Above: Looking east at the front of the Trafalgar Tavern.
Before explaining the history of the tavern, it should be mentioned that Greenwich became a sort of ‘seaside resort’ for Victorians on Bank Holidays. Until the early 19th century, various Saint’s Days were often declared public holidays but they were not always recognised nationally. Until 1834, the Bank of England observed about 33 Saints’ Days and religious festivals as holidays but in that year this was reduced to four. The first official bank holidays were the four days named in the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 – Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. Christmas Day had always been a public holiday.
When the Act came into general use, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the August Monday became traditional days for working people to ‘let their hair down’ and have a good day out in the good weather. Working people did not enjoy a couple of weeks paid leave for a long holiday. That came much later. The Bank Holidays were seen a ‘mini holiday’. In Victorian times, large paddle steamers conveyed crowds of pleasure seekers down the Thames to places like Gravesend, Southend and even Margate. Those living in London who did not intend to go so far, often opted for a day out at Greenwich. People arrived in their droves which led to large pubs being built, to cater to their needs.
On the riverfront, where the tea clipper called the ‘Cutty Sark’ is now situated, was a very large pub called the Ship Tavern, with origins going back to 1649. It was last rebuilt about 1880 but it was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War and never restored.
Standing further east, the Trafalgar Tavern was just as famous. It was last rebuilt in 1837, in an elegant Regency style, on the site of the George Tavern, by Joseph Kay. He was the architect for the Greenwich Hospital Estate. It is one of the largest pubs anywhere in London. The Tavern was immortalised by Charles Dickens in ‘Our Mutual Friend’, first published in 1865.
Outside the Tavern is a statue of Horatio Nelson that was unveiled in 2008, sculpted by a local artist, Lesley Pover. It was commissioned by the owner of the Tavern – the entrepreneur Frank Dowling. Pover was provided with a studio behind the Tavern in which to work, which took two years to complete. She had access to Nelson’s life mask and also to original archives in the National Maritime Museum, at Greenwich. By the way, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21 October 1805. During the battle, Nelson was shot by a French musketeer and died shortly before the battle ended.
Above: Trafalgar Tavern from the river with the backdrop of the trees in Greenwich Park in the distance.
When Bank Holidays were established, Greenwich and Greenwich Park became a playground for the masses for just one day. Of course, having a ‘pint’ to drink and finding some winkles to eat were all part of the day out and both the Ship Tavern and the Trafalgar Tavern were among the many places that provided food in abundance.
The Trafalgar Tavern was also noted for its Whitebait suppers, accompanied by iced punch or champagne and usually followed by hangovers. The supper was held for the Liberals, the last of which was in 1883 when the outgoing Cabinet of Gladstone’s ministers dined together. At Greenwich, the Trafalgar Tavern was the Liberal venue and the Ship Tavern was the haunt of the Tories.
The Trafalgar Tavern closed in 1915 and in the late 1930s there were plans to demolish it. The building remained until the 1960s and was eventually restored and reopened in 1965. Since that time it has gone from strength to strength and is one of the popular riverside hostelries at Greenwich. The address is Park Row, SE10. The Grade II listed building stands at the river-end of Park Row, just east of the Royal Naval College. The principal rooms are named after Nelson and his associates. The cast-iron balconies, overhanging the river, imitate the ship’s gallery of a man-o-war.