Guide to East London

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The Prospect of Whitby

Wapping High Street, Wapping, E1. Tel: (0) 171 481 1095 Tube: Wapping

Originating from a timber framed country house in 1520, reputedly London's oldest riverside pub, it was first known as the Devil's Tavern. This most historic pub dates back to the time of Henry VIII, with minimal utilitatian seating; flagstones paving the bar and a long pewter counter is supported by barrels. A meeting place for sailors from all over the globe for some four hundred years, the pub today receives international tourists by the coachload.

The old Devil's Tavern suffered severe damage from a disastrous fire which swept through martine Wapping in 1682. The landlord changed its name to the 'The Prospect of Whitby' in 1777, after one of the collier boats which brought coal down from Newcastle to the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, just north of the pub.

Towards the end of the 16th Century, Britain had become an increasingly successful trading nation with overseas ships entering and leaving London on a steady basis. Boats had to berth mid-stream and were dependent upon lighters, flat bottomed boats piloted by lightermen, to transport goods from ship to quayside. The opportunities for pilfering and other nefarious activities were immense, the Devil's Tavern was a haunt where many a plan was hatched and many a deal made between smugglers and river thieves.

Walk several hundred yards west down Wapping High Street to Brewhouse Lane. Opposite here is the old Execution Dock. The notorious Judge Jeffreys of 'Bloody Assizes' fame would often enjoy a meal in the pub while watching the execution of felons and pirates whom he had sentenced to hang. Such a grusome feature of London life was regarded as a holiday attraction and crowds would flock to the Tavern on these occasions. The villains would be hung and then pinned to the river wall on low tide, and remain there until three tides had covered their bodies. One of the most notable executions was that of the privateer Captain Kidd on 23 May 1701.

Samuel Pepys, the Diarist and as Secretary to the Admiralty during the reign of Charles II, would visit the Tavern when on naval business, looking, particularly into cases of mutiny. The room he used to dine in is today called 'Ye Pepys Room'.

Another client of the pub was John Westcombe who, in 1780, sold a flower to a local market gardener for a noggin of rum. John had recently returned from Japan and the market gardener, a Mr. Lea, grew 300 cuttings from the plant that became known as the fuschia.

Writers and artists witnessed first hand the colourful scene at the Prospect of Whitby. Charles Dickens would make notes while sitting on the high settee on the wooden balcony in 'Ye Pepys Room'. The Prospect was well known to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary and the landscape painter, Joseph Turner who stayed there under an assumed name. Gustave Dore, the French painter would sit on the veranda or Pelican Stairs and sketch the riverside scene and the American painter Whistler was also a patron.

Before these times, Sir Hugh Willoughby sailed from Shadwell Park, near here in 1553 in a disastrous attempt to discover the North East Passage to China.

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