London Pub Stories: The Pilot, Greenwich

Traipsing along the sparse riverside walk that lines North Greenwich, it is difficult to imagine London in her maritime glory. The most northern tip of the Greenwich Peninsula was once a final resting place for the rotting corpses of pirates, hanged like tattered crows swaying in the wind as a deterrent to other would-be vagrants of the sea. The vast warehouses and skeletal construction cranes standing against the sky today merely hint at the rich industrial past of the Thames.

Drawn from isolation by the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel in 1897, and the grey pull of North Greenwich underground station in 1999, what was once the haunt of smugglers and vagabonds is now frequented by breathless joggers and weary commuters, or pleasure-seekers meandering towards the bulging O2 arena.

In an area now defined by that futuristic dome, The Pilot Inn and her adjacent cottages are one of the last few reminders of the true seafaring days of The Thames. The pub first opened in 1801 under the name ‘The Pilot Inn and Ferry’ — the only way to reach central London and any other public houses was by boat. The adjoining cottages were originally built to house manual labourers in the area, and today back onto a deliciously dark alleyway that leads directly to the pub.

The glitter of London gets trapped in the unlikeliest of places, and The Pilot — ran by Fuller’s — is not without a touch of glamour. In the very early 1990s, before he catapulted to infamy, a young Damien Hirst rented a cottage on the street, perhaps finding solace in the rubble of broken Britain, his own nautical oasis of calm before the storm. The video for Blur’s ‘Parklife’ was also filmed on the lone street on which The Pilot and her modest neighbours stand. It seems that here we can read a true portrait of London’s rise to glory: from a time of industry through to the desolate closure of the shipyards and gasworks, to the dazzling days of Britpop and the emerging British art scene, through to the subsequent rise and fall of the millennium dome and now the cable car wheeling its way merrily through the sky, a potent reminder of the London 2012 Games and their legacy.

Today, the pub rightly flaunts her maritime connection. From the exposed beams of her interior, to the old ship’s wheel and the drawings of vessels framed on the walls, The Pilot has the feel of a traditional coastal English tavern. The most popular dish on the classic bar menu is, of course, fish and chips. The fish is sourced from Direct Seafoods, which operates a local skipper’s scheme, which is reassuring for those concerned about the origins of their supper. The Pilot also offers a Sunday roast, and has a well-stocked cheese and wine fridge that gleams by the side of the bar, to while away those dark winter afternoons. A good variety of real ales are served, with seasonal choices adding variety to what’s on offer.

The quintessential Englishman Samuel Pepys once declared that the pub is the heart of England. The fact that The Pilot is probably the oldest surviving building on the Greenwich Peninsula says a lot for the role of drinking houses within our society. Pubs are often the foundation stones of a community, meeting places for friends, enemies and lovers and places where all manner of transactions are carried out. Pubs are living historical documents; from the worn sag at the top of the stairs to the stories carried out in whisky whispers in dark corners. They accommodate people from all walks of life, from pirates to commuters, and we ought to do everything we can to keep the great British pub alive.

The Pilot, 68 River Way, London SE10 0BE

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By Jessica Andrews

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  • Mary

    Where did that information about the name being ‘Pilot and Ferry’ come from. I have researched that area for years – been through all the documents of the building of the pub and all its subsequent sales. I have never ever seen a reference to that name in 30 years of research. I have also never heard of a ferry going from the Pilot Causeway -99% certain there never was one. My detailed research shows that the Pilot was Prime Minister Pitt ‘The Pilot who weathered the storm’. Please tell me your source for this – and I will add it in to my web site on the history of the area

    • Jessica

      Hello Mary – The manager of The Pilot told me about the name, but there is also a document which details the ownership of the place between 1802 and c.1830 called ‘An Abstract of Title of George Russell Esq., to a Term of 99 years in certain Premises called the “Pilot and Ferry” Public house at East Greenwich Kent’. It belongs to the Warwick Leadlay gallery if you would like to have a look at it.

      • Mary

        Yes I would – I did also wonder what the licensing records said.. The elder George Russell was dead by – I think – 1803 and much of what I know about the early years of the pub come from the solicitors expenses record following Chancery proceedings. But I know the ownership isn’t clear in the rate books until Frank Hills bought it in the early 1840s. There is also a document in Morden College archive which links ownership to Pitt. I will look up exactly what it says – but I did also suspect a link through the Treaty of Amiens. The late Hugh Lyon spent a long time researching ferries in the area and never came up with one from Pilot Causeway. I also put some stuff on the web site about ownership pre-Russell but it is going to take a long time to scan everything I have. Also, of course, we really know next to nothing about the real derivation of ‘Bugsby’s Hole’ and there might be a link there. What I have done so far is on
        The cottages were built to house workers at a Tide Mill – if you look on the pub it says ‘New East Greenwich’ it was a small purpose built industrial village with a mill and a big house on the riverside. ~George Russell was a wealthy soap maker with a works at Old Bargeyhouse, (site of the Oxo tower)

    • Peter Fielder

      Mary, My grandmother’s second husband was Herbert Bell who ran the Pilot in 1940-1942 or thereabouts – do you have any info on him or the pub then and photos?

      • Peter Fielder

        I should have said my great-grandmothers 2nd husband. She was Emma Bell (nee Burston) and he Herbert Bell. he’s in the 1942 Post office Directory.

  • Andrew

    Pub is now closed with the interior being strpped out by Fuller’s. To be replaced apparently by a modern American type dining experience. Were the cottages originally built for Trinity House river pilots?.

    • Jessica

      According to the British Heritage records, the cottages were built for the workers at the adjacent tidal mill and chemical works. I couldn’t find a connection with the river pilots, however it would certainly seem to make sense in terms of the name!