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The "The George and Vulture"

Tucked away in the heart of the busiest part of the roaring city, overshadowed by tall, hard-looking, modern banking and insurance buildings and all but a thin strip of it hidden from view, is a veritable piece of old London.

This is the "George and Vulture," known throughout the world as the tavern that Mr. Pickwick and his friends made their favourite city headquarters. The address in the directory of this inn is St.Michael's Alley, Cornhill; The Pickwick Papers, however, describe it as being in George Yard, Lombard Street. Both are correct. If the latter address is followed, the inn is not easy to find, for the sign "Old Pickwickian Hostel" is so high up over the upper window in the far left-hand corner that it is almost the last thing one sees. One fares little better from the other approach, for the narrow alley with its tall buildings facing each other so closely as to be almost touched with outstretched arms, makes it necessary to search for the entrance doorway.

The history of the "George and Vulture" goes back some centuries. Originally it was the London lodging of Earl Ferrers, and in 1175 a brother of his was slain there in the night. It was then called simply the "George," and described by Stow, the great historian of London, as "a common hostelry for travellers." but when the big blaze of 1666 swept through these alleys it devoured everything in its path and left the George as a shell of charred embers. A wine merchant of George Yard, whose sign was a tethered live vulture, lost his home and his livelihood, and after the tavern was rebuilt he negotiated with the landlord for part use of the George. Unhappy with the idea of having a live bird squawking around the door he agreed to change the name of his house to the George and Vulture. Fixed to a wall inside the tavern are two boundary markers defining the dividing line between the parishes of St Michael's, Cornhill and St Edmund the King, Lombard Street. They originate from pre-Great fire days when City churches were so close together that there needed to be some physical means of ascertaining the limits of each parish. The boundary of the two parishes runs right through the bar of the George and Vulture.

The appellation the "George and Vulture" has come through the history of London unaltered, gathering with the flight of time many famous associations to keep its memory green in each succeeding period, until Mr. Pickwick put the coping-stone to its fame as one of London's imperishable heritages.

Poets and literary men of all degrees frequented it from the earliest times, and although there is no record available to substantiate a claim that the great Chaucer used the house, it seems possible that his father, who was himself a licensed victualler in the district, knew it well. But John Skelton, the satirical poet of the fifteenth century, undoubtedly enjoyed its hospitality, for he has left record in the following lines that he was acquainted with it:

Intent on. signs, the prying eye, The George & Vulture will descry. Let none the outward Vulture fear, No Vulture host inhabits here. If too well used you deem ye then Take your revenge and come agen. Taverns in those days were the resort of most of the prominent men of the day, and were used in the same manner by them as the clubs of the present time, as a friendly meeting place for business men, authors, artists, lawyers, doctors, actors and the fashionable persons of leisured ease with no particular calling, all of whom treated "mine host" as an equal and not as a servant.

And so we find that men like Addison and Steele were much in evidence at these friendly gatherings of their day; that Jonathan Swift and his coteric foregathered in some cosy corner to discuss the pros and cons of that great fraud, the South Sea Bubble; that Daniel Defoe was a constant guest of the host of his time; that John Wilkes.

It is known that his fellow-members of "The Hell Fire Club" founded in 1719 by two prominent Freemasons; the Duke of Wharton and George Lee, the Earl of Litchfield. The club initially met in the Greyhound Tavern in London and later at another drinking hole called the George and Vulture in the 1730s. Thomas De Quincey records one story concerning an unnamed lord who tied a man to a spit, roasting him, presumably at the George and Vulture. Hogarth's Charity in the Cellar, painted about 1739, is presumed to be the same club, but the case is weak. The five depicted are identifiable and can be connected with two other alleged members, the Earl of Sandwich and Sir Francis Dashwood.

Prince of Wales, Frederick, son of George II and Queen Caroline, arrived in England in December 1728. Known as Fred, or (to his family) Fritz, his English and education were shaky. "There is a story that he joined a Hell-Fire Club, presumably the one at the George and Vulture."

John Strype, the ecclesiastical historian, in his addenda to Stow's Survey of London, records that "Near Ball Alley was the George Inn, since the fire rebuilt, with very good houses and warehouses, being a large open yard, and called George Yard, at the farther end of which is the 'George and Vulture' Tavern, which is a large house and having great trade, and having a passage into St. Michael's Alley."

The yard when it existed as part of the inn was used, like other inn yards, by the travelling companies of players for the enactment of their mystery and morality plays. It was in the "George and Vulture," so it is recorded, that the first Beefsteak Club was formed by Richard Estcourt, the Drury Lane comedian, a fashion which spread in all directions. And so the history of the "George and Vulture" could be traced, and anecdotes relating to it set down to fill many pages. But whilst admitting that these antiquarian notes have their interest for their own sake, we must leave them in order that we may glance at the Pickwickian traditions, through which the tavern is known to-day.


© The Guildhall Library, City of London

Mr. Pickwick on his return to London he had, perforce, to abandon his lodgings in Goswell Street and so transferred his abode to very good old-fashioned and comfortable quarters, to wit, the George and Vulture Tavern and Hotel, George Yard, Lombard Street, and forthwith sent Sam to settle the little matters of rent and such-like trifles and to bring back his little odds and ends from Goswell Street. This done they shortly left the tavern for Dingley Dell, where they had a royal Christmas time. That the tavern appealed to Mr. Pickwick as ideal for the entertainment of friends is incidentally revealed in the record that after one of the merry evenings at Mr. Wardle's he, on waking late next morning, had "a confused recollection of having severally and confidentially invited somewhere about five and forty people to dine with him at the 'George and Vulture' the very first time they came to London."

Just before they left Dingley Dell, Mr. Pickwick and Sam took up their present abode in very good, old-fashioned, and comfortable quarters, to wit, the George and Vulture Tavern and Hotel, George Yard, Lombard Street. Bob Sawyer, "thrusting his forefinger between two of Mr. Pickwick's ribs and thereby displaying his native drollery and his knowledge of the anatomy of the human frame at one and the same time, enquired--'I say, old boy, where do you hang out?' Mr. Pickwick replied that he was at present suspended at the 'George and Vulture'! After he had dined Mr. Pickwick finished his second pint of particular port, pulled his silk handkerchief over his head, put his feet on the fender, and thrown himself back in an easy-chair, when the entrance of Mr. Weller with his carpet-bag, aroused him from his tranquil meditation.

Mr. Pickwick made the tavern his London residence until, at the end of his adventures, he retired to Dulwich. Before, however, he settled down there, many incidents connected with his career took place within the walls of his favourite tavern. It was in his sitting-room here that the subpoenas re Bardell v. Pickwick were served on his three friends and Sam Weller on behalf of the plaintiff. The Pickwickians were seated round the fire after a comfortable dinner when Mr. Jackson, the plaintiff's man, by his unexpected appearance, disturbed their happy gathering. It was from the "George and Vulture" they all drove to the Guildhall on the day of the trial, and it was in Mr. Pickwick's room in the tavern that he vowed to Mr. Perker he would never pay even a halfpenny of the damages.

To-day is it to be wondered at that the City Pickwick Club should hold its meetings and dinners there, or that the Dickens Fellowship should choose it as the most appropriate spot for the entertainment of their American and colonial visitors, and occasionally to have convivial gatherings of its members there?

In 1837, the year that The Pickwick Papers appeared in monthly-parts, a Circulating Book Society had its headquarters at the "George and Vulture." On the occasion of the meeting held on March 30, 1837, it was proposed that The Pickwick Papers, "now in course of publication, be taken in for circulation."

This motion was opposed by two members "who considered the work vulgar." The motion, however, was carried with the amendment "that the work, when complete, be obtained and circulated as one volume." In 1838 this famous copy of the immortal work was sold by auction amongst the members, in what was probably the very room Dickens had in mind when describing the meetings of Mr. Pickwick and his friends. It was bought by J. Buckham for 13s. 6d. This copy was annotated by the owner with notes, historical and explanatory, and is now a cherished possession of the nation in the safe custody of the Library of the British Museum, where it is known as the "George and Vulture" copy.

In addition to the above, and the London Chess Club, held its meetings at the George and Vulture Tavern, Cornhill,

References:

Leigh's New Picture of London

Boyle's View of London and its environs 1799

"History of ye Olde George and Vulture Tavern" one of London's Oldest Inns. Henry Chance Newton, London 1909 (L40033 - Pub History Society Bibligraphy of Publications relating to Public House, Inns and Taverns. [Pub History Society]

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