Thomas a Becket Pub

Above: View of the pub today.

The present pub, built in 1898, stands on the site that was once beside the stream mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is closed at the time of writing and sadly, as with so many pubs in London, its future is uncertain. It has passed through several owners in recent years who have not only run it as a pub but also as a night club and also a restaurant. The sad fact of the matter is that the pub stands on an inhospitable corner – at the junction of Albany Road with Old Kent Road – with endless heavy traffic on both Old Kent Road and also the busy junction of Albany Road. Apart from the large Tesco, on the opposite side of Old Kent Road, which is always busy with shoppers, there is little in the area to attract social groups to meet at the pub with the result that the immediate vicinity has become rather a wasteland.

The pub had a great reputation for its upstairs rooms where well-known boxers used the rings and training facilities to perfect their art. It was known to the boxer Frank Bruno and was the place where Henry Cooper trained. Once a flourishing pub, the premises passed through a few owners who tried in vain to make the premises a success. The last use was as ‘Rock Island’ – a bar and grill which closed in April 2018. Quite what will become of the pub is hard to tell. In 2015 the building was listed as an ‘asset of community value’ under the Localism Act. This followed after a campaign by the Walworth Society which means the building is, therefore, unlikely to be demolished. It stands at 320-322 Old Kent Road.

If you trace the history of the site back to medieval times, you will find that there has been some sort of hostelry on the land from the 14th century onwards. The early hostelry on the site was known as Thomas a Watering. The name relates to Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by four knights inside Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. His tomb in the cathedral became a place where pilgrims flocked within a few years of his martyrdom. Pilgrims starting off from London, travelled to Canterbury via the route that had originally been a Roman road.

The site of the pub is very close to the ancient Southwark-Camberwell parish boundaries, being the last building within the Southwark boundary going east along Old Kent Road.

It is a point on Old Kent Road with plenty of history. In late medieval and Tudor times, it was a place where the Lord Mayor of London would stand to welcome home victorious kings from battles in France and elsewhere. For example, the Mayor and citizens of the City of London waited to greet Henry V and his troops on their return to England on 25 November 1415. The decisive battle had taken place on 25 October 1415 (Saint Crispin’s Day).

On a more grisly note, nearby was the place of execution, by hanging, from at least 1456 until the middle of the 18th century. It was considered a good idea to conduct hangings well away from places where the citizens lived. By setting up a gallows beside the main road, the body could be left to rot and act as a deterrent to those passing by. However, no matter how grim the punishment, most law-breakers knew that the chances of them being caught were very low in those times and a corpse hanging beside the main road did little to reduce crime in general.

Thomas a Watering

Above: A small part of the Chaucer Pilgrims Mural showing the horses and riders at the stream which once flowed across the Old Kent Road. The addition of a bridge probably came one or two centuries after Chaucer’s time.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ to the ‘Canterbury Tales’ tells the reader that there were ‘nine and twenty in the company’ of pilgrims who set off from the Tabard Inn – which was on the east side of Borough High Street. The ‘Tales’ were written in 1386 and while it is a work of fiction, its description of the people in the ‘Prologue’ should not be dismissed as pure fantasy. The stories in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were fiction. They were a reworking of well-known tales. The descriptions of the pilgrims were most likely based on real people that Chaucer either knew or had seen in the street. Chaucer was a keen observer of character and the people he describes seem to leap off the page at the reader.

The pilgrim route to Canterbury from London usually started with people staying at one of the inns in Borough High Street for the night before departure the next day. Chaucer would have known the inns well. He chose the Tabard Inn to set the scene for his ‘Tales’. He might even have known the real landlord. The pilgrim route to Canterbury was via Old Kent Road, Deptford Bridge, Shooter’s Hill, Dartford, Rochester and Faversham. It was the old A2 which in part has been replaced by newer sections and the M2. Only brief mentions of some of the places that the pilgrims passed through are mentioned in the text.

It is believed that the pilgrims took four days to reach Canterbury from London. Since the route is about 60 miles, they must have walked or ridden about 15 miles each day. In fact, the narrative says that by the end of the first day they had only reached Deptford – a distance of four or five miles. Perhaps they travelled further on the other days or just extended the total journey time by a day.

The narrative explains that the pilgrims left early in the morning –

‘Early next morning at the spring of day
Up rose our Host and roused us like a cock,
Gathering us together in a flock,’

The narrative also says that – probably to everyone’s dismay – they were led out of Southwark by the miller playing on his bagpipes –

‘He liked to play his bagpipes up and down
And that was how he brought us out of town.’

Their route would have led south from the Tabard Inn, continuing down Borough High Street to the church of St George the Martyr (now with Borough Underground Station on the opposite corner) where they would have turned left and walked along Tabard Street. It would not have had that name then. The wider Great Dover Street, running parallel, was not constructed until much later.

Following Tabard Street would have brought the pilgrims to what is now a huge roundabout which is the start of Old Kent Road. As the pilgrims followed the road, they would only have to travel a short distance before they reached a tiny stream crossing their path. The horses stopped in their tracks to refresh themselves with a drink of water. As the years went by, a tavern was set up so that the riders could also take some refreshment. The spot became known as ‘Thomas a Watering’ – referring to the fact that the pilgrims were on their way to see the Shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The stream, which was known as Earl’s Sluice, no longer flows above ground. It flowed along the line of today’s Albany Road and crossed Old Kent Road on its way to the Thames.

This location is referred to in Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ with the lines –

‘And off we rode at slightly faster pace
Than walking to St Thomas’ watering-place;
And there our Host drew up, began to ease
His horse, and said, “Now, listen if you please,
My lords! Remember what you promised me.
If evensong and matins will agree
Let’s see who shall be first to tell a tale.’

These lines are right at the end of the ‘Prologue’ and lead to the account of the Knight telling his tale. Today’s Thomas a Becket pub, therefore, has a direct connection with the history of a location on Old Kent Road that goes back over 600 years.

If you go there today you will see the same layout but the stream is no longer visible. The Victorian pub called Thomas a Becket probably stands on the site of the ancient tavern. On the opposite side of Old Kent Road is a large Tesco supermarket. The rather idyllic description of a tiny stream crossing a long country road is rather shattered by what is to be seen there today.


Comment – A Short Break for Easter

We will take a two-week Easter break from the selection of items relating to the theme of Poplar. Starting today, we look at some of the aspects of the pilgrims as described in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. This is something that we have done each year and another two of his colourful characters have been chosen for the coming days.

As it happens, Easter Sunday falls on 21 April and only two days later it is St George’s Day when we usually find some related topic by way of celebration. This year we shall consider two very special London dragons in recognition of the date.


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