From The George to the White Horse – new book chronicles the hidden histories of 43 Southwark pubs
"This area became like a holding pen, because London Bridge closed at night. People would lodge at pubs like The George and taverns along Borough High Street. It was also a place for all the brothels, dog fights, bear baiting, and theatre."
Southwark in its industrial heyday was a Mecca for leather making, a bastion for brewing, the gateway to the rest of England, and a home to all manner of wrong’uns and scoundrels.
That’s the picture painted in Southwark Pubs, a new book by historian and BBC Radio London regular, Johnny Homer.
The 43-year-old talks us through his favourites from the 43 old boozers in the book, which have stood their ground for centuries.
Our first stop is The George Inn, at no. 77 Borough High Street. “Beside the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the George is probably the most famous pub in the world. Tourists flock there, and order something typically British like a fish and chips,” Johnny told the News.
Though best known by today’s drinkers for its distinctive court yard, The George was once a stables, and is London’s “last surviving galleried coaching inn,” Johnny writes. And whilst today the house itself only includes the right-hand side, it used to go all the way around all three sides.
Until 1750, London Bridge was the only crossing on the Thames. If you were from Kent or Surrey it was the only way to get north.
Johnny said: “This area became like a holding pen, because the bridge closed at night. People would lodge at pubs like The George and taverns along Borough High Street. It was also a place for all the brothels, dog fights, bear baiting, and theatre.” He said the south side of the river enjoyed its hedonism because it was outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, where such things were forbidden.
Other little-known facts about the George is that it was once owned by Guy’s Hospital, who sold it to Northern Rail to use as a goods depot. Since 1937 it has been owned by the National Trust.
At no. 231 Long Lane, Simon the Tanner may not boast any notorious tales of its own, but Johnny says it’s worthy of note because of its place in the centre of old Bermondsey, which has radically transformed around it.
Bermondsey was best known for its leather making. Johnny makes this point as he pauses to point out that the name of the pub we are sat having a drink in – the Pommelers Rest in Tower Bridge Road – which refers to an old way of saying to “pummel” leather. And he writes that by the end of the eighteenth century, one third of all of Britain’s leather was produced in and around Bermondsey Street.
Old Simon would have witnessed it all, having opened in 1829. And today it enjoys grade-II listing from Historic England.
The other thing Bermondsey was all too well known for was its brewing, and by extension, its pubs.
The Anchor Tap (no. 20 Horsleydown Lane) earned its name for being “the tap” of the Anchor Brew House in Shad Thames, meaning it was the brewery’s closest pub, and where most of its barrels were rolled along to.
“Southwark was probably at the centre of London’s brewing,” Jonny says, “because it was by the Thames, so this is where all the ingredients were delivered, and they would’ve used the river to drive mills.”
Looking south of the borough, Johnny talks up the Ivy House in Nunhead (no. 40 Stuart Road), which is well-known today as London’s only co-operatively owned pub, and was the in the UK to be listed as an Asset of Community Value.
Our guide’s preoccupation with the Ivy House is also for its old reputation as one of the capital’s major venues on the gigging circuit.
Johnny said: “The likes of Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Dr. Feelgood would have all played there. It was a big stop for ‘pub rock’ bands, which was like a pre-cursor to punk.”
He also writes that it started life as the Newlands Tavern in 1868, and was owned by the East End brewer Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co.
Johnny praised the co-operative system (ownership by locals as shareholders) as a future model for pub ownership for the rest of London.
A similarly peaceful setting is The White Horse (no. 20-22 Peckham Rye), which opened in the 1820s, and is currently owned by the Parched Pubs group. It has a small claim to fame, thanks to its mention in Muriel Spark’s novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye, published in 1960.
Sparks tells a self-reflective story of a Scottish migrant’s visit to Peckham. The protagonist, Dougal Douglas MA, regards himself as “a devil”, and is sent to Peckham at the behest of his boss at a textiles factory at home, to “bring vision to the lives of [the company’s] workers”. But Dougal finds its inhabitants sterile and unremarkable by comparison.
The White Horse is included as one of many drinking stops that character Humphrey Place visits on a pub crawl, as well as the Peckham Hotel and the Morning Star, the Heaton Arms and the Harbinger. It is written that Humphrey “walked across to the White Horse and drank one bitter”.
Southwark Pubs was released on September 15. Johnny had written five other books for publisher Amberley, including Brewing in Kent; Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs; and City of London Pubs. Visit www.amberley-books.com to find out more.