and rat fighting in the mid 1850s. The British government banned most animal fighting at this time but it was still legal to kill rats.

The Queen's Head - former rat fighting venue!

The Queen’s Head – former rat fighting venue!

There were around 40 rat baiting dens in pubs around London and The Queen’s Head was one of them. Every Tuesday evening, men (women weren’t allowed) would bring their dogs down to the pub where they were weighed before bets were placed on how many rats each dog would be able to kill. The record holder apparently mauled around 200 rats in under an hour!

I just have one question – where did the owner of the pub keep the rats when they weren’t fighting?!

The Crown

Just up the road from The Queen’s Head is The Crown pub which has a much more peaceful history. Situated on Brewer Street, where two breweries stood in the late 1600s and early 1700s, this watering hole is better known for its classical music touch – a nine year old Mozart once played with his sister in the building opposite the pub.

The Crown, where Mozart apparently once played

The Crown, where Mozart apparently once played

John Snow

The history of the John Snow pub was my favourite on the tour, and it’s quite a grisly one. John Snow was a doctor who put an end to the cholera epidemic in the area in 1854 when he discovered people were becoming ill from drinking the water from a specific pump on Broad Street. (Now Broadwick Street and the location of the John Snow pub today.)

The John Snow pub - named after cholera source catcher

The John Snow pub – named after cholera source catcher

Others believed the cholera, which killed more than 600 people, was an airborne disease but John Snow proved it was a contamination of the water when nappies from a baby that’d recently died from the disease were found just metres from the water source.

Gruesome!

The ironic thing is that John Snow was teetotal and in favour of the temperance movement. If you’re not sure what the temperance movement was – read on!

The Old Coffee House

The Temperance Movement happened in the 19th century and was when people urged others to give up drinking. The social movement criticised excessive alcohol use and tried to persuade the government to introduce anti-alcohol legislation.

The Coffee House was a Temperance Pub where people came to drink non-alcoholic beverages such as warm milk with fizzy water – gross! Give me a wine over that any time. And I can get one because now days, The Old Coffee House serves alcohol like any other pub.

The Old Coffee House pub, where alcohol was once banned

The Old Coffee House pub, where alcohol was once banned

Another ironic fact is that a lot of these non-alcoholic drinks were often worse for the patrons than alcohol as they contained substances like lead, which made them taste better apparently.

Sounds of the Universe (The Bricklayer’s Arms)

Learning about the history of this site – previously The Bricklayer’s Arms pub – was possibly one of the most exciting parts of the tour. In the upstairs room of this building, Brian Jones auditioned the original members of The Rolling Stones after placing an ad in the Jazz Times – awesome!

Although no longer a pub, the music history lives on as it’s now a record store.

Formerly The Bricklayer's Arms, now Sounds of the Universe record store. But more famous for the fact The Rolling Stones auditioned here!

Formerly The Bricklayer’s Arms, now Sounds of the Universe record store. But more famous for the fact The Rolling Stones auditioned here!

The Colony Room

Above a restaurant called Duck Soup there once lived The Colony Room which was an infamous member’s club for creative people such as actors and writers. Artist Muriel Belcher opened the club in the mid-1950s.

Over the years it was frequented by celebrity artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

The top floors of this establishment were formerly The Colony Room member's club

The top floors of this establishment were formerly The Colony Room member’s club

Unfortunately the club closed at the end of 2008 after its lease ran out, even though artist Sebastian Horsley petitioned to keep it open.

Horsley said at the time: “It (The Colony Room) has been a vibrant, unique and historical drinking den for artists, writers, musicians, actors and their acolytes. There is nowhere else like it in the world.”

The Red Lion

One of the final stops on the tour is the former Red Lion pub which is now a Be At One cocktail bar. In 1847, Karl Marx lived in nearby Dean Street and would attend communist lectures in a room above the Red Lion pub.

Now a Be At One but formerly the site where communist ideas were discussed

Now a Be At One but formerly the site where communist ideas were discussed

It was in this spot he wrote an ‘action programme’ for The Communist League with Frederick Engels, which was published as the Communist Manifesto – the basis for the Russian Revolution 70 years later.

You’ll probably need a pint to digest all this history, and when you drink it take a moment to think about the history of the pub you’re enjoying it in! Do you know any more interesting facts about London pubs?

What you need to know:

Cost: We went on the Soho Sunday Pub Themed Tour which is run by Joanna Moncrieff and it costs £8. However, Jo does lots of tours around the Westminster area and if food is more your thing she also does a guided tour of where the best afternoon teas in London can be found – delightful!

When to go: The tour itself lasted about an hour and a half so make sure you bring good walking shoes. We were lucky to get a sunny day but it still got quite cold – we went in February. Rug up and bring a thermos of coffee if you want to keep warm!

How to get there: This tour started at The Queen’s Head pub near Piccadilly Circus tube but Jo’s tours start in various locations. She’ll give you detailed instructions on where to meet beforehand.

Jo was kind enough to give us complimentary tickets for her tour but as always, our views are our own.

5 thoughts on “London pubs: Drinking down the history of the city’s watering holes

      • It is interesting, and if you like the history behind pubs, the whole story of coaching inns is a fascinating connection to a truly bygone era, one ended by the arrival of train travel.

        I’m not sure if this is something that would interest you but Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is only an hour or so’s drive from London, in St Albans. It’s officially the oldest pub in the UK. Part of the building dates from the 8th century and it’s located on a 10th century location (as I recall).

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Olde_Fighting_Cocks

        And if you ever make it up to Nottingham then Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is also a fascinating one. Parts of it are actually carved from the rock below Nottingham Castle! It’s said that medieval knights drank there before heading off on the crusades, hence the name.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Olde_Trip_to_Jerusalem

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