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The George Tavern
A gig at the George Tavern during the 2000sCourtesy of the George Tavern

The George Tavern wins legal battle against flat developers

A 600-year-old cultural mainstay loved by Amy Winehouse and Grace Jones has seen a decision to build luxury apartments next door shafted

After a relentless battle, the 600-year-old George Tavern has won its legal fight to stop luxury flat developers next door. The decision has been hailed as a great triumph for the cultural mainstay: referenced by Dickens and Chaucer and loved by Kate Moss and Georgia May Jagger, it’s a venue that’s housed historic gigs and shoots with the likes of Amy Winehouse in its studio.  

The Court of Appeal overturned its previous decision that allowed Swan Housing to build a block of flats on the grounds of the derelict Stepney Club, right beside the George Tavern. The final decision was based on the claim that the flats would block natural light used in the pub’s upstairs photography studio, from which the owner runs a business to subsidise the venue’s activities and fund the Grade II building’s restoration. Pauline Forster, the east London venue’s owner, also argued that housing so close to her pub would obviously increase noise complaints, putting her late licence and subsequently, her livelihood, in danger.

In a statement, Forster said: “I am relieved and happy that the judges have recognised the importance of the historic George Tavern, a local pub, live music venue, film, fashion and art shoot location, and my home. I have battled tirelessly over nine years for something I truly love and believe in. And I will continue to do so. May the light shine through and live music live on!”

The George Tavern was formerly Halfway House, referred to in Chaucer’s 14th century poem The Reeve's Tale. Back in 2002, Forster, who is also an artist, moved to London from Gloucestershire and bought the derelict building, then won a 3am music licence from the council. She runs a successful live music venue, which has hosted everyone from Nick Cave to John Cooper Clarke in underground gigs, as well as a photography studio upstairs, while also living onsite.

Swan Housing put in its first planning application back in 2008. Famous punters such as Kate Moss, Grace Jones and Amy Winehouse joined the "Save The George Tavern" campaign with slogan shirts. Tower Hamlets council initially denied the application, but the developers refused to relent. A 3,000-person petition to uphold the council’s decision was presented, including support from the likes of Justin Timberlake and Plan B. However, in October it was announced that the decision would be overturned.

Last year, Dazed reported Forster’s claims that she had been threatened and targeted by the housing company. She told us men with axes and crowbars knocked down internal doors connecting her property and the derelict club, physically moved her and trespassed in her house. The police related that they were unable to act on “a dispute between neighbours”.

At the time, Forster said: “It seems to be that the developers have got it all. 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.”

The respected venue now hopes to continue with many more years of cultural history-making, in the face of a city that seems hellbent on shutting down its social epicentres. In the past few years, we’ve seen the likes of Plastic People, Hackney’s Joiner’s Arms and Madame Jojo’s in Soho all permanently close their doors.

Barrister Annabel Graham Paul, who represented Forster in court, said of the decision: “This judgment shows the courts really are prepared to protect grassroots music venues in London and warns planners not to take a one size fits all approach. Pauline Forster has battled tirelessly to save The George Tavern and this is fantastic result for her and for grassroots music venues further afield too".

James Ketchell, Chief Executive of Music Heritage UK, a charity that’s supported the pub’s campaign from the beginning, said: “This is a huge victory for the entire live music community in London and for grassroots campaigning. It’s now time for the developers to do the right thing, realise they should cut their losses, and scrap these inappropriate plans.”