Image Credit: Penguin Books Ltd
It is 1859. A stone’s throw from the Thames, Mr George Grinslade is wiping down the counter of The George Inn, Borough High Street, Southwark. There are already a number of patrons occupying the inn’s many rooms: ostlers and labourers enjoying a smoke over a tankard of ale, coach drivers stopping for a pint whilst they wait for fresh horses, and overnight residents considering alighting from their beds. Along with the illustrious newspapers of the day, the latest instalment of A Tale of Two Cities is being read by several gentlemen—its author a known frequenter of the very pub they are now sat in.
This galleried inn, with its crooked rooms and bustling atmosphere, was the inspiration for many scenes in Charles Dickens’ novels. In Little Dorrit, published in book form in 1857, the titular character’s brother, Tip, makes his way to the pub to write begging letters on behalf of his imprisoned family. The White Hart mentioned in The Pickwick Papers is also regarded as an early depiction of the George. However, Dickens wasn’t the only literary figure to include the pub in his writing. In Pete Brown’s book, Shakespeare’s Local, it is suspected that Shakespeare may even have frequented the inn, and perhaps had his plays performed in the cobblestone courtyard outside. Travelling back another 300 years, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales opens “In Southwark at the Tabard”- the Tabard being one of the George’s neighbouring alehouses.
To return to Mr Grinslade’s era, who was almost an exact contemporary of Dickens, we can imagine further the variety of people he would have served on a regular basis. Situated just a hair's breadth away from the site of the Old Marshalsea prison, notorious for its incarceration of the poorest of London’s debtors, as well as political figures accused of sedition and men charged with crimes at sea, the George would have attracted as wide-ranging a clientele as the Marshalsea.
Dickens’ own mother, father, and four younger siblings were confined there in 1824 when his father owed £40 to a local baker. They were only released on the promise of Charles’ salary, which he was forced to earn by working at a shoe-blacking factory (an experience which formed the basis for the workhouse in Oliver Twist). The George Inn would have served as a focal point for all this activity: wagons stopping off from taking prisoners to Marshalsea, desperate fathers writing begging letters to relations, and wealthier tradesmen enjoying a joint of mutton and a glass of port. A multitude of stories just waiting to be written.
Consequently, we may well wonder how many of literature’s greats have looked in at The George in passing. From religious pilgrimages to theatrical performances, it is an institution that has connected locals through centuries of historical change. Despite fire, plague, and flood (and even a few highwaymen thrown in for good measure), it remains a welcoming hub for the community and a place of refuge and refreshment for the weary. Now owned by The National Trust, it is on every tourist’s guidebook when visiting the capital, and you can order a pint in the same establishment that some of the world’s most celebrated names once did.
It was at the start of this summer that I made these discoveries. Purely by chance, my grandad mentioned he had a pewter tankard from the late 1850s, with the initials “GG” inscribed on the side (representing this George Grinslade). Initials used to be engraved on tankards so they couldn’t be stolen and used in another pub, whilst on the bottom, the address of the inn is also engraved. My grandad then went on to say that the tankard belonged to my grandma, given to her by her aunt, Ivy, who married a man named Bert Staples. Bert had two brothers called Harold and Leslie, who managed the same George Inn from 1935-1937. Leslie was the editor of The Dickensian from 1944-1968, made an Honorary Trustee for life of the Dickens House in Doughty Street, and was even presented with a silver snuff box Dickens himself once owned. As Bert’s great-great niece, it’s incredibly humbling to know that his brother Leslie was even made President of the Dickens Fellowship from 1968-1969. Despite several generations having passed, my mutual enjoyment of Dickens’ novels still connects us back to the same people, the same places, and the same George Inn, Borough High Street, Southwark.