Guide to East London

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The Grapes

76 Narrow Street, Limehouse, E14
Tel: (0) 171 987 4396
Tube: Wapping

Dickens is said to have used it as the original of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in 'Our Mutual Friend.' There is a Dickens Room with a balcony giving a very pleasant view of the river.

St Anne's Church, Limehouse (built 1726) was a major landmark for Thames shipping, alongside it is Three Colts Street. Go down it to Narrow Street and turn right. Narrow Street follows the bend of the river. The Grapes is the last in a row of restored buildings opposite another pub named 'The House They Left Behind.'

The history of the Grapes hostelry can be traced back to the 25th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, that year being 1585. Lord Wentworth granted Miles Wilkinson a lease on the land at a quarterly rent of two shillings for five hundred years.

The oldest extent document relating to The Grapes dates from the 13th May 1604. In the document, John Bigott and his wife Ann, the daughter of Miles Wilkinson, are again granted a lease of 500 years on the premises along with five dwelling houses.

It is in the year 1704 that we first have reference to the premises being used for the sale of alcoholic beverages. A document dated 14th February, 1704, reads thus:
Catherine Woodbine, widow and executor of Thomas by will, gave all her three messes in Limehouse unto her daughter Rebecca Woodbine and assigned for the remainder of said term the same messes being then in the occupation of Abraham Horsewell, victualler.
The building, along with its neighbours, apparently burned down at some stage between 1718 and 1723. They were rebuilt by one John Stonehaur. Therefore the present building can be dated to around the year 1720.

It was in the nineteenth century that The Grapes achieved what is, perhaps, its most famous association.

As a young boy, Charles Dickens certainly knew this area. His Godfather, Christopher Huffam, sold oars, masts and ships gear around the corner from The Grapes in Church Row, near Limehouse Hole (now occupied by Aberdeen Wharf).

It was in Huffam's house that John Dickens placed his son Charles on the table and urged him to sing. Indeed Dickens himself, in later life, recalled how on one occasion, one of the audience of neighbours declared the young boy to be a prodigy.

It is interesting to note that Dickens in his novels, always treated marine stores such as his godfathers, as indeed he always did with things of the sea, with the greatest of affection.

On his journeys to visit Christopher Huffam, he would have passed by the forges, rope yards, oar-makers and boat builders. For these were the great days of the docks. It would have been those associated with the docks that would have formed the clientele of The Grapes.

To capture the flavour of the age, to picture what the area would have been like over one hundred years ago, we need only to turn to the works of Dickens.

The the air was perfumed with chips; and all other trades were swallowed up in the mast, oar and block making and boat building.

The wheels rolled on and rolled down by Monument and by The Tower and by the docks; down by Ratcliffe and by Rotherhithe; down by where the accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be paused until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it in the river. In and out among vessels that seemed to have got ashore and houses that seemed to have got afloat - among bowsprits staring into windows and windows staring into ships - the wheels rolled on, until they stopped in a dark corner, river-washed and otherwise not washed at all.

It is in Our Mutual Friend that The Grapes appears as The Six jolly Fellowship Porters and thus perhaps its most famous literary association.

It must be stressed that the The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters is a creation of Dickens's imagination and that it is made up from parts of several public houses that Dickens knew in the area.

First mention comes as Gaffer, returning home from the police station:

"Turned into a red-curtained tavern, that stood dropsically bulging over the causeway".

Later Dickens gives a fuller description of The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters:

"The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters already mentioned as of a dropsical appearance, had long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. In its whole construction it had not a straight floor and hardly a straight line; but it had outlasted and clearly would yet outlast, many a better trimmed building, many a sprucer public house. Externally, it was a narrow lop-sided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon the other as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the whole house, inclusive of the complaining flag-staff on the roof, impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a fainthearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all."

This description applies to the river frontage of The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. The back of the establishment, though the chief entrance was there, so contracted that it merely represented in its connection with the front, the handle of a flat-iron set upright on its broadest end. This handle stood at the bottom of a wilderness of court and alley: which wilderness pressed so hard and close upon The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters as to leave the hostelry not an inch of ground beyond its doors".

Much debate has raged over the years as to which of the Limehouse public houses was the origin of Dickens's Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. It might be useful at this point to explain that when Dickens knew the area there were five Limehouse pubs existing cheek by jowl, on the riverside of what was then Fore Street (Narrow Street).

It is fair to say that The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a composite of all of the pubs. The Grapes certainly has "the corpulent windows in diminishing piles". Also Dickens could possibly be referring to The Grapes (known to him as The Bunch of Grapes), in the following description of The Porters:- "It only remains to add that in the middle of the flat iron, and opposite the bar, was a very little room, like a three cornered hat, into which no direct ray of sun, moon or star ever penetrated, but which was supersticiously regarded as a sanctuary replete with comfort and retirement by gaslight and on the door of which was therefore painted its alluring name: Cosy".

This could well refer in part the triangular seated window at the street end of The Grapes although reglazing work a little time ago, replicates the original art nouveau work, which with the line of the doors suggests some reconstruction around nineteen hundred.

Dickens continues:
"Miss Potterson, sole proprietor and manager of The Fellowship Porters, reigned supreme on her throne, the bar, and a man must have drunk himself mad drunk indeed if he thought he could contest the point with her. Being known on her own authority as Miss Abbey Potterson".

Much debate has raged since to locate the original of Miss Abbey Potterson. It is now generally accepted that Abbey was based on the landlady of The Barley Mow, across the road.

Indeed an interesting article appears in The News Chronicle on the 7th October 1949.

The Grapes had survived the Blitz relatively relatively unscathed and in lan Mackay's diary for the aforementioned date, he mentions a trip he had recently made downriver to Limehouse:

"It was no wonder, therefore, when Christopher Morley, The Bone Brothers, H.M. Tomlinson, Grover Higgins and I landed at Limehouse Causeway from the police pinnace, Patrick Colguhoun, we made a beeline for The Grapes Tavern which has as good claim as any to have been Abbey Potterson's pub".

Later he mentions Dickens's observation that "it had outlasted and clearly would outlast many a sprucer public house".

Dickens's prophecy has come true. The old inn has outlasted many a stouter building, survived the Blitz and even seen Chinatown pass away into the gloom of forgotten things.

Today nearly a century later the place is pretty much the same. The odd thing was that with a boatload of Dickensians like Morley and Tomlinson, The Bon and Grover Higgins nobody could remember Abbey Potterson's name.

It was only after the landlord had searched his archives under the counter and unearthed a letter from an octogenarian in Vancouver, that we found out.

How unfortunate it was that we had forgotten old Abbey Potterson. Otherwise this astonishing letter might have lain there beneath the mild and bitter for another century.

The letter came during the Blitz from Mrs. Emily Ferns of 811 East 45th Avenue, Vancouven. She was eighty-four then. When she was five, her father took her to The Grapes, where Dickens used to sit in the big room upstairs. But it was in another house opposite, The Barley Mow, that Abbey Potterson worked. Her real name was Mary Ferguson, says Mrs. Ferris and Dickens just lifted her bodily across the road and placed her behind the bar of The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. In those days Mrs. Ferris's aunt, Emily judge, was the serving maid at The Grapes and there is a painting by Napier Henry with her in it.

At this point in the article Tomlinson observes:- "What a man Dickens must have been. There must have been a d in him". Upon which the party set off back to the river and began hunting Sherlock Holmes, thus cheating us of any further references to The Grapes or the area in Dickens's day from these personal memories".

By 1982 the pub became famed for it's seafood meals, when it opened a fish restaurant overlooking the river. This was the brainchild of the then landlord, Frank Johnson and the meals were cooked by their French trained chef Bill Li.

Today The Grapes stands as it has always done and Dickens's prophecy has been proved even more so than in 1949. The buildings around have mostly all disappeared, but The Grapes still stands, battered by time, looking out onto a river that was once the highway of London and speaking of an age when London was the warehouse of the world. Its walls echo the history of the river, when sailors, stevedores, lightermen and jolly jack Tars, let alone mudlarks scuffle hunters and smugglers would have known all its intimacy. It can tell stories of the days when tea clippers and schooners from the ends of the earth turned the Thames into a forest of masts. Through it all, down a century or more, Dickens's words still echo:- "But it had outlasted and clearly would yet outlast many a better trimmed building, many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a fainthearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he. will never go in at all".

Booking is recommended for The Grapes restaurant, Monday to Satursday. Bar meals are available Monday to Saturday. Sunday roast lunch is served in the pub and the restaurant.

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