Fires, wars, gentrification: the oldest pubs in London have endured a lot throughout the centuries.
Apart from queueing, there are few things the British have perfected more so than the humble Pub.
The Romans were the first to introduce Pubs 2000 years ago known as Tabernae’s but when the Romans left, so did the Tabernae’s. It was not until 700AD that Alehouses reopened and were most popular among the poorer. In the 1200s Alehouses grew in popularity and were commonly used for travellers as a place to drink and stay.
In the 1550s Alehouses became popular with the affluent classes because wine was by then commonly sold and was the main drink of the wealthy. In 1652 the first coffee houses were opened, but they were not a threat to the ever-increasing popularity of the Alehouses. By 1660 Alehouses were so popular that most English lived within a short walk of a pub.
Unfortunately, this period did not last long as England was hit by two disasters that would forever change the landscape of Alehouses in London. In 1664, the Great plague, also known as the Black Death, appeared, which killed about 25% of London’s population and caused havoc throughout England and the Rest of Europe. Later, The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of the city. Most buildings at this time were made of wood, and the fire destroyed an estimated 80% of all wooden based buildings. The result of these two tragedies meant a massive reduction of Alehouses.
However, rather than feeling sorry for themselves Londoners saw the positive in these disasters and what followed was a massive resurgence in the construction of concrete based buildings, and within a decade London had rebuilt most of the destroyed.
By 1830 beer was seen as medicinal and not bad for health especially as alcohol at this time was healthier than water. That, combined with the fact that these establishments were far cleaner than most peoples’ homes, meant Ale Houses growing incredibly popular and the only place to drink and have a good time.
An increased anti-social behaviour resulted in the government to introduce Pub licensing laws to restrict opening and closing times. However, the prosperity during the Industrial Revolution meant Pubs continued to grow in popularity, and by 1870 there was one Pub for every 116 people.
With so many Pubs open, they needed to find new ways to differentiate from the competition. They did this by offering the most stylish decors, incredibly beautiful window panels and the latest modern furniture. However, this golden period didn’t last as the two World Wars destroyed many pubs and depression set in limiting people abilities to visit a pub. Popularity diminished, and Pubs fell dramatically.
This situation has continued to the current time with Pubs also facing fierce competition from fast-food restaurants, café bars and various forms of Nightlife such as Clubs, Cinema’s, Bars and Theatre. There are now 4000 pubs in London. Although Pub’s popularity has declined, they are still an essential part of London life.
But now, the question is:
Which is London’s oldest Pub?
You could spend an interesting day running around London trying to answer this question by visiting every claimant to the title, but by the end, you’d be so drunk you wouldn’t be able to remember your name, let alone your mission.
Start from these:
The Guinea, Mayfair.
Although the building itself only dates back to 1720, there has been an inn standing on this site since 1423. That’s why “The Guinea” has a place on this list. In more recent times, it’s become famous for the steaks served at The Guinea Grill.
30 Bruton Pl, Mayfair, near Green Park station, W1J 6NL
The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead.
Drink here, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of literary intellectuals such as Keats, Byron, and Dickens. It also gained notoriety as the supposed birthplace and preferred haunt of highwayman Dick Turpin. They rotate a selection of excellent craft beers throughout the year.
Spaniards Rd, Hampstead, near Golders Green station, NW3 7JJ
Hoop & Grapes, Aldgate.
Not to be confused with an identically named, slightly younger pub in Farringdon, this is one of the few timber buildings to have survived the Great Fire of 1666. Reportedly, the flames stopped only fifty yards from the door, which we think may have been a little divine intervention. Here’s hoping your pint is heavenly!
47 Aldgate High St, near Aldgate East station, EC3N 1AL
Lamb & Flag, Covent Garden.
One of the smaller places on this list, the Lamb & Flag can also claim one of the bloodier tales. The poet John Dryden was nearly murdered here (albeit a hundred years before it was built in 1772), and in the nineteenth-century, regular bare-knuckle fights in the alley got it an alternative name: ‘The Bucket of Blood’. Mercifully, things have quietened down since then.
33 Rose St, near Leicester Square station, WC2E 9EB
Cittie of Yorke, Holborn.
The current building is a reproduction built in 1920, but a pub has been there for almost six hundred years, so it’s still one of the oldest pubs in London. The Samuel Smith Brewery owns and runs this place, so you won’t get as much variety here. Having said that, the lower prices make up for it, and the Taddy lager is a crowdpleaser.
22 High Holborn, near Chancery Lane station, WC1V 6BN
The Old Bell, Fleet Street.
No other pub on this list can claim as impressive an architect as The Old Bell, which was built by Sir Christopher Wren for his workers, who were rebuilding St Bride’s Church after that pesky Great Fire. It’s not even the only Pub he’s rumoured to have built, as nearby Ye Olde Watling (run by the same chain) also has a spot in his portfolio.
95 Fleet Street, near Blackfriars station, EC4Y 1DH
Ye Olde Mitre, Hatton Garden.
A land issue meant that this Pub was technically part of Cambridgeshire until the early twentieth century, so the Mitre makes a slightly dubious claim to be London’s oldest. Still, Elizabeth I was rumoured to have danced around the cherry tree that once stood outside.
1 Ely Place, near Chancery Lane station, EC1N 6SJ
The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping.
It’s been standing since 1520, and a reminder of its dark past can be seen with the noose and gallows that hang off of the balcony.
57 Wapping Wall, near Wapping station, E1W 3SH
The Seven Stars, Aldwych.
How many of the oldest pubs in London allow you to pick up free legal advice? The Seven Stars definitely will; it predates the neighbouring Royal Courts of Justice by the small matter of 280 years, and normally plays host to crowds of lawyers at the close of day.
53 Carey St, near Chancery Lane station, WC2A 2JB
The George, Borough.
Having stood in one form or another since 1583, London’s last galleried inn has welcomed many famous faces. Shakespeare was a regular guest, and his plays were performed in the courtyard for years.
77 Borough High St, near London Bridge station, SE1 1NH
The Mayflower, Rotherhithe.
Unsurprisingly, this Pub gets its name from the legendary ship, which moored next door before sailing to the New World. If you can prove a family link to one of the voyageurs, why not sign their book of Mayflower Descendants?
117 Rotherhithe St, Rotherhithe, near Rotherhithe station, SE16 4NF
The Grapes, Limehouse.
Dickens makes another appearance here, as The Grapes is the Pub described in the opening of Our Mutual Friend. It’s another inn with a dark history, as unsavoury longshoremen reportedly killed drunk patrons in the Thames – something the current owner, actor Ian McKellen, chose to gloss over in his history of the place.
76 Narrow Street, Limehouse, near Westferry station, E14 8BP