Sue Bristow, The White Horse
Many in Spitalfields enjoy spending time at The White Horse on the corner of Redchurch St and Shoreditch High St. Even on a midweek afternoon, when the pavements are empty, you can rely upon stepping inside the barroom and finding an enthusiastic crowd. It is an expectedly democratic place in which City workers and constructions workers rub shoulders, all mesmerised by the astounding balletics of the pole dancers at this celebrated East End strip pub where – unusually for such an establishment – women are welcome too.
No-one is more at home in The White House than Sue Bristow who has lived above the premises since 1978 and grew up there. With a life that would be envy of her customers, Sue is the presiding goddess in a little black dress, constantly surrounded by attendant Aphrodites in skimpy exotic outfits. Even as I chatted with Sue at the bar, glamorous creatures were flitting around catching her eye with a wink and nod, as they brandished their pint pots which the customers take such delight in filling with pound coins – merely for the opportunity of being in the same room with these nubile lovelies who cavort for the pleasure of their silent admirers.
With its blank facade and windows shielded from the street, this public house might appear mysterious to anyone who has never been through the door but, as Sue spoke, I realised there was nothing to hide beyond that certain discretion which is the strippers’ prerogative.
My dad, John Bristow, and his family are from Chicksand St. He and my uncles all worked in the Spitalfields Market together, and my nan, Glenys Bristow, ran a cafe in Commercial St opposite the market until they was bombed out in the war. She lives in Bethnal Green now and when we take her around Spitalfields she points out where everything used to be.
In 1978, we moved here to The White Horse. My mum and dad got the place and I was brought up above the pub. My dad was a lorry driver and my mum was a secretary, and they had to learn how to run a pub as they went along. When we first started, we had dancers here only on Thursday and Friday evenings, and Sunday lunchtimes. You had Robinsons that sold electric pumps across the road then, the betting shop on the corner, and there were a lot of banks, Lloyds, Barclays and Nat West, and the Post Office. But gradually all the people went away and even the banks shut. This was in the first recession and, although I was really young, I remember they were rough times – but we somehow managed to stay open throughout.
I started working here before I should of. In my school holidays I used to do the cleaning and the tills. Now I have a daughter of my own who’s fourteen, she always asking if she can work behind the bar and at Christmas she helps the girls to cash up all their pound coins from their pint pots. When I was eighteen, I was put in my own pub – The Crown, overlooking Victoria Park. I was one of the youngest licensees in the country. It was very hard work, your whole life is the pub. I did two and a half years at The Crown.
I don’t think I’ve ever left home completely. This pub is like my front room. It’s my home, isn’t it? I’ve been brought up in it, I’ve lived and breathed it. My dad retired eight years ago to Murcia near Alicante in Spain but Pauline, my mum, she didn’t want to go to Spain or leave the pub. She is very much the backbone here, and now she and I run it together. She takes care of the pub side, makes sure it’s open in the morning, does the tills, orders the beer, checks in the cellar and does the bookwork. She’s very meticulous, she doesn’t miss a thing. I do the girls, they check in with with me every morning when they begin their shifts. I do the booking sheets – we plan six weeks in advance. We find girls through word of mouth and we have a lot coming in to audition, but I only need the best of performers. I’ve been watching the dancers since I was fourteen, so I know who’s a good dancer.
The girls get to keep all their pounds in the pot here, we don’t take commission like some pubs do. I like to take care of the girls – to give them a safe and clean environment, and nice changing rooms. I get on with the girls very well and quite a few of them are my friends, and the girls all get on well together too. There are only five on each shift and they each do five performances. When we opened Blush – the table dancing venue upstairs – we had a meeting and let all the girls speak, in order to work out the fairest way to run it. I always oversee the girls personally, and I want it to be relaxed and not a competitive atmosphere.
People who have never been inside a strip pub sometimes presume that the men are in control but the opposite is true – the woman on stage has the most power, she has all the men under her control. Many of the girls say they enjoy that it’s run by women here. We only employ men to do the security. On Saturday night, we had a group of youngsters in and I decided they were not going to stay. I went over to them and said, “Right lads, this is my pub and I’ve told the staff that you’re not going to be served. You’ve got to leave. When you’re more mature, you’re more than welcome to come back.” And a few of them apologised. Not everyone knows how to talk to people, but if you make a little joke and they laugh. then you can get them on your side. It’s something you learn.
The doormen say, “If it kicks off, it’s not the customers you have to look out for, it’s Sue!”
This last comment was accompanied by a self-deprecatory laugh and roll of the eyes from Sue, before our conversation was concluded by the return of her daughter from school, exchanging greetings with the girls, all smiles and eager to tell her mother of her day. Glowing with maternal pride, Sue introduced me, demonstrating the enviable ease which permits her to inhabit the role of strip pub manager and mother simultaneously.
Sue Bristow - “I’ve been watching the dancers since I was fourteen, so I know who’s a good dancer.”
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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