07 August 2023

The George Inn in
Southwark is the only
surviving galleried
coaching inn in London

The George lnn on Borough High Street, Southwark, is London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

When we were visiting Southwark Cathedral last week, two of us also called in to the George lnn on Borough High Street, an old galleried coaching inn with claims to literary associations with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens.

The George was once a mediaeval coaching inn and is now owned by the National Trust. It is 250 metres from the south side of the River Thames near London Bridge and is London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn.

The George says it was established in 1542, but a pub has stood on the site since mediaeval times, and it was once known as the George and Dragon. Saint George’s Church on Borough High Street dates back more than 900 years to 1122, if not earlier, and Saint George’s is also the name of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark.

Before Westminster Bridge was built, Borough High Street was the only connection from the south bank of the Thames to London on the north bank. For centuries, the only way of crossing between the City of London and Southwark was by London Bridge. Because of this strategic location, Southwark became not only a suburb of the city, but a market town too. Travellers found it easier to conduct business in Southwark and to stay there overnight.

The George is the last surviving coaching inn in Southwark … at one time Southwark had 23 inns like this (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Borough High Street had many large coaching inns with courtyards surrounded by multi-tier galleries. There were 23 coaching inns, including the Bear, the Queen’s Head, the King’s Head, the Catherine Wheel, the Tabard, the White Hart, and the George. These inns are now all gone, apart from the George.

The mediaeval inn on the site of the George was next to an inn where Chaucer set The Canterbury Tales. The White Hart, immediately to the north, was demolished in the 19th century. The Tabard, to the immediate south, is described by Chaucer, but it too was demolished in the 19th century. Nearby, the Queen’s Head was owned by the family of John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University who is remembered in the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral.

The earliest known reference of the George Inn is on a map dated 1542. However, it is difficult to be sure of the date when the inn first opened. The George lnn was already well established during the reign of Henry VIII, and the first known innkeeper was Nicholas Marten in 1558.

Like other galleried inns, it may have been a venue for Elizabethan theatrical productions in the inn-yard theatre, and local lore, quite naturally, claims Shakespeare frequented the George while his plays were being staged at the Globe.

Local lore and legend claim Shakespeare frequented the George Inn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Stow, in his ‘Survey of Loudon’ in 1598, listed the George as one of the eight fair inns. By then, William Grubbe was the landlord, and his widow, Elizabeth, took over the inn in 1622 and rebuilt it.

Nicholas Andrews owned the George lnn by 1668, and leased it to Thomas Underwood for £150 per annum. Underwood’s widow Mary remarried Mark Weyland, who rebuilt the inn in 1670 after a fire burnt down part of the inn, barns and stables.

The Southwark fire in 1676 began in premises between the George Inn and the Tabard lnn. The fire raged throughout Southhwark for two whole days before it was brought under control. More than 500 houses had been destroyed, along with the George lnn and all its outbuildings.

Within a year, Weyland had rebuilt the George, and the oldest part of the present inn dates back to that rebuilding. Despite appearances, the oldest part of the building is the ungalleried section with a brick exterior.

The tiered galleries ensured bedrooms had windows, light and fresh air (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The tiered galleries on the other half of the building have a romantic appearance associated with coaching inns. But thy had a practical purpose too, ensuring bedrooms backing onto other buildings had windows, light and fresh air.

As a child, Charles Dickens walked from Camden Town to Southwark every Sunday to visit his father, wo was sent to Marshalsea Prison as a debtor in 1824. This period had a profound effect on Dickens, and he refers to the George in both Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. In Little Dorrit, young Tip goes into the George to write begging letters.

Frances Scholefield, a widow, was running the George by 1844. By then, railways were a real threat to the coaching trade and the railways had reached Southwark, creating London Bridge Station. With a declining need for the inn’s stables, Scholefield leased some of them to neighbouring Guy’s Hospital, which wanted to buy the premises to enlarge the hospital grounds.

Despite the expansion of the railways, the inn continued to be busy. On census night in 1851, 15 people were staying in the George, including a sailor, an architect, a commercial traveller, two waggoners and a customs house clerk, as well as the resident staff.

As time moved on, however, fewer travellers stayed at the inn, and rooms that had once been bedrooms were used by commercial travellers to show their goods. During the week, the inn served hot meals and liquid refreshments to dealers, merchants and local residents, and became a meeting place.

The Great Northern Railway bought the inn from Guy’s Hospital for almost £14,000 in 1874. It used the George as a depot and pulled down two of its fronts to build warehousing, leaving just the south face.

The George lnn is owned and leased by the National Trust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Miss Agnes Murray was running the George in the 1920s. She traded on reminiscences of a Dickensian inn and she refrained from modernising the George to suit the changing times. Scholars and fans of Dickens and local history societies were regular clients, and the courtyard became the venue for open-air plays. Eminent visitors included Winston Churchill who brought his own port – although Agnes Murray charged him 4s 6d corkage.

Agnes Murray died in 1934, and she wasfollowed by Harold and Leslie Staples, enthusiastic fans of Dickens who became known as the ‘Cheeryble Brothers’ after two characters in Nicholas Nickelby.

When it became clear the structure was unstable, the LNER made a gift of the George lnn to the National Trust. Later, it was leased to Flowers, a brewery based in Stratford-upon-Avon with a reputation for restoring historic inns – and strengthening the connection with Shakespeare, who had lived and worked in Southwark.

Shakespeare’s plays were regularly performed in the yard of the George in the 1930s, and this tradition has continued.

Flowers were taken over by Whitbread in 1962, and the George is now part of the Greene King chain.

Shakespeare’s plays were regularly performed in the yard of the George in the 1930s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The George is a listed Grade I buillding, and is listed in the Campaign for Real Ale’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

The building is partly timber framed. The ground floor has a number of connected bars: the Parliament Bar used to be a waiting room for coach passengers; the Middle Bar was the Coffee Room, which was frequented by Charles Dickens. The former bedrooms upstairs in the galleried part of the building have become a restaurant.

It is not surprising that, alongside its literary associations with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, the George should also celebrate its proximity to Southwark Cathedral. Rooms available for hire for birthdays, weddings, quiz nights, meetings or a family get-together include the Winchester Room and the Talbot.

The Diocese of Southwark was created in 1905 from part of the Diocese of Rochester. But before 1877, most of the area was part of the Diocese of Winchester, and Winchester Palace, a 12th-century palace in the parish of Southwark, was the London townhouse of the Bishops of Winchester until about 1700.

Edward Stuart Talbot (1844-1934), the first Bishop of Southwark, was successively Bishop of Rochester, Bishop of Southwark and Bishop of Winchester. He is buried in Southwark Cathedral.

The Winchester Room and the Talbot are reminders of the links between the Diocese of Winchester and the Diocese of Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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