The Old George
Dazza tells me that today is the 175th birthday of The Trafalgar Tavern – an anniversary that had slipped me by (and, it is possible, has slipped past everyone except the resident of the Trafalgar Quarters who told him, which is a shame.)
But what was before the fabulous building which, despite its being built during William IV’s reign is so spectacularly ‘Georgian?’
The pub that bit the dust for this most Regency of confections was The Old George. The book I found this fact from, The Trafalgar Tavern by the splendidly-monikered Hurford Janes (no one calls their child Hurford any more. I wonder why…) – doesn’t have any drawings at all of the old George – and though that’s not to say there aren’t any illustrations of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t. Best I can find is this – a corner of the famous Canaletto image – cut off and out of focus.
It was, though, really, just another one of a whole bunch of pubs along that stretch of the river – there were at least three I can think of along Crane street – and someone’s bound to tell me I’ve forgotten one.
I am still waiting for the Peter Kent/Neil Rhind/Julian Watson book on the 17th Cetury panorama of Greenwich (hint, hint) but when that comes out, I’m hoping there are going to be contemporary drawings of all of these buildings included.
No one’s admitting that the George existed then, of course, Hurford Janes (sorry, I just like writing that name) only says ‘mid eighteenth century’ – but he does say ‘probably much earlier’ so I’ve got my fingers crossed.
The little area to the east of Greenwich Hospital was known as a little village on its own – a village of dockers, fishermen, ferrymen, shopkeeprs, Greenwich Hospital servants and pensioners (both Greenwich and Trinity) – lots of thirsty throats and willing pennies who didn’t want to trek into ‘town’ to hoist a few (especially before the Five Foot Walk came into being, or when it was, as it still gets, flooded.)
From what I can tell the George was the largest of the little cluster of taverns. By the time the developers had their beady eye on the land it had become known as the ‘Old George’. Hurford (oops, there I go again…) reckons it was more from veneration for age than because there was another George locally – but I’m less sure – there was the George public house in Maze Hill, built in 1736. Admittedly for a static population a pub several streets away might seem to far to bother about – but if the ‘Trafalgar’ George was from before 1736, it would have been old indeed.
It was, aparently, ‘rough and ready’ for its patrons, with two main rooms on the river – a ‘taproom’ as you entered, then a slightly more luxurious ‘parlour’ further in. The bar itself didn’t have a view of the river. Presumably if you worked on the river all day, seeing it in your time off had less of a fascination and the priority was to get the beers in.
You could, of course, get straight in from the river – there was a platform and a dilapidated shed that got watermen in from their boats.
One of the reasons Hurford Janes suggests that the tavern was pulled down and rebuilt in smarter style in 1832 is, oddly, Greenwich Fair. The entire town came alive on fair days. This didn’t pass the notice of the revenue who saw the opportunity to tax every establishment within walking distance of the event. The Hospital, park and Painted Hall were also becoming tourist attractions – and this newer class of drinker was clearly unimpressed with the spit and sawdust of the river hostelries.
In 1830, as Billy the sailor-king took to the throne, breaking the line of handy Georges, the owner of the pub, George Mattison, thought he might like to extend his premises into the cottage next door – perhaps gussy them up a bit, make them appeal to a posher audience. After all, he was coughing up £150 a year rent. He was on a long lease – why not?
He applied to the Hospital, who owned it (by the by, on the board at the time was Thomas Creevey, the Jolly Pauper) who suggested an architect, one Joseph Kay.
Before he knew it, Mine Host found himself in a whirl of plans that went somewhat beyond ‘gussying up…’ And worse still for George, Joseph Kay’s brother heard of the plans.
History is vague as to how this came about, but the next thing poor old George knew was that wine merchant of the Albion Tavern, Aldersgate Street, one John Kay, had applied for a 60 year license of the Old George and the demolition men had moved in…
But that’s for another day.
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