At The Blind Beggar In Whitechapel
David Dobson, Landlord of the Blind Beggar
Henry VIII at the gaming machine – a rare image of this infamous monarch not recorded by Holbein yet a familiar sight in Whitechapel, where David Dobson landlord of The Blind Beggar delights to dress up in velvet robes and swan around like the ghost of the old king come back to haunt us.
The particular blind beggar in question is Henry de Montfort who lost his sight at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 and became the subject of a Tudor ballad recounting the myth of his salvation by a young woman of Bethnal Green – where he ended his years begging at the crossroads, cared for by his only daughter. Subsequently, the image of the beggar and his daughter became the seal of the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green in 1900 and adorns the inn sign of The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel today.
Paradoxically, The Blind Beggar has become a site of pilgrimage for the devout, seeking the location of the founding of the Salvation Army by William Booth, who started his independent mission by preaching outside in 1865. Converted to housing now, the former Albion Brewery stands next door towering over the pub that served as its tap room, until it closed in 1979. In 1808, it was the enterprising landlord of The Blind Beggar who bought the small brewery next door and named it the Albion Brewery, which grew to be the third largest in Britain by 1880 and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the first Brown Ale was brewed here by Thomas Wells Thorpe.
In 1904, ‘Bulldog’ Wallace, a member of The Blind Beggar Gang of pickpockets who frequented the pub, stabbed another man in the eye with an umbrella – initiating the notoriety that coloured the reputation of the pub in the twentieth century, which reached its nadir with the shooting of Georgie Cornell by Ronnie Kray in March 1966, as recounted to me by Billy Frost, the Kray Twins’ driver.
“We don’t glorify it, we want to be famous for other things,” admitted David Dobson when I joined him for a jar. “For example, I’ve got the finest collection of Japanese Carp in the East End,” he volunteered, as he led me into the garden and leaned over the vast tank full of fish, each as fat as my leg, so that his beloved charges might lift their heads from the water and permit him to stroke them affectionately under the chin.
“I enjoy the diversity of my clientele,” David confided, when I enquired about the rewards of his job, “Every day, I meet people from all over the world. We’ve had Jerry Springer here, and Brad Pitt’s popped in.”
Yet in spite of the glamour and the attention, David’s motive for acquiring the Blind Beggar is refreshingly simple. “I like drinking, so I bought the pub,” he confessed to me with an eager grin, raising a glass as he revealed a lifelong commitment to his pub, “It’s not a job for me, it’s way of life. I’m live here and I’m in every night – I’ll be leaving here in a box.”
The Blind Beggar, mid-nineteenth century – there has been a pub on this site since 1673
The current building was constructed in 1894
The Albion Brewery
The Watney Mann Brewery with The Blind Beggar attached
The Blind Beggar and the former Albion Brewery today
David Dobson, Publican & Proprietor
David and his Koi Carp
David pets his not-so-coy carp
“I wore it for a fancy dress party years ago, but now it’s just a habit.”
David and a local wag
David waits to welcome the Olympic Torch to Whitechapel in 2008
David Dobson - “I like drinking, so I bought the pub”
Colour photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien
The Blind Beggar, 337 Whitechapel Rd, London E1
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