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The French House
Photograph: Ed Marshall The French House, Soho

London’s best historic pubs

Salty sailors, dodgy smugglers and famous regulars - every one of these pubs has a story to tell

By Laura Richards

London is packed with beautiful old pubs; the perfect spot for a cosy pint. But it’s not just beer on offer at these historic inns, there are countless stories worth digging for too. 

Some of London’s pubs date back as far as the 1600s (the jury’s still out over London’s oldest pub) and they’ve gathered a few tales to tell along the way. Over hundreds of years they’ve seen all sorts, from pirates and smugglers at The Prospect of Whitby to Shakespeare at The George Inn. Look beyond the cosy fireplaces and wonky timber beams - there are some truly weird and wonderful backstories to London’s historic boozers.

Historic pubs in London

The Dove

Bars and pubs Pubs Hammersmith

A handbill at the door announces the history of this charming riverside inn (surely the best on this stretch in Hammersmith), featuring the comings and goings of Charles II and Nell Gwyn at the pub. All the authors have paid it a visit – Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas – and William Morris lived next door. Take it all in beneath the exposed ceiling beams or by the roaring fire.

Upstairs at The French House
Upstairs at The French House
Photograph: The French House

The French House

Bars and pubs Pubs Soho

‘The French’, as its regulars call it, has been a buzzing part of the bohemian centre of London for decades. Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Lucian Freud and, er, Suggs have all drunk here. During World War II, Charles De Gaulle and the Free French used the pub as their base. And The French House only serves its beer in halves. Très continental.


The Lamb & Flag

Bars and pubs Pubs Covent Garden

This Covent Garden legend occupies the backstreets away from the tourists. Its courtyard setting is probably how it attracted such a rough-around-the-edges crowd in the nineteenth century, when it hosted bare-knuckle prize fights. Earlier, back in 1679, poet John Dryden took a beating by thugs hired by poet John Wilmot down this back alley. It’s all very convivial these days, mind.

The Mayflower

Bars and pubs Pubs Rotherhithe

Rotherhithe’s riverside beauty of a boozer claims to be the place from which the Mayflower set out to Southampton before sailing off to the Americas. If the old oak beams and nooks and crannies don’t do it for you, the pub has had a licence to sell American stamps since the 1800s thanks to its historic connections, making it a pretty unique proposition.


The Prospect of Whitby

Bars and pubs Pubs Wapping

If it’s the pirate’s life for you, get along to Wapping’s Prospect of Whitby. Smugglers, sailors and dubious sorts were said to frequent the pub (although, all that remains from those swashbuckling days is the flagstone floor). Now it makes for quite a peaceful retreat, if you can handle the replica gallows on the foreshore outside, a reference to the fearsome revolution-suppressing ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffreys, who was a patron of the place.

The Spaniards Inn

Bars and pubs Gastropubs Hampstead Heath

One of the oldest pubs in London is also one of the most charming, perched on a hilltop by Hampstead Heath. It’s been around since 1585 and has had a rollcall of literary Londoners through the doors – think Byron, Keats and Dickens. It even gets a shout-out in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. For more spookiness, ask bar staff for ghost stories that include an otherworldly appearance from highwayman Dick Turpin.


The Star Tavern

Bars and pubs Belgravia

Belgravia’s Star attracted some starry names through the doors in the swinging ’60s, from Peter O’Toole to Diana Dors. Perhaps they were drawn by the dazzle of the less salubrious clientele that cemented its name as a pub with a story. The tale goes that the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery in 1963 planned their attack here. Do some plotting of your own over a pint or two.

The Ten Bells

Bars and pubs Spitalfields

Been on any Ripper tours lately? They’re sure to have led you down to The Ten Bells, a regular haunt for the Victorian prostitutes of the Spitalfields area who became the victims of Jack the Ripper (whoever the hell he/she was). The faded décor and candlelight play into the hands of tourists who’ve heard tales of hauntings.

london's best historic pubs, ye olde cheshire cheese
london's best historic pubs, ye olde cheshire cheese
© Laurence Davis

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Bars and pubs Pubs Fleet Street

Ah, the Cheese. This pub is so renowned for its history that we’ve been stopped right outside it by tourists looking for the entrance. It’s down a side alley, you guys. And it’s totally worth getting lost in the pub’s many atmospheric crannies, restored after the Great Fire of London and frequented by PG Wodehouse and Dickens (obvs).

London's best historic pubs, ye olde mitre tavern
London's best historic pubs, ye olde mitre tavern
Photograph: Ross Fortune

Ye Olde Mitre Tavern

Bars and pubs Pubs Holborn

Try shaking the folklore from your pint in Ye Olde Mitre. This low-ceilinged inn dates back to 1546 and backs on to the courtyard in which Queen Elizabeth I is once said to have danced. Oddly enough, the pub was originally licensed to the Bishop of Ely in Cambridgeshire and used to be guarded by his frock-coated officials.


The George Inn

Bars and pubs Borough

Every historic pub in London claims a connection with Charles Dickens, but not many can big up William Shakespeare as a fan. The Bard propped up the bar here and his plays were performed in the courtyard to the balconies of watchers (the galleries remain intact to this day). The George also shared a courtyard with lost pub The Tabard, where Chaucer set the beginning of ‘The Canterbury Tales’.


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