The Swan – A Lee High Road Pub

On the corner of Lee High Road and Lee Church Street there is a small Victorian pub that seems to be clinging onto life, it has gone through a pair of reincarnations in the recent past. For the first 160 or so years of its life it was known as the Swan, in the last decade Rambles Bar and then Elements Bar.

The pub had opened around 1837, with the licence going to a James Couchman. It transferred to Thomas Couchman, presumably James’ son, on the condition that he ran the pub (1), Thomas was previously the parish constable. He had been born around 1796 somewhere in Kent (the 1841 census only listed the county), this may well have been in Lee.

As we saw in a post on one of the Quaggy tributaries, Mid Kid Brook, the original name came from swans that lived on a small lake or moat which had been created by damming the Brook in what are currently the grounds of Merchant Taylor’s Almshouses. The lake, sometimes referred to as the Looking Glass of Lee, went back to around the bottom of Dacre Park. Initially, it was for a farm run by the Lord of the Manor, Brian Annesley, whose later years seems to have at least influenced Shakespeare’s King Lear. Later it was an ornamental lake for Lee Place, home initially to a man who profited from the slave trade, George Thomson, and later to the Boone family.

In its early days, in the absence of of public buildings, The Swan was home to jury led inquests into deaths. This seems to have been common practice as we saw with the unfortunate Robert Cocking who died in an early parachute accident. His inquest was held at the Old Tigers Head.

Of the inquests held, the most notable was that following the death of police constable, William Aldridge, from a fractured skull in Deptford. He was hit by a rock thrown by a mob who tried to resist the arrest of John Pine outside the Navy Arms in Deptford (a pub building that is still there but looks forlorn and has seemingly been converted into flats). The death wasn’t instant and Aldridge returned to his home in Lee where he declined rapidly and died – the Metropolitan Police had been formed a decade before and he was the eighth officer to die on duty.

The foreman of the jury was a well known Lee name, Sidery, possibly William the head of household but, could have been Thomas, who lived in one of the houses between the Swan and the Woodman, which was transitioning into a shopping parade.

The inquest jury recorded ‘wilful murder’ against William Calvert, John Pine, his brother William, and John Burke (2). In the end charges were reduced to manslaughter and at the end of the trial at the Old Bailey, John Pine was transported for life as was William Calvert, albeit for 15 years (3). Perhaps they ended up in the antipodean Lewisham.

Like the Old Tiger’s Head at Lee Green there were sporting events along with associated gambling at the Swan. In 1843 there was a pedestrian race between ‘Two Unknowns’ one from Greenwich, one from Lee for a £10 stake over 200 yards (4). There also seems to have been live pigeon shooting (5) possibly over the road around what is now Bankwell Road, it was a sport that was only mentioned once in the press in relation to The Swan, but was later to happen regularly at the Old Tigers Head.

Thomas Couchman had moved on by early 1846 with George Chapman’s name was on brass over the door (6). Chapman died the same year, aged just 29 (7). James Charles Tiley was landlord by 1847; he would have been about 34 at that time, he was born in Middlesex. In 1851 he was a widower and was there with Charlotte Goddard, who was listed as his daughter in law (but almost certainly wasn’t), she worked as a barmaid; also there was a lodger. By 1861 James and Charlotte were married with two young children and a couple of servants – Sarah Larking and Mathilda Newmann.

As with every pub in the area, there were fights, drunkenness and arrests – one included the drunken assault of a police officer by George Mahoney of Robertson Street (now the Lee High Road end of Brightfield Road) who was fighting with someone else outside the pub and when arrested hit the PC. He was fined 10/- or two weeks in prison (9).

The next landlord was John Fitzgerald who started pulling pints after James Tiley’s death. He had moved on before the 1881 census enumerators called as the landlord was then John Green who was then 38 and hailed from Dartford. There with him was his wife, Mary from Devon, two children, two bar staff who lived above the pub, along with a domestic servant.

The Greens had moved on by September 1884 as Walter William Scott took over the licence. One of the first things that Scott changed was to try to let stabling attached to the pub, noting that it could also be used for for manufacturing or business (10).
Scott moved on by 1889 as the licence was briefly held in 1889/90 by Devonian, John Byerlee Beadle (11) who had previous been landlord at the Coopers’ Arms in Shoreditch. While listed there in the 1891 Kelly’s, he had moved on by the 1891 census as he was recorded as a retired publican living in Woolwich.

At The Swan in 1891 was Walter Haywood Cooper, born in Portsmouth in 1862, who was there with his wife Emma and two live-in staff, a potman, Thomas Mears and a barmaid, Bertha Crew.

The Coopers stay was a relatively short one, but those that followed had very brief tenures as the licence transferred to Frank Minty in August 1896 (12) soon after the death of Emma in May 1896 (13).

As we saw in the post on the Lesters of Lee New Town, there was a serious distubance in early 1897, when George Lester was charged with being ‘riotous whilst drunk’ and assaulting two Police Constables after having to be ejected from the Swan.  He was found guilty and got a hefty fine of £6 or three months imprisonment with 6/- (30p) costs.

Frank Minty was gone by May 1897, as J Ellesmere asserted that the pub was under new management stressing the quality of the whiskies on offer to the discerning drinker (14). Ellesmere’s stay was even shorter, little more than 4 months, as there was new ‘new management’ by September 1897 as the adverts were in the name of John McPherson (15). He was a Scot from Argyllshire, but had moved from the Red Cross pub in North Cray, the pub is has been known as the White Cross since 1935 to avoid confusion with the British Red Cross.

McPherson was there with his wife, Maud, a young child and a couple of live-in staff, barmaid Rosina Jones and a domestic servant Helen Gander in 1901. The pub is pictured at the back of the photograph below from around this era.

Around 1907 Bertie William Richard Perou took over the licence, he’d have been around 24, he’d been working as a barman at his Father’s pub, the Red Lion at 17 Greenwich High Road (the building, although not the pub is still there). His father had probably retired by 1907 and lived in Longhurst Road (16). Perou started to use the rooms for concerts – including a ‘Bohemian Concert’ in late 1907 one of several by the Lee and Lewisham Musical Society (17). Perou’s was another who had a short stay as by 1911 he was running the Hutchinson Arms in Stepney. The pub is pictured below, its sign visible at the rear of the photograph from this era.

The next name on the brass plaque over the door seems to have been Henry Bernard Drew who was certainly there by the time the 1911 Kelly’s Directory was compiled.
Born in the City of London in 1869, Drew came from a family who worked on the Thames, his father was a master lighter man and in 1901 he was listed as a Barge Owner living in the then suburbia of the Corbett Estate on Arngask Road with his wife Ada, daughter Ada and a servant not called Ada. It’s not clear why he gave up life on the water but was there by 1911, probably a year or two before, perhaps living in Catford he’d already given up interest other than ownership. They still had a live in servant and no doubt employed people in the bar.

He stayed at the Swan until the mid 1930s, possibly running the pub until his death in 1937 at the Miller Hospital in Greenwich. At the time he was living in the WJ Scudamore built Thornwood Road. He was survived by Ada.

The next landlord was probably Walter Edward Mitchell, he was certainly there in the 1939 Register, when he was living at The Swan on his own; he probably took over the tenancy at around the time of Henry Drew’s death. He was born in 1895 probably in Westminster, although the family always seems to have lived around Lambeth, and living in Kennington in 1911 when he was working as a Porter. He died in 1962.

On Facebook threads there were a few memories of a DJ called Graham Edwards in the 1960s and 1970s and the regular playing of T Rex’s Ride a White Swan (released in 1970). There was a darts team and that odd fixture of many pub Sunday lunchtimes – the stripper. It seems that in that era Jim and Kath ran the pub.

Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s the landlord was William (Bill) Whipps born in Bermondsey in 1950, and wife Mary, they’d married in Lewisham in 1969. They may have divorced then remarried as a couple of the same uncommon names married in Bexley in 2002 – both with the surname Whipps.

Around this time the name seemed to have subtly changed with both a prefix and suffix to the ‘Famous Swan of Lee.’ The source of the fame is unclear. It was very much a ‘Millwall pub’, something particularly noticeable around the Lions trips to Cardiff for the FA Cup Final (whilst Wembley was being rebuilt) in 2004 and the subsequent brief foray into Europe, along with visits to Wembley later in the decade for play-off Finals. On such occasions the pub was covered with flags of St George. The pub was probably run by a couple called Mark and Faye in this era. It is pictured below from 2009.

There are several reviews in Beer in the Evening for The Swan which deteriorated during the first decade of the 21st century. In 2003 it was described as
“Cheap, honest, good jukebox, good beer. It’s doing the simple things well that makes this pub a cut above the rest nearby.”

A review four years later was equally positive, almost too good to be true “a fantastic pub, wonderful bar staff and super landlady, the entertainment is first class with Campbell’s disco every two weeks and the karaoke and bands they have on there, never any trouble!!!!”

It struggled over the next few years with several short periods closed for a variety of reasons, with reviews less gushing – ‘a very basic boozer’ was one less than enthusiastic description. It had a couple of prolonged periods of over six months closed during 2012 and 2013 before reopening with a new name, Rambles Bar, pictured below from 2014.

From the outside, at least, it was a business that seemed to struggle, while more inviting than the latter days of its previous incarnation, when passing it lacked a key element of a successful pub or bar, drinkers. There were a few party nights when the pub was rammed but these seemed to be rarities.

The current incarnation, which has straddled COVID-19 and the lockdowns that killed off the Dirty South (Rose of Lee), is known as Elements Bar. It offers food and cocktails, but much reduced hours to the traditional pub that was previously there. There seem to be similar issues of large parties but few drinkers on other nights. An almost empty bar from a November 2021 mid Saturday evening is pictured above.

The struggles of the Swan (and it’s successors) are almost certainly related to changes in the area – much of the social housing in what was once Lee New Town (the area bounded by Lee High Road, Dacre Park and Boone Street) has been sold under right to buy. The neighbouring streets on the south side of Lee High Road had been home to skilled manual workers and public sector workers before and after World War Two. However, wealthier professionals have moved in, house prices have risen and drinking patterns changed. There are lots of external factors too such as the smoking ban and cheaper supermarket booze too.

Combined, this has an impact on traditional pubs – the last 25 years have seen the demise of the Royal Oak, the Greyhound and most recently the Woodman. The former Swan is bucking the trend and hanging on in there. All four are pictured above from a few years ago.

Unlike many other closed local pubs, there haven’t been pages of memories posted on Facebook – maybe there hasn’t been a trigger to do it… So, if you worked there or drank there, tell your story, who were the characters who propped up the bar, the publicans, the staff,  the atmosphere, the memorable nights, the particular celebrations that were held there, memories of the friends, the beers.  Post them below (you can use your Facebook or Twitter login – or via Facebook (if you found the post via there) – if it is you first comment ‘here’, you will have to wait for it to be ‘moderated’.  I will update the post with comments.  Anything libellous will get deleted here & no doubt on the Facebook Group pages.

Notes

  1. Ken White (1992) The Public Houses of Lee and Lewisham p241
  2. 5 October 1839 – Kentish Mercury
  3. 9 October 1839 – London Evening Standard
  4. 28 May 1843 – Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle
  5. 3 April 1842 – Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle
  6. 23 November 1846 – Morning Advertiser
  7. 9 January 1847 – West Kent Guardian
  8. 23 September 1871 – Kentish Mercury
  9. 25 May 1872 – Kentish Mercury
  10. 12 September 1884 – Kentish Mercury
  11. White op cit p241
  12. 28 August 1896 – Kentish Mercury
  13. 24 April 1896 – Kentish Mercury
  14. 14 May 1897 – Woolwich Gazette
  15. 17 September 1897 Woolwich Gazette
  16. 17 May 1907 – Kentish Mercury
  17. 15 November 1907 – Kentish Mercury

Picture and Other Credits

  • The postcard with the pub in the background showing Oates drapers is from the author’s own ‘collection’
  • The postcard with the tram in from of the Woodman, is via eBay in 2017
  • The photograph of the pub from 2009 is via Wikimedia Commons
  • Kelly’s Directories are via the always helpful Lewisham and Southwark Archives
  • Census and related data is via Find My Past (subscription required)

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1 thought on “The Swan – A Lee High Road Pub

  1. Chris

    I remember playing darts there in the late nineties maybe. They were “famous” for the sit down knife and fork dinners they put on instead of the usual plates of sandwiches. (a small section edited out) … thanks for a fascinating read.

    Reply

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