The George Inn on Borough High Street is a busy place on Friday evenings as office workers, holding a pint or two in their hands, fill the rooms inside and outdoor courtyard. But this is nothing new – this pub has a history of being hectic.
Writing in Shakespeare’s Local, a highly readable account of the life and times of the venue – the last of London’s great galleried coaching inns – author Pete Brown says that to understand what it was like in its prime in the 18th and early 19th centuries, you need to “imagine a busy modern-day coach station, such as that at London Victoria”:
“……a bustling hive of vehicles coming and going, packed with bored, open-mouthed passengers staring through the windows as they barrel in and out of the entrance. Inside, the station is a mess of luggage being loaded and unloaded, the atmosphere a cocktail of anxiety, excitement and uncertainty, regret, and longing, overlaid with the stress of getting on or off the right coach at the right time.
“And imagine that this busy coach station is also, at the same time, a large luxury hotel, an office block full of businesses where people work daily, a warehouse complex, a branch of Starbucks, a few shops and private houses, and one of the biggest pubs you’ve ever seen.”
Back then the George was more than four times its current size, with the galleried buildings enclosing three sides (today it is just one) of the cobbled outside courtyard where punters today sit at trestle tables to enjoy drinks and food in what seems like all weathers.
And while the George may not today be the sort of place you can go to catch a stagecoach to Kent or stay overnight in a guest room, it is certainly still an impressive pub and worthy of a visit. There are number different rooms to choose from, with nooks and crannies where you can pull up a stool and crowd round a small table with friends, as well as spots where you can eat a slap up meal.
Slipping off busy Borough High Street and passing through a large black wrought iron arch embedded with the George’s name in a gap between shops, I usually make straight for the Parliament bar, a fairly dingy room with a low ceiling and wooden beams. Some of the wooden benches with curved armed rests are said to date back to the 17th century, a time when the current structure was re-built following the Great Fire of Southwark which wiped out numerous buildings in the area. Brown describes the room as “the people’s bar, the old taproom where coachmen and wagoner’s drank from foaming tankards and smoked clay pipes”:
“…even today it’s still easy to visualise drinkers with whisky, beeches and big hats. Market gardeners up for the Borough Market chatted here watchmen from neighbouring business premises when they retired for the night. Dark and gloomy, every surface patched and painted and built over and repaired and uneven, it feels older than any other part of the inn, even though it isn’t.”
One of the most intriguing features of this room is what has been called a Parliamentary clock. Dating from around 1750, it would have been in place (originally in the adjoining bar) when a tax on clocks and watches was introduced in 1797, allowing those to pop into the inn to check the time for free. The levy was repealed after nine months, but the clock has remained.
To get to the other ground floor rooms you need to go back outside to the cobbled courtyard and re-enter through another door. The main bar is bustling at weekends and you have fight your way to through crowds to get served. Carrying on through the maze of rooms, you reach what was in the past known as the coffee room and was where gentlemen caught up on their newspapers, away from the riff raff of labourers and wagoners next door.
The George’s current structure dates back to the 1670s and was built with the coaching trade very much in mind, with stabling for up to one hundred animals, as well as guest rooms upstairs. The wonderful wooden balconies (remaining on the partially surviving wing) provided occupants with easy access to their accommodation and were designed to allow light to flood in.
Exactly how long there has been an inn where the George currently stands is up for debate. In his 1598 landmark Survey of London, the historian John Stow lists it as one of eight “fair inns for the receipt of travellers”. The Guildhall holds two so-called innkeepers tokens – used when there was a shortage of change – from the first half of the 17th century that contains the inn’s name. And it is included on the earliest map of Southwark, which dates from 1542.
But Brown thinks there could even have been an inn on the site as far back as the 1380s given what we know about the existence of others from that time. The White Hart and the Tabard, now lost but which for many years were nearby, may be as old as 1406 and 1307 respectively. Inns sprang up to cater for the increase in travellers from the late 13th century onwards who wanted to be close to the centre of power and then expanded later on as the coach trade took off from the 17th century.
Given the efforts the City went to in attempting to keep out criminals and those that tradesmen that weren’t in a Guild, Borough developed as a parallel city, just across river, where the rules were lax. The 1381 Poll Tax records reveal that there were 22 innkeepers in the district – with 12 on the high street alone – in addition to brewers. And by 1550 there were some 50 drinking establishments on the main stretch.
Despite calling his book Shakespeare’s Local, Brown acknowledges that there are no records of the playwright actually visiting the George. “Maybe he preferred a different tavern, but there’s a very high probability that he drank there at least occasionally,” writes Brown. It is not however the only pub to make claims to having hosted Shakespeare – the Anchor (which now has a Premier Inn bolted on the side) proudly believes the playwright rested at their establishment between performances.
Shakespeare moved from Bishopsgate to Southwark sometime between 1596 and 1599, the latter the date when the Globe theatre was established on the south bank of the Thames, so would at least have been familiar with the George. Prior to then, plays would have been performed in inn yards, with visitors paying their entrance fee and then standing on a gallery, rather than at fixed venues. The George is likely to have hosted plays, but not necessarily Shakespeare’s in his life time (they were performed after his death in the open however). And the yard continues to be used for various forms of entertainment to this day.
Soon the emphasis of the George – in keeping with Borough’s other inns – became much more commercial focused. John Strype, writing in 1720, described it as somewhere that had built up “a large and considerable trade” that served wagon routes, with numerous destinations across the country being served over the course of the working week. And (later than other inns in Borough), it became a coaching inn for passengers, with the first service leaving in 1732 for Brighton.
The George was described in 1825 Tavern Anecdotes by One of the Old School as:
“…a good commercial inn in the Boro High Street; well-known, whence several coaches and many waggons depart laden with merchandise of the metropolis, in return for which they bring back from various parts of Kent, etc. that staple article of the country, the hop, of which we are indebted for the good quality of the London Porter.”
Before public buildings like town halls and libraries were built, inns like the George were community hubs and hosted a whole manor of occasions. Inquests, auctions and political campaign meetings were all hosted here, given that these were really the only venues large enough to accommodate big groups of people.
While any links with Shakespeare are tenuous, the George could however have been billed, with much more certainty as Charles Dickens’s local. He would have recognised the structure – re-built after the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676 – which punters see today. Dickens’s family spent some time in Marshalsea prison, then nearby on Borough High Street, for running up debts and the author himself worked at a factory near Blackfriars Bridge.
And there is debate as to whether the following description – from the Pickwick Papers (1837) – is actually of the George, rather than the White Hart, as stated:
“The yard presented none of that bustle and activity which are the usual characteristics of a large coach inn. Three or four lumbering wagons, each with a pile of goods beneath its ample canopy, about the height of the second-floor window of an ordinary house, were stowed away beneath a lofty roof which extended over one end of the yard; and another, which was probably to commence its journey that morning, was drawn out into the open space. A double tier of bedroom galleries, with old Clumsy balustrades, ran round two sides of the straggling area, and a double row of bells to correspond, sheltered from the weather by a little sloping roof, hung over the door leading to the bar and coffee-room. Two or three gigs and chaise-carts were wheeled up under different little sheds and pent-houses; and the occasional heavy tread of a cart-horse, or rattling of a chain at the farther end of the yard, announced to anybody who cared about the matter, that the stable lay in that direction. When we add that a few boys in smock-frocks were lying asleep on heavy packages, wool-packs, and other articles that were scattered about on heaps of straw, we have described as fully as need be the general appearance of the yard of the White Hart Inn, High Street, Borough, on the particular morning in question.”
Indeed, by the 1920s newspapers regularly reported the claim that the George was where Pickwick and Sam Weller – the key characters in Pickwick Papers – met. The inn was however specifically mentioned in another of his works, Little Dorrit.
Dickens lived and was writing at a time when railways were starting to have a big impact on Britain. The London to Greenwich Railway was the first to arrive in the capital (the first section opened in 1836 and it was fully completed two years later), but others quickly followed. Coach companies went out of business at as a result of this new competition, which allowed quicker journeys for passengers and goods. And while some Borough inns switched to becoming booking offices and parcel offices for railway companies, many buildings became redundant.
What’s more, all the functions that inns like the George had performed – such as acting as coffee shops, meeting places and providing accommodation – were find new homes in the form of venues such as hotels, restaurants and such like.
The George was sold to neighbouring Guy’s hospital in 1849 who wanted land so they could extend their premises (they would wall off and fill in about half of the old stable yard). Some rooms were rented out to businesses like the Great Northern Railway and the galleries on two wings were boarded up, with balustrades removed. But the 1851 census shows that overnight trade didn’t completely dry up and it also became popular with local clientele who popped in for lunches.
Brown believes this downsizing ended up saving what remains of the George. “Photos from the 1850s to the 1870s of contemporaries like the White Hart and King’s Head show Dickens’s ‘rambling, queer, old places’ falling into disrepair, almost ruins in some cases,” he writes. “But possibly because there was less of the George to look after, it remained in better condition.”
The Builder magazine said in 1873 that the George was “now filled up with railway vans, and the building covered more or less with huge bills and posters, not a little surprising to those who for a moment can forget the present, and live in the past in these disappearing places.”
And in 1874 the Great North Railway Company bought the George, quite simply so they could pull most of it down. The planned demolition finally came in 1889, allowing new warehouses to be built around two sides of the yard.
Loved the world over
For somewhere that managed to avoid complete demolition in the 19th century when its neighbours disappeared, I found it fascinating to read in Brown’s book the story of how the George would go on to be loved the world over. The Old Inns of Old England, published in 1906, brilliantly captures why it was – and is – such a wonderful place:
“It is pleasing to be able to bear witness to the thriving trade that continues to be done in this sole ancient survivor of the old Southwark galleried inns, and to note that, however harshly fate, as personified by rapacious landlords, has dealt with its kind, the old-world savour of the inn is thoroughly appreciated by those not generally thought sentimental persons, the commercial men who dine and lunch, and the commercial travellers who sleep there.”
Hidden away at the edge of what was then a railway yard, some passers-by didn’t even know the George existed, but word quickly started to spread amongst fans of Charles Dickens fans. The editor of The Dickensian said “it has become a rendezvous of continual flow of literary and antiquarian enthusiasts who never miss an opportunity for a visit to its old-world rooms and exterior….” An increasing number of journalists wrote stories about the George, with one running a piece under the headline:
LAST DICKENS INN
WHERE CITY MEN STILL GO FOR ROAST
BEEF AND DOMINOS.
But unfortunately the enthusiasm of visitors to the George could not help the fact that in the interwar period it was structurally unsound and in need of urgent, costly repairs. The LNER gave the building (but not the land it stood on) to the National Trust who in turn signed a deal with Flower & Sons, from Stratford Upon Avon. A deal was struck in which the brewery would pay a rent of £1 a year – reviewed every seven years during the 21 year lease – in return for undertaking necessary renovations.
Following consolidation of the big breweries, the George would in time pass to Whitbread, Laurel Pub Co. and then finally Greene King, its current owner. Over the course of the 20th century it survived the Blitz (when Borough High Street was inflames and many buildings were wiped out) and attracted an array of famous guests, not least Princess Margaret – the Queen’s sister – who stayed for a lock-in, at a time when pubs by law had to stop serving drink at 3pm on a Sunday.
“The George survives, walking a delicate balance between theme park museum and working pubs,” writes Brown. “Having had its glory day as a haven for travellers, today it caters for people a long way from home, who have come to see the sights and reconnect with the age of Dickens or Shakespeare.” I’ll drink to that!