Halfway into Pete Brown's "Shakespeare's Pub" comes a touching story of human kindness. It takes place in London in the mid-18th century and concerns a member of Parliament by the name of Edward Digby.
Digby had a reputation of being "something of a dandy," Mr. Brown recounts, "and was always decked out in the very latest fashions." Yet at Christmas and Easter something odd happened. Digby would put on a shabby blue coat, leave his house and disappear into the city. Digby's uncle, a prominent figure in the Whig government, was worried about his nephew and arranged to have him followed. The uncle's agents trailed Digby to the section of London called Southwark, finally losing track of him near the notorious Marshalsea Prison for debtors.
When the agents asked a prison guard if he had seen the man in the blue coat, the guard replied: "Yes, masters . . . but he is not a man, he is an angel." In the warder's telling, Digby was an angel of mercy for many prisoners, whom he would set free by paying off their debts. When the agents finally caught up with Digby, he invited them to join him for dinner at the George Inn with the prisoners he had just freed, as he did every Christmas and Easter.
Digby's story is one of the vignettes recounted by Mr. Brown in what the subtitle of his book describes as a "barstool history of London as seen through the windows of its oldest pub—the George Inn." The inn is situated in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames, a few steps from where the old London Bridge stood from the early 13th century to the early 19th.
In the 21st century, the George Inn has become a tourist attraction. In Mr. Brown's words, it is the "last living survivor" of all of London's "great, galleried coaching inns." The current building was erected in 1677, but an inn has existed on the site since medieval times.