Skip to content

So Long, The Water Poet

March 13, 2019
by the gentle author

The Water Poet in Folgate St will close forever on 29th March as part of British Land’s redevelopment of Norton Folgate into a hideous corporate plaza, granted planning permission by former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in 2016.

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall first encountered John Taylor the Waterman-Poet (1578 – 1653) when she was researching her book The House by the Thames a dozen years ago. She gives an account of the man behind the legend and the Spitalfields pub that bears his name.

The Water Poet at the edge of Spitalfields and Norton Folgate is a recent berth for John Taylor, although there has been a tavern on the corner where Folgate St meets Blossom St for over two centuries and possibly an ale-house before that. The old name for the muddy pathway that became Folgate St was White Horse Lane, after the brewery situated there since Taylor’s own times. Even longer ago, what became White Horse Lane was formerly the north entrance to the religious house of St Mary Spital.

In the eighteenth century, the street was laid out in stages by a Sir Isaac Tillard, a man of Huguenot descent, who had acquired some of the old Mary Spital land. The earliest evidence of a purpose-built public house appears then and by 1805 it was registered as The Pewter Plate. Those in charge locally have always kept an eye on pubs and publicans, so it is easy to trace the Plate throughout the nineteenth century, the heyday of urban pubs, and into the twentieth. In 1904, when pubs all over the London were being enlarged and made grander, the Plate was rebuilt with the fancy brickwork and the tall, elaborate chimney that you see today.

At some point, probably between the wars, when Spitalfields was becoming ever sootier and more neglected, as its more prosperous citizens took themselves off to greener suburbs, the building was a pub no longer. By the seventies, the erstwhile pub along with two other adjacent properties, became commercial premises owned by`R.Bardigger.’

By and by, the pub was restored to its proper use and the name The Water Poet dates from the current owner’s acquisition in 2003. He undertook the wonderful transformation of the old back yard into a green-leafed garden with fairy lights. It is this area, along with several large rooms created out of a former warehouse, that is to be destroyed as part of British Land’s scheme to redevelop Norton Folgate in the teeth of local opposition. Unfortunately, their hideous corporate plaza with bogus facades received planning permission airily bestowed by the previous and unregretted Mayor of London. John Taylor the water-poet, I believe, would be with us in this struggle.

Those who have enjoyed a drink at The Water Poet in Folgate St may have wondered about this unlikely-sounding figure so far from the water. Yet John Taylor, the seventeenth century Thames ferry-boat man, was a convivial fellow – unless he was waging a vendetta – who was very much at home in pubs. When not on one of his great walks round Britain, he lived most of his life in Bankside, which had many hostelries alongside the theatres and bear-pits. He also had relations who kept inns in Leicester, Abingdon and Norwich whom he sought out in his travels.

Taylor lived through times far more unnerving than ours. Born in Gloucester in the prosperous later days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, he came up to London to seek his fortune and was apprenticed to an oar-maker, before a spell in the Navy upon dangerous expeditions against Spain in Flores and Cadiz.

Once back in London, he lived through the increasingly turbulent times of the Stuart era, the Civil War and the social oppression of the Cromwellian period. A royalist yet with a liking for Puritan values, he worked as a waterman in the service of the king and was distressed when Charles I lost his head. Taylor was getting on in years by then, complaining bitterly that the Commonwealth had driven the theatres off the south bank and damaged the watermen’s trade, much of which had traditionally consisted of crossings between the City and Southwark. He died in his seventies before Charles II was restored to the throne.

Part subversive journalist, pamphleteer and satirical ballad-maker, part would-be poet and playwright, Taylor longed to join a literary society into which he had not been born. A ferryman by nature, he lived between two worlds socially. As hands-on oarsmen, watermen were tough, rough fellows of their time, competing vociferously for trade, but they met a remarkable range of customers many of whom valued and cultivated them. This was also an era when the Waterman’s Company was being established (with Taylor’s active involvement), fares were being set, intelligent men like him were becoming fully literate and the era of New Learning would soon dawn.

Taylor was a natural self-publicist, a collector of useful friends, but also a genuinely passionate believer in freedom of expression and the rights of the individual in every class. He became an  advocate for the destitute watermen who had lost their trade during the ferocious winter of 1620-21 when the Thames froze over for six weeks. He soon discovered that, in spite of all his efforts, there was not much money to be made from a literary life – a truth that still holds today – and developed ingenious means of raising cash. When in difficulty, he would take off on long journeys round Britain on foot for which, anticipating the modern way, he would get sponsorship from rich acquaintances. As a stunt, he once rowed down the Thames in a boat made of paper and later made a much publicised trip  - in a rather more solid craft – down the Rhine and the Elbe.

A good talker, Taylor cultivated the society of Bankside actors, advocating their cause against the rising tide of Puritanism. I imagine him as the archetypal cab-driver – “Had Will Shakespeare in the back of my boat the other day…  As my good friend Mr Henslowe said to me…” He fought back with some success against the Uber of his time – namely, the wheeled conveyances for hire that were beginning to appear on London’s cobbled streets and alleys as an alternative to the traditional way of travelling by river.

John Aubrey, diarist and man-about-town who was familiar with some of the cleverest men of his era, described John Taylor as `very facetious and diverting company’ and possessing `a good, quick look’. Thomas Decker, the Jacobean playwright, called him `the ferryman of heaven’, but there may have been a touch of irony in that.

Taylor’s poetry has not survived in the public mind, since perhaps it did not really deserve to, but his cheerful and inventive spirit has lived on to this day. He died in an inn in Covent Garden kept by his second wife, and lies buried somewhere behind St Martins in the Fields, where the graveyard of the old church lay, and where present-day travellers and aspirants to fame gather with their backpacks and their own travellers’ tales.

John Taylor the Water Poet

“All sorts of men, work all the means they can,
To make a Thief of every waterman:
And as it were in one consent they join,
To trot by land i’ th’ dirt, and save their coin.
Carroaches, coaches, jades, and Flanders mares,
Do rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares:
Against the ground, we stand and knock our heels,
Whilst all our profit runs away on wheels;
And, whosoever but observes and notes,
The great increase of coaches and of boats,
Shall find their number more than e’er they were,
By half and more, within these thirty years.
Then watermen at sea had service still,
And those that staid at home had work at will:
Then upstart Hell-cart-coaches were to seek,
A man could scarce see twenty in a week;
But now I think a man may daily see,
More than the wherrys on the Thames can be.
When Queen Elizabeth came to the crown,
A coach in England then was scarcely known,
Then ’twas as rare to see one, as to spy
A Tradesman that had never told a lie.”

From An Arrant Thief, 1622

John Taylor’s A Swarm of Sectaries & Schismatiques published 1641

Engraving of John Taylor by Thomas Cockson, 1630

The Water Poet in Folgate St (Photograph by Richard Lansdowne)

You may like to read

Last Orders at The Gun

So Long, The Duke of Wellington

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Saige (formally, Jane) England permalink
    March 13, 2019

    What a charming blog about a witty poet. I find it unbelievably revolting that Norton Folgate might be rubbished for a brazen plaza. The British Parliament seems adept at failing to save London’s charm. But then, Buckingham Palace wouldn’t be bowled for a parking lot and chain of superettes so why do this to the old East End? Tourists, artists, tourists, and dreamers all find the beauty of the true East End so much more appealing than the bright lights of commercial retail stores that may be found anywhere else in the world from Abu Dhabi to New York. Preserve your heritage Londoners, for London!

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 13, 2019

    So sad to lose such an elegant pub – and area. What a tragic loss for Spitalfields – and London – and the country…grrrrrrrr!!

  3. March 13, 2019

    A loss to your area. I am so very sorry you and your friends and allies could not save Norton Folgate.

  4. Andy permalink
    March 13, 2019

    The website for the development is showing before and after pictures with the Water Poet retained – presumably are they just lying?

  5. John Barrett permalink
    March 13, 2019

    Thanks GA and Gillian Tindall for bringing poet John Taylor back to life again for us. A true poets life is not easy. Word flow can happen 2am in the morning you must get it down then or all is lost. Poet John Barrett Poetry Soc, Bus Pass Poets, Shirehampton Bristol. – Well done for bringing a poet to the fore.

  6. March 13, 2019

    So sad! Valerie

  7. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    March 13, 2019

    I love this character! He is part of the fabric of London that makes it fascinating.

    I could make a disparaging remark about the type of person whom I perceive frequents hideous corporate plazas… but I won’t. I’ll only say it certainly will not be an improvement.

  8. March 13, 2019

    It’s tragic, and as one of the people commenting said, it is not just a matter of something become “obsolete” and of no general use, for Buckingham Palace and other of the Queen’s mansions or very expensive private clubs and buildings are not razed. This place is vulnerable; no one powerful is protecting it.

    Thank you for commemorating the man and place in this blog — and all your blogs, on artists of all kinds especially. I’m told that what we put on the Net doesn’t go away, and I know there is a hope this will be published in a book and that should help keep the memory. But memory is about what was.

  9. March 13, 2019

    Why should such a lovely pub close down? It’s sad.

  10. Helen Breen permalink
    March 13, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing Gillian Tindall’s account of Water-poet John Taylor. He sounds like quite a guy whose life and adventures spanned a most colorful part of English history. Interesting description that at the time “watermen were tough, rough fellows of their time, competing vociferously for trade, but they met a remarkable range of customers many of whom valued and cultivated them.”

    But, of course, competition reared its ugly head in the form of “wheeled conveyances for hire” who threated the monopoly of watermen on the Thames. An excellent account – what a life!

  11. March 13, 2019

    Oh, drat! (a discouraged pounding of fist, on my computer table……) A misguided, short-sighted,
    dare-I-say greedy “plan” is afoot here — all this hideous momentary architecture can never replace the magnificent history of London that you reveal to us every day.

    Hurrah and huzzah to all the poets!

  12. Debra Matheney permalink
    March 13, 2019

    Sickening, Had a drink there before my tour of Denis Severs’ house. Thanks for explaining the origin of the name. One thing we can all count on is corporate greed.

  13. John Daltrey permalink
    March 13, 2019

    I feel completely saddened by this posting even though it was so fascinating as always. I did not realise that we had definitely lost the battle to save Spitalfields from this so ugly dreadful destruction in the name of development. There were perfectly inspirational alternatives to this.
    Is there nothing we can do to stop the likes of British Land from ruining our wonderful city?

  14. Matt permalink
    March 16, 2019

    I also did not realise this work was going ahead. As someone who, a decade ago, used to work in the City and regularly visited the Water Poet due to considering it the best pub in the area, I find the closure of this unique pub a real shame. In more recent years my appreciation of the architecture and history of the area has grown significantly, and I find it extremely sad that this decision with such likely visual impact was made. Particularly baffled at how undemocratic the planning process seems to have been!

  15. P.Kehoe permalink
    March 17, 2019

    So sad and depressing to see another lovely historic old pub going ☹️

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS