57 Wapping Wall, EC1
Nearest tube: Wapping 0.3 miles
Nearest attraction: Tower of London 1.5 miles
Historical interest: 8/10
Cosiness quotient: 9/10
On paper the Prospect of Whitby looks uncannily like its neighbour, the Town of Ramsgate. Both these attractive 16th century taverns with their unlikely regional names are wedged awkwardly between bland Docklands buildings. And each has a lurid, swashbuckling past peppered with tales of misdeeds and hangings.
EST: 1520.Monarch: Henry VIII
The Prospect of Whitby was once a hotbed of cut-throats, pirates and felons. In fact, so dastardly was its clientele that it became known to the locals as The Devil’s Tavern. The publican shrewdly left this name off the signage, however, forcing anyone arranging to meet there to describe it as “the pub near the Prospect of Whitby” – the name of a ship moored nearby. And the name stuck.
Just like the Town of Ramsgate, the Prospect of Whitby claims to be close to the site of Execution Dock where many a pirate was hanged. There is even a replica scaffold outside to illustrate this point to more bloodthirsty customers.
And surprise surprise – the Prospect also claims to have been a favourite with the notorious Hanging Judge Jeffreys, just like the Town of Ramsgate. The 17th century judge executed hundreds of people who plotted against the unpopular King James II. Unashamedly Catholic in a predominantly Protestant era, James was eventually deposed and replaced with a new king and queen – his own daughter Mary and his nephew William. Christmas must have been awkward that year.
Suddenly being out of a job and already the object of universal hatred, Hanging J-J decided to escape to Hamburg dressed as a sailor. But his fatal mistake was to stop for one last drink at a Dockland pub….which led to his capture (again, see the Town of Ramsgate).
Bygone regulars of the Prospect of Whitby have included the diarist Samuel Pepys, artists Turner and Whistler and the explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby who sailed from here in 1553 to seek the North-East Passage. He should have stayed in the pub: the mission was a spectacular failure and Willoughby’s frozen corpse was discovered by Russian sailors the following spring.
Over the next few centuries the Prospect served ale to an eclectic mix of celebrities including Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Princess Margaret, Richard Burton, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Frank Sinatra and Charles Dickens. It also held cock-fights and bear-knuckle fights. So basically, it had something for everyone.
I was a little biased against the Prospect of Whitby before my visit as I couldn’t work out why it received so much more acclaim than its charming underdog neighbour, the Town of Ramsgate. But when I entered I understood. The Prospect of Whitby is simply a cracking pub where history is engrained into the very fabric of its building, There’s no need to squint your eyes or exert your imagination to visualise this ancient tavern as a notorious pirates’ hangout. No: the rickety stairs, stone-flagged floors, off-kilter doors, rum flagons, sailing ropes and skulls-and-crossbones do that for you.
The other stuff
Brewery: Greene King
Open Monday-Thursday midday-11pm, Friday-Saturday midday-midnight, Sunday midday-10.30pm
Food served daily from midday
The disappointingly standard Greene King menu is improved with the addition of a few extras such as Mexican salads and pulled pork nachos. There’s a charming main bar, a riverside restaurant, an upstairs Smugglers’ Bar and a “secret garden” – not that secret, since it is clearly marked – where you can sit back with a drink and enjoy an uninterrupted view of the sinister scaffold below.
Visit: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.
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