How VICE Bought a Brothel
A Blotted History of The Old Blue Last
Dec 14 2012
This Thursday, The Old Blue Last is celebrating its 313th birthday by inviting a bunch of our friends to play and giving away a massive pile of free booze. You're our friend, so you should come. Click here to find out more.
You might not be aware that we have our own pub. It’s called The Old Blue Last and it used to be a brothel before we acquired it. Still, it was a pub for 300 years before that – and even Shakespeare used to hang out there. It stands imperiously on the corner of Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road, dominating Shoreditch like a gigantic ancient rock that sells beer. To celebrate our tenth anniversary, we hired an incredibly famous historian who wished to remain nameless to find out all about it.
East London was horrible and messy long before we got there. The Floralia, the ancient Roman festival of flowers, celebrated Flora, a hooker who’d been turned into a goddess. When the week-long festival came to London, scores of half-naked prostitutes gathered outside the city walls, in what is now Shoreditch, to exchange milk, honey and invent all the STDs we have to worry about these days.
In the 16th century, everyone got into theatre, which might sound poncey but it was actually a lot more boozy and fighty back then. Plays were banned in London, but because Shoreditch remained conveniently just outside the city limits, in 1576 a venture capitalist named James Burbage built a venue called The Theatre where The Old Blue Last currently stands.
This illicit, out-of-town theatre turned Shoreditch back into the godless pleasure garden it had been in Roman times. It was a place for gentlemen to visit to bathe, play lawn bowls (which might sound poncey but it was actually a lot more boozy and fighty back then) and fitfully rub their genitals against the wenches and rent boys who populated the area. Oh, and William Shakespeare hung out there all the time too, kicking back with John Webster and losing his shit to whatever the Elizabethan version of “She Bangs the Drums” was.
Eventually Burbage pulled down The Theatre and moved it south of the river, where it became The Globe. This means that when you were dragged there to watch heritage Shakespeare on a school trip, you were essentially taken to The Old Blue Last.
Shoreditch, meanwhile, remained an iniquitous pit of bowls and sex, and in 1700 a pub was built on the site of the old theatre. It was called The Last, which, remarkably boringly, refers to a wooden block that a shoemaker uses to mould a shoe. The Last was owned by a brewer called Ralph Harwood, who went on to achieve a small level of fame when he was pronounced bankrupt one day by Gentleman’s Magazine. In these early years, men carrying powderpuffs used to frequent the pub. Anyone familiar with the coded body language of this era will know that man with powderpuff = man who wants to fuck other men.
THE OLD BLUE LAST
In 1876, Truman’s took over the pub. They pulled The Last down and rebuilt it as The Old Blue Last, which means “the old blue wooden pattern that is used to mould the shoe”. Gents came to dine here, ladies took their tea here, everyone wore flat caps, well-made shoes and called each other “squire” in a way that wasn’t irritating because Guy Ritchie and Pete Doherty hadn’t been born yet. There’s still a massive mirror hanging in the main bar that dates back to this time and has somehow managed to never get smashed. Eventually Truman’s went down the toilet and Grand Metropolitan Hotels took over the OBL (which, let’s face it, proves that they were never really that grand at all).
Throughout the 1970s and into the 90s, Shoreditch was still full of strip joints and violent gay bars (Freddie Mercury is said to have landed his helicopter on top of the building that is now The London Apprentice, formerly the 333). At that point, The Old Blue Last was a rough place full of rough blokes and people who were afraid of being beaten up by them. It housed an illegal strip club and a knocking shop. The punters would enter, pay their £20 and go up to the first floor. The room was divided into cubicles, with no walls, made up of a single bed and a bedside table.
Weirdly, on every bedside table there was a bowl of peanuts. I guess East End gangsters were into throwing nuts at prostitutes. Apparently, once some pissed-up hardmen turned up to settle a score with a bouncer, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Lord knows how, but somehow he lived (if anyone can be described as “alive” when half their head is missing).
Damian from Fucked Up on one of the occasions they destroyed the pub. Photo by Bruno Bayley.
We bought The Old Blue Last in 2004. It was a horrible shithole back then and since we bought it the ceiling has collapsed three times. Still, it’s our pub, where’s yours? Arctic Monkeys (broke the ceiling), the Horrors (broke the ceiling), Lil B, Amy Winehouse, Whitehouse, Klaxons, Integrity, Gallows, Tempa T, Wiley, Chromeo, Crazy Titch, A-Trak, These New Puritans, Lily Allen, Salem, Jay Reatard, Andrew WK, Eyehategod (broke the ceiling), The La’s, Black Lips, Fucked Up, Tony Wilson, N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, Florence + the Machine and thousands of other people have played here. Did they play at your pub? No.
Literally no one has shot anyone here since we took over, though our founding editor Andy Capper has been glassed here. It's a top boozer, all the gigs are great and it’s right by our office. Plus, one time the lighting engineer jerked off the sound engineer while her dad and brother were on stage. Her dad ended up complaining about the unexpected mid-set strobe effects. Oh, and then there was the time Fucked Up broke all our furniture and the pub’s co-owner, Martin Wade-Thomas, ordered some more for really cheap online and when they arrived, it turned out they were for a doll’s house.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
More from our 10th Anniversary Issue: