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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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13 Responses leave one →
  1. Bee [Tingey} permalink
    July 24, 2015

    Another priceless gem lurking in London.

    A good read that transported me for a while before the day starts,

  2. July 24, 2015

    Pauline has done a fantastic job, and her vision has preserved and enhanced a part of our heritage. She deserves to win, and I have gladly given her my vote. Valerie

  3. Milo Bell permalink
    July 24, 2015

    I’ll certainly be in there like a (Brick lane?) rat up a drainpipe next time i’m in the area. I used to pass it all the time on the bus and it is wonderful news to hear it is back to its former glory.
    We are talking a fine crisp pint, a slightly wobbly table, the late afternoon sun slanting through a window, dust motes and the rustle of my newspaper the only sound before i make my – slightly wobbly way homewards. Bliss!
    Thankyou Pauline.

  4. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    July 24, 2015

    What an amazing woman & what a wonderful pub!I love the interiors!( not sure about the 70s bathroom though!

  5. neal nicholls permalink
    July 24, 2015

    So many times I drove past The George in my Taxi, Always saying I should go for a pint in there. Now after reading this I’m will regret not going in there even more. 10,000 miles away now and still missing home.

  6. July 24, 2015

    Done!

  7. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) permalink
    July 24, 2015

    Thanks GA, I have contributed, possibly some of your wealthier benefactors could top up more substantially :-)

  8. Barbara Haigh permalink
    July 24, 2015

    I raise a very large glass of good wine to you Pauline. Fellow Lady Publican (retired) of
    The Grapes – a much older and shabbier boozer (and probably Landlady..) – but I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

    I fought tooth and nail with the odd swear word thrown in for good measure, to keep that tiny little pub as it was when I was managing it on behalf of Taylor Walker and all that followed.
    I bought the lease in the end so that more or less got the b******s off my back!! (apart from the stupid amount of rent they wanted..)

    Now in the hands of a famous thespian, I no longer control its fate. Your wisdom, I presume, bought you the freehold? You can ensure it remains for future generations and you deserve this accolade for doing so.

  9. Jackie K permalink
    July 24, 2015

    What a fabulous restoration! Will definitely pay a visit next time we’re down that way. Voted accordingly!

  10. July 25, 2015

    Done! Will have some pints there in october…

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    July 25, 2015

    I’m in awe of her commitment and dedication to the cause – vote cast!

  12. Eastendbutcher permalink
    July 27, 2015

    I drive past The George at least twice a day and it’s been great to see it gradually restored. Some of my family lived in Sidney Street in the 70′s and 80′s and we were regulars to the pub on a Saturday night. I will pay a visit this week. It’s been far too long since I last popped in. Gets my vote!

  13. Suzanne Keyte permalink
    July 27, 2015

    What a wonderful story and a brilliant restoration of a lovely old building.
    Thank you Pauline. xx

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