There are many posts to be written here about the former pubs of London, and in the fullness of time (which has already been very accommodating) I hope to write about the many uses to which they have been put, including posts about former breweries and their tied pubs, and maybe a few more about notable districts (I’ve already done a post touching on Soho). First though, I want to talk about how one may spot former public houses, and some reasons they came to be closed.
In London, as in most large conurbations, we are constantly surrounded by reminders of the past. But perhaps more than many world cities, London has been built and rebuilt countless times with (until recently) a fairly cavalier regard to the physical presence of the past. Ancient buildings and grand monuments alike have been demolished in the name of progress, and against this pubs have never really stood a chance. As a small example casting a particularly nostalgic shadow when we see old photos of them, coaching inns stretching back centuries and mentioned (or used) by the greatest of authors and historical figures, were swept away by past rebuilding (the last around the turn of the 20th century).1 Even now, few pubs are listed historical buildings, and they continue to disappear as it suits developers (The Wenlock Arms [Hoxton N1] being only the most recent of such battles).
The Reasons for Pub Closures
The closure and repurposing of pubs is an outcome of many different social trends over time: changes in population distribution; changes to work/living practices; the decline in social drinking (aspects of which are linked to law changes); the erosion of neighbourhood cohesion (changes to work practices, increase in public transport options); the explosion of property prices; the stranglehold exercised by PubCos; and others. I shall write below about just three such areas, before moving on to spotting former pubs.
i. Changes to Work in London
In many areas of London you may come across the occasional former pub, but nowhere to such an extent as in the former hubs of manufacturing and industry. When walking around the Docklands and Canning Town, one is constantly confronted by such reminders at every turn, and for every former pub still standing there’s probably another five or more which have been demolished entirely in the immediately surrounding streets.2 The decline and disappearance of industry is one of the biggest stories in 20th century London, the docks of East London being only the most physically obvious locus of change. In every area where work was focused around factories and industry, the closure of pubs tracks this loss. Ironically, in modern London, brewing (albeit at a small scale) is just about the only area of manufacturing growth.3
ii. The Decline in Social Drinking and Erosion of the Neighbourhood
When pubs close in built-up residential areas (and the fact of pub closures is surely not under dispute, though one might quibble about the extent to which it is or has been happening), they are most frequently small local pubs. These are pubs, often in the back streets of an area, which catered to a predominantly working-class population who may not have travelled far for their work, and for whom the pub was a centre of social cohesion. Successful pubs in London now increasingly follow trends and chase the capricious middle-classes, and it seems the reason for that is primarily economic. Local pubs, which did not need to adapt to attract such drinkers, could rely on local trade, but with regularly increasing taxation on the price of drinks in licensed premises and the lure of cheaper bulk alcohol prices in supermarkets, the attractions of the pub have fallen amongst this traditional core of drinkers.
The closure of neighbourhood locals hasn’t even been entirely related to economic downturn or recovery, but to changing social attitudes among those passing laws (and their constituencies). Such changes in attitudes have been not only with respect to alcohol consumption, but also to smoking. Indeed, the 2007 ban on smoking indoors has frequently been cited as a key reason for pub closures.4 History shows that many of the biggest upheavals to the trade have come from changes in laws: the proliferation of gin houses (and the so-called “gin palaces”) in the 18th century and their subsequent disappearance is just one such story.5 The disappearance of neighbourhood locals now is another.
This is also partially related to the practices of modern PubCos, themselves affected by changes to laws governing the trade. Massive pub owners like Enterprise Inns and Admiral Taverns look for the maximum return from their investments, which happen to be in pubs. Those which fail as businesses (or just fail to make as much money as the property is worth, see below) are sold, and those which are successful attract heavier mark-ups from the PubCo, sometimes forcing even their closure.
iii. The Explosion in Property Prices
Another factor in the disappearance of pubs in central London has been the huge changes to property prices over the last few decades. This is both because the value of a pub as property can in many areas outstrip that pub’s ability to make money from their trade, and because the core drinkers supporting these pubs are forced from a gentrifying area (where affordable housing stock has been depleted) to more remote suburbs. This is particularly noticeable in the most affluent parts of town: there are plenty of former pubs in Chelsea and Kensington, for example, often looking quite different now as they’ve been comprehensively overhauled (closed pubs in poorer areas have usually suffered fewer cosmetic changes, and are still relatively recognisable).
Spotting a Former Pub
The simplest form is a pub which has been boarded up, otherwise retaining all its signage (such as The Victoria [Charlton SE7], fig. 84). These can survive in this form for years, depending on the value of the area and the long-term development plans a Council may have. If there’s no money for redevelopment, plans may be delayed and pubs may remain boarded for a long time. Even sites in central London can languish for years, for example the former Intrepid Fox (Soho W1).
Pubs which have been converted to residential or other uses may still, however, retain some sign of their former use. This may be in the form of architectural lettering (etched into the surface of the building itself), hanging signs or etched windows. A relatively obscure back street local pub like The Talfourd Arms (Peckham SE15, fig. 85) may seem fully converted to a residential dwelling and almost impossible to discern as a former pub, but a very careful glance at the windows, almost entirely obscured by foliage, reveals that one still says “Public Bar”.
Sometimes even these tell-tale signs of a former pub may have been removed. In such cases, you may need to look for striking architectural features. Pubs will often have spaces where lettering or advertising would have been placed: a strip above the ground floor; a rounded corner; or an enlarged pediment near the roof where a fascia board with the name (or, more often, beer advertising) might have been placed. In the post about former pubs of Soho I mentioned above, you can see The Excelsior (Soho WC2, fig. 37), now demolished for the construction of the Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station. It has a certain pub-like structure, with a board where the contemporary shop name is shown, while the original pub name may have once been engraved at the pediment in the blank space under the “1889” year of construction.
Finally, there are those former pub buildings which have been reconfigured almost beyond any recognition. In these cases, the entire ground floor level may have been rebuilt with solid brick,6 the pediments removed,7 and any other identifying features minimised. You may only spot such pubs through diligent research, or from having seen it when it was open. It can be particularly difficult, for example, to discern a former estate pub, as these had always been integrated into the fabric of the surrounding estate, and relatively minor changes may serve to make them unrecognisable as pubs. The very first photo I used on this blog, in my post about estate pubs, was a photo of The Camden (Camden Town NW1, fig. 1). Without having been demolished, this is now entirely unrecognisable as ever having been a pub (fig. 86).
 There are some wonderfully evocative photos, for example, of The Black Bull and The Old Bell, both in Holborn, in Panoramas of Lost London: Work, Wealth, Poverty and Change 1870-1945 by Philip Davies (Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press, 2011). Both were demolished around the turn of the 20th century. The only remaining galleried coaching inn is famously The George (Borough SE1), about which Pete Brown has written a book.
 As a small aside, when my London Pubology website is up and running (I am hoping an early version will be in the next few months), you will be able to see all the former pubs of areas such as these plotted on a map, densely packed with the red markers of demolished pubs and the amber of closed ones (alongside a smattering of green flags showing open pubs). This site will essentially just present my database of all London pubs, and the research for it has rather occupied me recently (and probably will take many more years to bring to any state resembling ‘completion’).
 This information is entirely anecdotal and unresearched (I believe the term is “anecdata”). However, it is certainly true that the population engaged in manufacturing is lower in London than any other region in the UK, and is at a historic low in relation to the past.
 Many write-ups of the ban (such as that on Wikipedia) are almost solely focused on its effect on pubs.
 A story told very well in Patrick Dillon’s book Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva: The Eighteenth-Century Gin Craze (Boston: Justin, Charles & Co., 2003).
 One such might be The King’s Arms (Bethnal Green E2). Without knowing the address, I could easily have walked right past it.
 On the former Three Compasses (Soho W1), an ornate pediment can be seen in an archival photo (reproduced at the British History site), though the existing building, now a restaurant, still has something of the look of a former pub.