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Boars Head Tavern : London coffee houses and taverns

A historical site about early London coffee houses and taverns and will also link to my current pub history site and also the London street directory


This celebrated Shakspearean tavern was situated in Great Eastcheap, and is first mentioned in the time of Richard II. ; the scene of the revels of Falstaff and Henry V., when Prince of Wales, in Shakspeare's Henry IV., Part 2. Stow relates a riot in " the cooks' dwellings" here on St. John's eve, 1410, by Princes John and Thomas. The tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but was rebuilt in two years, as attested by a boar's head cut in stone, with the initials of the landlord, I. T., and the date 1668, above the first-floor window. This sign-stone is now in the Guildhall library. The house stood between Small-alley and St. Michael's-lane, and in the rear looked upon St. Michael's churchyard, where was buried a drawer', or waiter, at the tavern, d. 1720: in the church was interred John Rhodoway, "Vintner at the Bore's Head," 1623.

Maitland, in 1739, mentions the Boar's Head, as " the chief tavern in London " under the sign. Goldsmith (Essays), Boswell (Life of Dr. Johnson), and Washington Irving (Sketch-book), have idealized the house as the identical place which Falstaff frequented, forgetting its destruction in the Great Fire. The site of the Boar's Head is very nearly that of the statue of King William IV.

In 1834, Mr. Kempe, F.S.A., exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries a carved oak figure of Sir John Falstaff, in the costume of the 16th century ; it had supported an ornamental bracket over one side of the door of the Boar's Head, a figure of Prince Henry sustaining that on the other. The Falstaff was the property of one Shelton, a brazier, whose ancestors had lived in the shop he then occupied in Great Eastcheap, since the Great Fire. He well remembered the last Shakspearean grand dinner-party at the Boar's Head, about 1784 :
at an earlier party, Mr. Wilberforce was present. A boar's head, with tusks, which had been suspended in a room of the tavern, perhaps the Half-Moon or Pomegranate, (see Henry IV. act ii. sc. 4,) at the Great Fire, fell down with the ruins of the house, and was conveyed to Whitechapel Mount, where, many years after, it was recovered, and identified with its former locality. At a public house, No. 12, Miles-lane, was long preserved a tobacco-box, with a painting of the original Boar's Head Tavern on the lid.*

In High-street, Southwark, in the rear of Nos. 25 and 26, was formerly the Boar's Head Inn, part of Sir John Falstaffs benefaction to Magdalen College, Oxford. Sir John was one of the bravest generals in the French wars, under the fourth, fifth, and sixth Henries ; but he is not the Falstaff of Shakspeare. In the Reliquio? Hearniante, edited by Dr. Bliss, is the following entry relative to this bequest : —

" 1721. June 2. — The reason why they cannot give so good an account of the benefaction of Sir John Fastolf to Magdalene College is, because he gave it to the founder, and left it to his management, so that 'tis suppos'd 'twas swallow'd up in his own estate that he settled it upon the college. However, the college knows this, that the Boar's Head in Southwark, which was then an inn, and still retains the name, tho' divided into several tenements (which bring the college about 150Z. per ann.), was part of Sir John's gift."

* Curiosities of London, p. 265.

The above property was for many years sublet to the family of the author of the present Work, at the rent of 150l. per annum; the cellar, finely vaulted, and excellent for wine, extended beneath the entire court, consisting of two rows of tenements, and two end houses, with galleries, the entrance being from the High-street. The premises were taken down for the New London Bridge approaches. There was also a noted Boar's Head in Old Fish street.

Can he forget who has read Goldsmith's nineteenth Essay, his reverie at the Boar's Head ? — when, having confabulated with the landlord till long after " the watchman had gone twelve/' and suffused in the potency of his wine a mutation in his ideas, of the person of the host into that of Dame Quickly, mistress of the tavern in the days of Sir John, is promptly effected, and the liquor they were drinking seemed shortly converted into sack and sugar. Mrs. Quickly' s recital of the history of herself and Doll Tearsheet, whose frailties in the flesh caused their being both sent to the house of correction, charged with having allowed the famed Boar's Head to become a low brothel ; her speedy departure to the world of Spirits ; and Falstaff's impertinences as affecting Madame Proserpine ; are followed by an enumeration of persons who had held tenancy of the house since her time. The last hostess of note was, according to Goldsmith's account, Jane Rouse, who, having unfortunately quarrelled with one of her neighbours, a woman of high repute in the parish for sanctity, but as jealous as Chaucer's Wife of Bath, was by her accused of witchcraft, taken from her own bar, condemned, and executed accordingly ! — These were times, indeed, when women could not scold in safety. These and other prudential apophthegms on the part of Dame Quickly, seem to have dissolved Goldsmith's stupor of ideality ; on his awaking, the landlord is really the landlord, and not the hostess of a former day, when " Falstaff was in fact an agreeable old fellow, forgetting age, and showing the way to be young at sixty-five. Age, care, wisdom, reflection, begone ! I give you to the winds. Let's have t'other bottle. Here's to the memory of Shakspeare, FalstafF, and all the merry men of Eastcheap."

Eastcheap Taverns and Old Boars Head :

" Age, care, wisdom, reflection, be gone !
I give you to the winds. Let's have t'other
Bottle. Here's to the memory of Shakespeare,
Falstaff, and all the merry men of Eastcheap."

On the north side of Eastcheap, opposite to Botolph Lane ; the region of figs, raisins, almonds, and all the precious ingredients that come from, the Levant, wherewith to compound mincemeat, and our glorious, if indigestible Christmas puddings, is quite an up-to-date restaurant of the first class, with entrance both in Eastcheap and Philpot Lane, bearing the somewhat portly name of "The Falstaff," and frequented by the " upper crusts " of the neighbouring offices, who know well what is good, and also where to get it. Some fifteen years or so ago the Eastcheap frontage of the site was occupied by a very old public-house that catered for a totally different class of customers.

The King's Head, as this ramshackle tavern was then called, was purchased and pulled down by the present owners. Baker Bros. (Limited), who erected the present establishment, giving it the name of Shakespeare's " Doughty knight," and assuming, with the name, to be the representative of the celebrated Old Boar's Head, which stood in Great Eastcheap, some little distance to the west, as nearly as possible on the ground now partly occupied by the statue of our sailor king, William IV.
When the improved approaches to London Bridge were made, and King William Street was constructed from the corner of Lombard Street and the Mansion House to the bridge, quite a number of narrow streets, lanes, courts, and alleys were swept away.

Great Eastchcap, which then formed the connecting thoroughfare from the present Eastcheap to Cannon Street, disappeared altogether, and with it the old house that stood upon the ground once occupied by the Old Boar's Head of Shakespeare and Falstaff's time.
It was, prior to the Great Fire of 1666, one of the first and best hostelries in the City of London, goodness only knows how long before the days of the Plantagenets. It was one of the hostelries frequented by that racketty young Prince of Wales, afterwards King Henry V., the victor of Agincourt, who there played high jinks with his companions, the doughty Sir John Falstaff, Bardolph of the ruddy nose, Pistol, Poins, and others of a like somewhat questionable shape and character, all of whom Prince Hal turned his back upon when the Crown of England devolved upon his head. He did, what Falstaff only promised to do — " foreswore sack and lived cleanly, like a gentleman."

The great bard tells us it was here that Falstaff made his home and headquarters in London ; and, furthermore, did not punctually pay his board bills, as is demonstrated by the scene in his play of " Henry IV.," part 2, act 2, where Dame Quickly, the hostess of the Boar's Head, haled him before the Lord Chief Justice. But the specious old gallant soon succeeded in pacifying her, and wheedled her into letting him run up a fresh score.

The bill for a certain supper of the "fat kidneyed Knight" — as Prince Hal called him - at this same Boar's Head reads curiously: —

.£ d.
"Item — A capon . ... ... ... 2 2

., Sauce
,, Sack, 2 gallons
,, Anchovies and sack after supper

The perusal of this by the Prince elicited his exclamation, " Oh, monstrous ! but one half-penny-worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack ! "

The mention of sack, as the wine drunk by Sir John Falstaff at the Boar's Head, is one of the immortal William's many anachronisms, as vintners were not allowed to sell any wine, save white and claret wines, till 1543: all other wines were sold at apothecaries' shops, and only very rarely then.

That the Boar's Head, in Jack Falstaff's time, was not an over reputable house, in spite of the Royal patronage of the Prince of Wales, is shown by the scenes with the fat knight, Dame Ouickly, and Mistress Doll Tearsheet.
In all the City of London there are but two other Boar's Head taverns. One is on the north side of Cannon Street, a few doors from King William Street, quite a modern house, i.e. of the date of the construction of the new thoroughfare and the demolition of Great Eastcheap, at which time, no doubt, it assumed the illustrious name of the celebrated old hostelry. The other Boar's Head is in Fleet Street, on the south side, within a couple of doors of the Bolt in Tun booking office, which was itself in former days a hostelry of good repute.
A waiter, named Robert, at the Boar's Head in the last century, had a tablet to commemorate his memory in St. Michael's Churchyard, Crooked Lane, at the rear of the place where the old tavern stood. It stated that he was " Drawer at the Boar's Head in Great Eastcheap," and was noted for his honesty and sobriety, in that —

"Tho' nurs'd among full hogsheads, he defied
The charms of wine, as well as others' pride."

He had the reputation of giving good measure and " filling up his pots," for the closing lines of his epitaph are —

" Ye that on Bacchus have a like dependance,
Pray copy Bob in measure and attendance."

Another "drawer," named John Rhodaway, "vintner at the Boar's Head," was buried in the same Churchyard of St. Michael in 1623.

The Boar's Head is first mentioned in the time of King Richard II., and Stow alludes to a riot that occurred there on St. John's Eve, 1410, in which the Princes John and Thomas were mixed up.
The original Boar's Head was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt on its old site within two years, as attested by a Boar's Head cut in stone between the first-floor windows. This stone is now in the Guildhall Museum. The original house stood between Small Alley and St. Michael's Lane ; and at the rear looked out into St. Michael's Churchyard.

References :  Lots of references are made to two sources on the internet archive :
Edward Callows, Old London Taverns &
John Timbs, Club life of London Volume 2

And Last updated on: Tuesday, 26-Apr-2022 01:16:17 BST
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