Upton Park's iconic pubs at risk as revenue and customers dwindle following West Ham move
PUBLISHED: 09:00 31 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:10 31 August 2016
It is just two hours until kick off, but the seats are empty and the songs remain unsung.
I’m stood inside Upton Park’s most iconic pub, the Boleyn Tavern, once a mecca for football fans.
On match days, the pub would have been filled with hundreds but when I arrive ahead of West Ham’s Europa League qualifier with Astra Giurgiu on Thursday, there are less than 10.
A barmaid admits the planned coach to ferry fans to and from Stratford games has been cancelled.
Friends Veronika Lubina, and Jack Webb, both 23, are seated with their drinks in the back of the deserted pub, once a sea of claret and blue shirts.
“We’re here because we’re homesick,” says Veronika. “I would assume everyone would still be here but it’s not the case.”
The room seems dank, almost foreboding, without the usual banter and noise.
“It won’t be like it was before,” says Jack. “It was electric, all West Ham fans. We were all singing.”
It may be early into the football season but reality has hit home for many of Upton Park’s businesses.
“We have lost 80 per cent of our business,” said Trudy Wood, landlady of the Victoria Tavern in Plaistow High Street.
The 53-year-old, who runs the pub with husband Paul, said regulars who came on non-football days have stayed away.
“Sometimes we are closing at 8pm,” she said. “During the last game [West Ham vs. Bournemouth on Sunday, August 21] we had about 12 people in. It was 150 on a football day.”
The tavern is once more the subject of a demolition application after a previous application was refused in April. If successful, it will be replaced with nine homes.
It’s not just pubs under pressure
Some proprietors are worried about rumours circulating of their imminent closure.
Richard Nathan, of Nathan’s Pies and Eels, said business was steady and he had no plans to shut.
“There is so much stuff on Facebook,” he said. “We are still here.”
“There are only so many matches a year and although the football was the icing on the cake, we are not just here for the 22 matches.”
Mr Nathan said a potential rent hike by Newham Council last year would have been more damaging to his trade than West Ham’s move.
The 44-year-old employed a surveyor and solicitor to stop his rent, which was £13, 500pa, being raised by a third.
He successfully negotiated the rate down from £20,500pa to £17,250pa in January.
Mr Nathan said: “I have just had a baby. My kids are the fifth generation of Nathan’s.
“We are probably the oldest running business in the borough.
“If my wife did not have a very good job, things would be very different.”
A spokeswoman for Newham Council said: “The council has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure it requests appropriate rents for its assets as these funds will be reinvested into council services.
“The terms agreed reflected the existing market conditions. A rent of £17,250pa was agreed after negotiations with the tenant.”
Trudy isn’t sorry, however. “It is all gone,” she said, adding her plan is to move to Stratford to be “in the heart of it”.
“The fans said ‘we will definitely be back’ but there are pubs nearer the ground,” she said. “My loyalty doesn’t pay my bills.”
A huge decline has overcome Newham’s pubs in recent years.
Some 62 per cent were lost to demolition or change of use from 1991 to 2013 – the national average over the 22-year period was 25pc.
The borough’s changing ethnic makeup reminds us that communities are fluid.
CAMRA pubs protection officer, James Watson, said owners need to attract “those people that didn’t come in before”.
He said: “What they have got to sell is something that is not just about getting drunk but an experience.”
He countered that this means gentrification.
“There are successful community pubs that have diversified,” he said, citing Hackney pub The Eleanor Arms, which offers a parcel pickup point and craft beers.
Tom Friel, landlord of the Black Lion in Plaistow, agrees.
“There are not many pubs in the area that are in the Good Beer Guide,” he said. “We still have a lot of business.”
Ensuring these pubs have a unique selling point or can appeal to a broader spectrum of people is not without its problems.
A decision to list the Boleyn Tavern as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) was rejected earlier this month.
ACV status grants land or property greater protection from development because of its importance to a local community.
Pub retailer Greene King, which owns the Boleyn Tavern, said the decision was made by Newham Council.
In response, a spokeswoman for the council said: “In May 2016, the Spirit Pub Company [acquired by Greene King] who own the Boleyn Tavern requested a review of the decision that was made.
“The voluntary body that made the nomination must have at least 21 local members.
“No evidence was provided by the original applicant that this was the case.”
CAMRA’s James Watson said the decision was being appealed and a new nomination had been submitted with evidence.
Meanwhile, down the road at East Ham Working Men’s Club, secretary Peter Bell said revenue was down by 50 per cent for the once-thriving institution on Boleyn Road.
The 66-year-old said: “We used to take £15,000 on a match day. Now we take zero. We could give the beer away and it wouldn’t make any difference.”
Nearby, the Central pub’s part owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said a planning application to turn the pub, which lies less than 500 metres from the Boleyn Ground, into residential use was awaiting approval.
He now has five regulars left. “It was already down but West Ham kept it going,” he said.
Business is equally bleak at the Lord Stanley in St Mary’s Road.
Licensee Terry Beyer said income had been 50pc down since the August season kick-off.
While 300 Hammers fans would usually attend on a match day, this had now reduced to 20 people on a typical weekend home game.
He said: “It’s hit us big time” although he remained hopeful and wished to stress that the pub was remaining open.
Terry added the pub had applied for permission to introduce hotel rooms but this was refused by the council in October 2014.
A Newham Council spokeswoman said the application was rejected for reasons including a “detrimental impact on neighbouring properties”.
She added: “The regeneration of West Ham should be looked at as an opportunity by pubs and other businesses in the area.
“Hundreds of new homes will be built on the Boleyn Ground site, bringing more potential customers to the area.
“Upton Park is a vibrant neighbourhood full of prosperous businesses which people travel from across London to visit and we are committed to seeing that continue.
“We have always been clear that West Ham’s move must not be at the expense of the existing community and businesses.”
She added that the council’s business development service would offer advice and support to any businesses with concerns.
A West Ham United spokesperson said: “West Ham United’s move has made a considerable contribution to the regeneration of two London boroughs.
“Rather than sell the land to the highest bidder, the Board elected to sell to the bidder who offered the best legacy for West Ham United, the Boleyn Ground and, most importantly, our community.
“The developers have now promised to deliver a hat-trick of improvements to the area - jobs, homes and legacy.
“With 25pc affordable housing on the site, neighbourhood spaces, a neighbourhood centre to provide facilities for local residents and also a sensitive approach to maintaining areas like the Boleyn Ground’s memorial garden, we are certain that the deal provides a positive legacy for Upton Park and its businesses and community.”
Boleyn Tavern management and pub retailer and brewer Greene King declined to comment about the business.