Last Orders At The Birdcage
This photograph records the historic Sunday night when popular landlady Teresa Farnham called “Last Orders!” at The Birdcage on Columbia Rd after twenty-one years behind the bar, heralding the end of an era in this corner of Bethnal Green. I slipped over to have a quiet drink with Teresa as the light began to fade on her final day at the pub. Outside the melancholy streets were coated in slush that began to freeze as dusk gathered, yet inside the cosy barroom at The Birdcage, a lively crowd was happily cheering in enjoyment at the constant thrills delivered by the big match on a widescreen TV. To use Teresa’s phrase, “It was chock-a-block!”
Even before we began our conversation, Teresa was keen to emphasise that regulars need not be entirely dismayed, because the new publican takes over this week and a smooth handover is promised. Continuity is of paramount importance for a public house established in 1760, and with a name that reflects the popular custom of keeping caged birds which was introduced to the East End by the Huguenots in the seventeenth century. The current building, constructed in the nineteenth century, still gleams with the handsome bottle-green Doulton ceramic tiles to be seen on many establishments in the vicinity, revealing that it was once a Truman’s pub. Although the ornate architectural flourish on the top may have been destroyed and the windows blown in during World War II, landlords Mr & Mrs Joel – who managed The Birdcage from 1922 until 1955 – kept the pub open thoughout, sleeping in the cellar between shifts of firewatching.
And thanks to the joint stewardship of Teresa and John Farnham, The Birdcage has continued to hold its own in Columbia Rd in recent years. Standing at the junction of several roads, it is a mighty block that defines the Western extremity of the flower market and stands sentinel beside the curved line of Columbia Rd which cuts through the grid of the surrounding streets, revealing itself as a trackway of an earlier date.
“I have been at The Birdcage for twenty-one years but I have lived here in the turning for fifty-two years. That’s how I met John. We both grew up in this turning, Wellington Road. I lived in the flats and he lived in the houses.
When we were little, we moved out from the East End to Basildon but my mum couldn’t settle there and so we moved back again to Bethnal Green. It was because my nan lived in Vallance Rd and my mum liked to go and see her every day. I went round after school and my mum always picked me up from there. My dad used to sell stuff down Brick Lane on a Sunday. He auctioned crockery. He threw it up in the air and caught it. I used to be in front of the stall taking the money. I was twelve when I first started, I’ve always worked with people and I was brought up to be polite and know my manners.
Because we only lived across the way, this was our local and I used to come here to the off licence to buy cigarettes for my mum, but I never used to come inside that much because I had two children and John’s not a drinker. The previous owners were Bob & Jean, he used to work in the Truman Brewery. They wanted to retire and they thought John & I would make good landlords. They asked us to take over, even though we had never run a pub in our lives. I was a housewife and John was a builder – but my husband, although he’s not academic, he’s clever in his own way.
To run a pub, people have got to like you, and we were very lucky that Bob & Jean were friends, so they helped us out at first. All you really have to know is how to clean the pipes for the beer and keep the cellar spotless. We’re very particular about that, it shows in the beer if you don’t do it. I change the barrels, I do everything but I don’t do the pipes for the beer. Only John does that. No-one else could do it good enough. He’s a perfectionist. He’s like that with everything, he’s always been that way. We’re very fussy about the general upkeep of the pub, and we have nice staff. My girls have been with me nineteen years, my sister and my sister-in-law and my two very good friends – we couldn’t have done it without them. The pub is only a building, but it’s the staff and clientele that make the pub.
Me & John are working landlords. Some landlords like to sit at the end of the bar, but we came in behind the counter and we’ve done that full-on for for twenty-one years. I like to talk to everybody. I often don’t finish before five in the morning and I am up again at nine. When we first came here, it was really busy with the bands but then that stopped and business went down, but we’ve brought it back bigger than before. Because the pub is always so busy, I haven’t had a day off in eight years. I don’t know what I am going to do now, I’m going to get up everyday and take it as it comes. I’ve got wardrobes to clear out.
I live next door. I’ve lived in this turning since I was sixteen. I’ve lived in the flats and I’ve lived in the houses, all in the same turning. There’s a strong sense of community here, we know everyone that comes to the pub. I shall miss it. I shall miss the people most. I love to see all the young ones singing and dancing. When I see that, I know it’s been well worth it. John & I, we’d like to thank everybody that’s supported us – and we’d like to say, please continue to support The Birdcage.”
Teresa & John Farnham, landlords at The Birdcage in Columbia Rd for twenty-one years.
“We both grew up in this turning, Wellington Road. I lived in the flats and John lived in the houses.”
“Some landlords like to sit at the end of the bar, but we came in behind the counter and we’ve done that full-on for for twenty-one years.”
The Birdcage as it was originally built before the flourish on the top got blown off in World War II.
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Archive image courtesy of Truman’s Beer
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