At The George
Pauline Forster, publican at The George in Commercial Rd
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 recently, 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 only ten years ago that she bought The George and her sons came up to London with her, but in the intervening 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.”
Ten years of renovations later, the false ceilings and recently installed modern wall coverings have been stripped away to reveal the structure of the building, and this summer the early nineteenth stucco facade will be 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.”
The George is covered with scaffolding while renovation takes place.
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.
The stucco facade is currently under restoration.
The Georgian theatre serves as the pub’s entertainment suite.
In the attic, where Pauline lived when she first moved in.
A selection of Pauline’s paintings.
Pauline’s collection includes the dried-out carcass of a rat from Brick Lane.
Bedroom under the eaves.
Entrance to the attic.
Living room with view down Commercial Rd.
Wide eighteenth century staircase.
Pauline’s bathroom with matching telephone, the last fragment of the nineteen seventies interior that once extended throughout the building.
In Pauline’s office.
Pauline Forster, Artist & Publican.
Kitchen looking out onto the former Queen’s Highway, now the pub garden.
Pauline’s newly-made Seville marmalade.
Pauline’s cat keeps close to the fire in the kitchen.
Pauline hits the light-up dancefloor at “Stepney’s” nightclub next door.
The George, 373 Commercial Rd, E1 0LA (corner of Jubilee St).
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