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Closing time: what next for London's pubs?

8 min read

Few sectors of industry have taken more of a beating in the last few years than that of the British pub. Jimmy McIntosh has been documenting those in London that have died, and asks what it means for the communities they serve

There are many different types of public house. There are the grand, open-plan Victorian ones, whose wooden austerity is punctuated only by hand-chalked menus, reclaimed Chesterfield sofas, and some of the most uncomfortable high-backed dining chairs you’ve ever sat on. There are the flat-roofed, cuboid ones: built in the middle of the last century, often on or adjacent to housing estates, and with those little day-glo stars behind the bar advertising drinks deals. There are the charmingly old-school pubs; carpeted and cosy, with plush leather banquettes and intimate, low ceilings. Shop conversion pubs. Chain pubs. Train station pubs. Irish pubs, country pubs, student pubs, City pubs, fisherman’s pubs, and those magical pubs where an entire afternoon deep in refreshment can sail by in an instant.

What each of these types has in common – besides the fact that they all serve beer – is that they’re places for people to dream; vessels to escape in. They’re the boozy backdrops before which our lives’ most meaningful acts play out – from those early, defiant rites of passage, to birthdays and weddings, and then, finally, to wakes. Had a rubbish week at work? Pub. Just got a promotion? Pub. Bored out of your mind on a Saturday afternoon? A couple of pints is almost certainly what you’re searching for. Inside each of these different types of public house lie their beating heart: the community. From the grottiest Wetherspoons to the swankiest gastropub, what gives each boozer its ineffable je ne sais quoi are the people drinking inside them. 

But these community spaces have, over the past twenty or so years, seen their number brutally chipped away at by innumerable external forces. First came the smoking ban in 2007. Then – for London at least – the 2012 Olympics, and with it the niceification of the capital’s east as demographics shifted, and bland, beige new builds went up. More recently it was Covid which saw off many establishments, unable to carry on in the face of compulsory scotch eggs and bizarre rules of six. And then, since 2021, the energy crisis has been sniping off even more, as rents and utility bills skyrocket. All the while, the price of a pint has been gradually rising anyway (the nationwide average cost of a pint of lager has gone up from £2 in 2000 to £4.70 today) which, when all put together, has meant that running a boozer in 2024 is a very difficult job indeed.

For the past three years, I’ve been travelling across London and documenting these closed or demolished public houses on the Instagram account @londondeadpubs. It’s been a fascinating – if depressing – experience, and whether it’s the DIY gig venue pub that closed after an ill-fated spell as a board game boozer (The Montague Arms in New Cross, which shut in 2019), or the North London estate pub that was, perhaps unfairly, forced to cease trading after a nearby knife attack (The Royal Oak in Archway, which shut in 2021 and is scheduled for demolition), one thing has been continually clear: when these public houses go, so does a part of the pub’s community. 

Out in the undulating suburban expanse of Harold Hill sits a pub called The Alderman. The area is typical of the London / Essex borders. Composed largely of ex-East Enders who took flight from the cramped city on a wave of spacious suburban promise, it features an abundance of 1930s housing stock and a retail parade straight out of 1974: butcher, baker, pie and mash shop. The pub itself was built in the 1960s, and is the only one around for the 11,457 residents that make up the ward of Harold Hill East, after The Pompadours shut in 2016 and the Bow & Arrow was converted to a McDonald’s in 1997. But last year plans were submitted to Havering Council to raze The Alderman to the ground and replace it with 150 new homes. If demolition does go ahead (it’s currently very much up in the air), where will the pintmen and women of Harold Hill have to go?

My local pub, The Crown on Holloway Road, is in many ways similar to The Alderman – with the clientele a mix of older, working class drinkers (Irish here to The Alderman’s Cockney), and a steady crew of younger drinkers playing out the great Saturday night rituals of flirting, conversing, and getting obliterated. But whilst a pub closure in Holloway means The Crown’s gaggle of grogheads will just move 100m down the road to one of the area’s myriad other pubs, The shutting of The Alderman means locals will have to travel over a mile to the nearest boozer, the Saxon King. For those older drinkers, or those with mobility issues, or those who live alone, this simply isn’t feasible. Pubs like The Alderman are a vital lifeline to these people, and often become the only places where they can meet to socialise. 

Whilst drinking dens on the fringes of the capital will always be operating within slightly different constraints, further into big city centres the future of the public house seems a little more assured. It’s often alleged that Gen Z and millennials are drinking less – but tell that to places like The Blue Posts on Berwick Street, or the buzzy Central pub du jour The Devonshire in Piccadilly. Both establishments’ booming business – along with the hackneyed hyperlocal London meme accounts whose every other Instagram post makes reference to Hackney’s The Spurstowe Arms or The Army & Navy – seem to point towards the pub becoming the place to be for the younger generation. In much the same way that the traditional greasy spoon is having a bit of a moment (whether its old school places like The Regency or E Pellici’s doing a roaring trade, or cosplay cafes like Norman’s opening up), the aesthetics of the traditional pub have come back into fashion again. The dull interiors of elder millennial bars and restaurants – neutral, minimal, clean – are being shunned for a celebration of carpet, colour, and fizzy continental lager. Might we have seen our last ever drab grey craft beer refurb?

Another reason to be optimistic is that the rate of pub closures has been slowing (in 2016, 4,850 public houses shut across the United Kingdom; by 2020 this was 3,815). There have also been a number of high-profile pub reopenings over the past couple of years. The Tipperary on Fleet Street, which shut at the beginning of 2020 and claimed to be the oldest Irish pub in London, reopened in March of this year following a refurb. Out in Maryland, The Cart & Horses – one of the formative pubs for East London riff wraiths Iron Maiden – opened its doors again just after lockdown, and has become a crucial gig and socialising spot for Satan’s sots. And of course there’s the aforementioned Devonshire, which originally shut in 2012 and, after life as a series of failed restaurants, reopened at the end of last year to unwavering acclaim. 

One thing has been continually clear: when these public houses go, so does a part of the pub’s community

Perhaps there are actually just two different types of pub: the lucky ones, and the unlucky ones. For every Alderman there’s a Lighterman, the only pub on the Thames View estate in Barking. Last year The Lighterman was refurbished, and since then the business has gone from strength to strength – especially with the nearby Barking Riverside development nearing completion. Equally, for every Devonshire, there’s an Intrepid Fox, the Wardour Street goth pub that shut in 2006 after the owners sold it to developers. Running a successful pub is as much luck and location as it is skill and keeping your pipes clean. 

Fundamentally, for as long as there are dreamers and a wide-eyed lust for escape, the public house will exist. Pubs are the great third space – not work, not home – where you can let loose and socialise, or simply nurse a solo half over an hour of quiet contemplation. The past twenty years have been tough for these pint palaces, but most signs seem to point towards the industry being over the worst of it. Pubs are necessary. Pubs are fun. Pubs are captivating. Pop into that local you’ve always walked past but never been in. You will almost certainly find good conversation. You might even just have the best night of your life. Whilst it's too late for most of the pubs featured on London Dead Pubs, using these boozers is the best way to make sure they don’t end up as one of the unlucky ones. 

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