Dickens and London

East End History: Pubs in the Whitechapel Road

Pubs in the Whitechapel Road


Today there are seven pubs in the three quarters of a mile length of the Whitechapel Road between Commercial Street and Cambridge Heath Road.  There were thirty-three in the late nineteenth century when the murders of Jack the Ripper branded Whitechapel as the dark haunt of dangerous people.

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 into the 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. 

Whitechapel 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 White Hart

The Grave Maurice


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 had been’. 

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 Black Bull

The Blind Beggar

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’. 


Susan Gane
Based on an article first published London Society Journal No 454, Winter 2007