Ballad of Peckham Rye pubs

Muriel Spark is an author I do not perhaps know enough about, but living near Peckham I was inspired to read her novella The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). I should really have paid attention earlier, for she has a wonderful turn of phrase. Also, quite apart from providing an acutely observed story of interlocking characters working at various factories in the Peckham area, whose relationships are soon rent asunder by the anti-heroic protagonist Dougal Douglas, it also makes reference to the changing character of this working class neighbourhood in the middle part of the 20th century, both its commercial life and its pubs.

The very first page tracks spurned lover Humphrey’s progress around various drinking establishments.

He got back into the little Fiat and drove away along the Grove [Lane] and up to the Common where he parked outside the Rye Hotel. Here he lit a cigarette, got out, and entered the saloon bar…. He walked across to the White Horse and drank one bitter. Next he visited the Morning Star and the Heaton Arms. He finished up at Harbinger. (p. 7)

Except for the last, all these pubs existed and were clustered around the southern end of the Peckham Rye Common. The Rye Hotel (now just the Rye, Peckham SE15, fig. 18) probably still looks much as it did back then, with the ironwork picking out its former name in gold lettering, and the old Taylor Walker lamps and sign in evidence, even if now (in common with most pubs) the saloon and public bars are no longer kept separate.

The White Horse (Peckham SE15, fig. 44) is still down the road a little and over the other side, still half-timbered mock Tudor, but with a slightly disturbing modern sign, while opposite it at the top of Rye Lane is the Morning Star (now called the Nag’s Head, Peckham SE15). The Heaton Arms was on the corner to the south of the Morning Star, but has since been demolished to make way for a residential development.

The White Horse (Peckham SE15)
Figure 44. The White Horse (Peckham SE15).

Most of the novel’s drinking action, however, takes place at the Harbinger, which is not a name attested by any local pubs. In Ed Glinert’s Literary London (2000), the Harbinger is linked to another demolished pub, this one on Denmark Hill in Camberwell (the Golden Lion, 23 Denmark Hill, at the corner with Orpheus Street),1 which sat out the front of the old Camberwell Palace of Varieties, presumably on the basis of the following quote:

A bright spiky chandelier and a row of glittering crystal lamps set against a mirror behind the bar – though in fact these had been installed since the war – were designed to preserve in theory the pub’s vintage fame in the old Camberwell Palace days. (p. 107)2

There are, however, references in the novel (further up the same page, in fact) that suggest the pub must have been a composite:

And so they followed Dougal and Beauty up Rye Lane to the Harbinger. Beauty was half-way through the door of the saloon bar, but Dougal had stopped to look into the darkness of the Rye beyond the swimming baths… (p. 107)

Denmark Hill is not particularly close to Peckham Rye, but there was apparently a lido on the Rye Common itself,3 nearest to the King’s Arms (later a crime-blighted club named Kings on the Rye), at the corner of East Dulwich Road, now demolished.4 (The only other pub to overlook the Rye is the Herne Tavern (Honor Oak SE22), further to the south.)

It’s just a pity some of the other details in her novel weren’t more true, but then she’s tapping into a deep sub-strata of mythmaking and mysticism surrounding the Rye (perhaps most famously encapsulated in William Blake’s vision of an angel). Her story of Boadicea has little basis even in legend, and the tantalising storyline involving secret tunnels dug between Nunhead and the police station on Meeting House Lane are entirely false, though they live on in local legend (as seen on the board outside The Old Nun’s Head pub).

[1] There is a page on the pub at the excellent genealogical Dead Pubs website. The relevant section of Ed Glinert’s book (2000) is on p. 348 and discusses this and others pubs mentioned in the novel.
[2] Further information about Camberwell music halls may be found here at Archive photos (which also show the Golden Lion) may be found on a page at the Theatres Trust website.
[3] Thanks to my commenter for the information (see below). See this article about former lidos and outdoor pools in London for more information. The baths were located in the triangle of land at the very north of Peckham Rye Park.
[4] A picture of the pub can be seen in this page on Toby and John King’s transport history website. Dead Pubs has a page with some historical details of the King’s Arms. It was apparently destroyed in the Blitz, prior to Spark’s novel, which further complicates any identification of the Harbinger.

14 responses to “Ballad of Peckham Rye pubs

  1. There was a lido on Peckham Rye, nearest pub would have been the Kings Arms/Kings on the Rye.

    Hope that helps.


  2. Thanks, that’s great. I was looking at the old OS maps and they didn’t mark any baths, so I rather leapt to the assumption there weren’t any… (Though doing some further searching, I realise the maps I was looking at predated the baths.)

  3. Hi,I was born and lived in Nunhead from 1944 -1966.and indead there was a Lido/swimming pool where you say it was open air and if you went before 1. 1 1 o’clock is was free entry and then I think it was 1d. after that it faced the old air raid shelters and public toilets…..if you want any more information about Nunhead or Peckham let me know Regards Adrian.

  4. My great grandparents lived at an address which I cannot find: Vivian Arms. Peckham Rye. Anyone ever heard of it? Wld be very very interested. Thanks – Iain

  5. Does anyone remember a pub called The Lion near Rye Lane? This would have been in the 50’s. It was ran by John Morgan who was from Mid Wales. My grandfather who is also from Mid Wales as am I, had his honeymoon in Peckham as he stayed with his aunt and uncle their surname was Driscol. The Driscol family drank at this pub regular. The Driscol’s lived at 35 Moncrieff Street Peckham. Does this ring any bells with anyone? maybe your older memebers of your family remember the Driscols or the Morgans.

  6. Pingback: A Pub Crawl Around Fictional London | Londonist

  7. Roger Fullilove

    My epic song “The Pubs of Peckham Rye” is from the same family. The book is being published in 2016

  8. I was born at the King’ s Arms in 1962. My father was the landlord.

  9. Pingback: June 2019 re-reading: Muriel Spark | Old geezer re-reading

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  12. Journaling is my passion and I have three different journals. Do you write in more than one journal?

  13. Pingback: A Pub Crawl Around Fictional London – Boston!

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