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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (71) 7 August 2023

Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, Tamworth … built in 1829 and rebuilt in 1954-1956 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford
We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (6 August 2023), which many parishes also celebrated as the Feast of the Transfiguration. The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today recalls the life and work of John Mason Neale, Priest, Hymn Writer, 1866 (7 August).

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection. As I have recently spent a number of days looking at the windows in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, I am reflecting in these ways for the rest of the week:

1, Looking at some other churches in Tamworth;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The icon of Saint Editha by Ian Knowles in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint John’s Church (Roman Catholic), Saint John Street, Tamworth:

Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church in the corner of Saint John Street and Orchard Street in Tamworth, was built almost 200 years agoin 1829. The building is more of historical interest as an ambitious town church at the time of Catholic Emancipation than for its heavily compromised architectural qualities.

This church was designed as a large neoclassical church by Joseph Potter (1756–1842) from Lichfield, who supervised the alterations to Lichfield Cathedral in 1788–1793 and who was also the architect of Holy Cross Church, Lichfield (1835), and Saint Mary’s College, Oscott (1835-1838).

Saint John’s Church was remodelled and extended and given a distinctly post-war character in 1954-1956, and its brick exterior makes it look like a 20th century church.

Saint John’s Church has recently received interesting icons by Ian Knowles and its partner Church of the Sacred Heart church has a new Cross in the sanctuary.

I have long been interested in visiting the church, not only because of because these interesting icons by Ian Knowles, but also because of the earlier involvement of the Comberford family in Catholic and recusant life in Tamworth until the late 17th century.

Finally, after many years, I was able to visit Saint John’s Church earlier this year, before attending a lunch in the Castle Hotel celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Tamworth and District Civic Society.

For his commission for the icons in Saint John’s Church, Ian Knowles researched the life and story of Saint Editha, the patron saint of Tamworth, who gives her name to Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church.

Describing his commission for the icon of Saint Editha and the other icons in Saint John’s Church, In Knowles says: ‘Sometimes saints really are lost to us in all but name, but where possible it is important to try and be as tuned in as possible to the saint as a living person whose commitment to Christ was lived out with such luminosity.’

Before beginning his work on this series of icons, Ian Knowles realised that it ‘is not clearly identifiable which St Editha this is.’

He found the earliest mention associating Saint Editha with Tamworth is the celebration of a Mass in her honour there in the ninth century.

Saint Editha is mentioned as Saint Ealdgyth in the Secgan, an 11th century Anglo- Saxon list of where English saints are buried and where their relics are venerated. Her relics are listed as being buried at Polesworth on the River Oncer or ‘Anker’. Ian wondered whether Saint Editha of Polesworth is the same as Saint Editha of Tamworth.

Polesworth is near Tamworth, and during the Norman period had the same feudal lord in the Marmion family. According to legend, Saint Editha of Polesworth appeared in a dream to Marmion of Tamworth Castle in the 12th century a to remonstrate with him over the eviction of her nuns from the monastic foundation he had suppressed.

. The main source for her life is in the ‘Life and Miracles of St Modwenna’ by Geoffrey, Abbot of nearby Burford in Staffordshire (1114-1150). He identified Saint Modwenna with Saint Monenna, an Irish noblewoman, abbess and saint. He believed that St Eadgyth who was a her companion during her travels in England and on pilgrimage to Rome, was the same as his Saint Eadgyth or Saint Editha of Polesworth.

Other sources suggest Saint Editha was the daughter of Edward the Elder, sister of King Aethelstan who had his court nearby in Tamworth and whose unnamed sister was married briefly to Sitric, King of Dublin and York.

In his research, Ian Knowles also came across the story of Saint Eadgyth of Aylesbury, also known as Eadridus. She is said to have been a daughter of Penda of Mercia, who converted to Christianity, marking the beginning of the evangelisation of the Mercians.

As a result of his research, Ian Knowles has tried to summarise the life of Saint Editha. He concludes she was born into the royal Mercian household, a daughter of King Penda, and entered the monastery at Whitby with other English noblewomen, perhaps under the influence or at the direction of Saint Modwenna but certainly her eventual companion.

Her father King Penda gave her a parcel of land in now Polesworth near Tamworth to found a monastic settlement, and this became a small community who lived a semi-hermitical life. She was buried in Polesworth, and later was venerated in Tamworth when it became the seat of the Mercian royal court.

Ian Knowles doubts that he can ‘push much further than this’ in identifying who Saint Editha is. He describes her as a person of sufficient faith that miracles were associated with her in her lifetime, and she inspired other women to join her in her community.

The four icons by Ian Knowles in the sanctuary in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, depict Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist (the church’s patron) and Saint Elizabeth, the mother of Saint John the Baptist.

On a future visit to Tamworth, I must endeavour to visit Sacred Heart Church on Silver Link Road, Glascote Heath, to see his Tamworth Cross in the sanctuary.

Inside Saint John’s Church in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 14: 13-21 (NRSVA):

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16 Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17 They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18 And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The sanctuary and altar in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, with the four icons by Ian Knowles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘A reflection on the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-13).’ This theme was introduced yesterday by Archbishop Linda Nicholls, who has been the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada since 2019.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We thank you for being a God of liberation, for you are ever seeking to bring us into the joy of your salvation; into a just, equitable, and holistic celebration of life.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Inside Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The four icons by Ian Knowles depict Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)