Pub Tenants in Revolt

Watneys barrel.Serious discussions are underway about state intervention in the pub company (‘pubco’) business model, and pubco tenant landlords are organised and on the move with the Fair Deal for Your Local Campaign.

Forty years on, what we are actually seeing is the final phase of a slow motion response to the 1969 Monopolies Commission report on the brewing industry, and the 1972 Erroll report into pub licensing, and the Fair Deal campaign is a continuation of a battle publicans have been fighting for years.

Back in the seventies, it was the big breweries from which the pubcos evolved which bore the brunt of similar protests, and Watney’s had particular difficulties. When, in 1970, they attempted to replaced eighty tenant publicans with pub managers, the National Federation of Licensed Victuallers (NFLV) — the pub tenants union, in effect — called for its members to boycott Watney’s products wherever possible. Hotels, bars and freehouses stopped taking Red Barrel and the story of the plucky underdogs made headlines. Eventually, though they weren’t able to prevent the rise of the managed house, the NFLV did win compensation for the tenants in question, and improved terms for those taking on tenancies thereafter.

That wasn’t the only kind of protest, though, and this kind of showboating was particularly emotive:

Mr Jim Lewis recently had a wake at his pub, the Bridge Inn, near the hamlet of Skenfrith, Monmouthshire… The guests’ merriment could be traced to a real sense of loss, for the wake was for the pub itself… Whitbread and Company, the brewers who owned the pub and the two others within a radius of about two miles, had decided to withdraw the license… (The Times on 12 June 1971.)

Mock funerals and wakes are still happening, of course, as at the Black Lion in Kilburn, North West London, only last week.

We’re still learning about Erroll, and we’ve barely begun our reading on the tremendously complicated consequences of the Beer Orders of 1989, so we’re cautious to opine, but what does seem likely is that if pubcos sulk and withdraw from the market, and the model collapses, it might take twenty years for things to settle down again. In the meantime, the change would be painful for almost everyone, but perhaps worth it in the long run.

4 thoughts on “Pub Tenants in Revolt”

  1. There could be a terrible fallout if the pubcos just walked away from the business. Mind you, it’s always seemed strange to me that they could have an estate of thousands of pubs but be ashamed to put their name over the door. The whole business model is basically about milking property assets rather than retailing, and has always seemed to me to be ultimately unsustainable.

    1. I think if you run managed houses you can apply a brand, business model & employ people to apply it.

      With licencees running in effect their own business, a brand over the shop would be meaningless.

      The brand over the shop of tenants only really informs the punter what breweries beers are on offer.

  2. Re Black Lion.. Good luck to them. The beer selection was never anything to be proud of and since they became more food led I’d expect the transition to bottled beer and wine to be relatively easy. Last time I visited they’d run out of draught bitter anyhow. Worth a visit for the stunning ornate ceiling but anyone in need of a decent pint would be minded to cross the road to the North London Tavern.

  3. The Black Lion sounds like the sort of pub that can afford to make such a gesture. Not all pubs can.

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