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Down the Pub: 10 Interesting Facts and Figures about London Pubs You Might Not Know

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People visit London for plenty of reasons. They love the parks, the theatres of the West End, the museums, and the monuments to history. One experience anyone visit London must have is to experience a real London pub. The first pubs were established as ale houses during the Medieval period, and were actual houses where the homeowner would serve ale he brewed to paying customers. Additionally, inns began to appear that served ale and gave travelers a place to stay. Over time, ale houses became public houses, or pubs. Today, you can find one on nearly every block of London, serving all many of domestic and foreign ales, with some pubs owned by the same family for centuries, while others are managed by corporations. So what interesting facts can we find in the pints of London’s pubs?

Pub for the Off-Key

The Coal Hole pub was named for the coal leavers, workers who unloaded and moved coal by the River Thames. Before it received its current name, it was a private social club called The Wolf Club, and the only way to become a member was for your wife to bar you from singing in the bath. However, this may have just been a pretense for those henpecked husbands to drink a lot in the company of loose women.

Plenty to Choose From

There are over 7,000 pubs in the City of Westminster and the City of London alone.

Pop Goes the Bar Tab

The nursery rhyme, “Pop Goes the Weasel”, actually refers to the act of having to pawn your suit after spending all your money in the pubs of Clerkenwell. One version of the rhyme had the line “Up and down the City Road/In and out the Eagle/That’s the way the money goes/Pop goes the Weasel!”

Gandalf’s Own Pub

It’s not unusual for pubs to have some rich and famous owners. The Limehouse pub known as The Grapes is actually owned by none other than Sir Ian McKellan.

Inventing a New Style

The “porter” style of beer was “officially” invented at the Bell Brewhouse in Shoreditch by Ralph Hardwood in 1722. Prior to that, an ale known as “Three Threads” was a popular choice and was a mixture of pale ale, brown ale, and strong ale. This origin and the name are subject to some speculation and myth. However, as porter started getting popular in England, Arthur Guinness began to make his own version at St. James Gate brewery, producing a stronger version known as Guinness “Extra Stout”.

Naming the Underground

Five of London’s Underground stations are named after pubs that used to be nearby. These include: Angel, Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak, and Swiss Cottage. Of these, The Angel and The Elephant & Castle are the only surviving pubs to share their name with a Tube Station.

Expensive Drinks

The most expensive pint served in London was a Leffe beer that cost £5.80 at the Coach and Horses in 2010. The most expensive cocktail served in London was at the Dukes Hotel in St. James. The £5,500 drink contained vintage bitters, 19th Century cognac, and 18th Century curacao.

It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere

Some pubs in Smithfield and Borough, such as the Fox and Anchor and the Market Porter, are licensed to serve alcohol beginning at 7AM. The reason for this is that it fits in with the hours worked by market porters.

The Biggest Owner

Japanese bank Nomura owns 5,000 pubs and another 2,500 off-license shops, making it the owner of the most alcohol-selling establishments in the city.

Oldest and Smallest

The oldest pub in London is a much-contested title and historians don’t seem to be able to resolve up. Some believe Ye Olde Mitre (believed to have been built in 1546) is the oldest, while others think it could be the Lamb & Flag (with a pub occupying its building since the 17th Century). Meanwhile, under the belief that less is more, some believe The Rake is the smallest pub in the city, though the pub itself disputes this claim. Meanwhile, the Guinness Book of World Records gives the title to The Dove, which has a small room with a bar (as well as a larger room and a patio), not only making it the smallest in London, but the smallest in the world.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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  1. I don’t profess knowledge of nursery rhyme origins but my Scottish clothing mill ancestors told me that a weasel is the device taking up the yarn as it is spun. When it is finished, or full, it collapse making a popping noise. You can see one in action at three World Heritage site, New Lanark, Scotland, a trip worth making for more than a weasel! Look it up! Harry Potter’s sweater wool was spun there. Go to their site and order the kit to make your own!

    • ‘Weasel and Stoat’ is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘Coat’, shortened (as are many ryming-slang terms) to ‘Weasel’. Many would pawn (‘pop’) their Sunday-best coat or suit on a Monday and redeem the pledge for the following weekend….and so on it went. There are other suggestions at to what the slang word ‘Weasel’ represents but this is my preferred version. The old nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’, when referring to “Up and down the City Road, in and out of the Eagle” is a reference to ‘The Eagle’ public house, in Hoxton, which still is open for business, although nowadays is set-back slightly from City Road, at 2 Sheperdess Walk, but likely the land now occupied by the buidlings which stand between it and City Road perhaps was a part of the pub garden at one time and ‘The Eagle’, although in City Road, set-back slightly from it as a consequence.

      • That is my understanding of the skipping song. My Mum was brought up around City road and I lived there for a couple of years. We were brought up in Bournemouth and thought it very funny that the words had to be pronounced “just so” in order to make them rhyme.

  2. the Royal Oak tube station has a pub still there doesn’t it? It used to when I lived in London.

  3. I have a picture of the sign above the door of The Dove (funny). We walked by it on the way to visit my cousin’s allotment, but we didn’t go in. Now I m mad I missed it. Oh well, next visit. I’m pretty sure I could find it again! 🙂

  4. The current pub known as The Angel (a ‘Wetherspoons’) is not the original. That stood on a site adjoining and began life as a coaching inn, about 1619. Rebuilt at the beginning of the 19th century, and again at the beginning of the 20th, it closed 1921, becoming then a Lyons Corner House. Building now occupied as a bank. Incidentally, Despite the fact both buildings stand-together in Islington High Street, neither are in Islington but in Clerkenwell. The original Swiss Cottage pub (in Hampstead) had its name changed to Ye Olde Swiss Cottage and still is open for business.

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