Pubs With Tales: The Widow’s Son In London

An occasional series about pubs with interesting stories. This time The Widow's Son, aka The Bun House; a pub with a melancholy history of a mother waiting for a son who never returned from the sea.

Before we get down to business here's the latest update concerning the BrewDog/Diageo story from last week.

BrewDog has since claimed to have discovered the identity of the Diageo suit who requested that they not be given the award for Bar Operator of the Year. Far from being being the 'rogue element' claimed by the big corporation, BrewDog says that there were only senior executives present and that this gives the lie to Diageo's claim that what happened goes against their core values. BrewDog is refusing to name the person responsible, saying that it's for the BII or Diageo to disclose that information. They are, however, looking to brew a beer to tie in with the whole sorry tale and are inviting suggestions for a suitable (no pun intended) name.

So what about The Bun House?

During the Second World War large parts of east London were laid waste by the Luftwaffe. The main London docks were in the east and it was also an important manufacturing and warehouseing area, making it a prime strategic target for the Third Reich during their campaign against Great Britain. In the years following the war the bombed areas were cleared and redeveloped, some more successfully than others. In the 1950s and 60s brutalism was the favoured architectural style of the day and modular construction was the favoured method of putting up buildings quickly and cheaply. These came together in the form of (and this is entirely a matter of opinion - mine) monstrosities such as Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens when cash-strapped local boroughs recovering from one of the century's worst conflicts were looking for ways to rehouse hundreds of thousands of Londoners whose homes had been destroyed.

The subject of this week's piece is one of the buildings that survived the bombs and which is surrounded by a mix of Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses, pre-WW2 tenement blocks, post-WW2 low-rise housing estates and 1960s high-rise tower blocks, including those two ghastly examples mentioned above.

The story goes (at least, one of them does) that during the early part of the 19th century a poor widow lived in a small cottage on the site where the pub now stands, which at the time would have been surrounded by farmland and small villages. The metropolis still lay to the west but it had been steadily creeping eastwards. The biggest expansion, in the middle and late 1800s which would engulf the area and create what we now know as the East End was yet to come.

Her only son went off to sea to fight for king and country as a sailor in the Royal Navy. Expecting him to come home at Easter she baked some hot cross buns, knowing they were one of his favourite treats. Alas, the son didn't come back, so she kept one of the buns and hung it from a beam in the hope it might entice his return. There was a belief prevalent at the time that bread, buns or biscuits baked on Good Friday would 1) never go mouldy; 2) cure certain illnesses; 3) bring good fortune if hung up in a house.

The widow continued baking a bun each year on Good Friday and hanging it from the ceiling in the forlorn hope that Davy Jones hadn't taken her son, but it wasn't to be and she died never knowing what had happened to him. A pub was subsequently built on the site of the cottage, and because the widow's tradition was already so well known in the area (Bromley-by-Bow, since you ask, and not very far from The Bombay Grab), it was decided to call it The Widow's Son, and her collection of ancient buns was (depending on which story you believe) either strung from the ceiling of the bar or placed in a net which was hung above the bar. What's more, the tradition was kept alive and a new bun was added each Easter, earning the pub its nickname, The Bun House. The same tradition survives even to this day. Every Good Friday a naval rating adds one more bun to the collection, which these days isn't as big as it ought to be, a number of the older buns having been lost in a fire some years ago.

 

Variations on the story are many. In one it's said that after the widow died the bun-hanging was continued by locals and hot cross buns were sold from her cottage - which thenceforward became known as The Bun House - every Easter,  before it was demolished and the pub built in 1848. Another says that it's a condition of the pub's lease that the hot cross bun tradition is continued (one previous manager of the was unable to find this clause in the lease). Yet another claims that the pub was already in existence at the time of the son's disappearance and the widow was the publican, although what the pub was called at the time isn't recorded.

If you've a mind to visit The Bun House it's right here:


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at 75 Devons Road, London E3. It used to look like this. Perhaps the old signage blew down in a gale, perhaps the pub changed hands and the new owners didn't care for it (the lantern hanging to the left of the pub's exterior pins it down as a Taylor Walker pub, but the Taylor Walker panes have since been replaced by plain frosted glass).

Personally, I think it looked better with the sign.

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