in the Whitechapel
in the Whitechapel Road
This was a poor area and people lived in cramped accommodation.
In 1816 Mr Bezer’s barber shop in Spitalfields was a single
room that also served as his family’s parlour, bedroom and
kitchen. His social
life, like that of most men living in the area, was in pubs. At
the time beer was seen as a necessity. Water was not safe to drink;
London’s last cholera epidemic hit the East End in the mid 1860s,
when the East London Waterworks Company mistakenly allowed unfiltered water from the River Lea
water supply. Tea was heavily taxed until the late 1800s and unaffordable
for poor people.
Although the pubs, shops and market in the
Whitechapel Road serve a poor area it is one of London’s main highways
and, as the picture shows, has some attractive buildings. Most of the one time thirty-three pubs would have been
converted houses. The Nag’s
Head Gentleman’s Venue is a pair of modest two storey Georgian
houses with no attempt at decoration.
And the Urban Bar is a relatively plain three-storey house
sporting brightly painted tiger stripes to suggest an urban jungle. But
the other five surviving pubs, all shown below, were designed or refaced
by architects and are delightful buildings.
Road opposite the London Hospital
The narrow White Hart has two Corinthian
pilasters flanking tripartite windows on the top three floors.
These and the prominent converted gas lamps on the ground floor,
proudly defy Whitechapel’s dark reputation.
The elegant Grave Maurice, its upper windows encased in
round-headed red brick arches, celebrates a Prince of Orange (the Graf
Moritz) who helped the English to defeat the Spanish in 1600.
Indo, its name trumpeting its independence, has
classical detailing on an elegant stucco frontage recalling the
civilisation and rationality of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Bezer family struggled to achieve civilisation and
rationality. Mr Bezer had served in
the Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and bore the marks of his floggings on his
back for the rest of his life. Brutalised,
he became an alcoholic, drove his family into poverty and beat his wife and son.
They were devoted Methodists but he refused to go to church with them
until one day when he had run out of money he agreed to do so provided his wife
bought him a glass of gin. The
experience shook him. He struggled
with his soul for several days before converting to an ardent Christianity, and
giving up drink for good. Although
this much improved the family harmony it did not increase their worldly comforts
as much as might be expected. His
convictions would not allow him to work on Sundays, the only day of leisure for
local men and the busiest for barbers. And
his former customers deserted him because ‘he was not such a good fellow as he
Pubs were well lit, heated by good fires and offered much more
than drink. They acted as labour
exchanges, reading rooms for newspapers and informal theatres.
They housed glee clubs for those who liked to sing, political debating
clubs and ‘box’ clubs, often illegal trade unions masked as friendly
societies. They hosted sporting
activities like boxing and dog fighting. Bullock running was a favourite local
sport until it was suppressed in around 1820.
Drovers brought cattle from Essex down the Whitechapel Road to Smithfield
meat market and men met in pubs to subscribe funds to pay for a bullock.
The animal would be goaded into a rage and chased through the streets of
Bethnal Green, Spitalfields and Whitechapel terrifying and sometimes injuring
passers by. The half-timbered Black
Bull commemorates the practice.
The Blind Beggar is a gabled Queen Anne style building of
1894 with stamped terracotta detail and its name commemorates a local legend.
Long ago, when Bethnal Green was a rural playground for wealthy City of
London merchants, one of them met a poor girl in the woods.
He fell in love, and married her only to discover that her blind beggar
father was a wealthy nobleman in disguise.
But the modern Blind Beggar is haunted by darker associations with
dangerous people. The criminal Kray
twins, Reggie and Ronnie, lived in Vallance Street, ran a protection racket and
treated the East End as their private kingdom.
In 1966 they declared war on the rival south London Richardson gang, and
when George Cornell had the ‘diabolic liberty’ to drink in the Blind
Beggar Ronnie Kray shot him dead in the pub.
Ronnie returned to the Blind Beggar a few days later to ask for a
pint of ‘luger and lime’.
Based on an article first published London Society Journal No 454, Winter 2007