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I wonder how many pints of ale have been supped here? Let me see: if just twenty people drank a modest 4 pints every night, that would be, er, 29,200 pints a year – 2,920,000 for every century. But the revenue generated by that amount of beer would not be enough to make the place viable. So given that there has been an inn on the present site of the George Inn since medieval times, the mind boggles at how much alcohol and food has been consumed within its precincts over the centuries.
You can play this game at hundreds of pubs throughout Britain of course. Unlike several, the George does not claim to be the oldest pub in the land, but it is the only surviving galleried coaching inn to be found in London and therefore deserves a little respect. You’ll find it in Southwark, tucked away off Borough High Street and just a few minutes from London Bridge station. During the reign of Henry VIII it was called the St George – I idly wonder if this was anything to do with the parish of St George the Martyr nearby – and was probably known to, if not frequented by, William Shakespeare. The inn was badly damaged by fire in 1669 and then destroyed in the great fire that engulfed much of this part of Southwark in 1676. It was rebuilt, apparently on the same footprint, in 1677. Coaching inns of yesteryear provided so much more than merely food and drink for the weary traveller and, at one time, the George must have been huge, a building occupying three sides of a long galleried rectangle with a central courtyard where plays were performed and a gated frontage off the High Street.
Southwark was once well-stocked with inns and hostelries of all sorts. Until 1729, London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames east of Kingston. Travellers from the south up the old Roman Stane and Watling Streets converged in Southwark, and if they arrived at nightfall after curfew they needed somewhere to stay before entering London the following day. Merchants heading south would cross London Bridge before curfew, to avoid morning rush-hour, sleep over in Southwark and make an early start.
Dickens wrote in The Pickwick Papers (1836):
“In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.”
Dickens was about to introduce his readers to the celebrated White Hart Inn, which once stood immediately to the north of the George and which was demolished in 1881. The White Hart was allegedly used as a headquarters by the 15th century rebel leader Jack Cade. Immediately to the south of the George Inn stood an even more famous inn, the Tabard, which was allegedly doing business in the early 14th century. It was from here that Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered before setting off on their journey in the 1380s:
| Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne-and-twenty in a compaignye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambers and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So had I spoken with hem everychon,
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse.
|Now it happened in that season one day,
In Southwark at the Tabard where I lay,
All ready to be on my way
To Canterbury with a very devout heart,
That there had come into that hostelry
At night some twenty-nine, a company
Of various people who by chance fell
Into fellowship, and they were all pilgrims
Who intended to ride to Canterbury.
The bedrooms and the stables were spacious
And were well accommodated in the best way.
And by the time the sun had gone to rest
I had so spoken to every one of them
That I was soon in their fellowship,
And we agreed to rise early
To make our way, as I will tell you.
The Tabard was renamed the Talbot and was demolished in 1873. Talbot Yard is next to the George Inn.
Many of the inns that once lined Borough High Street were rendered redundant by the arrival of the railway. Indeed, the Great Northern Railway Company demolished the north and east wings of the George in 1889, to make way for warehouses. Now, what remains of the place is safe in the ownership of the National Trust, who lease it out. At my last visit it served a rather pleasant Abbot Ale – I’m quite partial to Greene King – and there wasn’t a TV or slot machine in sight; perfect! So, tarry awhile amongst the wood panelling in this surviving relic of London’s past and contemplate all who have supped before you. Dickens certainly did – he mentions the George in Little Dorrit.
I have discovered there’s a book about The George at Borough – “Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub” – looks like it could be a fascinating read, if you can find a copy. It’s by Pete Brown.