London’s small pubs have been in decline for decades. Half of them have gone in the last ten years. But there’s a story behind every boarded-up façade. Here’s just one.
I saw him in the Rose and Crown, my Green Man, ancient, barely born, John Barleycorn.Carol Anne Duffy. ‘John Barleycorn’
A middling mid-Victorian pub, midway between two extensive flat developments – one from the last century, one from this. Why should anyone care? London pubs close every week. This pub has finally being demolished, more than 20 years after it stopped trading.
Perhaps, simply because it is so ordinary, the life and slow death of the Thames, 95 Thames Street, Greenwich (even its name is middle of the road), is worth recording. And nothing is ever that straightforward. The excellent masonry of this corner pub – smartly curved arch, lintels carved with oak leaves and neptunian heads – once had a former name etched into it: ‘The Rose and Crown’. To add to the haul, it was once also ‘Bridget’s Free House’. Cead Mile Failte now descended into rubble.
As the area rose, declined, recovered, evolved from industrial to residential; the abandoned Thames kept itself aloof. Its history is hard to unravel. It’s not helped by having such a neutral name – other vanquished pubs in the neighbourhood seemed more intriguing, their names spoke of the industries of the area, and the dominance of the river – the Sugar Loaf, Fubbs Yacht, the Old Loyal Britons, the Steam Ferry.
Church Fields was once the name of the small area of land between the river and Creek Road, (formerly Bridge Street); bounded on the east by St Alfege’s (or St Alphage’s) Church, in the west by Deptford Creek. Further into Deptford, the historic dockyards of Henry VIII gave the area its naval character. A statue of Peter the Great, posing in front of another new riverside housing development, marks an eccentric episode in that history.
Church Fields largely comprised market gardens and reed beds, but began to be developed from the 1820s onwards. The Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company acquired some of the land and built the Thames Street Gas Works in 1824.
Greenwich’s fishing fleet operated out of nearby Billingsgate Dock (where the Cutty Sark is now situated), until the advent of rail led to relocation to Hull and Grimsby in the 1850s. There had been a brewery on the eponymous Brewhouse Lane from the end of the seventeenth century. Before the opening of the foot tunnel in 1902, a horse ferry and a foot ferry had plied for hundreds of years between here and the Isle of Dogs.
By water to the Ferry, where, when we come, no coach there; and tide of ebb so far spent as the horse-boat could not get off on the other side the river to bring away the coach. So we were fain to stay there in the unlucky Isle of Doggs, in a chill place, the morning cool, and wind fresh, above two if not three hours to our great discontentSamuel Pepys, Diary, Monday 31 July 1665.
There is almost nothing to see from that time in the area now. A few outlines of the surviving streets – Wood Wharf and Horseferry place, part cobbled, gently sloping up towards the river and the crossing place for the ferry. A few other street names have been preserved and recycled into the blocks of the Meridian Estate, started by London County Council in the 1930s when the packed little run of streets was cleared away to make better homes for people, with sanitation and front yards.
They’re still there, whiskery now, but solid and immoveable. In the front yards, snug benches, wilting pot plants, washing stacked on airers. They hold firm against the more recent flats in New Capital Wharf that have encroached their river views. That new development has its own troubles. For months it’s been covered in scaffolding while all of the of unsafe Grenfell-type cladding is removed after a prolonged dispute.
The first recorded Rose and Crown licensee is Hannah White in 1852 (her husband George had failed to obtain a licence in 1845). George worked as a labourer, a common occupation in this district which supplied workers into the coke and gas works, the fishing fleet and the iron foundry. And there was plenty of booze flowing – the list of beer sellers (akin to off-licences), quite apart from the pubs, included Philip Brookes and William Bilton on Thames Street, John Brannon on adjacent Norway Street and James Parsons round the corner on Bridge Street.
Maps of the area mark dramatic increases in buildings and people throughout the second half of the nineteenth century . This extract from Charles Booth’s famous 1899 survey shows that most of the area housed the ‘poor ‘ or ‘very poor’ with a few more ‘mixed’ areas further from the river.
‘Looks poor’ is his brusque remark, in his notebook of the walk around what was then the parish of St Peter (and now part of the parish of St Alfege – the church is visible on the lower right of the map).
Certainly, there were better parts of Greenwich, up the hill and near the park, as now. There was another Rose and Crown, a more commercial affair, which still survives as a pub with adjacent celebrated independent theatre. A typical bill of fare for ‘Crowder’s Music Hall’ at the Rose and Crown on a Saturday night in 1871 included: ‘Miss Leon Beswick (the fascinating comic), Miss Marion West (serio-comic, dancer and burlesque actress), Patrick Mills (the Hibernian gem)’, with top billing for ‘BARNATO (the great Wizard)’. 6d in the stalls and 3d in the circle.
Down the hill the entertainments were sometimes less savoury. The landlord of Fubb’s Yacht was threatened with the loss of his licence in 1897 for keeping the pub open after hours. It was the fourth incident in twelve months under four different landlords, so this was clearly the place for a lock-in. The pub opened onto an alleyway called the Dark Entry which lived up to its name. (Fubbs Yacht itself got its name from the royal yacht commissioned for Charles II, built in Greenwich, and scrapped in 1781, ‘Fubb’ being the unlovely pet name he had for one of his mistresses, Louise de Kérouaille.)
The Rose and Crown was not free of controversy. Landlord Thomas Sadler was fined 2 pounds 10 shillings in 1881 for adulterating his gin. Sadler’s argument, that the alcoholic content had evaporated in his hot cellar, was dismissed. Perhaps he was watering down drinks to try to keep the peace. Landlords in the pub often had to deal with miscreants – like one John Burgess of Hardy Cottages, who had been banned from the Rose and Crown for about four years prior to the night he threatened to murder William Rolles with a quart pot, and was bound over to keep the peace for six months. As soon as that period elapsed he was causing trouble at the pub again and was sentenced to a month’s hard labour, reduced to 14 days or a 10 shilling fine. ‘I did not say boo to a goose or anyone’ protested Burgess.
The pub seemed to be a favourite of the river workers. Rolles gave up an an earlier life as a lighterman to become landlord in the 1890s . It was an astute move, as the work on the river was dwindling by this time. In 1903 a group of lightermen and watermen met in the Rose and Crown to hear a letter from the London County Council refusing them compensation for loss of their income and privileges because of the building of the foot tunnel. After some lobbying, they eventually received the considerable sum of £30,000 from the LCC on appeal.
As well as being landlord, William Rolles was Chairman of Greenwich United Rowing Club . An annual prizegiving dinner at the pub was a good opportunity for a thunderous singalong. There was The Soldier’s Letter, In Old Madrid, Next Sunday Morn, Sentenced to Death (prescient), and Take Me Home Again Kathleen. A special mention was made of ‘Mr W Brookman, with Drink With Me, Boys and in response to an encore, The Seventh Royal Fusiliers, in his well-known usual style’.
A sombre tale surrounds the Rowing Club. One of its members, 21 year-old James Bowden, drowned during a collision in training. Rolles and the crew were given a hard time by the Coroner at the inquest: ‘It was dark at the time, I must say I consider it a most dangerous proceeding’. Their response is illuminating: ‘They were training for a race to be rowed the next day, and as they were working men, had to practise at night’. The inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death. It was left to the patrons of the Rose and Crown to commemorate the dead, which they did in style, holding a benefit for the drowned youth, with a ‘handsome timepiece to be disposed of during the evening’.
The Rose and Crown alternated between being a free house and part of the Whitbread chain, but stayed very much at the centre of its community. The ‘House of Whitbread’ journal for 1925 recorded a well-attended children’s day out organised by the pub. The area’s demographic had not changed much since Booth’s survey. In 1912, Sir Walter Besant noted that ‘Towards the river, Thames street and the smaller streets are clean but crowded, whilst to the south [i.e., towards Creek Road] the district is very congested and the character of the people and the houses inferior.’
The area declined during the twentieth century as the industries receded. The iron shipbuilding yard relocated in 1912, the gasworks were finally closed in 1944. The pub was still receiving favourable reviews as late as 1988, according to CAMRA keeping up the traditions of live music and with the addition of ‘darts, pool, crib and dominoes’. Also, ‘the ex-docker ghost who once haunted the cellars has extended his range to most of the pub’ . Presumably to stop from overheating.
The latter years of the Rose and Crown/Thames are a bit of blur. It may be that kind of pub. I live with a native Londoner who can tap in to the veins of the city in a way we incomers can only imagine, no matter how long we’ve been here. He thinks he had a night in there once. But he’s not sure, it was a long time ago, memories are hazy. It must have been a good one.
It seemed to attract more attention after it was closed in the mid 1990s, perhaps because it remained in limbo for so long. The Thames is remembered with affection in the closed pubs segment of Paul Talling’s Derelict London website; and has a different sort of afterlife as a common stock photo for closed pubs.
One such image adorns an article from trade journal the Morning Advertiser carrying a new report on pub closures. It seems that the long term decline in pub closures may have slowed down. Too soon to tell if this is a temporary reprieve or a permanent reversal of fortune, but it’s borne out by an annual GLA survey that reports an increase of ten small pubs in London in 2018/9 after many years of closures. This may seem like small beer, but the number of lesser London pubs has reportedly halved since 2001, from 3,390 to 1,710.
This is part of a national picture of decline summed up in the ONS Report Economies of Ale (a pint and a shot to whoever came up with that title). It says that 11,000 pubs – a quarter of the total – have closed in the UK in the last decade. The smallest pubs have taken the hit, but it appears that neither takings nor staff numbers are down by the same numbers, so perhaps larger pubs are picking up some of the slack. (You can see the impacts on your own drinking patch with a handy postcode tool. )
The GLA’s latest report includes a survey of drinking habits and beliefs which shows that, despite the decline in numbers, pubs and drinking are still very much favoured by Londoners:
- 45% go once a month,
- 21% go once a week,
- a hardcore 2% of people go every day.
- Most people say they go to the pub to socialise, but a solid 5% ‘want to drink alone’ (it would be interesting to cross-refer these with the 2%).
There are breakdowns of age, ethnicity and gender as well as region; and the outer boroughs seem the hardest hit, a sign that after-work drinking may be keeping many London pubs afloat. (This is all pre-pandemic of course; the 2020 report will be interesting.) The most cheering stat of all, is that over three quarters of Londoners are united in seeing the pub as an important aspect of London’s cultural heritage.
Too late for the Rose and Crown/Thames of course. Nothing seemed to happen to the pub for several years . There were property guardians on the empty site. The area was still industrial and unappealing, although gradually permissions were granted for big redevelopments with boring names – Greenwich Reach, New Capital Quay – and so interest in this bit of land grew. In 2015, planning permission for a refurbishment was approved. Some flats upstairs, a bit of a community garden, the fabric of the overall building maintained.
An attractive proposition, but nothing happened and the building was passed between mystery equity management companies until another application surfaced in 2018 after a few false starts. This one was more radical – maximise profit by knocking down the entire building and replacing it with a tower of just flats, perhaps a bit of commercial thrown in; they could possibly stretch to a microbrewery. A derisory nod to the original function of the building in the form of some green glazed tiles at ground floor level.
In Greenwich’s Local Plan (p.110 if you’re interested), the riverine area has been designated a ‘Thames Policy Area – DH(k)’ in line with the wider London Plan. Building in this area is expected to meet a ‘high quality of design respecting the special character of the River Thames’ and there is a line saying that development ‘along and near the Thames frontage, where considered appropriate, also can and should reflect the heritage of industrial development.’ It’s a moot point, but significant that neither the Thames, nor the nearby Old Loyal Britons, which served the workers of those riverine industries, were seen as part of that heritage.
The array of planning documents that accompanied the application to demolish the Rose and Crown/Thames all argued that the pub was too middling to deserve preservation. There were champions – from the council’s conservation side, a few local residents who didn’t want to see it knocked down. But they didn’t prevail. One of the more interesting arguments put forward against the pub was that it had let itself go a bit. If only it had made a bit more effort not to be boarded up and derelict it might have been saved. The planning inspector did concede that the pub ‘is reflective of a style of architecture that is not prevalent in the locality and does have some cultural and social significance as a former dock workers’ public house’.
It went quietly into the night – the night of 20 November 2019, to be exact. The moment is recorded for posterity, by the local news site 853. A couple of objectors spoke up, but the key mood was indifference as it got a majority decision for demolition; and the meeting moved on to a side extension for a house.
What a mundane ending. It’s a bit like a covers band splitting up. Or an old actor long out of the spotlight, keeling over on his allotment.
But there’s no place for sentiment here. Other, better-known Greenwich pubs have gone in recent years. The Lord Hood on Creek Road (flats, what else?).
The Cricketers on the corner of Greenwich Market, successfully reborn as a Goddard’s pie and mash shop. Other historic pubs have survived; some through conservation, some through the drawn-out process of listing them as Assets of Community Value (you have to have a committed clientele and a sympathetic council). No-one felt strongly enough about the Thames to come along and rescue it.
It’s a shame, though, that the second of only three Victorian buildings left in the area has been lost to development. And all for a mere six new luxury flats. (Are new flats ever described as anything else?) The Thames was far less distinctive than the Old Loyal Britons, or the school, with its picturesque ziggurat (still going strong, thankfully, as it’s Grade II listed). But it was still part of an interesting historical triad in amongst the new developments.
There is still much to celebrate about London’s pubs, even if a self-imposed irony makes us do it from elsewhere – from cafes, homes, archives, memories.
Those three quarters of Londoners know that they all still matter. A backstreet pub, in an overlooked part of London, way off the the tourist trail. It matters because it encapsulates the everyday, the ordinary histories of London. Every lost London pub has them. Stories which will outlive the fabric.
Notes and sources
- Opening quotation from ‘John Barleycorn’ by Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned for BBC’s The Culture Show, November 26, 2009 (YouTube). The Rose and Crown and other pubs mentioned are in Glasgow.
- The Greenwich Society and the Greenwich Conservation Group provide a useful historical survey of the west Greenwich riverine area, including industries, pubs ( a list of now defunct ones) and the sharp decline in old buildings in the area, in their case for listing the nearby Old Loyal Britons. This case was rejected in 2014.
- Tracking down the history of dead pubs, especially overlooked ones, can be frustrating. This search was greatly assisted by several sites dedicated to finding out and cataloguing information on pubs and the area: The Lost Pubs Project; CAMRA’s ‘What Pub’ site; Paul Talling’s Derelict London; Dover-Kent Archives, Deserter’s ‘Pubwatch’, Layers of London, Old Deptford History, The Greenwich Phantom. The 853 local journalism site has kept close tabs on the planning and development saga surrounding the Thames. The blog of the Greenwich Industrial History Society, and the output by its Joint Chair Dr Mary Mills, represent a near-bottomless historical resource on Greenwich.
- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B Wheatley (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893).
- Details from the Will of Samuel Horrocks, (London Metropolitan Archive). This is the same Samuel Horrocks who, with his brother John, oversaw Preston’s largest cotton manufactory in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was less successful as an MP – he was known as ‘the silent member for Preston’. Horrockses stood out in a crowded field for its dismal wages and working conditions, and despite his low profile, Samuel was the target for a murder attempt by a former employee. His son Samuel Horrocks Junior, later Mayor of Preston, became notorious for reading the Riot Act during the ‘Plug Plot Riots’ of 1842, which led to the shooting dead of four cotton mill workers by the 72nd Highlanders . A memorial to the men stands outside Preston’s Corn Exchange.
- Hannah and George White and their five children were living in Thames Street in the 1841 Census, but no number is given, although they are occupants of the Rose and Crown by 1851. There is an intriguing reference to one ‘Anthony Carlatte at the ‘Rose and Crown’ at Garden Stairs Greenwich in Kent Victualler’ in an insurance policy dated 1784 (London Metropolitan Archives). No Carlatte is found after that date in the area, and no further mention of the ‘Rose and Crown’ until George White’s failed bid for a licence in 1845. Names of other licensees and beer sellers are taken from the Post Office Home Counties Directory, 1855.
- Charles Booth’s Maps and Notebooks are openly available on a dedicated London School of Economics website with information about how the project was carried out, and an excellent search tool. The blue markings on the map indicate ‘poor’ (18 to 21s a week for an average family) or ‘very poor’ (casual, chronic want) areas. The website notes that not all the colours are solid and there are confusing overlaps in some areas. But it is useful for identifying trends in wider areas. The reference to the area around the Rose and Crown is here:
- The Victorian riverine area of West Greenwich, especially around Brewhouse Lane and Dark Entry, is recorded in detail in: Julian Watson & Kit Gregory, In the Meantime: A Book on Greenwich (London Borough of Greenwich Tourism Section, 1988). This largely eschews comforting pictures of the tourist-friendly areas to provide a realistic visual portrait of a working riverside. Watson and Gregory identify the word ‘Fubb’ as ‘prostitute’, but it seems less certain than that. In relation to Louise de Kérouaille it may have referred to a plumpness fashionable at the time.
- Hardy Cottages were an early example of London County Council Housing, built under the 1885 Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act, and were completed in 1901. 51 cottages housed 306 people, many employed at the nearby power station and river works. Many of the cottages were destroyed in WW2 bombing raids.
- References retrieved from the British Newspaper Archive:
- The bill of Crowders Music Hall, from Kentish Mercury, Saturday 2 December 1871.
- Thomas Sadler’s conviction for adulterating gin, from Lloyds Weekly Newspaper Sunday 10 April 1881.
- Greenwich United Rowing Club Annual Dinner and Distribution of Prizes, from The Sporting Life Saturday 16 September 1893.
- Inquest into death by drowning, from Evening Standard Monday 20 September 1897.
- Benefit Concert for James Bowden, from Kentish Mercury, Friday 15 October 1897.
- James Knell of Fubbs Yacht, conviction for unlicensed opening, from Woolwich Gazette Friday 2 July 1897.
- Meeting of the lightermen and watermen about the foot tunnel, from Kentish Independent Friday 17 July 1903.
- John Burgess convictions for threatening William Rolles, from Woolwich Gazette Friday 28 April and Friday 20 October 1905.
- There is a comprehensive account of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel from its beginnings to the present day, with a host of pictures, on the Isle of Dogs, Past Life, Past Lives history site.
- The Friends of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels have the mission to protect and promote both tunnels.
- Sir Walter Besant, London: South of the Thames (London: A and C Black, 1912), p.199.
- Review of the Thames pub in CAMRA, South East London Pub Guide 1988, p,88. From the CAMRA website. The CAMRA guide reports that the name change from the Rose and Crown to the Thames came about in 1986 after a fire. I have been unable to discover the origins of the further change to Bridget’s Free House. CAMRA also has a useful section about campaigning to save pubs under threat – including a guide to Assets of Community Value – on its homepage https://camra.org.uk/.
- Extract and photograph from the song ‘Drink with me Boys’, written, composed, and sung by Charles Paver, arranged by W.E. Goodwin (London: R Maynard, 1892). ‘Rhino’ = cash.
- Maps of Church Fields, Greenwich. 1) John Roque’s London, 10 miles round map (1746). 2) C & J Greenwood’s Map of London (1828). Retrieved from Layers of London August 2020. Attribution CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
- Deptford Creek, 1880s. From Edward Walford, ‘Deptford’ in Old and New London: Volume 6. (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878). Retrieved from British History Online August 2020.
- Drinking Mug from Fubbs Yacht – 1800-37. The find is from the Portable Antiquities Scheme a volunteer programme run by the UK Government to record the increasing numbers of small finds of archaeological interest found by members of the public.
- Deptford Creek, 1970. Attribution: Chris Denny / Deptford Power Station 1970 / CC BY-SA 2.0.
- Lord Hood (Before). “Lord Hood, Greenwich, SE10” by Ewan-M /CC BY-SA 2.0
- Old Loyal Britons (Before). “The Old Loyal Britons, Greenwich” by tiredoflondon/CC BY-NC 2.0
- All other pictures by me.