Tag Archives: historical pubs

Former Pubs of Soho

Long time, no update: I’ll bet you thought I’d gone away. Well, it’s the New Year and I’ve been fairly lax about updating here, so I’m thinking of adding more short blog-like posts to fill the downtime between me getting around to writing longer pieces. My compulsion to ensure I have a photo of all the relevant pubs, rather delays me actually writing anything.

Something to get us going again are buildings in the centre of the West End which you’d be forgiven for not realising had ever been pubs in the first place. Probably the original ground level entrances have been completely remodelled, or you’ve just been in such a rush to get out of the crowds you hadn’t noticed the buildings themselves, some of which have giveaway clues (for example, the name of pub in permanent architectural lettering1), many of which don’t. In fact, most of these buildings I hadn’t myself noticed until I’d done some research and had compared the addresses.

The Excelsior (Soho WC2), now closed
Figure 37. The Excelsior (Soho WC2), now demolished.

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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).