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It is amusing to stand of the banks of the River Thames at Greenwich as the pleasure boats pass by to hear the over-enthusiastic tour guides let their imagination run riot with the facts and announce to their unquestioning, captive audience: “And there is the Trafalgar Tavern, where Nelson always drank whenever he was in Greenwich.” A remarkable achievement indeed, considering the Trafalgar was built thirty-two years after the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.
Admiral Nelson’s forays to Greenwich during his lifetime were few and far between, but in death he became inextricably linked to the place. His body was brought back to England and lay in state in the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital, before being conveyed by water procession to the Admiralty from where a magnificent funeral car, with a figurehead of Victory to the fore, carried him to his final resting place in St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 January 1806. Greenwich claimed Nelson as one of their own and the town has traded on that connection ever since.
The Trafalgar Tavern opened in June 1837, coinciding with the Coronation of Queen Victoria. The original landlord was Charles Hart who was to remain at the helm until his death in 1863, and the advertisements he placed in the newspapers at the time of the Trafalgar’s opening proclaim ‘a new, commodious and convenient house…with extensive frontage towards the river… where large and small parties can be accommodated in a comfortable and superior manner with Dinners, &c., and Wines of a quality that cannot be surpassed, on terms, he flatters himself, that will insure the approbation of the public. An excellent Coffee-room; and White Bait in perfection.’ All of these pleasing attributes can still be found at the Trafalgar today, the only aspect lacking since Mr Hart’s time is the coach-yard and stabling.
The nineteenth century riverfront was awash with impressive riverside taverns, the Crown and Sceptre and the Three Crowns to the east, and the great Ship Hotel stood near the pier on the spot now occupied by the former tea clipper Cutty Sark.
Government ministers frequented Greenwich for their celebrated whitebait suppers; the Tories frequented the Ship whilst the Liberals favoured the Trafalgar. It was the haunt of writers, artists and bohemians. The languid spirit of Greenwich in the season was evocatively captured by James Tissot in his views of the Trafalgar.
By the end of the nineteenth century the fortunes of the Trafalgar began to wane and it closed its doors at the beginning of the twentieth. Threatened with demolition in 1937, it was happily reprieved and converted into six flats. It returned to its original purpose when it reopened as a public house in 1965, following an extensive reconstruction of the interior. By this time it was the only survivor of Greenwich’s grand riverside establishments, the Crown and Sceptre and the Three Crowns disappeared in the 1930s and the Ship was totally destroyed in an air raid in the Second World War.
Today the Trafalgar is unique. Building upon the established London tradition of decorating pubs as cabinets of curiosities with interesting collections of pictures and objects, such as Charlie Brown’s in Limehouse or the celebrated Whitbread themed houses of the 1950s and 60s, at the Trafalgar Tavern gin palace showmanship has excelled itself. As you encounter antique clocks, scientific instruments of navigation, figureheads, busts, porcelain spirit barrels and nineteenth century acid etched pub mirrors, you wonder whether you have wandered into the glory days of the Portobello Road in the swinging sixties. Certainly you are now somewhere else. As the London we once knew is disappearing before out eyes, here seems to be a microcosm of the bits we liked best carefully gathered up and reassembled. The walls are lined with an unrivalled collection of paintings and prints from the past three hundred years upon which to feast the eyes, and the depth, richness and intelligence behind the collection is revealed. Nelson and his admirals are well represented, of course, and find themselves in good company with Jack Tars and Greenwich Pensioners. This is just as it should be for there is no snobbery at the Trafalgar. Views of Greenwich Park and Greenwich Hospital are well represented, but above all the collection celebrates the River Thames in all its aspects and moods, its ramshackle wharfs and jetties, its shipping and craft, its sailors, fishermen, watermen, lightermen, dockers and stevedores. Surrounded by treasure and sitting in the magnificent vantage point of the Trafalgar Tavern’s elegant bow windows, the water gently lapping outside, you appear to be afloat, transported by time and tide. And whitebait in perfection.
Happy Trafalgar Day!