The Star of the East is a 19th century pub which not only exists, and trades, but continues to take up more than its fair share of space in the world.
We noticed it one morning last week while walking from digs to our respective temporary offices in the City of London.
When we say ‘noticed’ we mean that it stopped us in our tracks from a couple of hundred metres away.
Gin palaces were designed to stand out, dazzle and entice. This one, with its carved marble frontage and three great iron lamps embedded in the pavement, still does so.
Passing it again after dark, from aboard a bus, it looked even more spectacular. Those three lamps still work, and the pub’s great glass windows still glow.
Short on time, we didn’t make it into the pub for a drink this time, but certainly will at some point soon.
In the meantime, we turned to the usual reference books – Mark Girouard, Ben Davis, Brian Spiller and so on.
The only mention of this particular pub we could find, however, was in Licensed to Sell by Brandwood et al, which touches on it in two places:
A reference to its unusual Gothic style in a section on Victorian pubs.
Noting the persistence of its mid-pavement lamps.
That latter says:
“Light fittings were important in creating the presence and character of a pub. Large gas lamps illuminated the exterior of the grander establishments and some even had standard lamps rising from the pavement, such as still survive in front of the Star of the East, Limehouse, London… In darkly lit streets, or often ones that were not lit at all, such lamps must have made the pub look all the more inviting.”
The main point is, though, that this wasn’t really a gin palace after all.
It dates from the 1860s, not the 1830s.
In that later period, many pubs were built borrowing features from the earlier gin palaces but with no particular emphasis on gin, and much more on beer.
In fact, in a couple of newspaper stories about trouble at the pub, it’s called a ‘beershop’ and ‘beerhouse’:
“John Day and John Copeland were charged, the former with assaulting two girls named Regan and Donovan in the ‘Star of the East’ beershop, Limehouse, and the latter with attempting to rescue Day from custody.”
East London Observer, 10 March 1877
“EAST END RUFFIANISM.– Thomas Barrett and William Shannon, two rough-looking fellows, were charged with violently assaulting Hicks… Both prisoners have been convicted of violence, and a short time ago Barrett was charged with being concerned with others in assaulting and intimidating a fellow workman. On Friday night they entered the ‘Star of the East’ beerhouse, Commercial-road, Limehouse, in a state of intoxication, and because their demand to be served with liquor was refused, owing to their condition, they created a disturbance, and refused to quit. Hicks was called to eject them, and on getting them outside they both attacked him. They threw him twice violently to the ground, and Shannon kicked him brutally in the side, from the effects of which he still suffered. Another constable came to his assistance, and after a deal of trouble they got the prisoners to the station.”
Illustrated Police News, 16 April 1881
The newspaper archives also turn up numerous references to inquests being held at The Star of the East, suggesting that it was a notable local building with enough space to serve this kind of public function.
The best story about this pub, though, has a whiff of the Gothic about it, or of a Sherlock Holmes story:
“There is now to be seen at the Star of the East,’ opposite Limehouse church, a very curious mummy, a female, stated by medical men to be about 18 years of age, hair, teeth, and nails perfect, and – what seems most unique – the hair plaited in folds, over two thousand years ago. Mr. H.W. Baxter, proprietor of the Star of the East, who has purchased it for a considerable sum, affords every facility to visitors, already numbering some thousands and daily increasing. It was first landed Bullhead-wharf, and visited many in Essex, who will be glad to know its whereabouts.”
Chelmsford Chronicle, 10 May 1878
Sadly, another notable pub nearby that we had hoped to visit, The Festival Inn, is now tinned up.
We use the phrase ‘pub crawl’ all the time but recently found ourselves wondering when it emerged as a concept.
Helpfully, the Oxford English Dictionary (which we can access in full online for free with one of our library memberships) offers an immediate answer: it’s a late Victorian and Edwardian thing.
Here are some selected entries from the list of examples provided by the OED in its entry for ‘pub-crawling’, under ‘Crawling’:
1877 | York Herald | women on ‘gin crawls’
1902 | Daily Chronicle | “the cockney ‘beer crawl’”
1915 | Nights in Town by Thomas Burke | “We did a ‘pub-crawl’ in Commercial Road”
The entry for ‘pub crawl’ under ‘Pub’ is oddly less comprehensive, omitting anything before that 1915 entry.
This all makes sense.
For a pub crawl, you need a certain concentration of pubs, which means you need a substantial town and city.
For pub crawling to become a commonly understood idea you need lots of substantial towns and cities.
And the 19th century was when British towns and cities exploded in size. Consider Bradford, for example, to pick somewhere at random. In 1801 its population was around 6,000. By 1850 it had grown to 182,000.
At the same time, the number of pubs increased.
We’re glad we chose Bradford, now we think of it, because that means we can check Paul Jennings’s book The Public House in Bradford 1770-1970 for stats.
In 1803, there were 41 public houses in Bradford. By 1830 there were 55 – and then a load of beerhouses came along, too, after the passing of an 1830 act of Parliament. By 1850, there were 178 of those, as well as a number of established public houses.
With around 220 boozers, give or take, you’ve got some options for a crawl.
Are there earlier mentions of pub crawls than the OED lists?
Beating the OED at its own games is a bit of a sport in the age of the digitised newspaper and book archive.
Whereas the dictionary compilers spent years scanning periodicals and recording usage, we can just run a ton of searches and see what can be dredged up.
On this occasion, though, we couldn’t find any earlier examples of:
pub crawl, crawler or crawling
beer crawl, etc.
gin crawl, etc.
We did, however, like this description of a gin crawl from Fun magazine (a Punch knockoff) for 9 July 1879:
The Lancet seems to think that lime-juice will be the drink of the future. Possibly; but we should like to see the hansom cabby, the purple-faced “bus driver, and 92 X “splicing the main-brace” with a glass of lime-juice and water. The favourite pastime of some of these gentry on their off-days is to go for what they term a two-of-gin crawl, which means flitting from pab to pub until sufficient moisture is imbibed. We wonder if the day will ever arrive when they will indulge in “a two-of-lime-juice crawl.”
There’s more to be said about pub crawls. We’ll be digging at this a bit more in subsequent posts.
Publicans often find themselves at the mercy of the aggressive business practices of breweries, pubcos and landlords – and that’s apparently been the case more-or-less since the modern pub came into being.
Continuing to dig around in the archives for information on 19th century gin palaces we came across a wonderful letter to the editor of the London Weekly Dispatch from 6 May 1838. It is entitled ‘On Buying A Gin Palace’ and opens like this:
An advertisement appeared in a Morning Journal a few days since, and if you will permit me to make a few observations upon it, you may perhaps save many inexperienced persons from being victimised.
The author, ‘S.J.M., late Mincing Lane’, goes on to quote the advertisement in full:
A first-rate gin-shop to be sold for £3,500, situated in a leading thoroughfare. It was fitted up regardless of expense, three years ago, and is held on lease for an unexpired term of 25 years. Trade, wholesale and retail, £4,500 per annum at a profit of 23 per cent. Any person unacquainted with the trade may be initiated by the party quitting. A person with £1,300, his own money, may be accommodated with the rest. Apply by letter, to A. B.
We tried to find the original of this advertisement but it doesn’t seem to be available online. We did, however, find quite a few from the same period using very similar language. Here are a couple:
S.J.M. wanted to blow the lid on some of the tricks and tactics behind these ads which they called a “barefaced attempt at swindling”:
I do say, and with the experience of more than a quarter of a century, that a more shameful robbery could not be planned than is meditated by the unknown authors of this advertisement. The highwayman that robs at noon-day, or the burglar at night, is less culpable than these swindling rascals, who plunder the unwary by wholesale with impunity, under the mask of being principal houses in the trade. A robber risks his life or liberty, and if even he escapes detection, the parties robbed have still other resources left them wherewith to replenish; but this motorious tribe of plunderers commonly effect the total destruction of their victim.
Their analysis of the advertisement breaks it down in detail; we’ve added a few line breaks to make it easier to digest:
“A first-rate gin-shop situated in a leading thoroughfare.” Now if all that is meant were honest, as the house is not described, why not name the street? I will give the true reason: because if the street were named, the house most probably would be known, and some of its former victims would soon spread the fame of its swindling owners and occupiers…
“Fitted up regardless of expense,” as if all the outlay were not included in the amount demanded for the lease. Fudge! But the reader will see through this as he proceeds. Next, “trade wholesale and retail, £4,500 per annum.” Note the words “wholesale and retail,” as if gin shops generally had a shadow of what is in reality a wholesale trade, particularly when considered with the next allegation, “at a profit of 23 per cent.”
Now, to all that have more money than understanding (for it is to such alone this advertisement is addressed, and all others must see through the villainy at the first glance), the reason the wholesale department is coupled with the retail, is to prevent the fresh-caught victim from complaining; for if he should not in the first ten months realize over the counter £500, instead of £4,500, he could not proceed by action to recover his outlay for the false representation by which he has been deluded, as the rogue could say, he had not remained a year in the house, and perhaps the last month or two would have brought the wholesale connexion to town.
The really juicy stuff is around the buying price, however, where S.J.M argues a particularly nasty trick is being played.
First, that value of £3,500 is established – out of the reach of most people. And, S.J.M. suggests, basically a fiction.
But then, when the seller suggests that, actually, you only need £1,300 to buy your way in, it sounds like a bargain. They, or someone, will then cover the rest of the purchase price. “So then”, S.J.M. says, “the novice, male or female, widow or orphan, is invited by these heartless villains, if they have but £1,300 in the world…”
This suddenly sounds a lot like Charles Dickens explaining the London waste trade in Our Mutual Friend, or the operation of the legal system in Bleak House, and makes us wish he’d tackled brewing, breweries and pubs in the same depth.
It also echoes the conversation around pubs in the 21st century – that rents are kept enticingly low to lure people who can then be exploited in other ways.
From the 1830s, to the 1980s, to today, does anything ever change?
Trying to read the messages it is sending about the dangers of the gin palace, we think we can see:
a transaction underway in the alleyway
a thin man emerging into the cold
a pawnbroker right next door
In other words, this gin palace might look grand, but it’s part of the industry of poverty.
The gin palace is also called The Upas Tree – the poisonous plant from which strychnine is produced.
In context, the criticism is even clearer. For our version above, we’ve cropped the picture; this character appears next to it in the original.
The building, though, does look astonishing. Improbably, even. How would that huge keyhole window in the centre work in practice? No, we think this is a fantasy.
It does pick up on the truth about gin palaces, though, which is that they often made enormous lamps or other sculptural features a key part of their marketing. This is from The Globe from 14 October 1837:
At a gin palace lately established in Shoreditch, the proprietor, in order to eclipse his other neighbours, has got a clock of large dimensions and splendid workmanship at the extremity of the saloon, and so constructed, that, when occasion requires, it will perform no less than sixteen tunes, and play, without intermission, for one hour, the following amongst other tunes and waltzes: Jim Crow, accompanied (of course) by some of the old women present); All ’round my Hat, The Light of Other Days, Farewell to the Mountain, Jenny Jones, &c. None but an eye-witness can imagine the effect of the music on the motely [sic] group assembled in this gin palace.
We dipped into the world of gin palaces in a series of posts last year…