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The Thomas a Beckett Public House


The Thomas a Beckett Public House at 320 Old Kent Road is no longer open for business (now the Nolias Art Gallery) but the building still remains and it ihas  a rare and rich heritage, even without the ghosts.  Old Kent Road partially follows the route of what was Watling Street (the Roman road).  The pub got its name due to it being so close to what was St Thomas-a-Waterings, a stream and pond (roughly at the junction with Shornecliff Road) which marked the extremity of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury’s authority. This spot was used for executions and the displaying of the bodies in gibbets. The martyr Thomas a Beckett (born 1118 – died 29 December 1170) Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a sermon at the Augustinian St Mary’s Priory in Southwark on 23 December 1170 which was seen as his last public act of defiance before his assassination. A very popular (fairly short, safe and cheap) pilgrimage developed following his death between Southwark and his shrine at Canterbury. St Thomas-a-Waterings became a usual resting place on this pilgrimage route and is referred to in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales , “And forth we riden a little more than pas Unto the watering of St Thomas And there our hoste began his hors’ arest”.

Boxing:
On the first floor of the Thomas a Beckett was a gym where Sir Henry Cooper former British, European and Commonwealth Heavyweight Champion trained six days a week for fourteen years from 1954. Mohammed Ali (formerly known as Cassius Clay), three time World Heavy Weight Champion and Olympic Champion was also known to have visited the gym here. Whilst still known as Clay he fought Cooper in 1963 at Wembley Stadium where Henry famously knocked him down at the end of the fourth round with a left hook. Ali later said that the punch Cooper gave him was "so hard that his ancestors in Africa felt it". Ali won the fight and their later rematch at Arsenel Stadium in 1966. I came across a reference to Ali meeting the body builder and actor David Prowse (Darth Vader, Green Cross Code Man) at the Thomas a Beckett. Also amongst those who have sparred in the gym are Americans Joe Frazier (Olympic Champion , World Heavyweight Champion) and Sugar Ray Leonard (World Welterweight Champion). Beryl Cameron-Gibbons was Europe’s only female boxing promoter and landlady of the Thomas a Beckett for sixteen years until 1983 (though she had lived there for twenty three years).  In 1984 the pub licence was taken over by the ex boxer/manager/promoter Gary Davidson (who sadly died in 2000 of MND), it opened in 1985 and he owned it for 4 years. He also turned the pub into a museum and boxing hall of fame, housing memerobilia such as the gloves that Ali wore when Cooper floored him.

Music:
David Bowie rehearsed his Ziggy Stardust persona in the Thomas a Beckett and his Spiders from Mars.

Jack The Ripper:
in 1888 a ‘shiny black bag’ was left at the Thomas a Beckett in which was 'a very sharp dagger, a clasp knife, two pairs of very long and vary curious looking scissors, and two preservers'. This led to the arrest of the responsible person as a suspect in the case of the Whitechapel Murders.

Ghosts:
Arthur Ward who was once the landlord of the Thomas a Beckett reputedly would not sleep alone in the building. The haunting is mentioned in Guy Lyon Playfairs ‘The Haunted Pub Guide’ (1985) in which states that this ghost would make itself ‘really useful by making up a coal fire, a chore a good many of us would much rather not have to do’. He also mentioned that a glass fell apart in the hands of customer who had ‘made a derogatory remark about the paranormal’. Another source mentions that three ghostly nuns have been seen walking along the second floor corridors from time to time. They were apparently seen by former 1956 — 1957 British Welterweight Champion, Joe Lucy (02 February 1930 – 21 July 1991) who also claimed to have heard them  whispering.


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Ian Topham
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Re: The Thomas a Beckett Public House

According to ‘Chambers Guide To London The Secret City’, Beryl Cameron-Gibbons often heard windows and doors opening by themselves and saw lights going on and off mysteriously in the beer cellar.  A well known press photographer who would look after the pub for Beryl was so unnerved about going upstairs he woul dsleep in the bar with a shotgun and an Alsatian for safety.



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