Mary East; Landlord of The White Horse.

A lone white horse stands atop a wooden pole in Poplar, sadly gazing out to Canary Wharf.

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If you thought it looked a little bit like a pub sign, you’d be absolutely right. This is the only remnant of the White Horse pub, established in 1690, at 9-10 Poplar High Street. 

In the heyday of the London Docks, Poplar High Street was abundant with pubs, but this one has a particularly strange story attached to it…

It starts with a young girl, Mary East, who was in love with a highwayman. Mary should’ve chosen a suitor more wisely, because like many highway men at the time her lover was caught, tried and hung while the devastated Mary swore she would never love again.

By chance Mary met another local woman (her name is lost so let’s call her Anne), who’d also had her heart broken and sworn to never love another man, so naturally the pair decided to form a partnership, posing as a married couple. Mary lost the coin flip so took on the male identity of James Howe and the couple started running East London inns, first in Epping, then Limehouse and eventually moving to the White Horse in Poplar around 1740.

This proved a strong choice as the pub made good money from the nearby docks and James (Mary) became an established part of the community, eventually becoming churchwarden. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, one day an acquaintance from Mary’s past visited and, recognising James for Mary East, she started a blackmail campaign threatening to reveal his true identity. 

James paid the amounts demanded by this so-called ‘Mrs B’ over many years, but the blackmailer never relented, even when Anne passed away. Eventually James refused to pay the ever-increasing payments but the dastardly Mrs B hired some thugs to threaten him (her). Luckily Mary confided in her neighbour Mr Williams who helped her reach the authorities who arrested Mrs B and her henchmen.
The community must’ve been surprise therefore, when James appeared as Mary for the trial, giving up the male act once and for all an living the rest of her life in peace. Mary East died June 8 1780 leaving money to relatives, friends and the poor of Poplar.

The pub meanwhile was taken over by Truman’s Brewery in 1921 and eventually closed in 2003. The premises is now flats but the listed horse monument (previously wooden but now made of lead) will serve as a reminder for the bizarre tale!

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