In 1807, the East India Dock Company cleared the land that would later house the Pensioner, razing a terrace of brickmakers’ cottages and laying out streets named after the company’s directors: Wells, Woolmore and Cotton.
After All Saints Church was built in 1823, the land west of Bazely Street – named for a British admiral who captured an American warship during the War of Independence – was auctioned off by the vestry. And in 1827, James Hammack of Mile End built the Greenwich Pensioner public house.
When Barry found the Pensioner two years ago, he fell in love with the still-lovely tiled exterior of the Grade II-listed building, a marking that identifies the structure’s historical and architectural significance. The interior, on the other hand, had seen better days.
“It was the outside of the place. It’s beautiful,” said Barry, a 36-year-old craft beer aficionado who had spent more than a decade behind the bar at other pubs. “It wasn’t so beautiful within.”
Even though some locals said the place seemed cursed because of a string of unlucky owners, Barry saw potential in the regenerating neighbourhood. And he came to think of himself as the Pensioner’s last chance.
“Underneath the layers of green paint, I knew there was beauty,” he said.
“The pub is there to stave off the chilblains of loneliness for a lot of people.”
After months of work, Barry reopened the pub, transforming it from a scruffy one-room boozer to a cozy hub of the residential area. He’d thrown his heart into the redecoration. He commissioned his best friend, a carpenter, to rebuild the wooden bar, and did much of the mossy-green paintwork himself. But he didn’t erase the pub’s past: In the men’s toilet, sepia-toned photographs show men in caps and three-piece suits outside an older iteration of the Greenwich Pensioner, beneath signs for “Taylor Walker & Co.” and “Ales Stout & Porter.”
The community welcomed back the Pensioner with open arms. But this year, even before the shutdown, times were hard for the pub. A week before temporarily closing his doors, Barry wrote on the Pensioner’s Facebook page: “Tough start to year for pubs. Dry January hits us with the same force as a spade to the face. February was so wet no one could be arsed to leave their house/flat. Now in March, Coronavirus has struck fear in to a nation.”
The closure left him crushed.
“At the moment, that pub is just a glorified storage unit. It’s where my stuff is kept, but I don’t get to use it,” he said back in April.
By that time, he had spent a month at home, taking care of his 2-year-old son, Zephan, and waiting out the lockdown. But as the situation worsened in Britain, he figured it would be a long time before he would open again.
“Pubs will be one of the last things to be allowed to get back to normal because they’re not considered an essential part of life – although it depends on how you look at it,” he said. “I think they’re essential.”
The government did designate liquor stores as essential businesses, and they’ve remained open in the lockdown. Some breweries and pubs have recently reopened to sell alcohol for takeaway only.
To keep busy, Barry began offering a weekly, curated beer scheme to friends and customers. He calls it “A Good Drop” and packages the boxes of six hand-picked craft beers in a garden shed, working alongside his wife, who is a fashion designer, and Zephan.
“People are thinking: ‘I'll buy from this guy. It might cost a couple of quid more, but I’m helping him survive and come out the other side,’” Barry said. His usually cheery face turned somber when asked about the pub’s finances.
“You can’t completely stop your outgoings,” he said. “You can furlough your staff and shut your doors, but the landlord is still going to want to be paid.”