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The Spitalfields Roman Woman

July 28, 2015
by the gentle author

As part of HUGUENOT SUMMER, Caroline McDonald, Senior Curator of Prehistoric & Roman Collections, at the Museum of London will be giving a tour of the gallery with special attention to the Spitalfields Roman woman this Thursday 30th July at 1pm Click here to book a ticket

Curator of Human Osteology, Rebecca Redfern watches over her charge

In his Survey of London 1589, John Stow wrote about the discovery of pots of Roman gold coins buried in Spitalfields and it had long been understood that ancient tombs once lined the road approaching London, just as they did along the Appian Way in Rome. Yet it was only in the nineteen-nineties, when large scale excavations took place prior to the redevelopment of the Spitalfields Market, that the full extent of the Roman cemetery was uncovered.

In March 1999, a Roman stone sarcophagus containing a rare lead coffin decorated with scallop shells came to light, indicating the burial of someone of great wealth and high status. Grave goods of fine glass and jet were buried nearby. It was the first unopened sarcophagus to be found in London for over a century and when the entire assemblage was removed to the Museum of London, the coffin was opened to reveal the body of a young woman in her early twenties, buried in ceremonial fashion. In the week after the opening of the coffin, ten thousand Londoners came to pay their respects to the Spitalfields Roman woman. She was the most astonishing discovery of the excavations yet, as the years have passed and more has been learnt about her, the enigma of her identity has become the subject of increasing fascination.

Analysis of residue in the coffin revealed that her head lay upon a pillow of bay leaves, her body was embalmed with oils from the Arab world and the Mediterranean, and wrapped in wool and silk which had been died Tyrian purple and interwoven with fine gold thread. Such an elaborate presentation suggests she may have been displayed to Londoners seventeen hundred years ago as part of funeral rites.

The sarcophagus and grave goods are on public exhibition at the Museum but, thanks to Rebecca Redfern, Curator of Human Osteology, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie and I had the privilege to visit the Rotunda where the human remains are stored and view the skeleton of the Spitalfields Roman woman. Deep in a windowless concrete bunker filled with metal shelving stacked with cardboard boxes, containing the remains of thousands of Londoners from the past, lay the bones of the woman. We stood in silent reverence with just the sound of distant traffic echoing.

Rebecca is the informal guardian of the Spitalfields woman and remembers switching  on the television to watch news of the discovery as an A level student. Today, she has a fourteen-year-old daughter of her own with her partner whom she met during the excavations. “The work went on for so many years that a lot of couples met working in Spitalfields,” Rebecca admitted to me, “and there is now a whole generation of ‘Spital babies’ born to those archaeologists.”

“She’s five foot three and delicately built, petite like a ballet dancer,” Rebecca continued, turning her attention swiftly from the living to the dead and gesturing protectively to the bones laid out upon the table. While some might objectify the skeleton as a specimen, Rebecca relates to the Spitalfields Roman woman and all the other six thousands remains in her care as human beings. “They’re able to tell us so much about themselves, it’s impossible not to regard them as people,” she assured me.

Recent research into the isotopes present in the teeth of the Spitalfields Roman woman have revealed an exact match with those found among her contemporaries in Imperial Rome, which means that her origin can be traced not just to Italy but to Rome itself. “I find it very sad that she came so far and then died so young,” Rebecca confided, recognising the lack of any indication of the cause of death or whether the woman had given birth. Contemplating the presence of the skeleton with its delicate bones dyed brown by lead, it is apparent that the Spitalfields Roman woman holds her secrets and has many stories yet to tell.

More than seventy-five Roman burials were uncovered at the same time as the sarcophagus, many interred within wooden coffins and some only in shrouds. You might say these represented the earliest wave of immigration to arrive in Spitalfields.

“People were so mobile,” Rebecca explained to me, “We found a fourteen-year-old girl from North Africa but her mother was European while her father was likely to be African. A legion from North Africa was sent to guard Hadrian’s Wall and we have found tagine cooking pots that may been theirs. I pity those men – how they must have suffered in the cold.”

The only Roman sarcophagus discovered in London in our time was uncovered in Spitalfields in 1999

Inside the stone sarcophagus an elaborately decorated lead coffin was discovered

At the Museum of London, the debris was removed to uncover the pattern of scallop shells

The lead coffin was opened to reveal the body of a young woman

Photographs of coffin & excavations copyright © Museum of London

Portrait of Rebecca Redfern & photographs of skeletal details copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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Swan Upping With The Vintners’ Company

July 27, 2015
by the gentle author

I publish my account at the conclusion of the season for swan upping and in sober recognition of the announcement by the Queen’s Swan Warden that the number of cygnets on the Thames has decreased from 120 in 2014 to 83 this year, as a consequence of the use of air rifles and vandals destroying nests

Since before records began, Swan Upping has taken place on the River Thames in the third week of July – chosen as the ideal moment to make a census of the swans, while the cob (as the male swan is known) is moulting and flightless, and before the cygnets of Spring take flight at the end of Summer. This ancient custom stems from a world when the ownership and husbandry of swans was a matter of consequence, and they were prized as roasting birds for special occasions.

Rights to the swans were granted as privileges by the sovereign and the annual Swan Upping was the opportunity to mark the bills of cygnets with a pattern of lines that indicated their provenance. It is a rare practice from medieval times that has survived into the modern era and I have always been keen to see it for myself – as a vision of an earlier world when the inter-relationship of man and beast was central to society and the handling of our fellow creatures was a important skill. So it was my good fortune to join the Swan Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Vintners’ for a day on the river from Cookham to Marlow, just one leg of their seventy-nine mile course from Sunbury to Abingdon over five days. The Vintners Company were granted their charter in 1363 and a document of 1509 records the payment of four shillings to James the under-swanherd “for upping the Master’s swans” at the time of the “great frost” - which means the Vintners have been Swan Upping for at least five hundred years.

Swan Upping would have once been a familiar sight in London itself, but the embankment of the Thames makes it an unsympathetic place for breeding swans these days and so the Swan Uppers have moved upriver. Apart from the Crown, today only the Dyers’ and Vintners’ Companies retain the ownership of swans on the Thames and each year they both send a team of Swan Uppers to join Her Majesty’s Swan Keeper for a week in pursuit of their quarry.

It was a heart-stopping moment when I saw the Swan Uppers for the first time, coming round the bend in the river, pulling swiftly upon their oars and with coloured flags flying, as their wooden skiffs slid across the surface of the water toward me. Attended by a flotilla of vessels and with a great backdrop of willow framing the dark water surrounding them, it was as if they had materialized from a dream. Yet as soon as I shook hands with the Swan Uppers at The Ferry in Cookham, I discovered they were men of this world, hardy, practical and experienced on the water. All but one made their living by working on the Thames as captains of pleasure boats and barges – and the one exception was a trader at the Billingsgate Fish Market.

There were seven in each of the teams, consisting of six rowers spread over two boats, and a Swan Marker. Some had begun on the water at seven or eight years old as coxswain, most had distinguished careers as competitive rowers as high as Olympic level, and all had won their Doggett’s coat and badge, earning the right to call themselves Watermen. But I would call them Rivermen, and they were the first of this proud breed that I had met, with weathered skin and eager brightly-coloured eyes, men who had spent their lives on the Thames and were experts in the culture and the nature of the river.

They were a tight knit crew – almost a family – with two pairs of brothers and a pair of cousins among them, but they welcomed me to their lunch table where, in between hungry mouthfuls, Bobby Prentice, the foreman of the uppers, told me tales of his attempts to row the Atlantic Ocean, which succeeded on the third try. “I felt I had to go back and do it,” he confessed to me, shaking his head in determination, “But, the third time, I couldn’t even tell my wife until I was on my way.” Bobby’s brother Paul told me he was apprenticed to his father, as a lighterman on the Thames at fifteen, and Roger Spencer revealed that after a night’s trading at Billingsgate, there was nothing he liked so much as to snatch an hour’s rowing on the river before going home for an hour’s nap. After such admissions, I realised that rowing up the river to count swans was a modest recreation for these noble gentlemen.

There is a certain strategy that is adopted when swans with cygnets are spotted by the uppers. The pattern of the “swan voyage” is well established, of rowing until the cry of “Aaall up!” is given by the first to spot a family of swans, instructing the crews to lift their oars and halt the boats. They move in to surround the swans and then, with expert swiftness, the birds are caught and their feet are tethered. Where once the bills were marked, now the cygnets are ringed. Then they are weighed and their health is checked, and any that need treatment are removed to a swan sanctuary. Today, the purpose of the operation is conservation, to ensure well being of the birds and keep close eye upon their numbers – which, until this year, have been increasing on the Thames since there just 54 cygnets in 1981 when the lead fishing weights that were lethal to swans were banned.

Swan Upping is a popular spectator sport as, all along the route, local people turn out to line the banks. In these river communities of the upper Thames, it has been witnessed for generations, marking the climax of Summer when children are allowed out of school in their last week before the holidays to watch the annual ritual.

Travelling up river from Cookham, between banks heavy with deep green foliage and fields of tall golden corn, it was a sublime way to pass a Summer’s afternoon. Yet before long, we  passed  through the lock to arrive in Marlow where the Mayor welcomed us by distributing tickets that we could redeem for pints of beer at the Two Brewers. It was timely gesture because – as you can imagine – after a day’s rowing up the Thames, the Swan Uppers had a mighty thirst.

Martin Spencer, Swan Marker

Foreman of the Uppers, Bobby Prentice

The Swan Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Vintners

The Swan Uppers of 1900

The Swan Uppers of the nineteen twenties.

In the nineteen thirties.

The Swan Uppers of the nineteen forties.

In the nineteen fifties.

Archive photographs copyright © Vintners’ Company

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Derrick Porter, Poet Of Hoxton

July 26, 2015
by the gentle author

Derrick Porter

This is the gentle face of Derrick Porter, craggy and wise, framed by snowy hair and punctuated with a pair of sharp eyes that reveal a hint of his imaginative capacity. Standing against a rural backdrop upon the banks of the river Ching in Essex not far from High Beach where John Clare was confined, Derrick looks every inch an English poet and he is quick to admit his love of nature. Yet, although he acquired an affection for the countryside at an early age and Chingford is his place of residence, the focus of Derrick’s literary landscape and centre of his personal universe is his place of origin – Hoxton.

“It was a place we all wanted to get out of - it was a tough place to live,” Derrick confessed to me, recalling his childhood, ”but the the culture of Hoxton and that era was my imaginative education.”

“My interest in literature stems from spending so many years in hospital up to the age of thirteen and they used to read to us – I looked forward to it so much, I learnt to love reading stories,” he confided, explaining that he suffered from tuberculosis as a child and was exiled from London for long stretches in hospitals. “They made us stay out in the fresh air which was the worst possible thing because it actually helped the germs to flourish, when the foggy atmosphere of London was much more beneficial to sufferers – but they didn’t understand that in those days.

My dad worked at the Daily Mail as a printer and my mum was a housewife, but I never saw him until I was six when he returned from the war. He had been captured by the Japanese and was held in a prisoner of war camp. At first, they sent him to America which was where they kept them to build them up again before they came home.

Before the age of ten years old, I lived in a prefab in Vince St next to the Old St roundabout and then we moved to Fairchild House in Fanshawe St. The prefabs were made of asbestos without any insulation and were very cold in winter. As children, we used to break off pieces of asbestos and throw them on to the bonfire to watch them explode. Maybe that affected my health? We had free rein then and we played in the old bombed buildings at the back of Moorgate – that was our playground.

At thirteen, I had an operation to have half of my lung removed and they told my mother that they didn’t know if I would recover. From then on, I took care of my own health and I became a fitness and health junkie. When I left school I thought I’d like to go back to the countryside and, when the teacher asked my ambition, I said, ‘I’m going to work on a farm,’ he told me, ‘You won’t find many in ‘Oxton, Porter.’ My father got me a job as a printer on the Daily Express but it did my lungs in.

I always had this compulsion to get away from Hoxton and write. So I decided to emigrate to Australia on my own. I knew I had to get away. I was nineteen when I went for two years. I was engaged to be married but I broke the engagement and emigrated. I went to writing workshops in Australia and my earliest poems were written while I was there. I got a job as a printer on the Sydney Morning Herald. At first, they told me I couldn’t get a job without a union card, but then there was a bit of skullduggery. They took pity on me and, when I got a job, they gave me a card.

After that, I travelled in the USA with this small bag of my poems. Then, in Las Vegas, I stayed in this $1-a-night fleapit for three nights while I was waiting for the coach to take me to Los Angeles. Twenty minutes after I had boarded the bus, I realised I had left my bag behind with all the poems I had written in the previous two years. I cried, I felt so dismayed. It was a significant loss.

On my return, I moved into Langbourne Buildings off Leonard St in Shoreditch. I was surrounded by my friends and family and this was where I first joined a writing group. It was in Dalston and I started to write regularly. After seven years, I began to write some decent poems and then I read in the Hackney Gazette about Centreprise Literary Trust. So I went along there and met Ken Worpole, and gave him some of my poems. Then he got back in touch and said he’d like to publish them, and that was the first work I ever had in print.

By now I was twenty-nine and married with two young children, and we were offered the opportunity of swapping our flat for a house in Orpington. It was a fabulous house with a garden and we couldn’t refuse, but the rent was three times the price. We lived there for thirty-odd years and my poetry developed, I became a member of the Poetry Society and had my works published in magazines, although I rarely send my poems out because I always think I can do better.

I worked for D & J Simons & Sons Ltd, picture frame and moulding makers, in the Hackney Rd and, when I moved to Orpington, I bought all their ‘second’ picture frames off them and sold them there. I started working for myself, making reproduction furniture and selling it in Orpington Village Hall and I earned a living from that for twenty years. But all the time I was writing, writing and I had a lot of encouragement from people.

I rework my poems a lot because I’d rather have one good one than a lot of mediocre ones. I have written a lot of poems and discarded most of them because I’d rather just keep my best. I love letter writing and I believe it can be an art if it is done well. As long as I live, I’ll carry on writing.”

Writing has always been at the centre of Derrick Porter’s life and, now in his seventies, he is to publish his first collection of poetry entitled Voices of Hoxton, from which I reprint three poems below.

Derrick and his childhood friend Roy Wild on the steps of the eighteenth century house in Charles Sq where they played as children

.

Sitting Under a Tree in Charles Square

.

The clear urgency of the voice caused me

to look up, my finger marking the place

in the newspaper I was then reading…

.

How old do you think this tree is? it asked.

I said it was here when I was a boy.

Well, it won’t be for much longer, it said.

.

The owner of the voice began to circle

the tree before running his hands over

the gnarled trunk as if in search of a precise spot.

.

From under his coat appeared a long-handled axe.

It would be better if you moved, he said.

But not before the tree had endured

.

several blows…and a large, older woman, shouted

Are we to suffer this nonsense again?

Come home and do something useful for once.

.

Instantly the attack ceased and – without

another word passing between them – his steps

quickened to reach, if not overtake, the other.

.

My thumb then lifted from the newspaper

returning my eye to the Middle East

where, as yet, no allaying voice can be heard.

.

Derrick standing outside the flat at Fairchild House in Fanshawe St where he grew up

.

Derby Day in Fairchild House

.

Walking along our third floor balcony

I can see – before I enter the door – the piano

blocking the view into our living room.

You are watching the TV, circling horses

in The Sporting Life as John Rickman

calls home another of those certainties

you always said you should have backed.

.

From the kitchen the clang of pots

tells me it’s a Friday and mum’s busy

preparing a stew. A day perhaps

when sand had been kicked into my face

and I’d come home to pump iron.

If so, my bedroom door will be locked

and I’ll be lifting sand-filled-petrol-cans

hung along an old broom handle.

.

It’s also possible it’s the evening

of the Pitfield Institute’s Weight-Lifting final

when I won my only trophy. Or the day

cash went missing and I bought my first watch.

But as I turn the key and enter the door

I want it to be the day when even

the piano joined in…and Gordon Richards

rode Pinza to victory in the Derby.

.

.

The Apprentice

.

When Mr Hounslow asked the class what jobs

we had in mind, I answered,

Working on a farm, sir. “You won’t find many

in Hoxton” the reply. Come summer

I started work for a musical instrument

supplier in Paul Street, close to the old Victorian

Fire Station later re-sited in Old Street.

For one day a week I was promoted

to van boy and helped deliver to the likes

of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho,

a world far removed from that of Hoxton.

Here I saw the upbeat side of the business,

the posh shiny part that could open doors

if you had the right kind of connections.

.

After a year working with men who enjoyed

nothing better than to send the new boys out

to buy rubber nails and glass hammers,

if never themselves discovering who put

the mouse droppings into their biscuit tin,

I began to question where I was heading.

That summer – while on holiday in Ostend

with the Lion Club – my dad handed in

my notice…and when I returned, was told

I had to start work in the Printing Trade.

Its every aspect – machinery, ink, oil,

noise and dust, the very air – a sort of

road taken, as old Hounslow might have said,

for there being no farms in Hoxton.

.

Derrick Porter at Fairchild House, Hoxton

Poems copyright © Derrick Porter

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The Last Days Of London

July 25, 2015
by the gentle author

At twelve years old, he photographed the end of the trams in 1952 and, since then, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien has become fascinated by recording the ‘last days’ of vanishing aspects of London Life

Thames Embankment, 1952 “When I was twelve, the trams stopped running forever so I took this picture with my box camera while the driver posed for me. I loved going out with my dad on Sunday mornings for a ride through the Kingsway Tunnel and out on to the Embankment. It was even more exciting if we managed to get the front seat on the top deck where I could imagine I was driving the tram.”

Skinner St, Clerkenwell, 1952 “Long since demolished, the Rio Cinema was where we used to go as kids and watch films over and over again until we got bored. Westerns were my favourite and we all loved to mimic the actors and shout and clap at inappropriate moments”

Clerkenwell Rd, 1970s “After more than a century of use by hundreds of families, Victoria Dwellings – once my home – was demolished and I moved with my family to a flat on the twenty-third floor of the newly built Michael Cliffe House on the other side of Clerkenwell”

Covent Garden, 1973 “The fruit and vegetable market moved to the New Covent Garden Market between Vauxhall and Battersea in 1974″

Hackney, early 1980s “One of the last rag and bone men plying his trade by going door-to-door, picking up metal and scrap”

Regent’s Canal, Bethnal Green, 1987 “George Trewby’s magnificent gasometer constructed for the Gas Light and Coke Company in 1889 towers over the frozen canal”

Nightingale Estate, Hackney Downs, 1999 “Hackney Council decided that many of their high-rise blocks were failures as housing and decided to blow them up. Of the six towers that made up the estate, five were demolished. Since 2003, low-rise buildings have been constructed where the blocks once stood.”

Long Acre, Covent Garden, 1986 “The building was being demolished by a crane swinging an iron ball while two men stood on top of the ruin and finished the job with sledgehammers. There must be an easier way to earn a living”

The Griffin, Shoreditch, 30th June 2007 “Three smokers enjoy their last cigarettes on the final day of legal smoking in public places”

Highbury Corner, 7th May 2006 “Three men sit comatose after the last football match at Highbury Stadium before Arsenal moved to the new Emirates Stadium in Holloway Rd”

Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, 2010 “Suleyman bought this shoe repair shop in 1967, when it was like a time-capsule full of old leather sewing machines and calendars from the 1950s. Even pairs of shoes that were repaired more than ten years ago but never claimed by their owners were still lying around. He got up at 4am every morning and opened the shop between 7am and 4pm, until it closed recently.”

Mare St, Hackney, 2009 “I always had a soft spot for Woolworths. The first shop opened on the 6th November 1909 and I took this photograph on 6th January 2009, the last day of trading”

Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, 2008 “A friend took me for a meal one Saturday morning at Jim’s Cafe and it was the best breakfast I had eaten in a long time. I asked Dave, the proprietor, if I could take some pictures and I did shots of him standing in the doorway. When I returned about a month later with the prints, Dave’s wife told me he had died and the cafe closed soon after.”

Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, 2010 “Steve sits on his stock of tyres in the shop that he and his family ran for more than fifty years. It smelled of rubber and the Michelin man in the window was covered in dust. The shop closed on 2nd October 2010, shortly after I took this photograph.”

Clapton Pond, Hackney, 2005 “A group pose proudly to have their picture taken on the last day of the Routemaster buses running on the 38 route, from Clapton Pond to Victoria Station”

Clerkenwell Fire Station, Rosebery Avenue, 2014 “When Clerkenwell Fire Station closed in January 2014 after 142 years, I photographed the fire-fighters on their last day of service at Britain’s oldest operating fire station.”

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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Vote For The George Tavern!

July 24, 2015
by the gentle author

In recognition of the magnificent achievement of Pauline Forster, who has devoted the last ten years to restoring the George Tavern in Commercial Rd, she has been shortlisted for an Historic England Angel Award. Please CLICK HERE to vote for Pauline.

Let me admit, The George in Commercial Rd is one of my favourite pubs in the East End. From the first moment I walked through the door, I knew I had discovered somewhere special.

In the magnificently shabby bar room, with gleaming tiles and appealingly mismatched furniture all glowing in the afternoon light filtering through coloured glass windows, there was not a scrap of the tidying up and modernisation that blights the atmosphere of too many old pubs. There was no music and no advertising – it was peaceful, and I was smitten by the unique charisma of The George.

Curious to learn more, I paid a visit upon the owner, who has been described to me as one of the last great publicans of the East End, and I was far from disappointed to explore behind the scenes at this legendary institution because what I found was beyond what I ever imagined.

Pauline Forster, artist and publican of The George, brought up her five sons in a remote valley in Gloucestershire. It was more than ten years ago when she bought The George and her sons came up to London with her, then in the following decade they all met partners in the bar and moved out. Yet such a satisfactory outcome of events was not the result of any master-plan on Pauline’s part, merely the consequence of a fortuitous accident in which she stumbled upon The George when it was lying neglected and fell in love with it, buying it on impulse a week later, even though it had never been her intention to become a publican.

“It’s a beauty, this building!” she declared to me as I followed her along the dark passage from the barroom, up a winding stair and through innumerable doors to enter her kitchen upon the first floor. “When I came to view it, there were twenty others after it but they only wanted to know how many flats they could fit in, none of them were interested in it as a pub.” she informed me in response to my gasps of wonder as she led me through the vast stairwell with its wide staircase and a sequence of high-ceilinged rooms with old fireplaces, before we arrived at her office lined with crowded bookcases reaching towards the ceiling. “The interior was all very seventies but I was hooked, I could see the potential.” she confided, “I gravitated to the bar and I started possessing it. I sat and waited until everyone else had gone and then I told the agent I would buy it for cash if he called off the auction.”

With characteristic audacity, Pauline made this offer even though she did not have the cash but somehow she wrangled a means to borrow the money at short notice, boldly taking possession, exchanging contracts and moving in three days later, before finding a mortgage. It was due to her personal strength of purpose that The George survived as a pub, and thanks to her intelligence and flair that it has prospered in recent years.“I thought, ‘I’ve got to open the bar, it would be a sin not to,’” she assured me, widening her sharp grey eyes to emphasise such a self evident truth, “I decided to open it and that’s what I did.”

A decade of renovations later, the false ceilings and recently installed modern wall coverings have been stripped away to reveal the structure of the building, and the early nineteenth stucco facade is now revealed in all its glory to the Commercial Rd. “I’m used to taking on challenges and I’m a hardworking person,” Pauline admitted, “I don’t mind doing quite a bit of work myself, you’ll see me up scaffolding chipping cement off and painting windows.”

Yet in parallel with the uncovering of the fabric of this magnificent old building – still harbouring the atmosphere of another age – has been the remarkable discovery of the long history of the pub which once stood here in the fields beside the Queen’s Highway to Essex before there were any other buildings nearby, more than seven hundred years ago. When Commercial Rd was cut through by the East India Company in the early nineteenth century, the orientation of the building changed and a new stuccoed frontage was added declaring a new name, The George. Before this it was known as The Halfway House, referenced by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Reeve’s Tale written in the thirteen-eighties when he lived above the gate at Aldgate and by Samuel Pepys who recorded numerous visits during the sixteen-sixties.

A narrow yard labelled Aylward St behind the pub, now used as a garden, is all that remains today of the old road which once brought all the trade to The Halfway House. In the eighteenth century, the inn became famous for its adjoining botanic garden where exotic plants imported from every corner of the globe through the London Docks were cultivated. John Roque’s map of 1742 shows the garden extending as far as the Ratcliffe Highway. At this time, William Bennett – cornfactor and biscuit baker of Whitechapel Fields - is recorded as gardener, cultivating as many as three hundred and fifty pineapples in lush gardens that served as a popular destination for Londoners seeking an excursion beyond the city. As further evidence of the drawing power of the The Halfway House, the celebrated maritime painter Robert Dodd was commissioned to paint a canvas of “The Glorious Battle of the Fifth of June” for the dining room, a picture that now resides in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

When you have ascended through all the diverse spaces of The George to reach the attic, you almost expect to look from the dormer windows and see green fields with masts of ships on the river beyond, as you once could. I was filled with wonder to learn just a few of the secrets of this ancient coaching inn that predates the East End, yet thanks to Pauline Forster has survived to adorn the East End today, and I know I shall return because there are so many more stories to be uncovered here. I left Pauline mixing pure pigments with lime wash to arrive at the ideal tint for the facade. “I don’t get time to do my own paintings anymore,” she confessed, “This is my work of art now.”

Nineteenth century tiling in the bar.

A ceramic mural illustrates The George in its earlier incarnation as The Halfway House.

Stepney in 1600 showing The Halfway House and botanic garden on White Horse Lane, long before Commercial Rd was cut through by the East India Company in the early nineteenth century.

The Halfway House in the seventeenth century.

The Halfway House became The George and the orientation of the building was changed in the nineteenth century when Commercial Rd was cut through. Note the toll booth and early telegraph mast.

Detail of the stucco facade before restoration.

In the attic, where Pauline lived when she first moved in

Pauline’s collection includes the dried-out carcass of a rat from Brick Lane.

Entrance to the attic

Living room

Living room with view down Commercial Rd

Dining Room

Wide eighteenth century staircase.

Pauline’s bathroom with matching telephone, the last fragment of the nineteen seventies interior that once extended throughout the building.

Pauline Forster, Artist & Publican.

Kitchen looking out onto the former Queen’s Highway, now the pub garden

Pauline’s dresser

Pauline hits the light-up dancefloor at “Stepney’s” nightclub next door.

The George Tavern, 373 Commercial Rd, E1 0LA (corner of Jubilee St).

Click here for more information about Pauline Forster’s crowd-funding for her legal battle to prevent redevelopment of Stepney’s Nightclub next door to the George Tavern

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