LONDON (Reuters) – When the Greenwich Pensioner was built in 1827, the girl who would become Queen Victoria was 8 years old and John Quincy Adams was serving as the sixth president of the United States.
Since then, the pub in London’s East End has survived two world wars, including bombings that flattened the houses next to it, four cholera epidemics and the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of a century ago.
It has also survived another kind of blight: a decades-long decline in the industry that has killed thousands of British pubs. The working-class Poplar neighbourhood, which long ago buzzed with workers from the nearby shipping docks on the Thames, once was home to more than 340 pubs. Today, just 12 remain.
Now the Pensioner faces yet another existential threat. On March 20, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the closure of Britain’s pubs and restaurants to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has now killed more than 50,000 people in the United Kingdom. After the announcement, owner Tadgh Barry shut the Pensioner’s narrow wooden doors and walked away from the pub that he had brought back to life two years ago.
He left behind the kind of place where old-school East Enders stopped round at 4 o’clock for their daily pint. Where wayward businesspeople walked the 20 minutes from the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of the Canary Wharf financial district. Where local Member of Parliament Apsana Begum and her campaigners could sometimes be spotted at a table by the window.
Under lockdown, the regulars are reduced to virtual pub nights with friends on Zoom and solitary pints behind the locked doors of self-isolation, barred from places so central to British social life, the word pub is an abbreviation of their original name: “public houses.”
Pubs – and London pubs in particular – loom large in British popular culture. “EastEnders,” a long-running BBC soap opera, revolves around a watering hole called the Queen Vic. Harry Potter entered Diagon Alley, London’s wizardry emporium, through another fictional pub called the Leaky Cauldron.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, many Brits tweeted that they wanted to “go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all this to blow over.” That’s a line from the cult comedy “Shaun Of the Dead,” in which the eponymous hero survives a zombie invasion by sheltering in a London pub called the Winchester Tavern.
“The pub is there to stave off the chilblains of loneliness for a lot of people,” said Alistair von Lion, 39, a London pub reviewer and fan of the Pensioner, whose sign bears a painting of a peg-legged Royal Navy pensioner from two centuries ago.
“It feels old, it feels London, it’s not been touched by time,” he said. “You’re drinking it in, the atmosphere, and that’s part of what makes the perfect pub.”
The impact of its closure rippled out through the community the pub sustained.
The Pensioner is part of a network of small businesses that rely on one another. Barry gets his meat from a butcher in Bethnal Green, some of his beer from a brewery in Tottenham Hale and his vodka and gin from the East London Liquor Company.
Three months after the shutdown, the government appears to be moving toward reopening the country’s pubs as the summer beckons and coronavirus infections fall. For now, however, the Pensioner’s wooden chairs and plush red benches are empty, and it’s hard to imagine a time when they’ll be full once again with drinkers sitting elbow to elbow, leaning in close to chat over the din of the pub.
Barry says he can feel the ghosts of the past at the Pensioner. These days, it feels like they’re keeping company with the ghosts of the present, too.
In 1807, the East India Dock Company cleared the land that would later house the Pensioner, razing a terrace of brickmakers’ cottages and laying out streets named after the company’s directors: Wells, Woolmore and Cotton.
After All Saints Church was built in 1823, the land west of Bazely Street – named for a British admiral who captured an American warship during the War of Independence – was auctioned off by the vestry. And in 1827, James Hammack of Mile End built the Greenwich Pensioner public house.
When Barry found the Pensioner two years ago, he fell in love with the still-lovely tiled exterior of the Grade II-listed building, a marking that identifies the structure’s historical and architectural significance. The interior, on the other hand, had seen better days.
“It was the outside of the place. It’s beautiful,” said Barry, a 36-year-old craft beer aficionado who had spent more than a decade behind the bar at other pubs. “It wasn’t so beautiful within.”
Even though some locals said the place seemed cursed because of a string of unlucky owners, Barry saw potential in the regenerating neighbourhood. And he came to think of himself as the Pensioner’s last chance.
“Underneath the layers of green paint, I knew there was beauty,” he said.
After months of work, Barry reopened the pub, transforming it from a scruffy one-room boozer to a cozy hub of the residential area. He’d thrown his heart into the redecoration. He commissioned his best friend, a carpenter, to rebuild the wooden bar, and did much of the mossy-green paintwork himself. But he didn’t erase the pub’s past: In the men’s toilet, sepia-toned photographs show men in caps and three-piece suits outside an older iteration of the Greenwich Pensioner, beneath signs for “Taylor Walker & Co.” and “Ales Stout & Porter.”
The community welcomed back the Pensioner with open arms. But this year, even before the shutdown, times were hard for the pub. A week before temporarily closing his doors, Barry wrote on the Pensioner’s Facebook page: “Tough start to year for pubs. Dry January hits us with the same force as a spade to the face. February was so wet no one could be arsed to leave their house/flat. Now in March, Coronavirus has struck fear in to a nation.”
The closure left him crushed.
“At the moment, that pub is just a glorified storage unit. It’s where my stuff is kept, but I don’t get to use it,” he said back in April.
By that time, he had spent a month at home, taking care of his 2-year-old son, Zephan, and waiting out the lockdown. But as the situation worsened in Britain, he figured it would be a long time before he would open again.
“Pubs will be one of the last things to be allowed to get back to normal because they’re not considered an essential part of life – although it depends on how you look at it,” he said. “I think they’re essential.”
The government did designate liquor stores as essential businesses, and they’ve remained open in the lockdown. Some breweries and pubs have recently reopened to sell alcohol for takeaway only.
To keep busy, Barry began offering a weekly, curated beer scheme to friends and customers. He calls it “A Good Drop” and packages the boxes of six hand-picked craft beers in a garden shed, working alongside his wife, who is a fashion designer, and Zephan.
“People are thinking: ‘I’ll buy from this guy. It might cost a couple of quid more, but I’m helping him survive and come out the other side,'” Barry said. His usually cheery face turned somber when asked about the pub’s finances.
“You can’t completely stop your outgoings,” he said. “You can furlough your staff and shut your doors, but the landlord is still going to want to be paid.”
For Dave Gurney, a Pensioner regular who lives around the corner from the pub, the shutdown put a pause on many of his friendships.
“I didn’t know many people around here until I started going to that pub,” said Gurney, 42, who has lived in the area for 11 years. Before the lockdown, he spent at least three afternoons a week at the Pensioner. Now, his regular table gathers dust in the corner beside cardboard boxes filled with glassware.
His drinking mate, a 70-year-old East Ender whom everyone knows as “Old Jack,” hasn’t emerged from his flat across the street except to tell Gurney through the mail slot that he’s doing all right.
It’s probably for the best, said Gurney, who worries about the toll the virus might take on the man.
Gurney, who works as a software engineer for the government, has been subscribing to Barry’s beer delivery service. He feels a sense of loyalty to the pub and to Barry, and he’s been looking after the building during lockdown.
“You can tell someone who knows how to run a pub,” he said. “The way he decorated, done it up and the effort he put into it.”
Last month, Gurney stopped by the shuttered pub with his 4-year-old daughter to spend a couple hours with Barry while he was being photographed for this article. Barry asked if he was enjoying the week’s beer selection, which featured a New England IPA from Pressure Drop Brewing.
He nodded, but then added, “It’s not the same.”
Two hours north of the pub in Upwell, England, Yvan Seth of Jolly Good Beer is one of Barry’s suppliers. Seth came to Britain from Australia in 2006 to work in information technology and turned a passion for craft beer – or what he prefers to call modern beer – into a company.
In 2014, he formed Jolly Good Beer, which he built from “me and a van and a refrigerated shipping container.” Six years later, the distribution company boasts five vehicles, 14 employees and over 300 customers, from shops to pubs.
Now, his employees are all on furlough, and Seth is surviving on a small grant he received from his local authority.
“It’s a drop in the ocean – but a very welcome drop in the ocean, because it’s another £10,000 I can pay out to brewers,” the 40-year-old said. “We’re all in this holding pattern, where cash flow in the industry has ceased. And we’re hoping and waiting for the cash flow to return, which is going to take pubs like the Pensioner reopening and bringing money back in the door.”
He thinks the industry won’t see a full recovery for at least a year from now, until there’s a well-deployed vaccine, but he thinks pubs will endure.
“There will be some impact, but it won’t be the long-term death of the pubs,” he said. “It’s hard to do the same on Zoom.”
At first, the coronavirus pandemic left public servants rushing to take care of residents’ immediate needs, such as delivering food parcels and medicine to the vulnerable and elderly. But as time passed in lockdown, a second wave of need hit London: the need caused by isolation.
“Loneliness is multigenerational,” said Gabriela Salva Macallan, 37, a local councillor in London’s Tower Hamlets borough, where the pub is situated. “Isolation within our society – not just in Tower Hamlets – is a much wider problem.”
Macallan said pubs play a pivotal role in London’s social fabric by creating spaces that bring people of different ethnicities, social classes and education together to celebrate and to commiserate. She said they also can help residents who fall through the cracks of society – the ones who might not socialise online or write their councillor.
“Community pubs are really quite an important part of East London,” said Macallan, who grew up in nearby Bethnal Green and cycles down Bazely Street on her route home. “It’s hard for people to find community spaces where they can meet, and it’s becoming harder and harder in Tower Hamlets.”
For the Barry family, the pub’s history is personal. Their late father grew up in East London and had dreams of opening a bar.
“It just seemed so right,” said Trudy Barry, 26, Tadgh’s sister, who bartended four days a week and worked as a DJ elsewhere the other nights.
The Pensioner sits in a residential area, which means staff served the same people over and over, the kind of regulars who might have had a bad day and want to talk to the bartender about it.
People who pack into pubs in central London or the hip East London neighbourhoods of Dalston and Hackney Wick “go there to meet friends,” she said. “They don’t go there to make friends.”
The Pensioner has more of an old-school cockney vibe. “There have been staff members who haven’t lasted very long because they come in with this mentality that they’re just there to serve beer,” she said.
In lockdown, she’s filled her time doing exercise classes and running. She says she doesn’t miss the late nights, but she misses talking to that community of people. A few have messaged her on Instagram, but the majority of the pub’s patrons aren’t online, she said.
Before her brother bought the place, it “had a bit of a reputation,” she said. Fights weren’t exactly rare. “We still get people coming in and saying, ‘Oh, this place has changed a lot.'”
THE PUB LOVER
Before Tadgh Barry took over the place, the Greenwich Pensioner was run-down and “pretty feral,” says Alistair von Lion, the London pub reviewer.
In 2016, Von Lion wrote a critique of the pub under a previous owner, warning potential patrons off an after-work pint. “Bit of a mistake,” he wrote. “Grim one room drinker, not very welcoming … and, to top it all off, one of the punters dogs took a sh*t on the sofa. I drank my pint quickly and left.”
But Barry gave the Pensioner a second life. Now, Von Lion says, walking around the back of Old Saints Church and down Bazely Street, it feels like you’re stepping back in time. The bold Taylor Walker font gracing the pub’s entrance serves as a reminder of just how few independent establishments like the Pensioner survive today. Founded in Limehouse in 1730, Taylor Walker & Co. Ltd. is now part of Britain’s largest chain of pubs and brewers, Greene King, which sold to a Hong Kong firm last year.
“The Pensioner will probably be the first pub that I go back to,” Von Lion said. “I’m careful about championing independent pubs because I believe in what they’re doing. They’re providing that lifeline, that pastoral link, to people, and it’s vital to the community.”
Until the photo shoot for this story a few weeks ago, owner Barry hadn’t been back to the Pensioner since he locked its doors in March.
“It’s surreal,” he said, looking around at the empty, shuttered space. In one corner, a neglected fern drooped sideways, half its leaves yellow. Rocky, a black cat with a heart-shaped patch on his chest whom Barry calls the pub’s most frequent visitor, was nowhere to be seen.
He’s negotiated a discount on his rent and is staying hopeful.
“I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “We’ll come out the other side of it. Once the pubs do finally reopen, people will be desperate to go to those places. They’ll be in for some of the busiest weeks they’ve ever had.”
(Reporting by Reade Levinson; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall in London.)