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At The George

February 18, 2013
by the gentle author

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.

Pauline’s studio.

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.

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.

Kitchen dresser.

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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13 Responses leave one →
  1. February 18, 2013

    now that’s properly english rugged individualism!

  2. February 18, 2013

    oh it looks like paradise up in there. each room more beautiful than the next, including the pink inferno. with phone. oy.

  3. Beach-Combing Magpie permalink
    February 18, 2013

    Beautiful! I just thought there was one vital element clearly missing, but then I came across it… a cat to preside over the whole place….

  4. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    February 18, 2013

    What a wonderful place,its such a pity that pubs like this are getting fewer.Breweries should take note & perhaps the fewer pubs would close.

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 18, 2013

    A PROPER Pub – with a CAT ….
    Try also, a very ancient one …
    The Seven Stars, Carey Street!

  6. joan permalink
    February 18, 2013

    Some lovely things. Having gone to school across the road from the George in the 60s and 70s and known some of it’s customers (including my own family) I was just wondering who uses it as their local now. Given that it is surrounded by the sort of local authority housing that I grew up in, it is clearly not an area likely to gentrify and presumably much of the council housing is now occupied by people for whom the local pub is not where they socialise. I do remember seeing that the Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment was doing a concert there but presumably that is only an occasional thing.

    My other association with the George is a more tragic one. One of my slightly younger school friends was run over outside it on the crossing on Commercial Road and badly brain damaged. I’m not romantic at all about community and the East End but it was one of those occasions on which locals really pulled together to fund raise to get the young boy specialist treatment in the US.

    Really hope the George prospers.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  7. Jill permalink
    February 18, 2013

    I shall visit the pub one day, my ancestors had the grocers in the terrace next to it in Victorian times and 3x great grandfather went to freemasons meetings at The George. Thankyou Pauline for allowing us to see your unique home.

  8. annie permalink
    February 18, 2013

    I have been in the disco dance floor room once (which is brilliant!) but I never imagined how interesting the actual rooms of the pub were – loads of character, I love places like that, thanks for the insight.

  9. February 18, 2013

    Despite the appearance of being a closed down pub, The George is well and truly open! Get in touch with Jess (georgetavernbookings@gmail.com) if you are interested in hosting a party at the George or putting on a night. We are open very day from 4 – 12am, and we are open until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights! Visit http://www.thegeorgetavern.co.uk/events.html for current events listings.

  10. Elaine Napier permalink
    February 18, 2013

    What an amazing place. My congratulations to Pauline for bringing it back to life like this. May I ask everyone to encourage the Geffrye Museum to abandon their plan to demolish the Marquis of Lansdowne pub on Cremer Street. Not quite as old as the George/Halfway House, but still a proper 1830s East End pub. Too good to lose to the developers. And WHAT is a museum doing knocking down history?

    And thank you to the Gentle Author for continuing to show us such special places.

  11. Jonathan Nichols permalink
    February 18, 2013

    The’gentle author’ has a good eye for a photograph.
    Very nice work. The pictures of Pauline are particularly nice. The cat, well as he or she may have been told by Pauline, there are a number of them. The place is very nice to simply ‘be’ in, whether downstairs or upstairs (and there is a lot of upstairs). Thankyou Pauline.

  12. Andy Willoughby permalink
    February 18, 2013

    A great story and great photos. What a wonderful place! And such an admirable landlady! What a wonderful job she has done, and is still doing, preserving such an historic place. Well worth patronising. Thank you Gentle Author for this story and photos.

  13. February 19, 2013

    Loved this post!

    Having lived near this pub for most of my life, but having only been in once (I thought it was closed the rest of the time!) I’m so thrilled to know more about this building, and am excited about the medieval heritage of this spot!

    Thanks for a great post, and for a great pub. Will definitely go in again when I’m back in London.

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