Shakespeare's Pub is Pete Brown's ode to the colorful history of Southwark's George Inn. The last remaining pre-Reformation coaching inn, the George has seen some of literary's most famous figures...maybe.
Chaucer began the creation of English Literature just outside. Shakespeare mentioned it in a play and had his work performed in its grounds. Dickens was a regular visitor. Visit today, and you can still feel the echoes of the three great pillars of English letters as you contemplate the liquid poetry that is a foaming pint of cask ale.
But the story of the George Inn is a typically English tale, combining comedy and tragedy, farce and failure, with a sprinkling of Great British scatological humour. A happy tale of these three greats enjoying their beer at the same bar across the centuries would be far too simple.
Today the George Inn remains a paradox. Tucked inside a quiet courtyard off an insanely busy street just south of the mighty Thames, it’s the last survivor of a row of giant hostelries. Many who have lived and worked in the area for years have no idea it’s there, while tourists from the United States and Japan fly to London to seek it out.
The English pub is never straightforward.
Pubs are pretty unimportant as mere bricks and mortar. What makes them special are the people who drink in them, which depends in turn on their location. And the George Inn was built on the most interesting street in the world.
A few minutes walk from the George’s bar, there’s a point on the River Thames that the Romans decided was still deep enough to be navigable for ships, but was also narrow enough for them to build a bridge across it. They built the city then called Londinium at the north end of that bridge, and all major Roman roads led to this point.
That set the plan for the entire history of London. The bridge was rebuilt many times, but remained the only passage across the Thames until Westminster Bridge was completed in 1750. Until this point, anyone who wanted to get in or out of London from the south needed to come across London Bridge, and through the borough of Southwark that grew up around its southern end.
Clergymen, nobles, merchants, soldiers, rebels, aspiring monarchs and fortune-seekers queued up to get across a bridge that simply couldn’t cope with the traffic. The bridge’s southern approach soon became an unbroken run of alehouses, inns and taverns, not just to provide refreshment and entertainment, but also food, lodging, stabling for horses, warehousing for goods, and secure storage for valuables. At least as far back as the fifteenth century, the George was one of at least eight great inns – not just pubs, but vast, multi-faceted business concerns – lining Borough High Street on its approach to the bridge.
It was from one of these inns that Geoffrey Chaucer began his pilgrimage to Canterbury in 1383. The Canterbury Tales is widely regarded as the birth of English literature, and it began in the Tabard Inn – the George’s immediate neighbour until its demolition in 1876. This south-side inn was a perfect place from which to start the journey after negotiating the chaos of the bridge crossing the night before. And symbolically, inns like the Tabard and the George were the only places where Chaucer could plausibly bring together the broad cast of characters who represent the whole of medieval society in his great work. The inn and the landlord he describes both really existed. Chaucer’s pilgrims would have had to walk right past the George to meet them. Our inn came so close to literary immortality!
It came even closer two hundred years later, when William Shakespeare, the bard of Stratford-on-Avon, moved to South London. Plays were banned in the city itself for fears of plague and civil unrest, but the area south of the river was outside the city’s jurisdiction, which is why the earliest permanent theatres were built here. Before then, plays were performed in inn-yards like the George, which provided enclosed amphitheatres and ranged galleries for a better view. The architecture of the earliest purpose-built theatres is strikingly similar to that of the George.
Shakespeare wrote his finest work while living in Southwark, and he enjoyed the local beer – his work is full of fond references of the virtues of a pint of ale, and there are written records of him visiting pubs with contemporaries like Edward Alleyn or Christopher Marlowe.
The trouble is, no one ever specifies which pub. We know Shakespeare visited pubs regularly, but there is not a single written record of him ever having visited any specific pub. He certainly was aware of the George – it was famous when he was living just around the corner, and he mentions it by name in King John – but we can’t say for certain that he definitely drank there. Obviously he did – I’d gamble the contents of my drinks cellar on it – but like so many aspects of his life, there’s no documentary record.
We do have definite records of Charles Dickens drinking there though. Dickens loved the inns of Southwark, and immortalised them in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Old coachmen remembered him drinking in the George, and he mentions it by name in Little Dorrit. But he retains his fondest affection for the White Hart – the inn on the other side of the George from the Tabard. This is where Mr Pickwick meets Sam Weller, once one of Dickens’ most celebrated creations, now as forgotten as the inn that supposedly employed him.
The George has such strong links with the three giants of English letters – stronger than any other pub – but just misses out on claiming each one as its own. Its two immediate neighbours were far more famous for their literary associations. But they are both long gone, and the George survives, alone out of all Southwark’s great coaching inns.
So does the George have a literary great it can truly call its own?
Step forward Sir John Mennis, Comptroller of Charles II’s Royal Navy and close friend of Samuel Pepys. Mennis wrote a collection of poetry in 1656 titled Musarum Deliciae (Muse’s Delight) which included a poem about getting horrifically drunk at the George and suffering the consequences. Obviously, Mennis never achieved the same level of celebrity as other drinkers in Southwark’s inns. And maybe this is because his favourite topics in Musarum Deliciae are breaking wind and going to the toilet. My personal favourite is entitled ‘Upon a Fart Unluckily Let’.
From the father of English literature the world’s greatest ever writer and most famous ever novelist to poems about farts: the literary associations of the George Inn are a perfect illustration of the diversity, inclusivity and occasional surrealism of the British pub.