Pirates, gangsters and ghosts: The rich history of London’s most storied pubs

Many of the pubs have been around for hundreds of years and have fascinating backstories

Paris has bistros, Barcelona wine bars and London pubs – and lots of them. Our boozers are great British institutions, as sewn into the fabric of our city as red buses and rain on bank holidays.

As well as beer – their walls have soaked up the stories of generations of slightly tipsy Londoners.

From a foul-mouthed parrot to cigarette-smoking ghost, our pubs’ stories are stranger than the tall tales told by their regulars… except theirs are actually true. So crack open a cold one and enjoy.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Fleet Street, Holborn

Wandering down Fleet Street, it’s easy to miss the shadowy alleyway that leads to one of London’s most atmospheric drinking dens. The original pub burned down in the Great Fire of London and the current building dates from 1667.

Inside, it’s a dimly-lit warren of cellars and bars connected by crooked corridors so low you have to duck your head. Although Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and Samuel Pepys were all regulars, arguably the most famous was a foul-mouthed parrot called Polly, given to the landlord by a sailor in the late 19th century.

On Armistice night after WW1 he supposedly mimicked the sound of a champagne cork popping 400 times before passing out cold. He was so loved by Fleet Street journalists that when he died 200 publications ran an obituary and he was stuffed and placed behind the bar in the taproom, where you can still raise a glass to him today. 

This famous sign pays homage to Cheshire's best known product in London's Fleet Street.This famous sign pays homage to Cheshire's best known product in London's Fleet Street.
This famous sign pays homage to Cheshire's best known product in London's Fleet Street.

The Grenadier

Wilton Row, Belgravia

A cobbled mews lined by brightly-painted townhouses doesn’t seem particularly scary, but Wilton Row is home to what many describe as London’s most haunted pub.

The Grenadier was built in 1720 as an officer’s mess for the Foot Guards regiment – look out for the sentry box that still stands by the door – and it’s rumoured that the Duke of Wellington used to pop in for the odd pint as he lived nearby.

Its ghostly reputation comes from the tale of poor Cedric, a young soldier beaten to death for cheating at cards, who still makes his presence known every autumn.

Various guests and staff over the years have reported odd happenings such as ashtrays flying across rooms, a young man with a handle brush moustache looking in at the window and on one occasion, wreaths of smoke from an invisible cigarette. The ceiling is covered in money from kindly visitors keen to pay Cedric’s debt, but it seems he has become attached to his final resting place as reports of mysterious happenings remain ongoing.

The Prospect Of Whitby

Wapping Wall, Wapping

Given that it’s London’s oldest riverside inn, it’s little surprise that this pub has a pirate-filled, swashbuckling history. It dates back to 1520, so was already well established by the time a young poet called Shakespeare arrived in town, although a devastating fire means the only original feature left is its flagstone floor.

An old guide book describes it as filled with "everything from an aquarium to assegais, pin-ups to pistols, clogs, Chianti bottles, copper kettles, skulls, old furniture and a sense of decay", and if you sit on its water font terrace on foggy evenings it’s easy to picture smugglers and sailors playing dominoes and quaffing rum.

A noose hanging close by commemorates Execution Dock, the site where sea criminals including notorious pirate Captain Kidd, were executed. Many were sentenced by a judge known as ‘hanging judge Jeffreys’ who supposedly used to enjoy watching the executions from the pub’s balcony.

On a less gory note, artists J.M.W. Turner and Rex Whistler both visited the pub and sketched views of the Thames over a pint./

The Carpenter’s Arms

Cheshire Street, Bethnal Green

Today it’s a pleasant gastropub with a selection of beers as long as your forearm, but in the 1960s The Carpenter’s Arms was the most notorious watering hole in London.

Its landlords were no less than the Kray twins, London’s most infamous gangsters. They bought it in 1967 as a birthday present for their mother, Violet, because their childhood home was a few hundred metres away at 178 Vallance Road, and set about installing several cosy design touches: redecorating with striped wallpaper in the Regency style, hanging their battered childhood boxing gloves from the ceiling and replacing the bar with a coffin lid (ok, that one’s an urban myth).

It became a central meeting point for The Firm, and also hosted the Kray family’s parties every Christmas and New Year. Supposedly Reggie took a carving knife from the kitchen and enjoyed a quick stiffener in the bar before heading to Stoke Newington to murder former-collegue Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, whch eventually lead to his arrest.

The George Inn

Borough High Street, Southwark

You know a pub has a decent history when the National Trust has opted to buy it. This handsome, three-floor building is the last galleried inn in London and will transport you back to a time when horses and carts laden with produce rattled through the streets on their way to nearby Borough Market.

There has been a pub on the site since at least the 16th century, and at one point rent was £80 and a sugar loaf. It has an impressive literary history: the ever-thirsty Charles Dickens was a fan – are there any pubs in London he didn’t drink in? – and mentions it in his book Little Dorrit, Shakespeare lived nearby and his plays were performed in the courtyard and it also shared a courtyard with lost pub The Tabard, where Chaucer set the beginning of The Canterbury Tales.