London didn’t get the nickname ‘The Big Boozer’ and ‘Pint Land’ for nothing. It’s bursting with historic watering holes – and lots of them have an exceptional story behind them too. Prop yourself up at a bar with a pint and a packet of pork scratching, and take a look at some of the best historic pubs in London.
Best Historic Pubs in London
1. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese gets top billing on our list of historic pubs because (a) it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1667 so it’s really old and (b) it boasts a small army of famous patrons, including Charles Dickens, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Oscar Twain and Teddy Roosevelt.
But, perhaps one of its most notorious characters associated with the pub was a parrot called Polly. Back in the early 20th century, the resident Grey African parrot gained cult celeb status with her gift for words. She could learn and repeat swearwords and even imitate the sound of a Champagne cork popping. When she passed away in 1936, her death featured in international obituaries and on BBC broadcasts. She was duly dusted and stuffed, then placed above the bar. She’s still there, so make sure to raise a glass to her when you visit. It’s a Sam Smiths pub too, so the beer is happily affordable.
2. The Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden
The Lamb and Flag might look like the oldest pub in London, thanks to its crumbling facade and wonky front door, but the premises was licensed in 1772. Back then it was Cooper’s Arms, but it underwent a rebrand in the 1830s. Given its only a pint-size space, it’s usually pretty busy but it’s mercifully a lot less rowdy than it was a couple of centuries ago. They used to call it the ‘Bucket of Blood’ in the 1800s because it was a popular spot for rowdy bare-knuckle fistfights.
3. The Star Tavern, Belgravia
The Star Tavern is a spritely young thing compared to most of the entries on our list, built in the nineteenth century. Originally, it would have served servants from the local Belgravia mansions. But, it’s most famous for its connection to one of the most daring heists of all time – the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind, and the rest of the gang would meet upstairs to flesh out the details.
In the 1960s, the Star Tavern already boasted a celebrity clientele that included the likes of Bing Crosby, Peter O’Toole and Princess Margaret. Two famous thieves used to frequent the pub too – George Chatham and Peter Scott. Peter Scott once famously burst through the doors of the Star after stealing a £200,000 necklace from Sophia Loren and announced, “I hear poor Sophia has been robbed”, before pulling a huge wad of cash from his pockets.
4. Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, Hatton Garden
It isn’t easy to find this old pub but it’s worth the extra effort. Famous patrons include Elizabeth I, who apparently danced around a cherry tree here with Sir Christopher Hatton. You can see the stump in the outdoor annexe. Weirdly, despite its central location, the pub is still technically part of the Diocese of Ely in Cambridgeshire, since it was originally a tavern for the servants of the Palace of the Bishops of Ely. Up until recently, the licensees used to have to go up to Ely for their licence.
5. The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping
Once a hangout for smugglers and pirates, the Prospect of Whitby dates back to 1520. Its original name was ‘The Pelican’. Locals called it the ‘Devils Tavern’ because its proximity to the river meant that river thieves and local criminals could steal from ships transporting goods to the banks. In the five centuries since it was first built, its clientele has become noticeably more upmarket and everyone from Charles Dickens to Princess Margaret has graced its doors at some point.
You can still spot quite a few of the original features, like the masts and pewter-topped bar. There’s even a noose swinging outside to commemorate George Jeffreys, known as ‘The Hanging Judge’, who used to pop in for a tipple after a long day at the execution dock.
6. The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead
The Spaniards Inn boasts some mighty literature credentials. Charles Dickens immortalized it in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and some say John Keats penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the pub garden. Artist Joshua Reynolds, the poet Lord George Byron and author Bram Stoker were frequent visitors too.
It wasn’t nearly so upmarket when it was built back in 1585 though. Back then, it was a regular haunt for highwaymen and a well-known spot for clandestine meetings.
7. Dirty Dicks, Liverpool Street
OK, so it might not be the most picturesque or the oldest pub in London, but it does have a good story. Few can claim to have passed by the pub along bustling Bishopsgate without raising an eyebrow or pondering what exactly Dick might have done. The pub dates back to 1745, when it was known as ‘The Old Jerusalem’. Around the same time, a merchant called Nathaniel Bentley owned a hardware shop on Leadenhall Street. Tragedy struck when his bride-to-be died on their wedding day. Legend has it that from that moment on, he swore never to wash again. He festered, only changing when his clothes rotted off him.
Some say he was a possible inspiration for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’.
In the 19th century, some savvy owner decided to dedicate the pub to this quirky character, renaming the pub ‘Dirty Dicks’ and recreating the hardware store, complete with original contents from the warehouse. Before you get too revolted, you won’t find any mummified bits out in the open anymore – they’re neatly preserved in a glass display case.