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.