The Palace Hotel is a grand, beautiful pub – perhaps Bristol’s only true gin palace. It is also closed and invisible in the cityscape.
Anytime you walk from the city centre to the east via Old Market, you pass it. Or, rather, it towers over you.
At ground level, covered in graffiti and posters, you might not notice at all.
Glance up, though, and you’ll be struck by its scale, and it’s Parisian style – or maybe it’s Bruxellois? It’s certainly continental.
And too fancy, really, for a block of kebab shops and taxi offices. Yes, hold on: why is it there?
This neighborhood has changed a lot since the pub was built in 1869. Back then, before the Blitz and slum clearances, Old Market had breweries, sugar refineries and tanneries, along with street traders.
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.
In Portsmouth, the Victorian and Edwardian pubs built by two competing breweries offer an interesting way of understanding and navigating the city.
We were tipped off to this by an architectural guide by Alan Balfour published in 1970.
In his three-page introduction, Mr Balfour dedicates a good chunk of text to pubs:
Later 19th century pubs, such as The Northcote Hotel and The Eastfield Hotel, are almost over-pretentious in contrast to their surroundings. This pretentiousness goes deeper than the street elevations – it confirms the separate identities of the two major brewers in the area at the end of the 19th century, Brickwoods and Portsmouth United Ales… The brewers’ house styles emerged towards the end of the century, United pubs being clad in a deep green tile on the ground floor, with arched openings, and light green glazed bricks above… Brickwoods developed an extravagant ‘Tudorbethan’ style, with endless variations in the pseudo-timber framing and decoration.
On our first wander through town, we spotted examples of both. Some were trading, others were derelict, and still others had become nurseries or shops.
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.