The 24 Hours In The Past TV programme on inns was set in a typical 18th/19th century rural roadside inn. but it had me thinking of the inns of the Borough, just south of London Bridge. Borough High Street is full of ye olde yards leading off it, which bear witness to what was once the thriving inns scene of this area. There was the Kings Head, Tabard, George, Hart (later White Hart), Spurre, Bull, Christopher and Queen’s Head. And we still have Kings Head Yard, Tabard Yard and White Hart Yard leading off the High Street, and there’s the last remaining medieval galleried inn, The George.
The Tabard dated from the 14th century. Chaucer mentions it in his Canterbury Tales. The Borough was also where Charles Dickens’ father was in prison for debt and where Charles went to live to be close to his family (the rest of the family were in prison to keep Dad company). And Dickens used locations in his stories that he knew. The White Hart Inn is where Mr Pickwick meets the original cockney geezer, Sam Weller, for the first time. It was the interplay between these two that made Dickens a superstar.
The George originates from the 16th century, though has burnt down and been rebuilt since like almost every other old pub in London – it was lack of health & safety gone mad in those days. And it’s one of the places where the medieval theatre started. Players would perform in the courtyard, with an audience standing next to them, whilst wealthier people could pay to stand up on the gallery for a better view (and to get away from the rabble of course).
But most coaching inns grew up during the growth of stagecoach traffic in the 18th century. The London to Channel Ports route began at the Borough, at the start of the Old Kent Road. This growth came about through the roads becoming better and safer, as Dick Turpin et al became less common. The decline of highwaymen was brought about by several factors. The development of turnpike toll roads, manned and gated, made it difficult for Dick and the boys to come and go unnoticed. And handguns had become more readily affordable and available for the average citizen so a highwaymen’s “stand and deliver” might be followed by a pistol being shoved up his hooter. The greater use of banknotes also meant stolen money was more traceable than when the stolen booty was gold coin. And London was growing outwards, so notoriously dangerous ambush spots such as Shooters Hill were becoming less remote, with buildings going up. You couldn’t get a cab south of the river of course, but you could get a stagecoach.
As for the inns, well they weren’t really into conservation once the railways arrived. Why keep an ancient old pub like the Tabard, when you can demolish it to make space for much needed railway warehousing. It was a no-brainer.
But at least the George was saved. Both Shakespeare and Dickens, remarkably, drank in the George 250 years apart. Well, maybe. Actually we don’t know if Shakespeare drank there. He may have been Bard (ouch!). And it doesn’t matter where you go in the whole of London, if you go in the main pub in any given area, Dickens used to drink there apparently! I’m surprised he ever got any work done at all! I think there was actually a scam going on. Most of Dickens’ career was pre photography, so few people knew exactly what he looked like. I think blokes were going into pubs saying “I’m that Charles Dickens yer know.” “Come in mate and ‘ave a drink on the ‘ouse.” But to be fair we do know Dickens did once have a coffee in the George. It doesn’t quite have the same feel as imagining Shakespeare and Dickens both downing pints of mead and porter respectively does it?
The George actually survived purely because the Great Northern Railway found it handy as a depot for a while. So there is something good you can say about the Northern Line after aall.
The Old Borough, Bermondsey & Rotherhithe, and the Theatre in Shakespeare’s London, walking tours show you this area. And because the Borough also has the best collection of 19th century buildings in central London, the end of the 700 Years of Architecture walking tour also covers it.