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!
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.