A tantalising new scrap of evidence about the bard’s drinking habits has emerged.
|The Tabard Inn, Borough High Street
When I wrote Shakespeare’s Local I upset some readers because I failed to prove the contention in the title of the book – that William Shakespeare drank in the George Inn in Borough High Street.
At a time when most people were illiterate, very little got written down. Information about Shakespeare’s life is so scant there’s not even really any evidence of where he lived when he was in London, let alone where he enjoyed a pint. When I wrote the book, there was not one single mention of Shakespeare ever having been recorded as being in any pub, ever.
And yet we know he did live in London for many years, even if we don’t know exactly where. And we know that unless he was a very unusual man for his time, if he lived in London he went to the pub in London. Because everyone did. Beer was safer to drink than water, and you had to go to the pub and get it. And if you wanted to sit back and relax with friends, there was nowhere else for most people to do that other than the pub.
In the absence of evidence, you can only make informed guesses – just because there’s no proof of something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, so you have to construct the most likely scenario based on the soundest possible assumptions.
My argument in the book was that Shakespeare definitely worked in Southwark, where the Globe Theatre was, so it’s likely he lived close by – most historians believe he did. If he lived and worked in Southwark, he would have visited Southwark’s pubs. We know he was aware of the White Hart pub on Borough High Street, because he set a scene in one of his plays there. The White Hart stood next to the George, so he must have been aware of the George too. The George and its immediate neighbours were the most famous pubs in London at the time, which we know thanks to the meticulous work of John Stow, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. It’s thought Shakespeare lived in the area for ten years. If he was going to pubs most days, it’s far more likely that he did drink in the George at least occasionally than that he didn’t.
On this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth) I would love to be able to announce that new evidence has come to light that Shakespeare really did drink in the George. But in all my research on the place, it never quite works out like that.
I was indebted to an American academic called Martha Carlin when I was writing my book. She’s done more research on medieval Southwark than anyone else, and she recently contacted me to tell me that she’s found the first and so far only record of someone claiming to see Shakespeare in a specific pub.
Of course, it’s not the George. It’s the George’s next door neighbour. It always bloody is.
The White Hart stood to the left of the George on Borough High Street. Not only did Shakespeare write about it, Dickens used it as the location of a crucial scene in the Pickwick Papers. To the right of the George stood the Tabard. This was the inn which Chaucer used as the starting point for the Canterbury Tales. At the time he wrote those stories, he could have picked any of several inns lining Borough High Street. He could have chosen the George. Instead he chose its next door neighbour, immortalising the Tabard for ever as the birthplace of English literature.
The three greatest names in English letters, then, each of them associated strongly with the old inns of Borough High Street, each of them making their strongest link with the inns either side of the George.
Now, Martha writes, the words of an anonymous actuary writing in 1643 have been unearthed, describing “Some notes for my Perambulation in and round ye Citye of London for six miles and Remnants of divers worthie things and men”.
The author announces that his survey is intended “only to notice those places and things that have been passed by or littled [sic] mentiond [sic] by those greate Antiquaries that have written of this noble Citye and ye which places are fast ruining as the Tabard Inne and ye many houses of Priesthood old Monuments Halls Palaces and Houses of its greate Citizens and Lords and may be useful to searchers of Antiquitye in time to come.”
The Tabard Inn, like many of London’s great landmarks, is by now falling into ruin – so we learn that the lamenting the passing of great pubs is nothing new.When he gets to the Tabard, our anonymous correspondent writes, “Ye Tabard I find to have been ye resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and ye rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in ye lange room they have cut their names on ye Pannels.”
So graffiting the pub was nothing new either!
Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s vandalism of the Tabard was lost when the inn burnt down along with the George and the White Hart, in the great fire of Southwark in 1676. All three were rebuilt the following year. The George is the only one that has survived until today.
So the Tabard – already already famous as Chaucer’s Local – now has a far better claim to be Shakespeare’s Local than its neighbour.
But thanks to this find, we now know that Shakespeare really did go to the pub in Borough High Street. Did he and his fellow ‘roysterers’ ever do a crawl of the great inns? Did he graffiti the George as well as the Tabard? Most likely, we’ll never know. The idea of the group of players carving their names into the panels suggests, to me at any rate, that they were regular visitors who wanted to leave their mark. It makes perfect sense that Shakespeare would choose the Tabard because of its associations with Chaucer, placing himself in a great literary tradition. But did he only ever go to the Tabard, and never to the pub next door? I find that hard to believe.
The point is, the George is the only one of those great inns to have survived the coming of the railways. The Tabard, as well as the White Hart, fell into ruin because they were up for sale for years and no one wanted to buy them. By the time the Tabard was finally demolished, it looked like this:
|The Tabard, 1870s
The George was the only one of the great inns to escape this fate, the only one that’s still there to write about and to visit. The main reason it did so was thanks to an extraordinary landlady who used every means at her disposal to keep it going as the inns either side were being pulled down – including telling outrageous lies and exaggerations about its associations with Dickens and Shakespeare to attract tourists and build fascination with this last survivor.
Let’s just say I make no apologies for having sympathy with her aim.