Quietly Famous – The Watermans Arms on the Isle of Dogs.
There’s a pub not far from us that closed down around Christmas time, which in itself was fairly unremarkable. I remember reading that about 30 pubs a week close down nationally, so we just assumed this was one more casualty of the smoking ban and the extortionate price of beer and that the site would soon become another block of flats.
To be honest, it was an odd place. It had a huge garden that never seemed to get any sun and the few times we went, the place was empty. Then there was the large bare room at the side which when we first moved here 10 years or so ago, was home to an Indian restaurant, now long since gone. All in all not really a place you would rush back to.
So imagine my surprise when it re-opened a few weeks ago, and it would appear from this planning document that they have high hopes for it…
Anyway I thought no more about it until, looking for something else online, I came across a number of references to The Waterman Arms, and it seems that 50 years ago, it was the in place to be…
In the early 1960’s, a certain Daniel Farson decided to set up a “singing pub” on the Isle of Dogs. I have to admit I didn’t recognise his name, but Wikipedia tells me that Dan Farson was a very popular TV personality during the late 1950’s and early 60’s, hosting his own chat show and producing a number of other well received programmes on the fledgling commercial TV network. Latterly he was also a respected writer, publishing in excess of 20 books.
Infamous throughout the gay Soho scene of the time, he decided he needed a change and moved out to the East End, living in Limehouse for some time before buying The Waterman Arms in 1962, because he thought it might be “fun to run a pub”. Having fallen in love with the local area and all its characters (so much so that he made a one hour TV special about East End pubs called “Time Gentlemen Please”) he decided he was going to indulge his love of Music Hall and create his own Variety venue on the banks of the River Thames.
For a number of reasons (boredom, no one really wanting a Music Hall revival and the “scene” moving on to the next place, being just 3 of them) the venture only lasted a few years, but in that time anyone who was anyone took a car over to the Isle of Dogs and had a drink or two with Dan: Francis Bacon, Kenneth Williams, Jacques Tati, Shirley Bassey, William Burroughs, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Frankie Howerd and Brian Epstein are all said to have been regular visitors to this unassuming Victorian building whenever they were in town. It must have been quite an evening if Messers Howerd and Williams were on form… (it definitely feels like there’s a film in this story somewhere…)
Anyway, as is so often with this blog, another random fact added to the “weight of connectivity” that persuaded me to write this post, as I read recently in a local paper that Jools Holland used to walk through the Greenwich foot tunnel (or the Pipe as he called it) to play piano at the Waterman Arms in the mid 1970’s, which by that time had developed a reputation as a place for great Jazz.
One final connection is that having looked into all this on the net, it seems that The Watermans Arms also had a starring role in one of the best British gangster films of all time, The Long Good Friday, as it was in this very building that Bob Hoskins utters the immortal line “Walk to the car Billy, or I’ll blow your spine off”
So it would appear that my local is something of a landmark. The new proposals for this Grade II listed building include changing its name to “The Great Eastern” which (as far as I can tell) will be its third incarnation, being The Newcastle Arms for the first 100 or so years of its life, before Dan Farson changed its name and made it famous for a while.
Who knows, maybe this new refurbishment will kick start its fame all over again, and the celebs will come flocking once again to the Isle of Dogs (Christ, I hope not) ….