Tag Archives: London pubs

The widow’s son

Just up the road from Beaumont Square is the Widow’s Son in Devons Road which is a Grade II* listed public house built in the 19th century with an interesting history, featuring a Christian festival behind its name.

The story is that a widow’s house previously stood on the site. Expecting her sailor son home from the sea during the Napoleonic wars one Easter, she naturally baked him a hot cross bun, but unfortunately, he did not return. The widow lived in hope and next year made another bun, and so on.

It was commonly believed at that time, that bread or buns baked on Good Friday would never grow mouldy and had a marked medicinal value, it was also not unknown for such items to be hung up.

After her death years, stale buns were found hanging from a beam in her cottage, inevitably the house became famous for its collection of buns, and when in 1848 a pub was built on the same site it was naturally called the Widow’s Son and the custom continued; each year a sailor bringing another bun to be hung from the pub’s ceiling. The tradition almost ended when ironically the lease on the Widow’s Son ran out a week before Easter, with developers wanting to turn the site into yet another a block of flats.

Thankfully the tradition is back at the Widow’s Son after the enthusiasm of the new landlord and the participation of sailors from the training ship HMS President which is permanently moored alongside the Victoria Embankment.

You can see the current, currant buns (sorry!) in the net.

Featured image: The Widow’s Son, Public House, Bow, a grade II listed public house on Devon’s Road, opposite Campbell Road, by David Anstiss (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A bitter pill for all

Once was the time that every Londoner knew who Doctor Butler was, and the alleged restorative properties of his famous brew.

Such was his fame a number of London pubs carried his name.

[A]LAS ALL BUT ONE HAVE GONE or become a generic pub/restaurant. The last survivor to carry his name is to be found in Mason’s Avenue in The City.

The surviving establishment has a good reputation according to Fancy a Pint who give it four-stars which would not be the case if the hostelry still served up the good doctor’s celebrated ’purging ale’.

No qualifications

‘Doctor’ Butler had no medical qualifications, but that didn’t stop him selling an evil concoction of laxatives that included senna, liquorice and scurvy grass (a type of cabbage) all mixed in a strong ale and allowed to ferment for three days.

First produced in 1616 the brew laid claim to treat all manner of maladies:

An excellent stomach drink, it helps digestion and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs and is therefore good against colds, coughs, phthisical and consumptive distempers, and being drunk in the evening it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.

With medical science in its infancy King James, when suffering from sciatica reached for a jug of the doctor’s purgative concoction. Its powerful effects took the King’s mind off his original ailment, and when he emerged from his House of Ease awarded Butler a position in court as his physician.

Unfortunately, the powerful laxative didn’t work on King James’s son Henry dying from typhoid.

Old Doctor Butler The success with the King’s bad back encouraged Butler to branch out offering clients the benefit of his expertise. Epilepsy was cured by firing a brace of pistols near the unsuspecting patients face – thus scaring the malady enough to leave its host.

The current incumbents practising in Harley Street might be pleased to discover that should plague return to London, plunging one’s patient into
ice-cold water effects a cure.

Dropped into the Thames

But should that prove unsuccessful an alternative treatment is to drop the infected patient through a trapdoor on London Bridge allowing them to fall
into the Thames.

Doctor Butler’s Medicinal Ale was sold across London from taverns displaying Doctor Butler’s Head on their signs. Remarkably it was available long after his death – he presumably declined the ale’s medicinal benefits upon his own death bed.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 22nd July 2014

Gallic Snug

French HouseAlthough the bar was called York Minster until quite recently most had known it as The French House and it’s had a Gallic feel since it opened in 1914. In the Second World War it became the favoured watering hole of General de Gaulle while he was organising the Free French forces. It was while using the bar as a homely headquarters de Gaulle wrote his famous speech ‘À tous les Français’ urging his countrymen to keep alive ‘the flame of French resistance’. Ironically its frontage was blown out in an air raid.

After the war, the Soho bar gained its reputation as a haunt for the heavy drinking, louche bohemian, with regulars a celebrated roster of artists, writers, wits and eccentrics including Aleister Crowley.

[I]n 1984 it became clear the York Minster’s fame had spread worldwide when the real Minster (the cathedral in York) suffered a catastrophic fire and donations for repairs destined for York Minster began arriving at the bar from around the globe.

When the landlord redirected the funds north to Yorkshire he discovered the Bishop of York had for many years been quietly receiving unsolicited cases of claret intended for Gaston Berlemond a Belgian who had bought the pub in 1914.

The French House sells more Ricard than anywhere else in Britain and only serves beer in half-pints, except for on April the first, when a recent custom has been that Suggs serves the first pint of the day.

Picture from Tired of London

Information gleaned with more than a little help from my favourite London app Black Plaques: Memorials to Misadvanture:

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 26th February 2013

Bashing the bishop

If ever there was a place which encapsulates ‘Englishness’ the Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is it, hidden away down an alleyway in Hatton Garden. The first Mitre Tavern was built in 1546 as the boozer for servants working in the Palace of the Bishops of Ely. This small area is still technically under the control of the Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire and until the last century, the pub licence was issued from Ely. The City police at that time had no jurisdiction within its bounds.

[T]he Palace, before being demolished in 1772 was the magnificent residence used by the Bishops when they came to town, boasting a vineyard, orchard, gardens, fountains and ponds, all surrounded by a wall to keep out the locals. The community inside was then declared part of the mother county which became a corner of some foreign city that would be forever Cambridge.

Strawberry fayre

If you believe Shakespeare’s opinion on soft fruit, the strawberries grown there were the finest in London. The Duke of Gloucester speaking to the Bishop of Ely in Act 3 of Richard III declares:

When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there: I do beseech you, send for some of them.

A strawberry fayre is still held in Ely Place every June in aid of charity.

Ely Place was the centre of religious and political power, John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II is staged here:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle; This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; This other Eden, demi-paradise; This fortress built by Nature for herself; Against infection and the hand of war; This happy breed of men, this little world; This precious stone set in the silver sea; Which serves it in the office of a wall; Or as a moat defensive to a house; Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

After the Reformation Queen Elizabeth forced the bishops to rent some of their lands to Sir Christopher Hatton, one of her courtiers, the area then became known as Hatton Garden, which now, of course, is the centre of London’s diamond trade.

The Virgin Queen seems always to have a liking for trees. In the front bar of the Mitre is the preserved trunk of a cherry tree around which she is said to have danced the maypole. Likewise at Hatfield House, until recently their gift shop had leant against the wall the trunk of the oak she was reputed to have been sitting under when she received news that she was now Queen.

London’s oldest pub

The Mitre today claims to be the oldest pub in London, which although rebuilt in 1772 it is technically still part of Cambridgeshire, so it should lay claim to being the oldest boozer in Cambridge.

Soon after its rebuilding, Dr Johnson was a regular – Is there any 18th-century public house without that claim? – and much of the interior would be familiar to the grumpy lexicographer. If you want to be transported back to Georgian London a trip to the outside gents toilets will give you that questionable experience. The only hand basin in the men’s is in the cubicle so be weary of pissing on your hands if somebody is taking a dump there. The women’s toilets are upstairs in the Bishop’s Room it would be too tempting to have the men’s toilets in the Bishop’s Room for fear of jokes about bashing it.

Beware of head and body injuries in Ye Olde Mitre, as the ceilings are low and the rooms are small, dark and crammed with furniture and people, particularly is a tour group have just turned up. There is a coffin-sized cubby-hole off the back room that is large enough for a single table and four very close friends. The furniture comprises of harsh wooden upright seats and solid wooden tables that look as though they were used to lay-out dead bodies in the local mortuary. A sign requests that furniture is not moved away from the authentic wood-panelled walls. With no TV’s, gaming machines or piped music, just the murmur of polite conversation Ye Old Mitre is a hidden gem.

More information on Ye Old Mitre can be found at London Details. The picture of the stone mitre that came from the gatehouse of the nearby Palace of the Bishop of Ely (demolished in 1772) by Mike Quinn.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 21st May 2013

Pubs: A glass divide

Downton Abbey might have been all about the Victorian class system but it’s the local where Britain’s obsession with one’s social standing was defined.

London’s hostelries once had multiple spaces, which sometimes were extremely small, each one denoted by the price you would pay for a drink and the status of customer with whom you might be rubbing shoulders.

[U]ntil the 1950s when the ‘Big Six’ brewers started to subsume local pubs into their brand, customers would pay a price that reflected the plushness of the room and expect to be shielded by etched or frosted windows from the glaze of passers-by or fellow drinkers which were in a different social class. The idea of financial, social and sexual segregation was an entrenched feature of pubs until well after the Second World War.

A variety of names were given to reflect the class of customer, or cost that patrons might expect to pay in these rooms. At the bottom is the public bar, often referred to as simply ‘bar’ with a more utilitarian feel, serving cheaper priced tipples and predominantly a male preserve, with easy access to a gents toilet, while for the ladies it would often entail a journey to another area of the public house. While, just occasionally vestiges of a ‘ladies only’ bar survive as in The Glass and Mitre, Bayswater.

Further up the pricing range of beverages or drinking rooms available was the saloon; lounge; smoke (or smoking room); the ‘select’ room was, as the name implies, a cut above with its own counter to the servery; a sitting room, where one might relax and summon a waiter by means of a bell, the only authentically bell-pushes in London can be found in The Forester, Ealing; private bar; vault (often a public bar); snug (small and cosy); commercial room (for commercial travellers); porter room; music room; and tap room (often curiously far removed from the place where ale was drawn).

But, uniquely in London, these different rooms with their own functions often evolved in to public houses with extraordinarily tiny drinking compartments. One survivor is The Barley Mow in Dorset Street [below], which retains two boxes giving the impression of Georgian box pews in church.


Other remarkable survivors of screened compartments are The Argyll Arms, Argyll Street and The Prince Albert, Formosa Street a sole example of screened compartments ranged around a peninsular servery.

Unlike today, when drinking habits are on display with customers spilling onto the pavement, while the public house has to employ security guards to shepherd the drinkers within the allotted area, Victorians were reluctant to be seen partaking of alcohol. Etched, and later frosted glass would be employed to form a screen between the world of the pub and passersby, a fine example is The Albert in Victoria Street [featured image above].

Snob screens were a feature of upmarket Victorian pubs giving privacy to their ‘better’ customers, creating a sense of physical and visual separation from the serving staff. These glass ‘windows’ could be revolved giving access to the bar staff to order one’s drink. A sole survivor of this, the clearest demarcation between the have’s and the ‘have not’s, is The Prince Albert, Maida Vale [below].


As drinking habits have changed to a more rowdy and less intimate space to enjoy a tipple the demarcation between social classes of drinkers have been swept away and many of the glass divides lost.

In 1991 a National Inventory of historic pub interiors was begun. It was expected that 500 examples worth retaining would be found from the 60,000 pubs in Britain at that time. In the event only 200 were identified, just 0.5 per cent of the nation’s pub stock.

With public houses closing on a weekly basis, the recent fire above The Old Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the earliest example of a 17th century interior, was of some concern, for in London the published inventory of historic pub interiors of 2004 identified only 133 pubs worthily of inclusion.

These surviving interiors which would indeed have been the norm, now their rarity makes them very special survivals of a lost age.

Photos: Interior of Argyll Arms Michael Flynn (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Featured image: Interior The Albert Brian Micklethwait