The Rabbit Hole to Victory? How an East End pub came to open up a speakeasy

Tucked firmly between Vyner Street’s factories-turned-flats stands The Victory, a local pub that refuses to follow the fate commonly prescribed to the old East End establishments. With the former storage area renovated into a speakeasy, the pub is hoping to attract new customers without damaging the pub’s praised authenticity. We spoke with the family behind the business to talk about pub culture, gentrification, and how to keep tradition alive in an ever changing environment.

Vyner Street, the cobblestone walkway just off Cambridge Heath Road, has hosted many tenants over the years. A Jewish residential area turned Victorian factories turned critically acclaimed art hub, it is fair to say that the area has undergone its share of changes. The mid-2000s’ influx of galleries, crowning Vyner Street as the centre of East London’s thriving art scene, led to a rapid transformation of the quiet street into a buzzing melting pot of Cockneys, artists, collectors, and bohemian socialites.

However, when artists develop an interest in an area, so does real estate. As a result, property prices are rising and causing the evacuation of the same art galleries that brought prices up to begin with. The phenomenon is neither new, nor unique to Vyner Street, as gentrification continues to threaten the existence of East London’s traditional establishments.

While some businesses find it easy to relocate to yet another cheap area, East End pubs remain deeply rooted in their neighbourhood as an integral part of the culture. As one local pub after the other is forced to close down, the remaining ones have to figure out new ways to stay alive without abandoning their social history.

Auring Bones and her husband Stephen have owned The Victory since the early 1990s: ‘My husband is interested in drinking,’ she chuckles, ‘and we took it from there.’ Now, 27 years later, Auring and her husband run the pub themselves, daily pouring pints behind the bar and cooking up Filipino dishes back in the kitchen.

Auring knows her regulars’ orders by heart. She can tell me that exactly 41 of them have died over the years, the youngest one being 30 year old kickboxer John, who used to come in for a Guinness. Auring says, ‘I remember them because they are my customers… and also because every time one of them dies, the rest comes here after the funeral to get drunk.’

Although no longer clouded with cigarette smoke, the pub has not changed much, neither in terms of interior nor atmosphere. Down to the exhausted piano still being occasionally hammered by beer-soaked fingers, The Victory is in many ways the archetype of a proper old boozer.

Auring and Stephen’s three children, Anthony, Rachel, and Timothy, who today help their parents run The Victory, have been brought up in and around East London pubs. One of Anthony’s earliest memories, he recalls, is coming down to the cul-de-sac outside The Victory and playing around on his tricycle, his father coming out now and then with a bag of crisps.

The Victory in an episode of Minder in 1984, where Terry goes in to clean the carpets

‘I think that was the era back then as well, wasn’t it,’ Rachel says, referring to the time when this area was primarily working class and Vyner Street was dominated by leather factories and workshops. ‘There’s been a lot of changes around here,’ she continues.

Since the turn of the century, the pub has been both flooded and drained of the thirsty visitors who would cram themselves into the small venue after late night gallery openings. The family cherishes the memories from those busy nights, calling out names of the various celebrities that drank with them; the TV series and fashion magazines that chose The Victory to shoot scenes and editorial spreads in.

Things are quieter now, it seems – a Friday night will mainly consist of the regulars, one of them telling me they much prefer it like that. The siblings chuckle for a bit at how the pub has managed to look exactly the same despite the changing scenery outside its windows, and then fall into a short silence. While glancing at the corner of the pub crammed with photos of children and grandchildren, Anthony says, ‘We’ve been here for a long time… and if the walls could speak, it’d be blood, sweat and tears. Seeing everything change has been difficult.’

Creating a speakeasy in the unused back area of The Victory started out as a collective experiment among the siblings as a way to adapt to change without changing too much. ‘We realised that we had to be innovative and utilise that space as an extension of the pub,’ Anthony explains.

Rabbit Hole at The Victory pub on Vyner Street, East London
Rabbithole speakeasy

The speakeasy, with the fitting name Rabbit Hole, is intended to be a forever changing space where the family is free to express their creativity. So far, the venue has managed to host not only a cocktail bar, but also karaoke nights, pop up food, quiz nights and children’s activities. ‘It is what it is, isn’t it,’ Timothy laughs. ‘You go down the Rabbit Hole and you never know what you get.’

‘Preserving The Victory as a traditional pub is our moral duty,’ Anthony says. The rest of the family agrees, as they all place great emphasis on the pub being a social space for barriers to come down and for everyone to intermix: it has been part of the its identity since the start.

At that time, Tower Hamlets was witnessing severe racial tensions, but Auring recalls how members of the segregated ethnic groups would still come together over a game of pool, leaving their separated seatings in each corner of the pub.

‘Even when the galleries were about,’ Rachel adds, ‘there was a lot of famous people coming in… Annie Lennox, Kate Winslet, Arctic Monkeys… and they loved it, because we are down to earth and wasn’t, like, all paparazzi over them. They could just be themselves. And that is what a lot of people love about this pub, that everyone gets on with everyone and everyone is welcome.’

‘That is our tradition,’ Anthony declares, ‘and that is what we want to preserve.’ By bringing Rabbit Hole into the family, The Victory hope to have found a way of welcoming new tenants with open arms without letting go of the ones that lived here long before.

The Rabbit Hole is currently undergoing renovations for the winter but will be open on Thursdays and Fridays. Updates will be published on the Rabbit Hole website.

Revellers outside The Victory pub at Vyner Street Festival in 2008
Revellers outside The Victory during Vyner Street Festival 2008

 


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