Above: The pub with its beer-garden seen behind some of the market stalls.
They always say ‘The Blind Beggar Pub, Bethnal Green’ – which is true – giving the impression that the pub is at the ‘centre’ of Bethnal Green – which would probably be defined as where the ‘green’ of Bethnal Green is to be found today. In fact, the pub is within the old boundary of Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green – but only just. It stands at the southernmost part of the Metropolitan Borough, facing onto Whitechapel Road, at No 337, of the west corner where it joins onto Cambridge Heath Road.
It would probably be true to say that the Blind Beggar is the most famous (or infamous) pub in the East End and certainly one of the most famous pub names in the whole of London. The name is known to those who have never even visited the East End of London.
A Few Dates
According to documentary evidence, the name first appeared about 1570 as ‘Blind Beggar of Bednall-greene’. It was also referred to as the ‘Old Blind Beggar’ [Lillywhite; n3522 p57, n10895 p385]. There was a ‘Blind Beggar’ pub (or ‘Old Blind Beggar’) in Roman Road from at least the 17th century. There have also been several pubs by the same name in the area of Roman Road over the centuries.
There has been a pub on the site of today’s pub, in Whitechapel Road, since 1673. In 1866 the Blind Beggar was purchased by Mann, Crossman & Paulin, at the Albion Brewery adjoining the pub. The present pub was rebuilt in 1894 to designs by Robert Spence, who was the brewery’s engineer and architect. The interior of the pub was decorated with polished pink granite pilasters and a central column support for a double arch below the eccentrically trimmed red-brick upper storeys. Inside, the blood-red ceilinged interior has been much remodelled.
The Story Behind the Name
The name is said to refer to the de Montford family. Simon de Montfort died in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham. It is said that his son Henry, who was fighting alongside his father, also fell at the battle, being wounded and blinded. Legend says that he was found by a baron’s daughter who took care of him, nursed him back to health, they fell in love and were married. In later years their daughter Bessie used to accompany her father around the streets of Bethnal Green.
It is said that Bessie grew up to be beautiful but she could not find a husband – the problem being her father. Bessie was courted by four suitors – a rich gentleman, a knight, a London merchant and the son of an innkeeper. Most of them withdrew from being suitors when they met Montford to ask for the old soldier’s consent to the marriage. In a predictably medieval twist, the courtly knight was the only man who could see past the seeming lack of a dowry to the woman he loved.
By 1690, the Beadle of Bethnal Green carried the badge of the Blind Beggar on his ceremonial staff. And in the 18th century, every pub in the area bore the image of the beggar on their signs. Even Kirby’s Castle, a lunatic asylum, was dubbed the Blind Beggar’s House in 1727.
Sinister Events in the 1960s
There are also other more recent names associated with the pub – those of the Kray twins and of the events that took place there. The Krays were notorious local gangsters who ruled over most of the East End in the 1950s and 1960s. The pub was a regular haunt for both the twins, their gang members and other local criminals.
On the 9 March 1966, Ronnie Kray entered the pub and shot dead George Cornell in the saloon bar. Cornell was a member of a rival group of gangsters and he had spent some time winding Ronnie up by calling him ‘a big fat poof’. This may have been the reason Ronnie shot him, although some sources think that he did it to send a message to Cornell’s bosses – the Richardson Brothers, – who were in dispute with the Krays.
In either case, Cornell could not control himself and started mocking the mentally unstable Ronnie when he came into the pub. Ronnie calmly took out a gun and shot him in the head. He died later that night in hospital. The Kray’s companion shot his gun at the ceiling a few times to distract the people sitting in the pub and probably to give them the message that they should not talk to the police about the shooting. Although there were a few witnesses at the scene who told police that Ronnie Kray had definitely been the shooter, all of them were too scared to testify. It took the police until 1969 before they could charge Ronnie with George Cornell’s murder.
The Pub Today
The pub is still open, standing on the north side of Whitechapel Road. The brewery building still stands on its west side of the pub but the rest of the site – to the north – has been demolished and used for other developments. The brewery’s use for its original purpose ceased in 1979. The pavement outside is in use most days of the week by Whitechapel Market, a street market whose eastern extent is just outside the pub.