The Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15)

I wanted to pick out some individual pubs from time to time, so this is my first post doing that.

Pubs are undeniably landmarks in both London and the UK generally. Bus routes may mark their termini by pubs: the 55 terminates at “Leyton (Bakers Arms)”, and the 14 at “Putney Heath (Green Man)”. You can probably guess, if you weren’t aware already, that the Nag’s Head junction (at Holloway and Seven Sisters Roads), or the Bricklayer’s Arms junction at the top of Old Kent Road (and the railway terminus which used to be sited there)1 were named after local public houses. There are even a number of areas of London which take their names from pubs: the Angel Islington is perhaps the most famous, and takes its name from a coaching inn which was sited there.2

The Old Nun's Head (Nunhead SE15)
Figure 12. The Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15).

It has been suggested that one such area named after a pub is Nunhead, in south-east London (just to the south of Peckham). The history isn’t clear on this point — there was a nunnery in the area which may have given rise to the name, though there is little evidence for the rather grisly story related on the sign outside the pub. Certainly, though, the Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15, fig. 12) predates the development of this area by quite some time, possibly as far back as the 17th century.3

During the 18th century, the pub was known for games (it had a skittle alley), dancing and particularly for its tea gardens. These were a fashion of the era — tea had only been introduced to the country during the 17th century and had built up an immense popularity during the early parts of the 18th century to become effectively the national drink. The tea gardens were suburban relatives of the pleasure gardens (such as the famous one at Vauxhall), where high tea was served in the afternoon. To a certain extent, too, they were tainted with the same negative connotations, being the playgrounds of the frivolous leisured classes, encouraging licentious behaviour and gambling, and frequented by prostitutes. There is no indication in the sources that the tea gardens in Nunhead were anything less than respectable.4

The pub also illustrates another interesting facet of historical pub habits in that the proprietor during the middle of the 19th century was a woman, Sarah Dyer. Female landlords, even if in a minority, were certainly not unusual throughout the country, and women’s attendance at pubs was not insignificant (though higher in urban and suburban areas than in the countryside).

In any case, the original pub has long since been replaced. The present Tudor-style building dates from 1934, and was closed for several years at the start of the 21st century. It reopened in 2007 with an attractive wooden interior, a good selection of ales, and organic food and wine on the menu.

[1] This station was built by the Southeastern and London & Croydon train companies as a direct competitor to the traffic brought in by the London & Greenwich company to its London Bridge terminus (where it operated the first passenger train service into London). Bricklayers Arms was opened in 1844, but an agreement soon after with LGR meant that by the following year it was largely confined to goods cargo. It did not close until 1983.
[2] None of these pubs is still trading, though the building housing The Nag’s Head (Lower Holloway N7) still exists on the junction that bears its name.
[3] Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds.), The London Encyclopaedia (London: Macmillan, 1983).
[4] Ron Woollacott, A Historical Tour of Nunhead and Peckham Rye (London: Magdala Terrace, 1995).


13 responses to “The Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15)

  1. I’m sure that there was a pub called the Nags Head on that intersection in the eighties when I lived on the Holloway road (just opposite the old cinema). Sure, sure, sure.

  2. Yup, wiki backs me up:'s_Head,_London

    It was very much a patterned carpet and brass fittings sort of pub, then. And expensive!

  3. Yes, the building is still there but it’s now an amusement arcade or some such thing. I took a photo of it, but haven’t uploaded to Flickr yet…

  4. A striking omission from your second paragraph is surely the Elephant and Castle, which gave its name to an area, a road, a pair of roundabouts, and either two or three stations depending on how you count them. I pschaw at your “the Angel Islington is perhaps the most famous”. And you a south Londoner, too! (You also thereby missed an opportunity to refute the old “infanta de Castille” chestnut.)

  5. I could do an entire post about the ‘infanta de Castilla’ thing, but I don’t believe the Elephant & Castle pub is still extant (unless it’s this one, which surely it isn’t), and I sort of want to write about existing pubs.

  6. (Sorry, only just stumbled back past here.)

    I believe that the original Elephant and Castle was sited where the northernmost of the two roundabouts now is. But you mention the Bricklayers’ Arms, and that doesn’t exist any more, afaik.

  7. None of those pubs I mentioned exists (though the Nag’s Head’s building is still there). I’ve added a footnote to make this explicit.

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  11. the old nuns head is said to have a tunnell running underneath which ran to the goldigers in cosort road and a nunn is said to still walk that tunell my mum worked in there for the publicans terry and pat terrys brother stayed in the bar one night and in the morning every picture was wonky .thats a true mum laura moore worked behind the bar there untill she was 75 only left because it became a managed pub and they had all ther own staff it was never the same after that and soon closed down its now an up and comeing bar again .

  12. I had heard Pauline Aylward story about a tunnel when i was a kid back in the sixties we walked past it to go to the library but we heard true or not it led to a monstary it was an escape route from the roundheads who knows i was just a kid

  13. My parents managed that pub lot of years ago I went to visit and stay there and can honestly say there was a lot of activity very scary and the tunnel story true I could go on lol x

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