You might not be aware that VICE UK has its own bar. It’s called The Old Blue Last and it used to be a brothel before we acquired it. Still, it was a bar 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 in London, dominating Shoreditch like a gigantic ancient rock that sells beer. To celebrate their magazine’s tenth anniversary, our English counterparts hired an incredibly famous historian who wished to remain nameless to find out all about it.
East London has been horrible and messy for a very long time. 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 theater, which might sound wimpy 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 theater turned Shoreditch back into the godless pleasure garden it had been in Roman times. It was a place for gentlemen to bathe, play lawn bowls (which might sound wimpy 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 Bill 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. Shoreditch, meanwhile, remained an iniquitous pit of bowls and sex, and in 1700 a bar was built on the site of the old theater. It was called The Last, which, remarkably boringly, refers to a wooden block that a shoemaker uses to mold a shoe. The Last was owned by a brewer named 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 brewery 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 mold 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 rougher men and people who were afraid of being beaten up by them. It housed an illegal strip club and brothel, which was on the second floor. The room was divided into cubicles, with no walls, made up of single beds. Next to each bed was a small table, and that was pretty much it.
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-off tough guys 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).