Progress Vs. the Pub

In researching Becky’s Dive Bar, we came across mention of another pub, Ye Olde Mitre on St Martin’s Lane, which had a reputation for selling a wide range of beer in the nineteen-fifties. (Note: not the one off Hatton Garden.) Though we’ve had no luck finding out more about the Mitre, we have, as a pleasant side-effect, found a new question to ponder on: when did people start fighting to preserve pubs?

On 6 November 1968, the Covent Garden authority, a government body which had taken on ownership of the historic fruit and vegetable market and surrounding land, announced its grand redevelopment plan. It was to include widespread demolition, and the building of motorways and concrete walkways, turning a ramshackle ‘neighbourhood’ into something from Logan’s Run. (But probably a bit crapper.)

There was a very successful campaign to overturn the scheme, led by local residents, and supported by architects, historians and others with an interest in heritage and preservation. What is especially interesting to us, however, is the importance placed on the area’s pubs.

The Architecture Review published several pieces arguing for the preservation not of specific buildings, but of the area as a whole, because Covent Garden’s ‘unique qualities… depend on groups of buildings… [and] historic street patterns’ (22 November 1972). Dan Cruickshank and Colin Amery, in that same piece, provided a watch-list of vulnerable, unprotected properties in Covent Garden, which included many public houses, such as the Nell Gwyn and The Lamb and Flag.

By 1973, preserving the area’s pubs had become a campaign in its own right, which the The Observer described in a piece on 11 February, illustrated with a gallery of pub fronts:

The regular patrons had been preparing for a war of passive resistance — ‘Gandhi with an elbow bent’ as one put it — for the pubs are all within the Covent Garden Development Area and were in danger of being ‘developed’ out of existence.

But the pubs have been saved from the wreckers by Mr Geoffrey Rippon, Minister for the Environment — they have been listed as being of special architectural or historical interest. Not one can be touched now… Londoners and visitors alike will thus be able to go on drinking in the Lamb and Flag, built over the narrowest thoroughfare in London, The Crown Tavern where the idea for ‘Punch’ was thought up, and The Sun, whose forerunner on the site was one of Ben Jonson’s locals.

(Note, once again, the tittering amusement with which journalists write about beer and pubs.)

Pete Brown argues in his Shakespeare’s Local that people began to feel nostalgic about disappearing pubs after World War I, and tells the story of how the George Inn, Southwark, was ‘saved for the nation’ by the National Trust in 1937. It seems to us, though, that it was in the sixties and seventies — when everything got its own banner-wielding march and/or campaign group — that a more general urge to ‘save’ pubs (even those without literary or historic associations, or any particular architectural merit) emerged.

What we need to do next is read up on other post-war development schemes and see how prominently pubs featured in any campaigns against them.

Should pubs be preserved? There are lots, and perhaps not every single one should be considered sacred, but there’s certainly no reason why they should be treated with less respect than any other type of building.

UPDATE: this BBC article on historic disregard for ‘heritage’ seems relevant.

11 thoughts on “Progress Vs. the Pub”

  1. Central London is never finished. Pubs are continually in danger from the whims of the planner.

    John Betjeman was instrumental in saving the Black Friar about the same time as Covent Garden was under threat. The Nell Gwynne was in danger of closing – thanks to ‘redevelopment’ – as recently as 2007. Haven’t been down there for a while but I think it’s still open, saved by the recession putting the wrecking balls on hold.

    Meanwhile, Crossrail has killed off The Bath House in Soho (and doing its best to kill Soho, too).

  2. Here’s a pic of The Green Man, lost when the much-loved City landmark Mappin And Webb Corner was replaced with a ’1930s Wireless Set’ (to quote Prince Charles) in 1994. There was talk at the time of re-using the pub interior on a replacement (which turned out to be a Wetherspoon), but that doesn’t ever seemed to have happened. The wrangling over this site took 35 years.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/25347284@N04/3637717155/in/set-72157619913346748/lightbox/

    1. So it has – thanks, Dave!

      (Now it’s been preserved by Google, they can go ahead and knock it down…)

  3. Bloody hell! Using the joys of Google Streetmaps I can confirm that the Old Queens Head on Pond Hill in Sheffield city centre is still there. Studying in one of the buildings opposite (the Poly at that time, natch) I remember it being incongruous, surrounded as it was by numerous 70s office blocks and Sheffield’s main bus station, even back then, in 1987. To see it still there, standing as isolated as ever in 2013 is nigh on a miracle!

    Don’t know if the local CAMRA group or indeed locals petitioned for its continued existence or not (perhaps a Sheffield person can confirm?)

    Not that we ever went in there – it only sold John Smiths on ‘electric’.

    Cheers.

    1. That’s excellent — thanks, SiBee. Looks like it’s been transplanted from somewhere else altogether.

  4. I could be wrong, but I have long thought that post war the big brewers started to market their pubs as more middle class respectable establishments. The cheese council even made up the ploughmans lunch in the 50′s to sell pub grub. Thus a middle class beer club / campaign was more likely to be formed from a faux nostalgia. Working class patrons having less nostalgia for something they have worked there way out of have been disinterested in preserving traditional pubs and beer and happy they can now afford to drink wine. Grim working class boozers being less appealing in reality than the mock traditional pubs presented as lunch destinations for the professional classes.

    1. Specifically, thinking again of Richard Hoggart, there has to be something about people (like me…) who grew up working class but ended up middle — much more common in the post-war era than before.

      The pub is something from working class culture you can cling on to as part of a not-totally-sold-out identity, but, as you suggest, usually not in its authentic form.

  5. The Mitre appears to be The Verve opposite The Sussex (which is next door to Stringfellows). Can’t get Google to give me a link to the Street View view, but “The Verve Soho” gets you the building.

    1. Certainly looks like it. Before it was Verve it was the Long Island Iced Tea bar, which always had an artificial queue outside to make it look busy.

      1. Ah, now, we may have caused some confusion with our choice of pic… As far as we know, the one in the photo isn’t the Old Mitre. (Peering closely, it’s called the Frigate.) We established a while back that the Mitre was at no 68, which space is now occupied by an ugly modern building. (You can’t see it on Street View because a bloody McDonald’s lorry is parked in front of it.)

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