In 1987, the end was near for The British Oak at Poplar, East London, because Docklands, with a capital D, was coming into being and a compulsory purchase order had been served.
We came across this small story of the loss of a specific pub through ‘Eastenders’, an episode of the ITV weekly documentary series World In Action available via BritBox. Jess being a Londoner, and Ray being a hopeless nostalgist, we often find ourselves watching this kind of thing and there’s invariably a pub somewhere among the grainy footage.
The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was set up by the Government in 1981 with the intention of regenerating what had become largely wasteland as London’s docks moved out of the city to places like Tilbury, as a result of containerisation. The LDDC was given unusual powers to grant planning permission and issue compulsory purchase orders – whatever it took to make this land profitable, in short.
At the time, much was made of the effects of this regeneration programme on local people, many of whom faced eviction, with the LDDC insistent that it was under no obligation to provide replacement housing. Roads needed widening, railways needed building, and old buildings couldn’t get in the way of progress.
The British Oak was a victim of the same process. As the narrator explains:
The landlord of the British Oak hoped to see some benefit from the changes. Four years ago he sold his home and put his life savings into the pub. When he bought it, the Corporation told him there were no plans for this street. Now, they want him out.
The landlord isn’t named in the documentary – does anybody know who he was? – but he and his wife were certainly not impressed:
Her: I’ll stay until they put a bulldozer through it.
Him: And then I will drive a bulldozer through the London Dockland Development Corporation’s guv’nor’s house myself.
It was a free house in 1986, formerly an Allied Breweries pub, formerly Ind Coope, formerly Taylor Walker. The building we see in the documentary dates from 1927.
The interesting thing is that, despite the melancholy tone of the documentary, the pub building survived much longer than might have been expected. London pub historian Ewan Munro suggests it was there until around 2003, although it seems to have ceased trading much earlier, in around 1991.
In fact, this makes it worse, doesn’t it? They bought out the landlord, shut the pub down and then… Did nothing with it for more than a decade? Then they built a small surgery with a car park. The road wasn’t widened. No great Progress was made.
It turns out the LDDC was responsible for the demolition of several pubs in the 1980s including this one described in The London Drinker for July 1988:
Another East End landmark has disappeared, this time due to the LDDC (London Docklands Demolition Co – sorry, that should read Development Co). What was lastly called Lipstick and before that the Londoner, originally the Eastern Hotel, 2 East India Dock Road E14, has been demolished. Originally it was a Truman house and had an illuminated moving one-legged Ben Truman hopping across the front of the building proclaiming that there were more hops in Ben Truman.
Now that we would have liked to have seen.
And if not pubs, what did the LDDC want? Well, wine bars, of course. Mangetout, Rodney – mangetout!
There are things in ‘Eastenders’ that feel both familiar and strange. On the one hand, we’re still living in the age of the property developer, for whom pubs are too often an obstacle to be removed to make way for flats. On the other hand, however, it’s startling to hear yuppie talking heads ‘saying the quiet part out loud’:
It’s really up to [the local people] to see the benefits and opportunities… Certainly I think there’s winners and losers in any situation in life. In Docklands, the people I work with and the people I’ve met generally find Docklands to be a successful area to be living and working in… I think the resistance is a lack of understanding of what is being created here… Local people are not used to the kind of change that is happening and they don’t understand the kind of change that is happening to them.