London was always a town of Inns and taverns. They were in many respects the focal point of the male social round in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Playwrights and poets, in particular, used them to discuss their art and make contact with their audiences. For the ordinary man, they were the place for his "morning draught", dinner and supper. Indeed, Samuel Pepys seems, at times, never to be out of one. The coffee Houses which came later in the 18th century were places for news and business and the birth place of the insurance industry. One of the most famous of London's Taverns was the Boar's Head in Eastcheap which dated from at least 1537.
Situated in Eastcheap, the Boar's Head Tavern was one of the largest and most famous in the area during the 16th century. The earliest reference to a lease for it is dated 1537 and in 1588 it was kept by one Thomas Wright, whose son came into a "good inheritance," was made clerk of the King's Stable, and a knight, and was "a very discreet and honest gentleman." It figures prominently in Shakespeare's Henry IV as the scene of Falstaff's carousing and like most other large taverns in the City, plays were frequently performed in its courtyard. This connection with Shakespeare accounts for much of its subsequent fame. The building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 along with its neighbours the Chicken, the Plough and the Three Kings.
It was quickly rebuilt in stone after the Fire and a stone carved with the head of a boar and marked with the date July 1 1668 was inset above the door. In 1785, it was described as having on each side of the doorway
"a vine branch, carved in wood, rising more than three feet from the ground, loaded with leaves and clusters; and on the top of each a little Falstaff, eight inches high, in the dress of his day." Boswell relates how he informed Dr. Johnson of the existence of a club at
the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, the very tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met; the members of which all assume Shakespeare's characters. One is Fallstaff, another Prince Henry, another Bardolph, and so on. If he entertained the idea of joining the club, a matter on which he does not throw any light, Johnson's rejoinder was sufficient to deter him from doing so.
Don't be of it, Sir. Now that you have a name you must be careful to avoid many things not bad in themselves, but which will lessen your character. In fact, it seems that the patrons at that time were generally of a somewhat boisterous nature. Nonetheless, it was here that Oliver Goldsmith wrote his favous Reverie and William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and William Wilberforce once spent a convivial evening here at a party in memory of Shakespeare.
The American author Washington Irving, visited it in the hope of capturing some of the spirit of Shakespeare. In the churchyard of St Michael in Crooked Lane he came across the grave of one Robert Preston who was a drawer at the Boar's Head. The tombstone carried the following epitaph:
"Bacchus, to give the toping world surprise,In the last stages of its existence the building was divided into two with one half becoming a Gunsmith's shop. It was finally demolished in 1831 to make way for the approaches to the new London Bridge and the construction of King William Street. The stone sign was rescued and is now in the Museum of London. In 1844, an impressive Foggit Tor granite statue of William IV by Samuel Nixon was erected on part of the Boar's Head site. The statue itself was moved to Greenwich Park in 1938.
Produced one sober son, and here he lies.
Though rear'd among full hogsheads, he defied
The charms of wine, and every one beside.
0 reader, if to justice thou'd inclined,
Eeep honest Preston daily in thy mind.
He drew good wine, took care to fill his pots,
Had sundry virtues that excused his faults.
You that on Bacchus have the like dependence,
Pray copy Bob, in measure and attendance."