The legendary music venue has been battling housing developers since it first opened its doors in 2002, and landlady Pauline Forster is determined to continue.
For nearly two decades, the George Tavern has served as one of the most eclectic cultural spaces for emerging artists in London. A seven-day line-up can span post-punk, trip hop, nu-metal and 17th classical music by the Orchestra of the Enlightenment Age, book clubs, poetry workshops, sleazy karaoke and jungle DJ sets.
Throughout its time, however, little has been certain about its future. Kate Moss wore a ‘Save the George Tavern’ t-shirt in 2008, and Stranger Things actor Charlie Heaton sported the same plea for his GQ Italia cover a decade later.
You would think that a pub most known for endless death-by-gentrification scares would struggle with attracting high-profile gigs. Instead, the George only seems to be getting more and more influential. This year, rapper slowthai chose the venue as part of his UK tour for his new album ‘UGLY’.
Pauline Forster, landlady of the George Tavern, attributes that to her bookers, Francis Albrecht and Katie Craik.
“Fran is brilliant, he’s just the best person I’ve had working for me at the George. It’s changed massively because of him. It’s built up slowly for about four years and now we’re inundated with people like slowthai wanting to play here,” Pauline says.
“And it’s a good crowd, too,” she adds as she runs to grab some coffee from the kitchen upstairs. “When I come here I just think ‘wow, I’m so proud of this’.”
Standing on the empty pub floor, bathed in daylight and wiped chlorine clean, I hear Pauline’s footsteps back and forth across the ceiling, opening cupboards, closing doors. When she gets back, mugs in hand, I ask if there is any soundproofing between the flat and the venue. “None at all, really,” she replies. “It gets quite noisy.”
Despite that, Pauline has spent two decades living upstairs from the George Tavern, wading through its crowded smoking area just to get to her front door, eating dinner over soundchecks, sleeping through gigs and DJ sets. She moved out just a few weeks ago: “Now that I’m in my new flat in Hackney, it’s the first time in years I’ve come back home in the evening and there haven’t been a hundred or so people there,” she adds. At 73, she felt like it was time.
The whole thing is somewhat ironic, given that Pauline has spent most of her landlady life dodging planning permissions and efforts to reduce the music licence. With its 3am closing time, the George is the loudest, latest pub still standing in Shadwell. “Well, I don’t live in a residential area,” Pauline would reply to letters from the local council, back when the George Tavern only neighboured a nightclub, an office building, and traffic lanes. She would add, “You’re just trying to make it that”.
An impulse purchase.
By the time Pauline bought the George Tavern in 2002, she had spent most of her life raising five sons in Stroud, and most of her brief time in London squatting in art installations. First, locked inside a mirror-covered Ford Capri outside the entrance to Tate Modern during its grand opening in 2000. That was part of a performance aimed at challenging art world elitism. She was removed by police after having squatted in the car for three days. Two years later, she squatted in an abandoned house in Brick Lane, filling rooms with hundreds of burnt bagels and a carbonised chicken. It was an art installation she titled London is Burning. It, too, ended with police interference.
Pauline was looking for something similar – a non-domestic, large space for people to be creative together – when she stumbled upon the George Tavern.
She bought it one week later on impulse, without really having enough cash when making the offer. She managed to find a way to borrow the money and moved in three days later. That kind of brazen resourcefulness is something of a characteristic for Pauline. In similar fashion, she decided to apply for a liquor licence despite having no experience whatsoever of running a pub: “I used to work behind the bar in wellies. It was kind of normal in my life, when I lived in the country. The East End locals found it quite funny, though,” she says, chuckling like someone who has changed since. The pub, which had only been closed for a year or two, only lacked an ice machine, glass washer and booze. She felt it’d be a shame to let it go to waste.
The whole thing wasn’t quite what the other twenty-or-so prospective buyers had in mind. According to Pauline, the Grade II listed building had a planning application looming over it already when she bought it: “They thought I was some kind of developer, too, and I’d want to do the same as them. They were shocked when I opened a pub and they didn’t get permission to turn the site into flats. They dropped out and sold the planning application to Swan Housing Group, and I’ve been fighting them ever since.”
The first letter from Swan came through the door just a few years later, outlining plans to demolish Stepney’s, the nightclub next to the George where Pulp once shot the music video to Common People, and build a block of luxury flats. “I rang the council and they said, ‘Well, they’re going to get planning permission’. They insisted that there wasn’t much they could do. Well, they shouldn’t have said that, because we live in a democracy and there are processes for these things. It was silly of them to say that to someone like me.”
Pauline’s counter-strike formed within days. Amy Winehouse, whom she had recently gotten to know, advised her to print some t-shirts; Pauline called a friend who made them in Brick Lane and delivered a set two days later; Kate Moss wore one in a photo shoot; pretty soon, things kicked off big time. Over the years, the Save the George campaign has been backed by a string of celebrities including Justin Timberlake, John Cooper Clarke and Sir Ian McKellen.
“After Kate Moss’s photoshoot, we just got celebrity after celebrity after celebrity. Unfortunately, in the way the world works, these celebrity endorsements are crucial to getting the press you need to be heard so developers don’t get away with just shoving planning permissions through the back door. Because that’s what happens with most pubs,” Pauline says. The Peacock, a long-standing East End boozer just a stone’s throw from the George, was sold to property developers and closed down in 2022.
A landmark ruling.
After a nine-year legal battle in various rounds of hearings and courts, the Royal Courts of Appeal overturned Swan’s planning decision in 2016. The George Tavern seemed to be in the clear. That is, until two years later, when the office building next to the George Tavern’s smoking area was sold, demolished and replaced by a residential block.
Had it happened a few years earlier, it could have been the beginning of the end for the George due to the risk of noise complaints. Instead, it became the second venue in British history to secure a deed of easement bill in 2019, which effectively means that residents are not allowed to file noise complaints: “And that’s forever,” Pauline adds.
Celebrity support saved the venue once again during the Covid-19 pandemic in the form of a £10,000 donation to its crowdfunding campaign from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In the pub’s early years, Waller-Bridge and her writing partner Vicky Jones organised short-play nights in the function room on the first floor of the George Tavern which, despite being owned by Swan, was used by the George for several years before Swan put its foot down. “I was kind of squatting it, in a way,” Pauline describes it. “When I bought the place, we got handed the keys for everything”, she adds, shrugging her shoulders.
The function room has now become the stage for the latest battle between Pauline and Swan, which she has accused of “wilfully neglecting” the space in order to tear it down and build anew. Pauline has also claimed that Swan’s recent planning application to build new flats on the green spaces behind the George would expose it to noise complaints once more, as the noise surveys were conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Swan has rejected this claim and said it has confirmed via an independent acoustic consultant that their project will not affect the pub’s activities.
A community opportunity.
One would think Swan’s plans to build a community arts centre on the site of Stepney’s are not too dissimilar from Pauline’s own dream of buying the function room in order to expand the George’s business. She, however, sees it differently. “The function room is the oldest part of this building, it dates back to the 1600s. It’s beautiful,” she says. “I want to restore it. They want to tear it down.”
The planning application was filed over a year ago and was recently abandoned by the council, meaning that Swan will have to start a new application from scratch.
Pauline has previously contacted Swan with “a compromise”, requesting a fresh noise survey to be conducted, now that the venue is running as normal, as well as asking to buy the function room. In return, she would withdraw her opposition to their development plans on the site of Stepney’s, despite her concerns.
“We desperately need that function room,” she says. “There’s a big need for an ordinary pub in this area, which we could build in the cellar underneath the function room, and we could use the function room for wakes, weddings, funerals and other community events.”
“As more venues shut down, we’ve become more and more important for the live music scene and have to make more time for that, and sadly, that’s at the expense of space for locals to have somewhere to go and sit and talk to each other, in a society where people are increasingly isolated.”
“This is a homely place; it’s not a rustic pub run by a massive chain. We provide music and an open door for people of all backgrounds and ages, and Stepney does benefit from that. We’re providing something to this community.”
Pauline is also worried about the impact of the construction process on her business.
“We’ve already been dealing with the construction work next to us, and it was hell. So much location work was lost because of construction noise, and we had to close down the pub during the demolition of the old office building. The George was shaking during the demolition of the old office building, to the point where there are now large cracks in the wall. Structurally, this is a sensitive site for all this bashing around.”
It is the third time Pauline is trying to oppose a planning application from Swan. Each round is tougher, she feels.
“These are housing groups that are funded by the taxpayer by the government. They can afford to have barristers. It’s been a nightmare really… It’s not something you want to keep doing, battle after battle.”
She digresses when asked how much time and money she has put into trying to save the George. When asked again, she lets off a dry chuckle and says “loads”.
“I’ve just had to pay the lawyer for the Deed of Easement case. The developer bears the brunt of the costs for the defendant in those types of cases, so they agreed to pay a proportion of my lawyer’s fee,” she adds.
But she’s equally quick to add that she is loyal to the place. “I would never sell it. That’s what they want,” she says, shooting a defensive glare. “I want it to continue in the future even when I’m not here, with my children. We’re quite dyslexic, and it’s helped them all find their feet in the world as musicians and artists.”
Asked how she finds the motivation to keep going, she just says “I care, an awful lot”.
“We need to protect these grassroots music venues, because they’re becoming quite rare, but they are the birthing ground for new talent – not just in music and poetry and theatre, but right across the board.”
Outside in the smoking area, Pauline’s sons are building a pizza oven. It’s one of several upcoming expansions for the George, and perhaps a sign that it’s beginning to feel secure enough to plan for the future.