5 Historic London Pubs | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

Best London Pubs: 5 Historic Boozers

Lucy Davidson

29 Jun 2021
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1. The Mayflower

Established in 1550, and the oldest pub in London to be set by the Thames, The Mayflower is just dripping in history.

Set in the London homeport of Rotherhithe, the pub is located at the original mooring point of The Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower ship which, under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, set sail from the site in July 1620 to begin its epic journey to America.

In November the Mayflower anchored at Cape Cod where the settlers signed “The Mayflower Compact”, which set out the first framework of a government for the United States of America.

The Mayflower pub is said to have some of the ship’s original timbers incorporated into its structure.

Anyone visiting the pub who can claim direct descent from one of the Pilgrim fathers is welcome to sign the ‘Descendants Book’. Indeed, so strong is the Mayflower’s connections to the States that it is the only pub in the UK that is licensed to sell US postage stamps.

A visit today will offer amazing riverside views from its terrace whilst inside offers wooden pews, a cosy fire and a lively, authentic atmosphere. But beware – if you sit close to the edge of the Thames during high tide, you will get wet!

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2. The Spaniards Inn

One of the oldest pubs in London, the Spaniards Inn dates back to 1585 and is legendary for having hosted some of the world’s most famous literary names. Byron, Keats, and Dickens have all lurked around the dark wooden panelled dining room of the Hampstead-set tavern and literature fans will be kept busy exploring its truly heavy hitting history.

Not only was it immortalized in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’, it makes an appearance in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula‘, whilst its humble garden is said to the be where John Keats sat and penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

Due to its countryside setting, it became a popular resting point for local highwaymen of the time, who used the pub as a refreshing respite point between robbing wealthy travellers on their way out of London. It is also often referred to be birthplace of road robber Dick Turpin whose father was the landlord and who, according to bar staff, still makes an occasional appearance in the form of a ghost.

Drinkers and diners today can peruse through the pub’s cabinets, which showcase the inn’s heritage with Dickensian literature and Turpin memorabilia.

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3. The Prospect of Whitby

There are not many pubs in London that can claim to have served pints to pirates and princesses whilst hosting onsite wrestling matches and the occasional live hanging. The Prospect of Whitby is the exception.

Once known as The Devils Tavern, and dating back to 1520, this riverside watering hole was a popular hang out for a clientele of decidedly dubious quality. Smugglers, pirates, cutthroats, and robbers would lurk around this Dockland set tavern, trading everything from contraband to dead bodies.

A bohemian guest list ranging from Charles Dickens to Frank Sinatra to Princess Margaret has walked across its original stone floor. Whilst artists such as Turner and Whistler have sketched the pub’s riverside views, the site today continues to be a source of cultural inspiration. As well as being featured in the cult comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Prospect of Whitby has also had a starring role in the BBC television show Whitechapel. 

Drinkers can enjoy the novelty of sipping a gin and tonic whilst gazing out at the replica gallows, which harks back to when the location was known as Execution Dock, a popular hanging place for troublesome pirates.

Immerse yourself further within the site’s authentic historic atmosphere by climbing the rickety stairs up to the Smugglers Bar, where you can drink amongst old sailing ropes, ship masts, and rum barrels.

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4. The Ten Bells

Since the middle of the 18th century, the Ten Bells has played a pivotal role in London’s illustrious history. Its name is inspired by the distinctive chimes of the neighbouring Christ Church, another historical East London landmark.

Its real place in London history came through its unfortunate connection to one the most notorious crime stories in all of English history: that of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

Ripper victims Mary Kelly and Annie Chapman were said to be frequent customers of the pub, with Chapman said to be leaving the Bells around 5am one morning, just moments before she was murdered a few streets away in the autumn of 1888. Equally, Mary Kelly, who worked as a sex worker at the time, was often seen standing directly at the entrance door, waiting to pick up potential customers.

A walk through the same doors today will still take you back in time. The pub’s interior is decorated floor to ceiling in original Victorian tiling. Of particular note is a late 19th century mural of painted tiles entitled ‘Spitalfields in ye Olden Time – visiting a Weaver’s Shop’ which commemorates the weaving heritage of the area.

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5. The Grapes

Although its current building dates from 1720, a pub has been on this same site in London’s Limehouse district since 1583. The area of Limehouse was first settled as one of the few healthy areas of dry land among the riverside marshes, and by Queen Elizabeth I‘s time it was at the centre of world trade.

It first started serving local dockworkers and sailors of the Limehouse Basin shipping industry and claims to have served explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who set sail from this point on this third voyage to the New World.

The neighbourhood became a popular haunt of writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle who used the local seedy atmosphere and characters as a setting for a Sherlock Holmes story.

Charles Dickens also used the local area for creative inspiration and included the pub in the opening chapter of his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’.

The Grapes has survived much, still standing throughout The Blitz bombing during the Second World War, and remains a friendly ‘local’ for Limehouse residents.

Visitors today can get cosy in the Dickens Snug area, where the author is said to have danced on the tables. The interior pays tribute to not only its past, with a complete set of Dickens books scattered around its shelves, but its present, as it alludes to the pubs current owner. A tiny statue of Gandalf from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ sits in the corner: an amusing hint to the identity to the Grapes pub landlord, actor Sir Ian McKellen.

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