Old London Pub Lost to Property Development
Going down the pub
When you find an old London pub somewhere in the historical archives you don’t always know if it is still alive or not. Pub culture in London and the UK is a very specific idiosyncrasy of British culture and has a rich and vibrant history which is known around the world. As one of London’s visitors once commented, “What is it with you English? You lose your job, you go down the pub. You get a job, you go down the pub. You get engaged or marry, you go down the pub. You get divorced or split up, you go down the pub. You feel on top of the world, you go down the pub. You feel miserable, you go down the pub. Whatever it is that is happening in your life the answer is always the pub!”
Times change and pub history has never been about the pub being a static institution. Pubs, inns and taverns have always changed. They are not milestones of culture set fast into position but windmills always turning and facing the prevailing winds of the day. If they do not adapt, they die. This has been the way for hundreds of years.
The pub as valuable property
In the opening period of the 21st century, the pub business in London in particular and in the UK, in general, has been suffering the pressures of cultural change. Some people believe that the stresses of the time are more aggressive than ever known before. Reporting in February 2018, Edith Hancock wrote in “The Drinks Business” that “617 pubs had ‘disappeared’ since April 2017”. At the time, this was seen as an improvement at a loss of two pubs a day. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, reported in 2014 that pubs were closing at a rate of 29 per week.
Such losses can create a sense of panic amongst some beer drinkers. Feeling so stressed, they go down to the pub to find it has been turned into a block of flats! Just as has happened to the Downs Hotel in Hackney Downs, London.
The increasing value of property in London has made old pubs, inns and taverns a target in some circumstances for very unscrupulous people who describe themselves as developers. The only development they appear to have an interest in is the size of their bank accounts. However, we must not think that such activities are some new phenomena.
Pub history and changing cultures
As John Stow says in his Survey of London (1598),
“… is a way towards Smithfield, called Gilt Spurre, or Knightriders’ Street, of the knights and others riding that way into Smithfield, replenished with buildings on both sides up to Pie corner, a place so-called of such a sign, sometimes a fair inn for receipt of travellers, but now divided into tenements…”
Survey of London,
William Thoms, Esq. F.S.A.
Secretary of Camden Society.
Whittiker and Co., London. (1848)
In this 420-year-old quotation, we can immediately see that the development of pubs into housing is not something new. This is especially the case in London where the great periods of expansion and the wealth that generated pushed up property prices relentlessly. Whilst we have possessed a sense of our own personal ownership in the pubs, we have frequented, our society has been founded on business and commerce rather than romance and poetry.
Pubs, our uniquely styled ‘public houses’, may well be part of a tradition but the closer we look at the pub history the more we find that change has always been the moderator of form. If we are members of or have sympathy with the aims of CAMRA then we should have little to fear about this changing pub history.
The fact is that beer drinking has been a popular activity in the history of humanity since the Bronze Age. There is no sign of that popularity going into decline and what is changing is just where and how we drink our beer. Today the UK is seeing a growth in small breweries and micro-pubs. We may be losing the old ‘boozers’ of the post-industrial revolution working-class wage packet but we also redefine our society for the 21st century. We see the fixed boundaries of class change and our culture shift from what it has been for the last 200 years, therefore, we see the windmills turn to face a different direction and those that don’t look towards the day get blown over by the economics of the time.
Pub history, the inns and taverns of old London
Despite changing times, London and the UK still possess some of the most wonderful and dynamic historical pubs. Any idea that we could lose all of that history is not rational. The UK is a major tourist destination and known for its historical treasures. This economic fact alone will protect us from losing all of our pub history. However, we can also be more positive, be more pro-active and engage with the institutions and societies which protect our pub heritage.
As well as CAMRA, there is the Pub History Society and many other associations and groups all working at grassroots to protect what we love. The more we engage, the more we join together as a society committed to protecting our pubs, inns and taverns. We can make history as much as we can read history.
We are all historians now in this age of cameras on phones and the ability to connect to the internet and research what we see. We are all creating historical archives as we post online the images we take of our lives and the things we value in those lives. If you want to know about something you can find out in seconds in this new culture. If you want to protect a heritage you can do your bit in seconds in this new age of technology.
We don’t sit and watch the television like passive potatoes any more, we are active, we make media, we create historical resources and we are beginning to realise we have the power to change certain things in life. The more we know, the more our abilities and power to make change happens. The fewer questions we ask, the less we are active with our minds the more of the past we surrender to the developers of bank accounts.
Old London Pub sources details
The current image of The Downs Hotel shown on this page was sourced from Google Maps.
The image of the Downs Hotel from 1903 was sourced from Hackney Camera 1883 1918, published by Hackney Workers Educational Association in cooperation with the Hackney Libraries and Amenities Department. Compiled and distributed by Centreprise, 136 Kingsland High Street, London E8. The booklet is undated at publication but was likely published between 1974 and 1980. the copyright for the image shown of the Downs Hotel, as photographed in 1903 is attributed to the Greater London Council Photographic Library.
Quotes from the Survey of London (1598) Survey of London, John Stow,
New Edition, William Thoms, Esq. F.S.A. Secretary of Camden Society. Whittiker and Co., London. (1848) page 139.