THE REFRESHMENT ROOM: The Secret Histories of 5 London Pubs

London pubs Old Cheshire Cheese

Everyone knows that Brits love a pint at the local pub – it’s cosy, atmospheric, and there’s plenty of beer and grub. What’s not to love? London has what seems like thousands of pubs, many of which are now franchises. A few London pubs, however, are worth a visit not only for their beer and food but also for their historical significance. From murder and train heists to Dickens’ favourite Welsh rarebit, London pubs have stories to tell. We can’t vouch for the truthfulness of all these stories, but we can retell them: you can decide for yourself which you’d like to believe. 

The Spaniards Inn

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On the edge of Hampstead Heath lies The Spaniards Inn, a quaint country pub within the boundaries of London. The pub was built in 1585, and although the surrounding area has changed significantly since, the pub itself is not all that different today to back when it was written about in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Always a literary hotspot, The Spaniards Inn was a regular hangout for the likes of Lord Byron, John Keats and Robert Lewis Stevenson.

 

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Although the gardens are said to have inspired many a poet, the inn also has a darker history. The infamous highwayman Dick Turpin’s father was once the pub’s landlord. Legend has it that Turpin planned many of his crimes from here. Some visitors claim they have seen Turpin’s figure on the road beside the pub, while others have seen the apparition of one of his victims, a woman in white, in the garden.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

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One of London’s oldest and most famous pubs, Ye Olde Chesire Cheese has been around since 1538, although it burned down in the Great Fire of London, and the current building was erected in 1667. The dark wood-panelled pub has famously been immortalised in literature: from a mention in Stevenson’s The Dynamiter to a scene in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. If you’re starting to think that Dickens really knew his way around 19th century London’s pub scene, it seems you’re right. Apparently, the authors and poets all ventured here for the Welsh rarebit, although we can’t confirm this with any certainty.

 

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The pub’s most famous character, however, is Polly the Parrot, who lived in the pub until his (yes, his) death in 1926 and was famous around town for reportedly screeching ‘f*ck the Kaiser’, to the delight of the patrons. In his heyday, Polly was such a celebrity that when he died, his obituary was published in all the capital’s major newspapers and he was mourned on the radio. Polly was then taxidermied, and today he is back in his rightful place above the bar, although rumour is, he doesn’t screech quite so loudly anymore.

The French House

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Not quite as old as the other pubs on this list, The French House was opened in 1891 and was originally named the York Minster. The French House was the affectionate nickname adopted by the pub’s patrons after it was acquired by a Belgian man named Victor Berlemont. Berlemont, and later his son Gaston, ran the pub until the latter’s death in 1989, and Gaston officially renamed the pub the French House in 1984. The urban legend is that General Charles De Gaulle wrote his rallying speech To all Frenchmen here in 1940, feeling a wave of inspiration after dinner and a half pint of Cidre Breton.

 

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That’s the other thing – the drinks here are served exclusively in half pints, except on April 1st, when Madness singer Suggs traditionally draws the first pint. Why? I’m not sure how the tradition came about, but Suggs’ mother was a barmaid here, so the signer has a lengthy history at the pub.

The Star Tavern

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The Star Tavern’s upstairs bar set the scene for the planning of the 1963 Great Train Robbery, in which a gang of 15 men hijacked a Royal Mail train, stealing £2.6 million in what was considered the crime of the century. Reportedly, the pub’s then proprietor, Paddy Kennedy, welcomed both glamorous and rough around the edges clientele, turning the pub into what was essentially posh Belgravia’s local dive bar.

 

 

Other patrons included ‘Burglar to the Stars’ Peter Scott, who apparently waltzed into the pub with a pile of cash after stealing £200 000 worth of jewellery from Sophia Loren. It wasn’t all criminals and gangsters though: the Star was also popular with the likes of Peter O’Toole, Bing Cosby and even Princess Margaret.

 

Ye Olde Mitre

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Established in 1546, Ye Olde Mitre is famously London’s most difficult pub to find. Through an arch and down a narrow alleyway between numbers 8 and 9 Hatton Place, you’ll come across the wooden front of Ye Olde Mitre Inn. If you close your eyes and imagine that you’ve travelled back a couple centuries in time, you’ll find that you’re not technically in London, despite standing in the middle of the city. The pub stood on the grounds of the now demolished Ely Palace, the residence of the Bishop of Ely, Cambridgeshire. In fact, it was originally built for the servants of the palace. As such, Ye Olde Mitre was technically part of the county of Cambridgeshire.

 

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According to legend, criminals used this fact to escape the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police and considered the pub a makeshift safehouse with beer a-plenty. Today the pub is officially part of London, but rumour has it that mail addressed to the Mitre Inn in Cambridgeshire still reach its letterbox.

These 5 pubs are by no means the only ones in London with a backstory worth investigating – each pub has its own personality, atmosphere and stories to tell. If you’re interested in finding out the secret histories of more of London pubs, check out the Instagram account PubHistory @pubbuildings, which had a hand in inspiring this post. Now find yourself a pub, grab a pint, and settle in for some history…


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