It is becoming a common narrative: the much-loved boozer threatened by big-money development. But the George Tavern isn’t just your average local.
The pub has stood at the cross roads between Commercial Road and Jubilee Street, Stepney, for over 600 years, and counts the likes of Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse and Ian McKellen among its punters. Under the guiding hand of landlady Pauline Forster, the George has developed a name for itself as one of the best live music venues in east London.
But for the last six years, the George has been under threat from plans for a residential development on the site of the adjoining Stepney’s Nightclub, which Forster says would likely lead to the pub losing its license.
A self-described “keen restorer of historic buildings,” Forster first stumbled upon The George in 2003 when looking for somewhere to live in the East End.
“I saw this building in the auction catalogue on Monday, went inside on Wednesday, and bought it,” she says. “I hadn’t thought of opening a pub at all before, but then I saw the bar. It was all there – still full of alcohol and all the chairs and everything. I decided there and then to open it.”
Before it was renamed The George Tavern in the early nineteenth century, the pub was known as The Halfway House, and stood alone on the Queen’s Highway to Essex before London grew up around it. The exact date of its construction is unknown, but an inn at that spot is mentioned in Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, written in the late 1300s, and in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who visited in the 1660s.
When Forster bought it, the grade II listed pub was on a building at risk register. Her first move was to rip out the false ceilings, 80s patterned wallpapers and plastic imitation floorboards to reveal the original decor underneath, and to begin the painstaking process of restoring the pub’s exterior by hand.
Since its reopening, The George has hosted performances by everyone from John Cooper Clarke and Pete Doherty to Snow Patrol and Plan B. Stepney’s, too, has had its musical claim to fame: the club’s famous illuminated dance floor was featured in the video for Pulp’s Common People.
“A couple of weeks ago Anna Calvi did a secret gig here,” Forster says. “She used to play in a band here before she was famous.”
The pub’s unique combination of eclectic interior – this is a woman who has been doing ‘shabby chic’ long before it was in vogue – and 360-degree natural light, means that Forster has been able to supplement income from the bar with location shoots.
“All the magazines” have shot at the George, Forster says, “Tatler, Vogue, i-D.” Over the years, The George has hosted photo-shoots for Justine Timberlake, Georgia Jagger, Grace Jones, and even The Rolling Stones. Nick Cave’s first video with Grinderman was filmed in Pauline’s flat above the bar, as was Kodaline’s video Love Like This.
A conversation with Forster is a bizarrely humble exercise in name-dropping. “Nearly every week there’s somebody coming,” she laughs. “Daisy Lowe was here last week – I didn’t know who she was. It’s just like meeting anybody else really.”
When the first planning application by Swan Housing Association put the pub under threat in 2008, Forster turned to “Amy” – Winehouse – for help.
“She was living just down the road at that point and she said ‘get a t-shirt made’. So I did. And then Kate Moss happened to come in the next day and wore it, and suddenly everyone wants to put it in the newspaper. It became a bit of a hit you know – ‘who’s going to be wearing the t-shirt next?’”
“I was told by everyone, including the council, that they’d win,” says Forster. “But they didn’t realise that Kate Moss was in the house, that Amy Winehouse was in the house.”
The latest in a series of planning battles began a month ago, when Swan appealed a Tower Hamlets Council rejection of their application to demolish Stepney’s and build a six-flat residential development on the site.
Forster fears that, if approved, the development would seriously impair the life of the pub. “It doesn’t matter how you insulate it, someone will complain about the noise and more than likely I would lose my license, or it would be restricted so badly that it would damage business,” she says.
She adds that the three-storey development would also compromise the unusual light that makes The George such a popular location for filming.
Celebrity support for the pub has this time come in the form of East End resident and pub owner, Ian McKellen, who took to Twitter to encourage his followers to support the campaign, and from Kaiser Chiefs front-man Ricky Wilson. This week, a Music Heritage petition against the development garnered over 2,500 signatures.
The deadline for campaigners to submit evidence against the development to Tower Hamlets planning department is March 5.