Historic Pubs in East London - Intrigue, Pints and Pie

Pubs have been at the centre of British culture for centuries, with writer Samuel Pepys himself, describing them as the heart of England. Roadside taverns have been offering thirst-quenching refreshments since the Romans, and to this day a good local pub offers respite in pretty much any situation from Sunday afternoon boredom to the zombie apocalypse (see cult British comedy Sean of the Dead for reference). 

There are no shortage of 'ye olde' establishments still going strong across the city. East London was once a world of slums, factories and poor houses that gave rise to the needy and nefarious, as well as the pubs, which they frequented. All of the below have played a part in East London's chequered past, whether they're made of ancient timber and tall tales or have born witness to momentous moments in history. 

It's worth noting, that many of London's oldest pubs are located around Fleet Street in The City, as what was once the principal route in and out of London for centuries, but as this is no longer considered East London, these aren't included on the below list. If you're interested in visiting some of these start with Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the Old Bell Tavern and Ye Olde Mitre Tavern. 


Established in 1894, this is a typical old Victorian pub, though the interiors have been given something of a makeover. It's the history here that is truly fascinating. To start with, it was opened on the site of the old Mile End Toll Gate, where Jack the Ripper committed a lot of his crimes. Later on, in the gangland days of the 1960s, Ronnie Kray infamously walked into the pub and shot George Cornell dead with a 9MM Mauser. The record playing on the juke box at the time, which also got hit by a bullet, was coincidentally The Walker Brothers' 'The Sun Ain't gonna shine anymore.' This might have been the most famous murder, but in 1904 a man called Wallis, a member of the 'Blind Beggar Gang' a group of notorious pickpockets stabbed a man in the eye too. The pub today has a happier mix of locals and students. The main appeal is the large beer garden with koi ponds, fairy lights, parasols and heaters in winter.

This is a quaint and cosy pub with an excellent selection of beers, appealing to workers in suits, as well as tourists curious about the incredible history here. Though there is some debate over the date, most say this bar was built in the 1500's, and it looks the part with low ceilings, dark wood, exposed beams, and weathered brick. Hearty ales and lagers are changed regularly to offer a wide array, and beer-related festivals and events are featured regularly. They have a nice beer garden in the back too, which you would never guess from the outside, as well as screens for sports.

Golden Heart

This is a rough and ready traditional Truman pub, and the fact it still exists in the heart of now absurdly gentrified Spitalfieds is a source of happiness to locals. Yes, the crowd are distinctly arty, but they're the more rattled side of creative than the vintage-clad fashion students populating the rest of Brick Lane. Amidst them are still market traders and old timers. Run by the eccentric and no nonsense landlady Sandra Esqulant for the last thirty, thirsty years, she keeps this place exactly how she wants it. Rambunctious and roaring with jukebox sing-a-longs and an always-open door to anyone willing to be friendly and get involved.


This pub stands out as an island of old East End life in the middle of leafy Mile End Park. It's is about as typical as a British boozer gets with just the right dash of surreal. There are china plates on the shelves, photos of unknown celebrity drinkers from times of yore on the walls and a dart board. The whole place is steeped in a deep red light from the copper wallpaper, which makes drunken shenanigans that take place here all the more intense. Though don't go thinking Val and Alf will take any nonsense from the punters. It attracts everyone from old timers who have been drinking here since the fifties to the middle-class arty types, who live in the area, as well as the neighbourhood nutters and all the charming canal folk who live on barges. Located right on Regent's Canal, in summer drinkers spill into the park with their pints and watch the boats pass by. They've had the same resident band, The Palm Tree Trio, for decades, who get the regulars partner dancing on the psychedelic carpets every weekend. Join in!

The Prospect of Whitby is London's oldest riverside pub. It dates all the way back to 1520 and still boasts its original flagstone floor and a rare pewter-topped bar. Old barrels and ships masts have been built into the structure to add to its historic credentials. There are spectacular river views from the pub's two balconies and gardens, as well as from the great old windows, making the most of the river that meanders past here on its way to the sea. The pub was originally frequented by maritime folk, and was a notorious haunt for smugglers, thieves and pirates. Bare knuckle boxing matches and animal fights used to be held here in the bad old days, and little signs around the bar and eating area give you the pub's history. Other notable customers have been Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, Judge Jeffries and artists Whistler and Turner, as well as a resident ghost. A sign at the top of the stairs tells you that the pub is still haunted by various characters from its past, including the victim of a murder that took place here too a few centuries ago. In more modern times, this pub was a favourite of Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, and Princess Margaret.

East London

The Grapes may only be a short distance from the financial towers of Canary Wharf, but it feels a world away. This historic pub, with its draped ivy and etched glass exteriors, has been here for nearly 500 years. It was even frequented by Charles Dickens; there's a complete set of his works in the back parlour if you want to look up the reference to the pub in Our Mutual Friend. This was the working class tavern for the dockers, surviving the bombing of the Limehouse Basin, and to this day still caters to the largely well-heeled local crowd. Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen and his friend and collaborator, director Sean Mathias, bought it up in 2011, and have kept its cheerful, old world feel, with wood paneling, burgundy walls and many oil paintings, though they've cleaned it up in the corners. Cosy up in the Dickens Snug (he was reputed to have danced on the tables here), and admire the sweeping view of the Thames, or head to the upstairs dining room for a roast dinner.


This is legendary hub of the east London art community is a little bit of everything all in one, just like the area it's situated in. It's a 700-year-old traditional boozer, a cutting-edge arts space, a local hangout, a theatre and a music venue playing everything from Berlin electro to sea shanties. There's a garden out back with a burnt out car (it's actually an art piece) and a music studio upstairs, where artist owner Pauline Forster and her partner Toby Penrose still live. When they renovated the pub, they exposed many of the original features, which can still be seen today, and the whole place has a ramshackle, bohemian beauty. Despite being on a slightly dingy Whitechapel corner, the pub boasts an impressive coterie of star followers. Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys and Geoffrey Chaucer have all mentioned it in their writing, and to add some modern celebrity, Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse and Sir Ian McKellan helped with the campaign to stop the redevelopment of part of the site. Long live the George!

East London

On a corner of Cheshire Street, this now adorable little pub has had a colourful history. It was once owned by the notorious Kray twins, who bought it for their mum Violet, and according to legend, made the bar top from coffin lids. After that it became known for late-night lock-ins and license-flouting parties, that is, until current landlords Eric and Nigel bought it up, and it became what it is today - that perfect little local, just far away enough from the tourists on Brick Lane to keep it full with the colourful characters of Cheshire Street. With a traditional wood bar, low lighting from small chandeliers and flowers on the tables, the décor is simple and cosy. There's a small fire in winter and a garden out back for smokers. The beer list is excellent with some deadly Dutch blondes, and the food is tasty and wholesome from mixed platters to cottage pies.

Every week, the majority of London descends on Columbia Road for the Sunday flower market, but for many years, the midweek days were eerily quiet. One of the few reasons you would find yourself on this sweet Victorian terraced street, was to go to the Royal Oak. It's a handsome old-fashioned pub with a nice bit of polish, that serves excellent food and seems to always have a welcoming cheer about it. Now that the rest of the street has filled up with wine bars and tapas restaurants, it's generally frantic inside, with the local vintage-clad crowd, creative yet grown-up. There's a little outdoor yard, which on summer days doubles as a second bar space, serving Bloody Marys and pastries on Sunday mornings. Upstairs is a calm and civilised restaurant with a more serious menu of impressive modern British cooking.

East London

Sitting on the corner of Spitalfields Market, The Ten Bells is a firm Shoreditch favourite packed full of local drinkers most nights of the week. A historic pub dating back to the 18th-century, the owners have kept many of the original Victorian details such as the ornate tiling and weathered facade. But they've filled it with shabby sofas, cinema seats and mismatched furniture to appeal to the new trendy clientele. This hasn't detracted from the friendly neighbourhood feel though. They serve a decent selection of beers on tap, as well as more interesting brews by the bottle such as Früli and Brooklyn. A pop-up restaurant on the first floor from the Young Turks and the Clove Club went permanent after excellent reviews - known as Upstairs at the Ten Bells - serving modern British fare in sumptuous settings.


Meet Tyler Wetherall

Tyler Wetherall is a freelance writer specialising in travel, food & drink, covering topics as varied as narcs in the Colombian jungle to cocktail drinking in Cuba. Tyler has lived in London...  More About Tyler