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.
Let’s hope it gets a new lease of life, like The Star of the East, as gentrification creeps into Chrisp Sreet.
UPDATE 18/08/2022: Despite the tin sheets on the doors and general air of abandonment The Festival is apparently still trading. Thanks to John Cryne for this intel via a local contact.