In Pictures: The East End Pubs Of London

By Alistair Von Lion Last edited 6 months ago

Last Updated 20 November 2023

In Pictures: The East End Pubs Of London

Alistair Von Lion — author of East End Pubs: A Celebration of East London's Most Iconic Boozers — explains what makes the perfect boozer, and his mission to capture them before they vanish for good.

An empty pub with beautiful picture tiles
Tiled murals in the Ten Bells in Spitalfields depict scenes from the area's past and present. See if you can spot Gilbert and George in this one.

I have a passion for the unrecorded past of the stories of the average man and woman, which I don't believe are treasured enough.

So much social history is not recorded; many of the people who experienced it in the East End's perceived heyday are in their golden years and often not ones to document on social media. Otherwise they're hesitant to pass it on, because they deem it uninteresting. Word of mouth dies out quickly and when the stories of a bygone way of life are gone, they are lost for ever.

A barman smiling from behind a very colourful bar
Born in Stepney, Guv’nor John Fell previously ran Booty's Riverside Bar in Limehouse and The Norfolk Village in Shoreditch, before settling at Limehouse's Old Ship.

I sought these tales and experiences out to experience a vanishing London before it disappears under the banner of gentrification, sanitisation, and progress. An undiluted real London was what I wished to immerse myself in. This was first done by urban exploring and tramping the streets of the East End photographing derelict boozers and forgotten buildings which once served a precious purpose and were community stalwarts.

The exterior of the Marksman pub
With its braised mutton with peas and guinea fowl with burnt apple jam, it’s not hard to see why the Marksman was the first pub in London to receive the coveted Michelin Pub of the Year award.

This graduated, with open ears and eyes, to sitting at the bar in proper, wet-led boozers and embracing traditional pub culture. It's a world away from table service, £20 Sunday Roasts, and many pubs (removing bar stools is a tell-tale sign) masquerading as restaurants.

A pub sign - the Bow Bells, with a pearly king on it
The Bow Bells is one of the area's most traditional pubs (old carpet and all).

The echoes of those who came before me also heavily impacted this thirst for a 'real London' and after reading Jack London's People of the Abyss when I was 25, I knew this would be a lifelong passion. These pubs and their patrons' authenticity consumed me and I set about experiencing as much of the culture before it changed forever.

An old fashioned cash register
The Palm Tree in Mile End is proudly cash-only and still uses an antique till to ring up punters' orders.

The selection of hostelries came about by trying to balance a good blend of the different types of pubs found in the East End. I believe proper wet-led Cockney boozers, hipster haunts, gastropubs, historic taverns, LGBTQ+ friendly houses and music establishments are all well represented in my book. It is this selection of something for everybody that — for now at least — exists which makes the areas pubs and their rich history so intoxicating.

A woman smiling as she pulls a pintrw
Having an artist like Pauline Foster in charge to curate Shadwell's George Tavern's historic interiors has served the grand boozer well.

The ingredients for a 'proper' East End pub? Initially its social cohesion: a place where everyone feels welcome. Most East End pubs exist in silos with only one type of patron. There is limited mixing. I like to see a blend of old cockneys and gentrifiers, of all different ages and backgrounds enjoying an organic pub experience.

A retro looking pub with a pool table and Union Flag above it
The Tooke Arms on the Isle of Dogs has all the markers of an authentic pub, from the patterned carpet to the pool table and party-ready disco lights.

For me, a sense of belonging is crucial and being able to morph into the pub's identity and be part of its DNA is important. A sanctuary from the outside world to escape the toils of every day life has been the corner of pubs since time immemorial and that continues in places that have bar stools to meet and make new friends, share communion with your fellow man and woman, and switch off from life.

A rooftop fireplace, with high rise buildings behind it
The Culpeper is named after Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th-century herbalist who once lived round the corner, so it's fitting that they have a flourishing rooftop garden.

Heavily leaning on tradition creates an elysian setting that purists can relate to and whether in entirety or simple nods to its Victorian past, a humble proper pub offers up different types of quality libations in an unmanufactured setting. Gimmicks are easily seen through and authenticity is key to offering up a simplistic purity.

A man raising a pint from the door of his pub
Barry Holloway has been Guv'nor of the Young Prince on Roman Road since 1983. The pub is decorated with sporting memorabilia and local artefacts he's collected over the years.

Although very few of its patrons are cockneys now, the lord Tredegar in Bow takes some beating. It is a rare bird in that it merges the blend of boozer and gastropub effortlessly; restaurant at the rear but the front bar is a proper pub where people come for drinks. Cuisine is high end but affordable, the drinks see a decent selection of craft on the rig, while a jukebox means there's no mistaking that you are in a proper boozer. Beyonce, the pub cat, overseas the mainstays of a glorious Victorian pasts of a handsome mahogany bar, two working fires, brass footrail and wooden floors. Old prints of the pub further endear visitors to the respect and preservation of heritage that the operators Remarkable Pubs have for their hostelries.

A cluttered pub featuring a framed photo of Queen Elizabeth II
The Golden Heart in Spitalfields is run by Sandra Esquilant, the longest serving landlady in the East End.

I worry that soon many of the places in the book will no longer exist. It genuinely keeps me awake at night and installs fear about where I'll be able to go for a quiet pint when I'm an elder statesman of the manor. I worry we'll have a homogenised landscape where all pubs are gastro and tables reserved for dining. Pubs have to diversify to survive but I worry that the humble backstreet boozer will fully disappear, or they will become unrecognisable from the traditional de facto community centres many are today.

A cluttered pub wall with paintings and mounted animal heads
The Queen Adelaide on Hackney Road is a wonderfully eccentric venue.

I miss my former local. It was a perfect harmonious community pub where people from all walks of life and different generations met for craft beer, cheap pints of lager, sports on the big screens against a backdrop of Victorian splendour — and all served up by the most charming of staff and the friendliest pub cat. Sadly, it closed and when it reopened it had a garish refurb and is now trying to court the culinary pound. I wish them well, but I won't ever drink there now. I would crawl through broken glass naked to be able to have just one more night there with all the old faces.

A young woman behind the beer pumps at the bar
Friendly second-generation landlady Laura Lythall makes sure The Ship on Westferry Road remains a welcoming and authentic pub.
The exterior of the blue Town of Ramsgate pub
The Town of Ramsgate still looks like something out of a Dickens novel.
An empty looking cosy pub with lots of red velour
The Pride of Spitalfields has had the same landlady since 1985.
A man in a blue shirt behind the beer pumps
Landlord Marcus Grant takes exceptional pride in serving up quality cask ale to his thirsty loyal customers at the Wenlock Arms, off City Road.

East End Pubs: A Celebration of East London's Most Iconic Boozers by Tim George & the 'London Pub Explorer' Alistair Von Lion, published by Hoxton Mini Press

The book cover - green and gold

All images: Tim George/Hoxton Mini Press