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Save The George Tavern

January 28, 2022
by the gentle author

For twenty years now, Pauline Forster has worked to restore the magnificent George Tavern in Commercial Rd and fought tenaciously to protect it from developers. Now it is under threat again.

Click here for details of how you can help save the George Tavern

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 twenty 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.”

Pauline Forster, Artist & Publican.

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.

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).

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19 Responses leave one →
  1. mlaiuppa permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Do you not have anything called “grandfathering?” For instance, if you build a housing development in the flight path to an airport, the residents have no right to complain about the noise because the airport was there first.

    Tower Hamlets. It is always Tower Hamlets. What is wrong with those people?

  2. Milo permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Done and done….

    I do hope the rest of your loyal band of readers rally behind Pauline and her wonderful pub and we can all hold back the relentless chipping away of all that is vital and alive in the rapidly diminishing East End.
    If we do i’ll get the first round in.

  3. Rachel Jowitt permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Aaaaah my old local from when I worked in Shadwell. I think this was a hangout for Amy Winehouse once upon a time as well. Happy days!

  4. Lynn permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Objection email sent. Gook luck.

  5. Cherub permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Are Tower Hamlets on a mission to destroy everything of note in their borough?

  6. January 28, 2022

    I can understand the admiration for this building. When I see the interiors and their changes, I feel the desire to have done it myself with equal pleasure. For a reasonable price, I too would have bought the building….

    I would leave the 70s bathroom as it is as a testimony to its own time. — A rhetorical question: would there still be a floor vacant? 🙂

    All the best for the future, Pauline!

    Love & Peace

  7. Ken Powell permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Should this pub not be listed? It’s remarkably well preserved – could the Victorian Society help?

  8. Heather Fenton permalink
    January 28, 2022

    I look at your story from afar, but I see the problem. I am sick and tired of hearing that bits of old London are being ‘transformed’ – ruined would be a better word. If you cannot win this one way however, why don’t you try going down the museum line if all else fails… I know this is not a brilliant suggestion but in the face of just blitzing everything to ‘bring us into the 21st century’, possibly this is a potential way out for exploration?
    So I don’t often support local things the Gentle Author points for practical reasons, but you are up there with the Bell Foundry and the Mulberry Tree!
    Heather from Wales – and ancestors from Rotherhithe!

  9. January 28, 2022

    I know that saving this venture is a serious matter, and your other readers have rightfully
    weighed in on the importance of the preservation. Thumbs up.

    But I need to thank you for the delight I felt, peering at that retro bathroom. It was a blast of
    nostalgia and cheer that was needed on this day, as we brace for a big ominous snow storm.
    The tiles! That phone! Good lord. The colors! And the patterned tiles seem to be a Mary Quant tribute. Cue the Petula Clark LPs!

    Pauline is a gem — and so is her pub. Long may she wave.

  10. January 28, 2022

    What vision Pauline has! B—–y miserable Tower Hamlets! They have stewardship of one of the most historic parts of London, and all they care to do is eradicate it all! I simply cannot understand it. Unfortunately our experience with Tower Hamlets is not a good one, but we can only re-enter the fray.

    All my best to Pauline and her pub. May she emerge victorious!

  11. Lizebeth permalink
    January 28, 2022

    One of your readers says she doesn’t often support you for “practical reasons”? And this, in a nutshell, is why Tower Hamlets and other london districts are able to get away with the rapacious and wanton destruction of anything “out of the box”, or of historic or architectural significance. Yet again, it’s Tower Hamlets’ Councillors who seem to be leading the way towards complete blandification of their area. People can at least make their objections heard — even better would be voting these officials out of office, and putting in some who are more sympathetic to history and tradition.

    You, your readers (such as I), and others, have had much success in thwarting these unseemly acts, by taking individual action. Bravo. Let’s hope this is another case where the building can be saved for future generations.

  12. Peter Holford permalink
    January 28, 2022

    Objection submitted.

    Yes, Tower Hamlets planners have quite a track record for bad planning decisions. Do they never show signs of being ashamed as they bow to the pressure of moneyed interests?

  13. Bill permalink
    January 29, 2022

    I want to beat my head against a wall every time I read about the rapacious idiots without vision and their stooges, all who haven’t eyes to see. I imagined one of these dopes complaining about the place as I viewed the photos- “Look at it-it’s falling apart- wallboard couldn’t help- knock it down- I can put up something better”- disgusting.

    There is probably fabric within that building from Chaucer’s time! Pepys drank there!

    Also, it is exquisite. Beautiful. Why can’t they see that?

    Bang, bang, bang. Ouch.

    Good luck, Pauline.

    By the way, what is the exact nature of the threat? How can “interested parties” possibly aim to possess a privately owned property that is maintained and, I presume, thriving? What are these scoundrels’ mechanisms?

  14. Melissa permalink
    January 29, 2022

    Morning! I have posted objections via this blog without a problem all the way from Nuevo México USA. To my shock the City of London replies. So I will be submitting my objection in support again for the George! Hope it helps!! East Enders should know that they are not alone. This “trend” is universal…I call it soul sucking…what are we if we don’t honor our ancestors? Their back breaking hard work, ingenuity, creativity and skill? We may never see this level of artistry again…once the oldsters are gone it will be up to those of us willing and able to honor them….We need to feel grounded where we are…the oportunistas who show up in our backyards have no vested interest…so much gets lost…. very heartbreaking…. Anyway, the George is fantastic!!! Best of luck to Pauline and all of the kindred spirits! PS I love the gentle author!

  15. Jan permalink
    January 29, 2022

    as planning law now stands [thankyou Conservative governments!] there is a presumption in favour of ‘development’. Only very precious unique listed buildings are safeguarded, and often they are not fully so, hence the facadism. If a property developer is refused permission to flatten and rebuild as tall as they can, they appeal against the decision and the local council is penalised with vast costs. so basically local councils cannot turn down applications. Protests should be aimed at national government.

  16. Chris Ashby permalink
    January 29, 2022

    Objection sent. Thanks for alerting us to this application. Tower Hamlets Council!!!

  17. Andy Strowman permalink
    January 29, 2022

    It is with heartfelt pleasure I penned an objection to support you Pauline.
    True history should live on, not succumb to the modernistic hoo ha of Tower Hamlets Council.

    A brilliant article Gentle Author.

  18. Esther Wijnbeek permalink
    January 30, 2022

    What a fascinating old building 🙂 Love all the dashes of bright color she has put into the ancient rooms.

  19. Melissa permalink
    January 30, 2022

    Hi…tried to e-mail objection at the link provided for the George but would not let me send… said it was an invalid address…. Help??? (emailing from US)

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