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Georgia May Jagger Save The George Tavern campaign
Georgia May Jagger suppporting the Save The George Tavern campaignCourtesy of the George Tavern

On the brink: the George Tavern staves off gentrification

The landlady of the historic East End boozer says she's losing the fight against axe-wielding demolition men and luxury property developers

The shutting down of cultural institutions across London to make way for small, stuffy flats is becoming something of an epidemic. In recent weeks, the Joiner's Arms on Hackney Road, Vibe Bar on Brick Lane and Madame Jojo's in Soho have all announced their closure, in what many say is one more example of London eating itself from the inside out as developers remorselessly deaden the city's lifeforce. Next on the chopping block? The 600-year-old George Tavern in Stepney, East London.

The charming, ramshackle pub was formerly the Halfway House, a tavern once referenced by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century poem The Reeve's Tale. In 2002, 65-year old artist and publican Pauline Forster moved to London from Gloucestershire and bought the derelict Grade II listed building, managing to acquire a 3am music licence. The George was love at first sight for Forster – she took the pub and devoted her life to restoring it. She owns the bar and all floors above it.

In the past decade, Forster has transformed the George into a mecca for cultural happenings in East London. Grace Jones, Grimes, Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss have been photographed in its labyrinthine corridors and propping up its bar. Over the years, it's played host to countless cabaret nights, art performances and underground gigs from the likes of Anna Calvi, Factory Floor and John Cooper Clarke. To say "this place has history" is an understatement.

In February, Forster announced that the property developers had put in another appeal to demolish Stepney's Club, the abandoned nightclub next door. The former clubbing spot entertained Londoners from the 1970s onwards, but has been out of action for some time – anyone remember the light-up dancefloor in the video for Pulp's "Common People"? That was Stepney's. 

Forster doesn't own Stepney's and never has. Nine years ago, it was bought from Groveshire Ltd by Swan Housing Association. The developers – who own an awful lot of housing all over London – want to build six luxury flats on the site of Stepney's. If the flats are built, they will encroach upon the George's beer garden. A single noise complaint from one flat owner could result in the George's 3am license being revoked.

If the nightclub is knocked down, Forster says it'll also damage a ceiling above a ground floor corridor. If English Heritage is to be believed, Grade II listed buildings like the George warrant "every effort to preserve them". The George is also Forster's home – she lives in a flat above it. 

The George has been under threat from Swan Housing for a long time. In 2008, when Swan Housing put in its first planning application, Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse and Grace Jones donned T-shirts with the slogan "Save The George Tavern" and encouraged the public to join the fight to save the club. The campaign proved successful and Tower Hamlets denied Swan Housing's application.

To fight off Swan Housing this year, Forster rallied a slew of celebrities including Plan B, Justin Timberlake, Nick Cave and Ian McKellen; over 3,000 people signed a petition calling on the Planning Inspectorate to uphold Tower Hamlets' rejection. This time, their voices weren't heard. 

In October, Forster announced that the Planning Inspectorate had overturned the original decision. Swan Housing now has the go-ahead to build on Stepney's. Forster says that the move will destroy her livelihood and ruin the George's business. "People will lose their jobs, locals will lose their local, musicians and artists will lose their platform," she tells us. 

“They used crowbars to force their way upstairs into my home, shouting, ‘she's living up here, she's got a kitchen’.” – Pauline Forster, George Tavern owner

Forster also alleges that she has been targeted and physically threatened by people hired by Swan Housing. "Last year they sent a mob into the nightclub which is only separated by one internal door from my house," she says. "And blokes with axes smashed all the doors down. They used crowbars to force their way upstairs into my home, shouting, 'she's living up here, she's got a kitchen'.”

“I was taunted repeatedly and physically pushed around. The police left me in that situation, stating that it was a dispute between neighbours. It was horrendous.” Pauline says that she was forewarned by Swan Housing, but alleges that they deliberately came on a different day. On August 13, a group of men entered the building with axes, destroying part of a listed building in the process.

According to Forster, the men trespassed in her home, barging into her kitchen and the hallway. Her daughter-in-law Aster Guinness, who was pregnant at the time, filmed the alleged incident:

Unsurprisingly, Forster is scared of the developers who represent Swan Housing. She says even looking at the footage deeply upsets her. 

The publican complained about the damage to Tower Hamlets council; as the listed building is protected by law, the men should have been prosecuted for causing damage. No action was taken. She also lodged a police complaint, only to be told that the authorities couldn't get involved as "it was a dispute between neighbours".

"It seems to be that the developers have got it all," she adds. "The government, people like Boris Johnson, they’re just cuddling up to the moneymaking developers, it’s all about money. It’s not about providing anything for London. It’s about making money in London. They’re like vultures, robbing our heritage, our culture, places like the George. They don’t care."

Swan Housing sees it somewhat differently. A spokesperson told us: "The owner of the George Tavern was transferred a temporary right of access over Stepney Nightclub’s land in 2003 by Swan’s predecessor in title, Groveshires Ltd, in order to access her property. In an abuse of this right, Swan was denied access to the upstairs of the property on 6th August 2013 through the installation of locks and obstructions."

"Notice of Swan’s intention to exercise its right of access was sent to the owner of the George Tavern on that date, and the owner was required to attend the property at 10.00am on 13th August in order to remove locks and obstructions. Swan secured access on this date to prepare for redevelopment of the site".

Swan Housing is a pretty interesting company. In 2012, Inside Housing revealed that it had deliberately falsified documents in order to claim £50 million in development grants early from the government. The company used it to buy up property around London, boosting its reputation in the process.

John D Synnuck, chief executive of Swan Housing, said at the time: "We recognise we need to learn lessons from this." 

No criminal charge was ever brought against Swan Housing. This July, Swan Housing was among the 54 housing providers allocated almost half a billion pounds in total to build low-cost homes in London. So why was a company that falsely took £50 million in government funds given another £4.85 million this year?

The Mayor of London's Office says that the new cash injection was all kosher under their standards: "Following a transparent, rigorous and consistent assessment process Swan Housing Association was allocated £4,851,400 to deliver 195 affordable homes from the Mayor’s Housing Covenant 2015-18 programme."

It's worth noting that Valerie Owen OBE, the chair of Swan Housing, is also listed as a non-executive director at the Planning Inspectorate, the same government board that processes planning and enforcement appeals. Swan Housing denies that there is any conflict of interest; "the Planning Inspectorate fulfills a quasi-judicial role which is carried out in an impartial and independent manner," a spokesperson tells us.

The George Tavern is enshrined in London's cultural history, whether it's in Chaucer's writing, a John Cooper Clarke gig or the time Amy Winehouse did a photoshoot upstairs. In London, buildings like this are fast being replaced by expensive, alienating, unadventurous architecture that encourages solitude rather than society. Soon there'll be nothing left but grey, faceless anti-culture new builds. And this is happening everywhere – not just in London.

As with most disappearings of iconic inner-city buildings, the destruction of the George isn't just a tumbling of bricks or a shutting of doors. It's symbolic of our distant relationship with heritage, history and culture. The George has been a haven for ideas, community and loads of fucking fun. So what's worth more to London? The George Tavern or six flats?