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Charlie Brown – The “King” of Limehouse

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The one and only Charlie Brown

In the 1890s an ex boxer and sailor  Charlie Brown took over the Railway Tavern in Limehouse and over the next 40 years built a reputation that bought him local, national and international fame.

The Railway Tavern or Charlie Brown’s as it become known was a favourite port of call for sailors from all over the world and Charlie’s hospitality and generosity became legendary. Charlie was also a collector of antiques and acquired a large collection of objects which he proudly had on show at the pub.

To illustrate how famous Charlie became, I have selected a couple of contemporary newspaper articles. The first is from the Milwaukee Journal of 1929 written by American journalist I Wentworth Day.

Charlie Brown ,Limehouse King runs the strangest pub in the world.

Down in Limehouse, Charlie Brown is king, but that is merely by the way. You really begin to realise exactly what he means when you meet a man at the Gezeira club in Cairo or up river on a Perak rubber plantation. You mention Charlie Brown. “Oh! dear old Charlie!” explodes the stranger.

“Why, the last time I saw him was in- let me see, one night in 1908. We all went there for a drink. Now I’ll tell you a tale about old Charlie – “

Charles Brown of the Railway Tavern, West India Dock Road, is a connoisseur and collector of antiques and curios, student of human nature, friend of cabinet ministers and able seamen alike, is one of the most vivid, remarkable and unaffected men in London.

He is 69 years of age and for over 40 years he has been collecting things of beauty.

He is known all over the world, wherever sailors meet and he has a friend in every port. He has sailed most of the seas himself and he has gathered together the “most astounding collection of objects, beautiful and odd, under a private citizen’s roof.

Charlie has never gone out of London to find his treasures. The pigs and birds and bows and arrows have been gifts from sailor friends; but things of ivory beauty are his own finding. He has never bought one piece at a public auction and he has never asked or questioned the questioned the price when he has bought.

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I will not attempt to guess the value of Mr Brown’s treasures, because he never sets a price on them himself and does not like to talk about their value; but it is enough to say that in that small room are five Ming vases 2,500 years old, an 800 year old Chinese ebony cabinet, a magnificent Louis XIV cabinet inlaid with enamel and Ivory, Waterford and Bristol glass, Chinese and Japanese ivories and more china, silver and pictures and bronzes.

Also there is a visitors book in which are the names of the world’s famous men and women. Mr Brown does not ask for autographs and he does not travel miles to get them. They come to him.

Downstairs there is an ivory casket covered with minute figures carved in bas and full relief. Three generations of a Japanese family lived and died to make that casket. Then there is a Louis group of card players in ivory, cornelian, silver and crystal, which is one of the many gems of the collection, and a Joan of Arc in ivory and Damascus steel armour.

Above the bar door hangs Marshal von Hindenburg’s own pet pipe, over a yard long, with an ivory horse and an enamel of the Kaiser on its stem.

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But of all the queer and wonderful treasures Mr Brown likes best the Chinese goddess of the sea, and the ivory princess who stands upstairs on the mantelpiece in her jewelled robe, as beautiful and inscrutable as when she was fashioned eight centuries ago.

There is a brooding beauty in these two figures which no words can convey. They are instinct with an art that were old when Confucius was young. Lidded eyes and rounded cheeks, the tiny fingers and the fall of the folds of the robes, the outline of the body and the grace of poise – all these are near perfect; but there is more in these ivory figures than mere perfection of craftsmanship – they have personality.

In contrast to this antique and eastern beauty downstairs in a big room behind the bar the walls are hung with every odd and curious freak of natural and unnatural history which the sailor friends of Charlie could collect in foreign lands.

There is a double headed calf with six legs, an albatross, snakes in bottles and something which is horribly like a pickled baby, skulls of beasts, assegais and arrows, eggs and birds, fish and alligators.

Round the room sits sailors and stokers, Swedes and Germans, Italian and Poles, fireman and donkey-men, able seaman and his majesty’s guardsman – each with his girl. Some of these are English, fair of skin and rosy of cheek; some are slim and almond eyed, with all the allure of the east. All are pretty. I have never seen an ugly girl in Charlie’s. There are none in Limehouse anyway.

The piano plays, the hands clap, the heels drum, the smoke thickens, glasses clink, all the tongues of the world mingle, the girls laugh and the room rings back the echoes. Suddenly it is closing time.

“Watch em “ says Charlie. No one calls “ time!” The bartender just lifts his finger, the pianist stops, the barmaids glance at the clock – and the sailors and soldiers and the sweating stokers, with their girls put on their hats and coat and say “Goodnight Charlie !” in 14 different languages and pass out into the night.

In two minutes the room is clear and the potman is piling the chairs.

Limehouse may mean Chinamen, fan-tan, opium, knives, murder and mystery to the novelist, but in plain fact it is one of the most law abiding districts in London. Charlie Brown sees to that.

“How do you do it?” I asked . “They know we keep big hammers in the cellars!” Charlie replied.

It is not that, It is the personality of this very odd little gentleman of nearly 70, who can quell a street brawl with one flash of his brown eyes, who can terrify a drunken Lascar with a look and who is so loved by his neighbours that he and his treasures sleep secure.

In 1932 Charlie died, and tributes arrived from all over the world and up to 16,000 people lined the route to his final resting place in Bow Cemetery.

One of the tributes was an article in the Singapore Free Press in 1932.

All the World Knew Him

A Last Look at Charlie Brown’s

Charlie Brown is dead. Soon the news will be told on the waterside at Rio and in the speak-easies by the quays of New York; it will reach the sailorman walking ashore at Colombo and Martinque and Fernando; on the bridge and fo’c’ale of ships on the high seas it will set the tides of memories flowing.

Charlie Brown is dead, and in the ports of the world they will say that London can never be quite the same again.

For to the sailorman Charlie Brown’s tavern was London.

What was his secret ? the secret was Charlie Brown himself.

I think it was the honest friendliness of the man and the way he had of making you feel he was expecting you for months.

He has heard so many secrets, since he first went to Limehouse nearly 40 years ago, but would never talk about them.

Live and let live was his motto; that, and has he once said to me “Never do a dirty trick to anyone.”

And he would always help you  if you were down on your luck. And he would always be annoyed if you told anyone about it.

After Charlie’s death, the Railway Tavern was taken over by Charlie’s daughter, whilst his son Charlie Jnr moved into a pub opposite called the Blue Posts, both pubs were known as Charlie Brown’s.

In the Second World War the Railway Tavern relived some of its past glories by being the regular haunt of servicemen from all over the world, no doubt attracted by its past fame.

After the war its fame diminished but still struggled to survive until the 1980s when it was demolished to make way for the Docklands Light Railway.

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Charlie Brown Jnr

Charlie Brown Jnr left the Blue Posts in the 30s to run a pub at Woodford called unsurprisingly Charlie Brown’s, this pub was demolished in the 1970s. However a local roundabout was named Charlie Browns in its honour.

In recent times, many people may be familiar with the name but the legend of Charlie Brown has been largely forgotten.

This is a shame for there was no doubt that Charlie Brown was a real East End hero loved by locals but renown worldwide for his hospitality, generosity and philanthropic works.


6 Comments

  1. John says:

    My mother was taken to Charlie Brown’s before the Second World War. She was a girl and there were Scotland Yard officers with her father, talking to Charlie. She remembers being told to ‘stand quietly at the back and say nothing and do not stare’, I think there was a small balcony overlooking the river.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment, it made me laugh, because of the strangeness of the pub I would of thought it would have been very difficult not to stare.
      It certainly makes the pubs of today look a bit boring.
      A great memory, many thanks for sharing.

  2. John Bullman says:

    I am related to him as my mother ‘s brother Tom Chandler married his daughter . I remember once when very young I was there being looked after by my aunt Ethel, while my mother went shopping in the West End Oxford Street.
    When the King of Spain arrived, unannounced to see the curious, I was told to be quiet and stay where I was.

  3. Grace Smith says:

    I was taken to the Woodford pub by my family several times before it was demolished. My family came from Poplar and, in addition to the antiques and curios, I was fascinated by the stories they used to tell me about Charlie Brown and his pub in Limehouse. My mother used to describe this imposing man with a big moustache, his waistcoat with the fancy buttons (each one different) the exotic clientele, the card games, girls of the night, Lascars…..Oh how I wish I could step back in time for just one evening!

    • Hi Grace,

      Thanks for the comment and the memories, I agree with you it would be great to go into the original Charlie Browns.
      What was remarkable about the pub is that it was famous all over the world.
      It seems everyone respected Charlie Brown, therefore despite his varied clientele, there was very little trouble.
      He was also a friend to locals and seaman often helping them out if they were in trouble. This is probably why tens of thousands lined the streets for his funeral.

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