The Waterman’s Arms – Isle of Dogs

For this week’s post, it is 1986, and I am standing outside the Cutty Sark pub in Greenwich, looking across the River Thames to the south eastern tip of the Isle of Dogs. The photo below shows the view which includes the spire of Christ Church, on the corner of Manchester Road and Glenaffric Avenue, the Newcastle Draw Dock leading down into the river, and to the left, a pub, the Waterman’s Arms.

Waterman's Arms

The same view today:

Waterman's Arms

Although the weather was the same for the “now” photo, the tide state was different which does change the views, however the Newcastle Draw Dock is still there today, just below the water.

Apart from the spire, Christ Church is still hidden by trees. Housing on the right is the same, however a large new build of apartments has been built on the left of the dry dock which completely obscures the Waterman’s Arms and the towers of the City, which in 1986 consisted only of the Nat West Tower.

The Waterman’s Arms was originally the Newcastle Arms, built as part of the Cubitt Town development. It seems to have opened in 1853, and that year is the first that I can find any written references to the pub, with two contrasting newspaper mentions.

In the Morning Advertiser on the 30th April 1853 there was an advert for a Servant, Potman and Waiter – possibly the first staff for the newly opened pub. In October 1853, the Kentish Mercury had a very different report on the pub, where George Henry Wood, the step son of Mr Harris, the landlord of the Newcastle Arms, was charged with stealing a horse, the property of Mr Brooker, a grazier of Poplar.

Apart from these mentions, there seems to have been very little reported about the Newcastle Arms, apart from the occasional advert for staff, and reference to the adjoining dry dock. most often related to criminal activity.

The most significant period in the pub’s history were a couple of years in the 1960s when the pub changed name to the Waterman’s Arms and became an East London centre for pub entertainment, attracting many national and internationally famous celebrities. I will cover this phase later in the post.

In 2011 the pub changed name to the Great Eastern and became a pub on the ground floor and backpackers hostel on the upper floors, and it was this version of the pub that I photographed when I was in the area last year.

Waterman's Arms

The adjacent Newcastle Draw Dock, photographed at low tide and looking across the river to the Cutty Sark pub.

Waterman's Arms

The reason why the Waterman’s Arms has a rather unusual history compared to other Isle of Dogs pubs is down to a brief period between 1962 and 1964 when the pub was run by Daniel Farson.

Daniel Farson was an interesting character. Born in 1927, he was the son of Negley Farson, an author and American foreign correspondent. After National Service in the American Army Air Corps (he had dual US / UK citizanship – he would later renounce US citizanship), he went to Cambridge University, then took a post as photographer with the Picture Post.

He had a variety of jobs in journalism and also the Merchant Navy, before joining Associated Rediffusion, one of the early independent television companies.

During his time at Associated Rediffusion, Farson proposed a TV programme on the boom in pub entertainment. This he saw as a continuation of the Music Hall tradition which was one of his interests. The proposed programme was to be called “Time Gentlemen Please!” and to help with research he visited a number of East London pubs. It was during this research that he found the Newcastle Arms. The pub was described as being “down on the floor” and the “pub with no beer”. The pub attracted very little trade and the brewery refused any credit for the purchase of beer.

Farson was also interested in the area of East London along the river, and had been living at 92 Narrow Street in Limehouse so was relatively close to the Newcastle Arms, although he admits to knowing very little about the Isle of Dogs, and his view of the location of the Newcastle Arms would have been very different if he had approached the pub from inland, rather than from the river.

Despite all the warning signs, he purchased the pub in 1962 using money left to him by his parents, and set about converting the pub to accommodate space for an enlarged stage area. He would use this to put on pub entertainment, based on Musical Hall traditions and building on the entertainment to be found in many East London pubs, although he attracted stars that would not normally be found in a pub at the tip of the Isle of Dogs, or a usual East End crowd.

Farson also changed the name of the pub from the Newcastle Arms to the Waterman’s Arms, a name he felt better suited the pub’s riverside location.

Farson’s proposed programme “Time, Gentlemen Please!” was shown at 9:45 on the evening of the 5th December 1962, and part was filmed in the Waterman’s Arms. The Daily Mirror description of the programme was:

“ITV commentator Dan Farson, who recently became landlord of a pub in London’s East End. takes a look at pub-land entertainment in tonight’s ‘Time, Gentlemen Please!’. 

Says Farson: ‘If the spirit of music-hall lives anywhere today, you’ll find it in the East End pubs.’ Many pub owners say that entertainment is a good boost for business.

So Farson and director Rollo Gamble visited four public-houses to film some of the professional and semi-professional acts that appear there.

One of the pubs was Farson’s own, the Waterman’s Arms, near the docks at the Isle of Dogs.

Most of the pub entertainers are singers, who present modern pub tunes along with the old music hall hits. One artist is 80 year-old Ida Barr, a star of the Edwardian music hall.

Others in the programme rejoice in such names as Tommy Pudding, Sulky Gowers, Welsh George, Queenie Watts and Tex, who wears a cowboy hat.

Says Gamble; ‘Though some of the performers are unknowns, there’s a lot of talent there. Some of these people live by touring the pubs, others entertain in the evening after a hard day’s work.”

Ida Barr, one of the original stars of the Edwardian music hall was a popular performer at the Waterman’s Arms, and she was still very active, including performing at London’s last remaining music hall, the Metropolitan Theatre in Edgware Road. She sang at the last performance at “The Met” on the 14th April 1963 before its demolition later that year as part of the road widening scheme for the Edgware Road.

As well as the Waterman’s Arms, the other pubs that featured in the programme were the Lansdown Arms, part of the old Collins Music Hall at Islington Green, the Rising Sun in Bethnal Green, and the King’s Arms in the Old Kent Road.

The entertainment put on by Farson in the Waterman’s Arm consisted of both local amateur and professional acts, old-time music hall stars, as well as those that you would not expect to see in a Victorian pub on the Isle of Dogs such as Shirley Bassey.

The audience at the Waterman’s Arms attracted not just the locals, but also those from the West End, and a global set of celebrities from the early 1960s. Names such as Lord Delfont, George Melly, Groucho Marx, Lionel Bart, Trevor Howard, Tony Bennett, Mary Quant, Norman Hartnell, Judy Garland and Clint Eastwood (who wrote the word ‘rowdy’ in the guest book).

Daniel Farson also discovered local talent who went on the perform at the Waterman’s Arms. One of these was Kim Cordell who Farson saw performing at the Rising Sun in Mile End Road and who was described in The Stage as: “In the booming world of pub entertainment, one personality is causing more and more comment. This is Kim Cordell, first seen in Dan Farson’s TV pub show Time, Gentlemen Please! and now the compere/singer of his pub on the Isle of Dogs, the Waterman’s Arms. Kim herself says: ‘Without a doubt, this has been the best year of my life. I seem to have found a real incentive for the first time’. Apart from her success at The Waterman’s, the year has included appearances on TV; two films, one called ‘Songs of London’ for the British Tourist and Travel Association, the other ‘London After Dark’, not yet released; and the lion’s share in a forthcoming L.P. ‘A Night At The Waterman’s'”.

Kim Cordell performing at the Waterman’s Arms:

Waterman's Arms

The Waterman’s Arms was a success in terms of the number of people arriving to watch the entertainment, the number of stars attracted to perform, and those who came to the Waterman’s Arms to be in the crowd, but it could not last.

In 1964 Farson received a call from his bank manager to tell him that he was £3,000 overdrawn.

The financial challenges were down to how much was being sold to fund the costs of running the pub. People would not arrive until 8pm, from then on the bar was crowded. Crowding meant that people could not easily get to the bar, so drink sales were limited.  For many there was more interest in the entertainment rather than a long evening’s drinking. They would watch the entertainment than move on. The costs of putting on entertainment were also high, particularly for the more famous acts.

He could not go on, and after a battle with the brewery, a new tenant was found, Daniel Farson sold up and left the Waterman’s Arms and Narrow Street and moved down to north Devon to start a career as an author.

One of the books that came out of this move was Limehouse Days. A record of his time in Limehouse and at the Waterman’s Arms. The front cover of the book shows Daniel Farson behind the bar at the Waterman’s Arms, talking to customers.

Waterman's Arms

The book does have some strange diversions, such as a chapter where Farson claims to identify Jack the Ripper, however the book, and the photos taken by Farson provide an intriguing view of life in East London in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Daniel Farson was also part of Soho in the 1950s and early 1960s (and continued to visit after his move to Devon). He photographed and wrote about Soho in another book Soho in the Fifties, although due to his level of drinking there was always some doubt as to the details of the stories Farson would recall and tell.

His obituary by Philip Hoare in the Independent started with the paragraph “Mythomaniacal, egotistical, and often unable to tell the truth or the difference between it and fiction, the character of Daniel Farson – photographer, writer, and drunk – is redeemed by at least one grace: that of self-awareness: “One of the more bizarre aspects of my life is the way it has veered from triumph to disaster without my seeming to notice the change.”

He was also frequently mentioned in the obituaries and memoirs of others who found the pubs, bars and clubs of Soho as a second home. For example the following is from the obituary of the journalist and author Sandy Fawkes: “One close friend for 30 years was Daniel Farson, the television journalist, chronicler of Soho and spectacular drunk. He would suddenly turn from an intelligent conversationalist into a growling monster. “I loathe you,” he would shout suddenly between fat, quivering cheeks. Sandy Fawkes would go to stay with him in Devon, where he enjoyed comparative calm, though barred from local pubs.”

It was also in Soho that Farson met people such as the artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, who would also go on to visit the Waterman’s Arms.

The Waterman’s Arms and Daniel Farson tell of a very different time. Soho has since lost so much of its character, and East London pubs have been disappearing rapidly over the last few decades.

The Waterman’s Arms is part of a listed group around the Newcastle Draw Dock, which also includes Glenaffric Avenue, Christ Church and Christ Church Vicarage, Manchester Road.

The future of the pub as the Great Eastern looked in doubt, running as a pub on the ground floor and backpacker hostel on the upper floors. The pub has a good location, close to the river and the Newcastle Draw Dock, so could easily have fallen to the fate of so many other London pubs, and been converted into apartments. The good news is that a very recent story in the Docklands and East London Advertiser reports that starting this month, the pub will get a £600,000 refurbishment,. The name of the pub will also be changed from the Great Eastern back to the Waterman’s Arms.

So although not visible from Greenwich as it was in 1986, hopefully the Waterman’s Arms will have a good future.

For a glimpse of the Waterman’s Arms when owned by Daniel Farson, the 1964 film London in the Raw by Arnold Louis Miller includes a sequence filmed in the Waterman’s Arms. The film is available from the British Film Institute.

17 thoughts on “The Waterman’s Arms – Isle of Dogs

  1. Joseph Strangeways Pigg

    Very interesting. I do enjoy my Sunday morning History lesson. It is a shame the original view was lost behind modern development. I never visited The Watermans,but am old enough to remember Dan Farsons and his ability to attract publicity.Great character sadly missed!

  2. John Terry

    Great post on the Watemans Arms. Once again I see the spoiling development of London. The recent block of flats is an eyesore that selfishly satisfies the greed of developers to sell a piece of London’s waterfront to a few.

  3. Tim Chamberlain

    Enjoyed reading this. My great grandparents were married at Christ Church in 1901. My great grandmother’s family (the Hockleys) lived in and around Glengall Road for many years. My brother and I went in search of places connected to them last summer and we walked past this pub, which was all boarded up at the time, so glad to hear it will get a new lease of life. We guessed they must have known it and may very well have gone there back when it was the Newcastle Arms. It was a lovely surprise to find the old Edwardian Public Library just off Glengall Road is still there and still a library. Well worth a look inside if ever you are in the area.

    Will have to see if I can track down a copy of Farson’s Limehouse book. Sounds really interesting.

  4. John Finn

    I remember Farson’s weekly TV programmes and even remember the title sequence – Brass-playing buskers in Oxford Street. They were always screened late, probably because they dealt with controversial matter but as a young teenager that made them the more appealing.

  5. Jane Seago

    I suspect that Clint Eastwood’s inclusion of “rowdy” with his signature in the guest book is a shout-out to himself as much as a description of the pub. In the early 1960s, he played a character named Rowdy Yates in a popular American TV program, Rawhide. It is easy to imagine that “rowdy” was an apt descriptor for both the place and the person at that time.

  6. Peter Browning

    I certainly know a lot more now about Daniel Aarons background after reading this blog ,
    I did not know anything about the link to the pub great blog .

  7. Malcolm

    I remember Dan Farson and the Waterman’s Arms very well. My Dad had a fish and chip shop at the other end of Glengarnock Avenue (as it was then) and Dan was a regular. When I say regular I mean he was a regular pain in the proverbial. He used to come in the shop drunk and start an argument with anyone in the queue. He would try and blag free fish and chips but my old man never gave anyone freebies. He tried chatting my Mum up but she hated him. I remember my Dad chucking him out of the shop one night, he’d had enough of the drunken fool so he dragged him by the collar and threw him on the floor and told him never to set foot in the shop again. What he actually said was:”F*** off out of my effing shop you effing pisshead”. The upside was that the Waterman’s drew loads of tourist and a lot of them came in the shop, so my Dad made a good living from them, the only problem was that he never got to close the shop until after midnight. After Farson sold up the tourists still came to the Waterman’s for a few years, business finally dropped away towards the end of the 1960’s. Used to get loads of American tourists who thought the Island was a Dickensian film set. They loved the fish and chip shop, there must be thousands of photographs of it somewhere in America. Me and my mate who lived two doors away used to look after the flash cars for the flash geezers. Half-a-crown to keep an eye on some blokes Jag or Bentley for a couple of hours. We made a mint.

  8. Mr Richard Thomas

    Hi David. I’ve just been pointed at your blog and it’s so full of amazing information. Very excited to now be a subscriber. Spookily, I’ve just included a reference to London’s Watermen Stairs in my own travelog around London. Would love to have you join me…

  9. Joe Wells

    When I commented previously I thought the chap in the centre of the cover of the book looked familiar and after a Google search I realised I had seen him on the television in my youth. Great story, someone should write a play about him or perhaps they already have.

  10. Jeanette Shepherd

    I just wanted to say thank you for your blog, the pictures and stories are great.
    I’m taking part in a writng cahaenge called #52 Ancestors and I discovered your Blog while researching my great great grandparents Elizabeth House, age 23, and John Smith, age 31 at the time of thier daughter Mary Anne Smith’s birth on January 12, 1845, at 2 High Street Bromley,
    My husband and I lived in lonndon for about 5 years and during that time I worked at Canary Wharf. My paternal grandfather was born in Stebondale Street at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs.

  11. Barry Grayshon

    I lived close by in Millennium Drive from about 2002 – 2010 and had the pleasure of regularly visiting The Watermans Arms. The walls were lined with intriguing photos and it had some colourful regulars. I got to read up a bit on the history of it and discussed it a bit at the history museum on East ferry Road (which moved). It was really interesting and I got to look at old photos and order prints from the Isle of Dogs back in the day. Also purchased a book which I still have to this day. Miss the place a lot as I had the best times when I lived there for around 10 years. And I have that London Raw DVD, but never watched it properly. I’m going to dig it out…

  12. Alison Brown

    Hi I spent lots of summer holidays at the Watermans arms in the 60s. My aunt and uncle Pat & Dennis Benson had the pub before moving to Cornwall

  13. George Riches

    I used to go to the Waterman’s regularly from 1966 onwards until the Levity Lancers left for good. Their singer was Roger Campbell Mitchell, KEITH Nicholls on piano and trombone unfortunately Keith died from vivid in 2021, the magnificent Mac White on clarinet, his version of running wild whilst taking his clarinet to pieces, with a lady holding the bits was unforgetable, unfortunately I understand Mac has now died but I do not have the details, David ‘Doakes’ London on Helicon and Pocket Cornet, could never forget his Barnacle Bill the Sailor, I understand before some time ago but I do not have details, lastly there was Mile aka ‘Abie Schnikoltz’ on drums, as the band always finished on Goodbye Dollie’ it was Mile who prepared and set off the smoke bomb on the last chorus. The bomb was made from photographic flash powder. My friend had an enormous McLaughlin Buik 1938 vintage and we took the band to their first recording session. There were some great pictures of the band around and in the car, unfortunately I lost mine. There was also a very camp compete called Billy but I have no need of him. Just for your relief I was 20 in 1966 with a brand new Anglia, got it cheap as my Dad worked at Fords. Best, George

  14. Graham Bridge

    As a seagoing navigation/deck cadet with New Zealand Shipping Co. , in 1969 I attended a 6 months mid- apprenticeship course at King Edward VII Hall ( affectionately known as ‘The Stack of Bricks’) on Commercial Road.
    It was common practice to head down with friends to the Waterman’s Arms on a Friday night to join the squeeze between bar & stage & soak in the atmosphere created largely by the excellent comedian performing onstage.
    One of his endless quips was, catching a lady entering the loo (to the side of the stage), whispering into the microphone “mention my name & you’ll get a good seat”.
    Visits typically followed, on the way back (with very full bladders), by a visit to the chinese ‘restaurant’ at the junction of the India Dock Road with Commercial Road. It had a solitary outdoor loo in the back yard, with an urgent queue, so most succumbed to urinating on the adjacent sacks. The most popular dishes included chips. It was only during our final visit that, by chance, we learned said sacks contained the establishment’s stock of potatos….
    Great days!


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