Happy Days At The Queen’s Head
As regular readers will know, there is a campaign underway to Save The Queen’s Head in Limehouse, which was declared as an Asset of Community Value this spring. Supporters have until the end of August to buy the pub from its current owners and prevent it falling into the hands of developers. Pledges can be made here. Today, I publish an interview by ‘The Returning Native’ with Tony Minehane, whose family kept the pub open through two world wars.
John Driscoll at The Queen’s Head, 1926
To the locals downing their pints at The Queen’s Head today, Tony Minehane is an unfamiliar face – but this grand old East End boozer on Limehouse’s verdant York Sq was once home for Tony, whose family ran the pub from 1926 until 1961.
“My father found this tucked away under the counter the day he left The Queens Head in 1961,” he said, placing an unopened bottle of Young’s Coronation Ale in my hand. “This may well be the only one in existence.”
As a schoolboy, Tony earned pocket money delivering bottles of gin and advocaat to a house of upmarket prostitutes on Cable St. “These girls used to drink in the saloon bar here and they’d take drink back with them,” he recalled.“But once a month, usually about midnight, they’d phone up and say, if Tony’s available, could he drop something down to us? So I’d jump on my bike and take it there.”
Tony’s grandfather, John Driscoll, was the first in the family to take charge behind the bar, securing the tenancy in 1926 after a career as a sailor in the merchant navy.
“At that time this place had more mice than it had customers,” Tony claimed, rifling through his folder stuffed with sepia photographs of the pub and documents he has gathered from his family’s history.
“Fortunately it had the beer, which was good. My grandparents came in for a drink and the landlord said he was getting out. So my granddad thought, ‘Well, I’ll get in touch with the brewery.’”
In the early part of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for former seaman to retire to run East End pubs, not least because there were so many of both dotted around London’s docks at the time. But Tony’s grandfather went to the front of the queue when he discovered an unlikely connection with the executive at Young’s brewery who was picking between the candidates.
“They were shown into this guy’s office, and my grandfather thought he recognised him, but didn’t say any more because he wasn’t sure. They talked about his career in the Merchant Navy and my grandfather mentioned that he worked on a ship called the ‘Omrah’, going backwards and forwards to Australia.
The guy said, ‘Do you remember anything a bit strange in such-and-such a year?’ My grandfather thought about it and said, ‘Oh, yes, we had a fire in the bunker that took two days to put it out and we had a stowaway that we dumped off in Sydney.’ The guy then said, ‘Well, I was the stowaway.’”
The pub was extended around the time that Tony’s father, James Minehane, agreed to take over as manager from his parents in 1938.
“At the time, this place was packed, but there was this great big yard out there at the back,” Tony explains. “My dad had this thing about going to Australia, and he said to the brewery, ‘Either you’ve got to make the pub bigger or I’m going to emigrate.’ So the brewery said, ‘Right, we’ll extend’. The new bar opened about twelve weeks before the Second World War started.”
Although the smart frontage of The Queen’s Head is much as Tony remembers it from his childhood, some things have disappeared, like the pewter counter top that once ran the length of the bar. Tony’s father also used to keep a revolver under the bar, taking it with him for protection when he and a couple of other local landlords together the takings to the local Midland Bank each Friday morning by hand, carrying the silver and copper coins in large sacks with ‘money’ written on them.
“They used to go into the bank, dump it all on the counter, which at that time was just a four-foot-wide oak table. They would put the paying-in book in the sacks for the cashier to sort out, while they went off to a cafe and had breakfast.”
Tony has a detailed knowledge of the firearm since cleaning it was one of his weekly chores as a child, something – he admits – might lead to a call from Social Services today.
As the evening progressed we attract a large crowd of regulars to our table, eager to hear more about the pub’s colourful past. The carpets at The Queen’s Head might be a little more faded and the bar top a little less grand than in Tony’s youth, but the place still offers a warm welcome to both old and new East Enders and has a loyal cohort of local customers.
Their hope is that the story of The Queen’s Head will continue, but this is currently in doubt. In 2013, under former mayor Lutfur Rahman, Tower Hamlets council sold the pub’s 125-year lease to a charity called Unity Welfare Foundation. This organisation decided to sell off the venue after a group of locals this year successfully applied for the Queen’s Head to gain protections from redevelopment as an Asset of Community Value.
The challenge supporters now face is trying to raise more than £500,000, which will be needed to meet the asking price. Let us hope that this latest chapter in The Queen’s Head’s long history has a happy ending.
The Queen’s Head, 1926
Pub dogs in the yard, 1928
New Saloon Bar, 1939
Public Bar, 1939
James Minehane, landlord 1939-1961
The Queen’s Head Beano in the late forties with James Minehane second from left in front row
High jinks in the Saloon Bar in the fifties
Christmas party, c.1954
Customers in the Public Bar in the fifties
Darts in the Saloon Bar in the fifties
The Queen’s Head Beano in the fifties
James Minehane’s retirement in 1961
The Queen’s Head - photography by Sarah Ainslie
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