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