London pubs in the 1960s

The cover of the New London Spy (1966)
The cover of the New London Spy (1966)

Beatles biographer Hunter DaviesNew London Spy was published in 1966. It’s a travel guide aimed at cool people, and an excellent window onto the city at the height of its hipness.

In his lengthy section on pubs, Davies makes some interesting observations:

Pubs are what other countries don’t have. In England, country pubs are perhaps nicest of all. After that come the London ones.

Pubs change character as you tipple down from the top of Britain. In the dry areas of Skye you have none at all. In Glasgow they are just drinking shops. In Carlisle they are cheerless and state controlled.

But in London, there are pubs for all men and for all seasons.

He then goes on to classify London’s pubs into six categories:

  • rough pubs
  • posh pubs
  • arty pubs
  • pubs for unaccompanied men (“not queers”)
  • pubs for unaccompanied women
  • pubs associated with crime.

His descriptions of various posh pubs and of some of the pubs he recommends for women suggest that gastro-pubs had their genesis in this era — “serves very decent food, far better than the average pub meal (though naturally priced accordingly)”; “both setting and clientele are almost exaggeratedly decorous”.

A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett for the New London Spy
A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett

It is the so-called rough pubs that sound most intriguing, though. Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street had dead cats, cobwebs and sawdust for decor. Charlie Brown’s (the Railway Tavern) on West India Dock Road housed a “collection of Curiosa” from all around the world (sadly sold off in the late 60s). And of the Steps (the Custom House Hotel) on Victoria Dock Road, Davies says: “It is not unusual to see somebody almost kicked to death outside.”

The illustrations in the book are by world-famous knitting pattern designer Kaffe Fassett. You can pick up a copy of the New London Spy for next to nothing at abebooks.co.uk if you want to read more.

7 thoughts on “London pubs in the 1960s”

  1. Ah, yes, the Carlisle State Management Scheme – ‘Oonter would have known it well, being a Cumbrian lad.

    The original London Spy was a series of publications writen at the beginning of the 18th century by the London tavern keeper Edward “Ned” Ward, and original volumes will cost you fahzands

  2. Yes, I let that go without comment for some reason, even though it’s clearly an intriguing line. I just looked up the CSMS and found a reference to the banning of “treating”, viz. the buying of rounds. That must have been bloody miserable.

  3. This sounds like fascinating reading. I’m also amused by the additional crossover of knitting and beer…I’ve never tried one of Fassett’s patterns, though I have many of his books, the designs all seem incredibly difficult!

  4. Jeff — you’re very welcome.

    Ally — sad to see you’re having a rough time of it at the moment with the internet psychos. Suffice to say, we don’t think you’re stupid or that you should shut up! Please keep blogging!

  5. That sketch by Kaffe Fassett has just replaced a photo of Peter Crouch’s girlfriend as my Windows background. Do you have it in higher resolution?

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