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Last Orders At The Birdcage

February 8, 2012
by the gentle author

This photograph records the historic Sunday night when popular landlady Teresa Farnham called “Last Orders!” at The Birdcage on Columbia Rd after twenty-one years behind the bar, heralding the end of an era in this corner of Bethnal Green. I slipped over to have a quiet drink with Teresa as the light began to fade on her final day at the pub. Outside the melancholy streets were coated in slush that began to freeze as dusk gathered, yet inside the cosy barroom at The Birdcage, a lively crowd was happily cheering in enjoyment at the constant thrills delivered by the big match on a widescreen TV. To use Teresa’s phrase, “It was chock-a-block!”

Even before we began our conversation, Teresa was keen to emphasise that regulars need not be entirely dismayed, because the new publican takes over this week and a smooth handover is promised. Continuity is of paramount importance for a public house established in 1760, and with a name that reflects the popular custom of keeping caged birds which was introduced to the East End by the Huguenots in the seventeenth century. The current building, constructed in the nineteenth century, still gleams with the handsome bottle-green Doulton ceramic tiles to be seen on many establishments in the vicinity, revealing that it was once a Truman’s pub. Although the ornate architectural flourish on the top may have been destroyed and the windows blown in during World War II, landlords Mr & Mrs Joel – who managed The Birdcage from 1922 until 1955 – kept the pub open thoughout, sleeping in the cellar between shifts of firewatching.

And thanks to the joint stewardship of Teresa and John Farnham, The Birdcage has continued to hold its own in Columbia Rd in recent years. Standing at the junction of several roads, it is a mighty block that defines the Western extremity of the flower market and stands sentinel beside the curved line of Columbia Rd which cuts through the grid of the surrounding streets, revealing itself as a trackway of an earlier date.

“I have been at The Birdcage for twenty-one years but I have lived here in the turning for fifty-two years. That’s how I met John. We both grew up in this turning, Wellington Road. I lived in the flats and he lived in the houses.

When we were little, we moved out from the East End to Basildon but my mum couldn’t settle there and so we moved back again to Bethnal Green. It was because my nan lived in Vallance Rd and my mum liked to go and see her every day. I went round after school and my mum always picked me up from there. My dad used to sell stuff down Brick Lane on a Sunday. He auctioned crockery. He threw it up in the air and caught it. I used to be in front of the stall taking the money. I was twelve when I first started, I’ve always worked with people and I was brought up to be polite and know my manners.

Because we only lived across the way, this was our local and I used to come here to the off licence to buy cigarettes for my mum, but I never used to come inside that much because I had two children and John’s not a drinker. The previous owners were Bob & Jean, he used to work in the Truman Brewery. They wanted to retire and they thought John & I would make good landlords. They asked us to take over, even though we had never run a pub in our lives. I was a housewife and John was a builder – but my husband, although he’s not academic, he’s clever in his own way.

To run a pub, people have got to like you, and we were very lucky that Bob & Jean were friends, so they helped us out at first. All you really have to know is how to clean the pipes for the beer and keep the cellar spotless. We’re very particular about that, it shows in the beer if you don’t do it. I change the barrels, I do everything but I don’t do the pipes for the beer. Only John does that. No-one else could do it good enough. He’s a perfectionist. He’s like that with everything, he’s always been that way. We’re very fussy about the general upkeep of the pub, and we have nice staff. My girls have been with me nineteen years, my sister and my sister-in-law and my two very good friends – we couldn’t have done it without them. The pub is only a building, but it’s the staff and clientele that make the pub.

Me & John are working landlords. Some landlords like to sit at the end of the bar, but we came in behind the counter and we’ve done that full-on for for twenty-one years. I like to talk to everybody. I often don’t finish before five in the morning and I am up again at nine. When we first came here, it was really busy with the bands but then that stopped and business went  down, but we’ve brought it back bigger than before. Because the pub is always so busy, I haven’t had a day off in eight years. I don’t know what I am going to do now, I’m going to get up everyday and take it as it comes. I’ve got wardrobes to clear out.

I live next door. I’ve lived in this turning since I was sixteen. I’ve lived in the flats and I’ve lived in the houses, all in the same turning. There’s a strong sense of community here, we know everyone that comes to the pub. I shall miss it. I shall miss the people most. I love to see all the young ones singing and dancing. When I see that, I know it’s been well worth it. John & I, we’d like to thank everybody that’s supported us – and we’d like to say, please continue to support The Birdcage.”

Teresa & John Farnham, landlords at The Birdcage in Columbia Rd for twenty-one years.

“We both grew up in this turning, Wellington Road. I lived in the flats and John lived in the houses.”

“Some landlords like to sit at the end of the bar, but we came in behind the counter and we’ve done that full-on for for twenty-one years.”

The Birdcage as it was originally built before the flourish on the top got blown off in World War II.

Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Archive image courtesy of Truman’s Beer

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Pummell permalink
    February 8, 2012

    As I look at the archive photo of ” The Birdcage” my memory drifts back that area after the Second World War. Note the newspaper billboard leaning against the wall. That is where I was sent to buy my Dad’s newspaper about 6 o’clock on Saturday evenings for the football results and I remember well Mr & Mrs Joel. Probably that bike belonged to the newspaper seller, but it may have belonged to my Dad because we lived locally in Arline Street.

    Gentle Author. With your permission may I ask the following question to your subscribers, the answer is Mrs. Richardson.
    QUESTION:What was the name of the owner of the greengrocer’s shop situated about 4 shops from The Birdcage, in the same block, going east, during the late 40’s?

  2. jeannette permalink
    February 8, 2012

    in america, no one grows where they are planted. i am always gobsmacked to read of people who work where they live. as a friend of mine once pointed out to me, the good life is being able to walk home from work for lunch.

  3. February 8, 2012

    Had some great times in “the birdy” before I moved to chingford (2000) drank in there most friday/sun for 25 years.even had my wedding reception in there (1980).
    remember stan then bob & the lovable teresa & john.whom always would take time out to have a chat with you,proper people.Hope you both have a happy retirement & I’m sure our paths shall cross.God Bless you both.xx

  4. February 9, 2012

    Even though I work mainly in stone I do love a tiled pub…green tiles in particular,what a great place.

  5. ***a permalink
    February 12, 2012

    When I first moved to London I lived around the corner from this pub, it holds a lot of good memories for me! Teresa and John, you really were part of the place and why it was so wonderful, you made something special happen and you’ll really be missed! All the best for your retirement, hopefully you’ll still pop in to the pub from time to time.

  6. February 14, 2012

    Many fun nights in here and afternoons watching the football. always a proper east end welcome and reasonable prices. no fuss. spent my 30th birthday here with ‘Waynes World’ Karaoke. Also recall coming in here to use the payphone when I first moved to Columbia road (before the days of mobiles!).

  7. the gentle author permalink*
    February 14, 2012

    A swift consultation of a copy of Kelly’s Street Directory of that era in the Bishopsgate Institute Archive would answer your question, Ron.

  8. George Lloyd permalink
    October 2, 2012

    Used to finish work at lunch time on a Friday(worked for a Jewish firm on Hackney Rd.),and on my walk home to Whitechapel,would invariably pop in for a “swift half”as I found the atmosphere relaxing,compared to other watering holes in the area.this was around 80/81.

  9. Elaine James permalink
    December 16, 2013

    All the family in Stevenage have many happy memories of night’s in ‘The Birdcage’ with our ‘Uncle Len’ who lived in Quilter Street. Johnny and Theresa best landlord and landlady you could wish for. Had some brilliant times. End of an era.

  10. Debbie emmett permalink
    August 24, 2014

    I’m 51, and I remember this pub. My nan lived in the flats called Briggs house. I remember my dad taking me to the flower market.
    Most of my family were born in bethnal green. They moved out in 1954 to essex where I was born. I’m interested in my family’s roots. But sadly most have passed on. My mums maiden name was Kirby. My dad’s was emmett.
    Does anyone recognise these names.

  11. miss Haar permalink
    December 7, 2014

    My great grand parents, Mr and Mrs Haar were the owners of this pub during WWI.
    does anybody remember/recognise the names?
    Sarah Haar

  12. October 13, 2016

    This is a reply to Debbie Emmett.My family all came from Bethnal Green and my Great-grandmother on my Father’s side surname was Emmett.She married Robert Gay and she died in London 1953..She had brothers and sisters I believe. Please email me.

  13. Sarah Talbot permalink
    February 28, 2017

    It was my great grandad Charles Talbot local. My great grandad almost bought The Birdcage in about 1909/1910. My great Nan Emma was t-total and didn’t want him to. He was a successful cabinet maker and had his own business in Bethnal Green until he was killed in action in a France in 1917.e

  14. Debbie emmett permalink
    October 1, 2017

    Reply to Christine Coady
    Please email me ..

  15. Anna Steinbauer (was bird) permalink
    October 22, 2017

    John and his wife were so welcoming when I moved to Shipton St in 2003, I loved their pub, it was traditionally run and you could be left alone or have a nice chat, whatever you wanted. I hope J&T are enjoying a rest now x

  16. steve permalink
    November 8, 2017

    I remember Teresa and John well. From 93 -95 (approximately) myself and a few friends had a quiz team based at the Birdcage. We played in the East London quiz league and were pretty good, if I say so myself! 🙂
    John and Teresa were great – welcoming and friendly and had no problem letting us host the home games at the pub. The Birdcage always had a great atmosphere, not least because J and T made us all feel like regulars.
    Though I now live on the other side of the world, I remember John, Teresa and the Birdcage warmly. I must pop in for a quick pint next time I’m back in blighty.
    I hope John and Teresa are enjoying retirement and thanks for some very pleasant memories.

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