East London, pubs and women with Sandra Esquilant

A woman smiling and hula hooping in a pub

The landlady of the iconic Spitalfields pub, The Golden Heart, looks back on four decades spent behind the bar. She also reflects on the changes she’s witnessed, the interesting women she’s met, and why there’s no greater joy than hula hooping at 3am

Video by Jonangelo Molinari and Murat Gökmen    Words by Rosalind Jana

‘I couldn’t begin to tell you what joy I’ve had here,’ Sandra Esquilant says gleefully. ‘Here’, in this case, is a pub called The Golden Heart in Spitalfields, east London, which 75-year-old Esquilant has now run for more than 40 years. For the last decade or so, since her husband Dennis died, she’s been doing it alone.
The Golden Heart is a much-loved institution helmed by an unforgettable woman. Over the years, it has welcomed everyone from market workers stopping off at 6am after a shift, to nuns popping by for a glass of orange juice, to a crop of successful Young British Artists (YBA) including Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Gillian Wearing who began to frequent the pub in the 1990s. It’s this latter group who are largely responsible for the packed artwork on the walls; original pieces nestled in between photos of various people, such as her late husband, Lady Diana, and a great number of customers and locals who have since become good friends. 
‘If I run it until I’m 90, I’d be so grateful,’ says Esquilant, breaking off repeatedly from her many memories and anecdotes to offer us food, drinks, and cups of tea. Hospitality is the language she knows best, and it’s one that’s seen her through thick and thin. When the nearby fruit and vegetable market closed in 1991, sometimes the pub would only have one customer all day. But Esquilant persevered. 

After all, she comes from a line of remarkably strong women. Her mother was a florist with at least five newspaper pitches at London Bridge. ‘I think women are the best people to be in charge of anything,’ explains Esquilant. She’s not only passed this drive down to her daughters, but also those who work for her behind the bar. ‘I teach my girls to be strong,’ she says forthrightly. ‘And the girls are fantastic.’ Has she ever faced challenges as a female publican? ‘Challenges? No, no. I think it’s more challenge for a man.’

Alongside strength, she also preaches the values of community, care, and having a good time. ‘I love to see people enjoy themselves. I love them to sing and dance.’ This is a space in which all are equally welcome (including the ghost of Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry, who apparently haunts the cellar and keeps everyone safe). ‘That’s what I love about the pub,’ says Esquilant. ‘I love people.’

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