The London Drinker has recently made reference to the new pub, which the Millennium Dome has spawned. There is still one old pub – the Pilot – functioning at the back end of the Dome site, two others survive albeit renamed, and there are traces of some others in the surrounding area. At one time there were many more – which gradually closed down as the population moved away from the area and factories shut.
Two hundred years ago there were no pubs at all in the area of what was then ‘Greenwich Marsh’ . The area was virtually deserted except for a maze of drains and ponds, intersecting the fields used for grazing cattle and horses. People entered the marsh by walking down Blackwall Lane from the Woolwich Road and on the corner stood the Ship and Billet – very much a local landmark. Over the years the Ship and Billet hosted a number of events – for instance in May 1862 it was the site of a ‘pedestrian match which was won by ‘Deerfoot’, who although behind, put on a spurt at the end and one by eight yards. The pub still survives although it was renamed in the 1980s as ‘The Frog and Radiator’ because a new landlady wanted a distinctive ‘silly’ name. The present building is a Victorian rebuilding of the old pub. (it is now The Duchess Bar)
Before 1800 there was one large industrial building on Greenwich Marsh. This was the Government Gunpowder depot and a memory of it survived in a Greenwich pub until 1846 when it was burnt down. It was called the Royal Magazine and stood in East Street (today Eastney Street). We are told that the landlord’s bedridden mother was saved from the fire by a ‘bold daring young sailor’.
Almost the earliest pub to be found on old maps perhaps the most mysterious. This is Salutation House, after which a modern street in the area was named. It appears briefly in the early nineteenth century and then disappears and it is only a guess that it was a pub at all. There was already a ‘Salutation House’ in Church Street, Greenwich and another in Woolwich. Another short lived mystery was the Morden Castle, advertised for sale in 1849. It was described as being ‘most commandingly situate for business’ and that a spirit licence was shortly to be granted.
It may be that the Morden Castle was an early name for a rather better recorded pub. This was The Sea Witch which stood on the Greenwich riverside until the 1940s when it was destroyed in bombing. This part of the Greenwich riverside was owned by the Blackheath based charity, Morden College and in the late 1830s they leased ‘Great Pitts’ to a developer called Charles Thomas Holcombe. In they reported that he had built a pub on the riverbank at the end of Morden Wharf Road – the lane which today runs from Blackwall Lane down into the Amylum glucose refinery. The pub was on the site of what is now Amylum’s laboratory block, and the pattern of their windows eerily echo those which were on the front of the pub. A plan, of 1879, shows that at one time Sea Witch had a garden on the riverside with the still existing riverside path between it and the pub itself. In 1870 it was a tied house for Gurney Hanbury of Camberwell but a 1937 photograph shows it as a Whitbread House. Why was it called ‘Sea Witch’? In the 1850s there was a famous American Clipper Ship called Sea Witch but different clipper called Sea Witch was built Blackwall Yard, opposite the site of the pub, at about the same time. Both Sea Witches were built to carry opium to China and bring back tea and silk – so I wonder what Mr. Holcombe’s main income was actually derived from!
Alongside the northbound entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel is a shop selling electrical and other equipment. Drivers with sharp eyes will notice that on the wall is a Whitbread sign. This building was the ‘Star in the East’ which opened around 1860. In 1865 it was described as a ‘wine and spirit establishment’ . Star in the East was the name of another Blackwall built opium clipper. The pub was in the papers in 1898 when the landlord was fined for serving a certain Ellen Pope with too many glasses of gin and bitters – despite the fact that she had been barred from the pub some months previously.
There were a number of other pubs in the area about which rather less is known. One of them was the Ordnance Arms in Blackwall Lane – no doubt named for the Blakeley Ordnance Works which was briefly built nearby in the mid-1860s and advertised as a ‘wine and spirit establishment’ . In 1890s am inquest was held there on a baby, Hannah Whitehouse, who drowned in a nearby ditch while her brother and sister were chasing ducks – a vivid reminder of the marshy, semi-rural nature of the area despite all the industry. The pub has not been found on any maps and its exact location is not clear. Two others are shown on the a map of the early 1880s – the Mechanics Arms, at the Blackwall lane end of Morden Wharf Lane, and the Kenilworth Castle in Ordnance Crescent. All of these appear to have been demolished when the Blackwall Tunnel was built.
There is one other old pub near the Dome which is still in use as a drinking establishment of some sort. It is currently being refurbished, yet again, and the new neon sign outside reads ‘Meantime’. Until quite recently it was a night club called Dorringtons, but was originally the Mitre The pub was built alongside the gas works for the use of thirsty gas workers – in 1889 the Gas Company granted a lease to Messrs. Courage for the site. This was a very strange step since the Gas Company generally had a very strong temperance line and the Company Chairman, George Livesey was a national figure in the Band of Hope! For many years the pub has been very isolated and from the 1960s was used for music events – featuring at one time the locally famous Wally Butcher and his Laughing Gravy Orchestra. In the 1970s it became Malcolm Hardee’s notorious Tunnel Club – where ‘alternative’ comedians were booed off the stage faster than they could get on it.
This now leaves that great survivor of the Dome and all its works – The Pilot. The pub dates from just after 1800 – there is a plaque on it which says ‘New East Greenwich 1802′. It was built by a local landowner called George Russell as part of development in what was then a very isolated area. Russell built a large tide mill on the site and alongside a big house and cottages for the workers. These cottages still stand as Ceylon Place – recently listed despite an original plan by the Dome authorities to pull them down. For the last 200 years the Pilot has stood and seen changes all around – the mill was pulled down and replaced by a power station, the great gas works was built to the north and a structural steel works to the south. A lot more houses came and went, as did Greenwich Yacht Club. Now in its third century the pub will no doubt it will see a lot more come and go before it is finished.
It has always been supposed that the pub is called ‘The Pilot’ because river pilots came and went in the area. However research in local archives has shown that at the time the pub was built the area was leased by a group of politicians, including William Pitt, the Younger. Students of political history might remember that in 1802, when the pub and cottages were built, that at a great dinner to celebrate the Peace of Amiens that a song was sung as a tribute to Pitt – the chorus calls him ‘The Pilot who weathered the storm’. So I think that the Pilot is really called after William Pitt.
It seems that at one time workers on Greenwich Marsh were a much thirstier lot than they are now! When the Dome has gone will their new pub survive to join the Pilot – and the renamed Ship and Billet and Mitre.