Great London Pubs No.3: The Coal Hole




Gilbert & Sullivan were opposites. WS Gilbert was nervous, prickly, insular, difficult, hard to like and rather posh. Sullivan was lower class, charming, expansive, relaxed and put everyone at their ease. On their opening nights at the Savoy, Gilbert would drive himself into a state of nervous tension so great that he could not bear to stay in the theatre. So he’d slip out and retire to this pub, the Coal Hole, on the Strand.

The Coal Hole occupies what was once the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel. In the Victorian era, the pub was a ‘song and supper’ club where regulars were encouraged to sing comic songs and sentimental ballads. Gilbert and Sullivan regularly performed here after rehearsals, and the Shakespearean actor Edmund Keane started the Wolves’ Club in the basement for ‘oppressed husbands forbidden to sing in the bath’. However, its real role was less innocent, and involved heavy drinking and ladies of the night. The cellar bar still carries the actor’s name.

The pub’s theme of pale stone, dark wood and leaded windows carries on into the street level bar. The ceiling is high. Black beams and hanging banners suggest something medieval, but the pub was decorated in 1904. Beneath the beams is a marble frieze of maidens picking grapes. There’s a huge fireplace decorated with a relief of vines. The gallery bar is a good vantage point, and there are dining rooms.

The pub’s rare art nouveau décor was a brief interlude between the brashness of the late Victorian gin palaces and a new sentimental movement which was to favour the fake Ye Olde Inn look. The pub that stood on the site before was the Fountain Tavern, a pub where coal heavers drank. 

It seems to be one of the few boozers in the area that has not really received a makeover, and for that we should be grateful. It’s best on a rainy night, and if you venture to the very back of the pub and follow it around to the left, you’ll find a snug bar that can’t have changed much in a century. It’s the sort of pub you’d meet your mates in, not smart, not too suity, but with plenty of lively conversation around you.


7 comments on “Great London Pubs No.3: The Coal Hole”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    It sounds great.

  2. RobertR says:

    Did you ever run into Richard Harris there?

  3. Agrado says:

    I seem to recall The Coal Hole has a lamp-post outside it with a plaque claiming it to be the last lamp-post in London fuelled by sewer gases, or somesuch.

  4. Johan says:

    Just got back from London, so we will have to add this pub to our list for the next visit. During our visit, we decided to start our own “Bryant and May – the Victoria Vanishes” pub crawl, starting with the pubs in the EC4 area. Really liked the Punch (I give it four boiled sweets out of four).

    That’s when we realized that there really should be a “Bryant and May Illustrated Guide to London”.

  5. jan says:

    I know i am queen of the saddos but the lampost to which you refer isn;t 2 far from the coal hole but is in fact on one of the side roads just north of the northern embankment main road in a small road which runs by the Savoy. The sewer lamp is distinguishable from the other lamp posts because it is much wider from base to about 5ft high.

    In fact other gas lamps which are in central London (not sewer gas but remaining gas lamps) can be found in the private garden square which is on the right side of the Kings Cross road – coming from the centre of town up to the Cross just before the big modern hotel which is now Irish owned i think with the steps made famous as Runciman steps left in situ dividing the hotel which is a relatively modern development into 2, taxis often wait at the location which became famous as it featured in a famous 19th century novel. Anyway the gas lamps of which i speak are in the garden square about 50 yards to the south they are painted green and at the back of this open space is (of all things) an Anglican convent where the sister of William Morris saw fit to spent part of her life. I think this is the square where Chesca Potter’s mate lived where the well is in the back garden.

    i’ll stop babbling now

  6. Mim says:

    I’m adding that to my list of places to visit next time I’m in the city! It looks exactly the sort of thing I like.

  7. Jeff Howells says:

    When I first moved to London I used to drink in there quite a lot. Richard Harris could be seen sitting at the bar on many an occasion!

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