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History of The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping

Located in Wapping, the Prospect of Whitby is one of London’s oldest pubs, and it is thought by some to be the oldest riverside pub on the Thames.

There has been a pub on this site since the time of Henry VIII and the first pub was probably built in 1520. You can still see the original 400 year old flagged stone floor in the building and more modern, but still historic, fixtures such as a bar topped with pewter and ships masts that are built into the structure of the building.

Rich in history, and with some fantastic views over the Thames, this is one of London’s most popular pubs with visitors. Luckily, its historical reputation as a criminal hangout no longer applies!

Historic East London Pubs – The Prospect of Whitby

The first pub on the site was a not very reputable tavern. Its original name was The Pelican. Its proximity to the river made it a popular venue for smugglers, river thieves, pirates and local criminals. Larger ships on the river used to have to berth in the middle of the Thames and have their goods transported to the banks by smaller boats manned by lightermen.

The many small boats coming in and out of the banks made this an ideal location for criminals to steal from ships, many of whom used the pub as a base. The pub was known locally at this time as the “Devil’s Tavern” as its reputation was so bad and calling it “The Pelican” did not really describe its clientele very accurately!

Prospect of Whitby pub Wapping

In the early 18th century, the pub got its current name for the first time when it was rebuilt after a fire that burned down the original building. It is thought that the landlord at the time named the pub after a collier that used to moor on the bank outside on a regular basis.

The collier was registered out of the northern shipping port, Whitby, and was called “The Prospect”. It moored at the spot so often that locals used to direct people to the pub by telling them to look for the pub next to “The Prospect of Whitby” and the name may simply have stuck.

Over the years, the pub has had some famous locals and visitors. The diarist, Samuel Pepys, used to drink here quite often. Samuel Johnson recommended that people come to the pub and to Wapping as the area had “such modes of life as few could imagine”. It is thought that the notoriety of the pub and the surrounding area also attracted visits from Charles Dickens and the artists, Turner and Whistler. Both artists sketched views from the pub during their visits.

Wapping and The River Thames

Life in Wapping revolved around the river for many centuries and the pub’s clientèle have historically been rough and down to earth. The pub used to have a cock pit where locals could bet on cock-fighting games. At one point, it also held a bare knuckle boxing ring and locals could bet on and watch bouts.

One less gory tale about the pub is that it may have been the site that first saw the fuchsia plant come into the country. It is said that a local gardener met a sailor in the pub who had shipped over some plants. The gardener bought a cutting of one of the fuchsias from the sailor for a tot of rum and started growing fuchsias in his market garden.

If you visit the Prospect of Whitby, you will see a noose hanging outside the pub. Some say that this was placed to commemorate Judge Jeffreys, a notorious judge in the 17th century who sentenced many river criminals to death. His nickname was “The Hanging Judge” as he showed little mercy to criminals.

Others say that it marks the spot of Execution Dock. Execution Dock was a hanging site close by the pub where marine criminals, sailors and pirates were executed on the orders of the British Admiralty. The most famous death here was probably that of the infamous pirate, Captain Kidd, who was hanged at the dock in 1701. It is thought that Judge Jeffreys used to watch hangings from the comfort of the pub’s balcony.

Famous TV Shows

The Prospect of Whitby has also turned up in some famous TV shows. It has a ‘blink and you miss it’ moment in the episode of Only Fools and Horses when Del and Rodney lose Uncle Albert and search London to find him. Albert’s naval roots obviously made the pub worth checking, and you can see Rodney walk out if it at one point in the episode. More recently, it also got a bit part in an episode of the crime thriller, Whitechapel, when a body is found on the banks of the Thames close to the pub itself.

Old London Pubs

16 thoughts on “History of The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping”

  1. Hello

    I believe my great x 4 grandfather arrived on The Prospect sometime between 1761 and 1776 from his birthplace of Bridlington. I have records to show that he was married in London in 1776 and lived for the rest of his life in Clerkenwell. He was born in 1750 so I am guessing he would have been at least 11 when he arrived which would be 1761. His name was Josias Holmes.

    I would love to know if it were true that he did arrive on the Prospect.


  2. My memories of this pub are from when I was about 4 and visiting with my Mum, Dad and sister and being fascinated by the blond singer they had playing. Also My Dad and Uncle got thrown out as they were trying to throw each other off the verandah!

  3. Hi i am Carol if it is the same person your nan was my Aunt Rose, my mother was Louise he did not desert the family he was a sailor a merchant seaman and was away a lot but always came back on leave, if it is my William Henry he was born in South Africa and ran away to sea at the age of 14yrs. His family originated from Bideford in North Devon i have been trying to search the family but without any luck. William had two sisters Emily and Rose and the father whom i think was also William Henry was a miner we think in a copper mine he had a very good job, my mother had a letter from his sisters telling them about the big house and the servants they had i have written to Harare in south africa to see if i could get any information but could not. Elizabeth and William had i think about 13 children I think i can remember most of the here goes, George, William, Jack, Syd, Ernie Elizabeth, Rose, Louise, May Nellie ( died at the age of 3 with rickets) Ernie also died on his first day to work at the age of 14yrs he had quite a nasty death.they also lost children in childbirth. i do know some more bits of info and would be happy to pass it on.

    1. Annemarie Coleman

      Hi Carol
      yes its the same person as I remember My nan talking of her sisters Lou and may, and brothers ernie and syd( but I wasn’t aware of ernie’s awful death ). My dad is Barrie youngest son of Rose and Frederick coleman and your cousin.Thank you for clarifying the information on William I will add to my tree on Ancestry.com, I have tried to find info on Ancestry.com with not much luck, and being in Australia has made it difficult. I would love any info on anyone really. I will ask my father if he has any information on anyone else but I think he prob has as much info as you.From my understanding elizabeth Newell led a hard life but was a lovely woman, I think my dad saw her before she passed away, hope to keep in contact

      1. Oh good i cannot remember your dad Barrie but he was close to my sister Janet who now lives in Austria, i was the youngest and did not see many of the cousins as the rest of my family did. Nanny was lovely i went to see her the day before she died she was in a home in chigwell. She did not speak of grandad as i can remember i do have a photo of him with one of the children sitting on his lap but i do not know which one it is. Unfortunatly your nan and my mum did not get on but my mum used to look after your dad and uncle sometimes do keep in touch ill post tings as i remember them.

        1. Annemarie Coleman

          Hi Carol , I would love to see any photos that you have if your happy too, I will head over to my dads house to have a look, I dont think there are lots of family photos,I believe Rose burnt/threw away family photos for some reason or another.my email address is acoleman158@gmail.com
          cheers Annemarie

  4. Love this history of the Prospect of Whitby pub. My Grandfather frequented it during the Great War era. He was a beer and wine importer and the war played havoc with his business. It’s possible he may have resorted to some old school importing in this pub. His life in the East End is told in my book Mizpah Cousins (Amazon).

    1. Mrs Carol Knight

      Hi i have an interest in the Prospect of Whitby as my grandmother worked there from the age of 11yrs she came from a orphanage in Manchester during the 1800’s i would love to know if there were any records of the wokers they had there at this time. She met my grandfather there he was a sailor from South Africa his family had immigrated there from Bideford in Devon he was born there but ran away to sea and that is how he met my gran.

  5. U.K. Census Records – The complete UK census collection 1841-1911‎ If your grand mother lived there at any census dates she should show up along with her occupation.
    Apparently all pubs had to be licensed and you should be able to find a site giving you info on the pub.

  6. Have been reading the history of the Prospect of Whitby i am very interested in this place as my grandmother was sent here at the age of 11 from an orphanage in Manchester to work in the mid to late 1800 her name was Elizabeth Newell id love any information if any one has any on who owned the pub at the time and what the brewery was my gran died a long time ago now and i never got the chance to ask as many questions as i would have liked if anyone out there has any information i would be very grateful.

    1. Hi – I am trying to research the PH too as my great, great Grandfather was a Lighterman on the Thames and is believed to have drowned whilst ferrying sailors from the clippers. I work for a brewery and whilst chatting to one of our publicans Sheila Meads, at the Cross Keys, Pulloxhill have discovered that she was brought up at the Prospect of Whitby so may have some information.
      Perhaps contact her son on the following email address – sales@ukeventsandtents.co.uk

      1. Mrs Carol Knight

        Hi My name is Carol my grandmother was sent as a child from manchester where she was an orphan to the prospect of whitby pub she was about eleven first she worked cleaning upstairs and as soon as she was old enough she was put behind the bar where she met my grandfather he was a sailor from South Africa there married name was Bartlett but my grandmother’s maiden name was Knewell or Newell her first name was Elizabeth would ou have any information about her i know it was a very long time ago but hear is hoping.

        1. Dear Carol, if not known to you by now then this may help: William Henry Bartlett (bachelor, 27 years, farmer[sic], of 29 Morgan Street, Wapping – son of William Henry Bartlett, deceased) married with Elizabeth Newell (spinster, 19 years[sic], of 29 Morgan Street, daughter of Horace George Newell, lighterman) at the Church of Saint John-the-Evangelst, in the Parish of Saint George-in-the-East, in the County of London, 13th April 1901. William signed the marriage register by making his mark, whilst Elizabeth signed with her name. Her age at the time of the marriage is incorrect: having been born the 18th February 1884,she was seventeen years of age rather than nineteen years of age. The night of the 1891 Census of England, Elizabeth is with her parents (Horace and Mary) and her siblings at 10 Vine Street, Aldgate, in the City of London – her place of birth given in the household schedule simply as ‘London’, and her age given to have been six years, which equates to that 1884 year of birth. Horace Newell (of full age, widower, lighterman, of Aldgate – son of George Newell, deceased) married with Mary Ann Hobbs (of full age, spinster, of Aldgate, daughter of George Hobbs, a carman), at the Parish Church of Saint Botolph-without-Aldgate, in the City of London the 23rd November 1873. Mary Ann having been born 1854 was not of full age (i.e., twenty-one years and above) at the time of this 1873 marriage. George had previously married with Emily Jane Hobbs (minor, daughter of George Hobbs, lighterman) at the Parish Church of Saint George-in-the-East, in the County of Middlesex, 22nd November 1868. Emily Jane had been born 1850 but died at Mile End Old Town, Middlesex, 1872. For a man to marry with the sister of his deceased wife had been illegal since 1835, and thus the 1873 marriage was, ipso faco, null and void, and any children born to that 1873 marriage were illegitimate, but a 1907 Act of Parliament not only repealed that 1835 law but declared it retrospective, thus any such marriages which had occurred since 1835 were declared legitimate, and any children born to such marriages having taken place since 1835 also were declared legitimate. The night of the 1911 Census of England, Elizabeth is with William (and the four-surviving of their six their children) at 29 Red Lion Street, Wapping. William is described in the schedule as thirty-nine years of age, a ships’ fireman in the mercantile service, and born at Cape Town. Elizabeth is described as being twenty-six years of age, and born at Wapping. She likely the Elizabeth Bartlett died somewhere within the London Borough of Redbridge in 1973, aged eighty-nine years, having been born the 18th February 1884. William described as being a farmer at the time of the 1901 marriage may be down to the possibility of that’s what he was whilst in South Africa. What Manchester has to do with anything I couldn’t say but if all the above does relate to your grandmother (which I hope it does) then the Manchester story may have become exagerated over time. Working at the age of eleven years even in the 1890s was possible because an 1893 Act of Parliament had set the minimum age for leaving school at eleven years, which remained the case until 1899, when raised to twelve years, but it would appear that if Elizabeth did work at the Prospect of Whitby then it were between the Census of 1891 and that of 1901.

          1. Annemarie Coleman

            Hello My name is Annemarie and my nan was Rose Thelma Bartlett, daughter of Elizabeth newell and William Henry Bartlett(M 1901). I have been looking for William Henry Bartlett for a long time as it was told that he deserted the family, leaving Elizabeth alone and to take care of all the children,But im not sure how accurate this is. Would love to hear any more information about either the Bartlett/Newell clan. Rose passed away in Australia in 1996 (where we all live now).

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