The Britannia, Brussels, 1958

Illustration: the exterior of the Britannia with parasols and staircases.

The Expo in Brussels in 1958 was an opportunity for Britain to present its culture to the world so, of course, we sent a pub.

At a press conference in 1957, it was announced that 500 British ‘concerns’ were to take stands at the Expo, and that a highlight would be the Britannia Inn, to be built and run by Whitbread. They were, in the late 1950s, the single biggest exporter of British beer to Belgium, and were willing to stump up the £40,000 the project was expected to cost.

The Britannia, Expo 58, Brussels.
SOURCE: The Story of Whitbread’s, 1964 edition.

(They weren’t alone: John Smith’s and the Hope & Anchor brewery of Sheffield announced plans to run a more modest ‘patio bar’ elsewhere on site.)

The Britannia was intended to demonstrate the ‘warmth and friendly atmosphere’ of the traditional pub, but also that the public house, and Britain more generally, was moving with the times.

Britannia pub sign, 1958.To modern eyes, it seems to be an example of that poor, unfashionable relic — ‘the estate pub’. Flat-roofed and square-edged, it was built from pale modern brick with white wood slats, and avoided cod-Victorian brownness. Its terrace was covered with white tables and parasols, while the interior was designed to evoke the feel of the royal yacht with which it shared a name. The souvenir booklet designed for the event by Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates, printed on heavy paper, said:

Like most exhibition buildings ‘The Britannia’ is modern if not advanced in style. It would fit well in any of the new towns that are being built, and has that gaeity which is the merit of interiors now… Black-and-green chequer-patterned flooring and a black-and-white carpet give a touch of variety… The long red-topped bar of light and dark woods stretches down much of one side, front by its row of bar stools. Along the other walls there is the familiar bench seating, while round tables incorporate ‘Schweppeshire’ maps, and the individual chairs are in yellow and black.

Whitbread also brewed a special beer for the pub, Britannia Bitter. It was considered remarkably strong by British standards (we don’t have any stats, though) and was presumably intended to appeal to the Continental palate.

Not everyone liked the Britannia and C.F. Huebner of Kent wrote to the Times (17/05/58) to complain.

The serious criticism I would make of the British exhibit is that the so-called Britannia pub does not truly represent an English pub and I am amazed that the brewing firm who sponsored it, who in other respects are an excellent organisation, should not have made sure the representation was more real.

Quibbles aside, the Britannia worked well for Whitbread and almost every press report about the British stand at Expo 58 mentioned the pub as a highlight. In his 1959 review of trading (Observer, 26/07) Colonel T.H. Whitbread said of the Britannia that it had been “a much greater success both financially and from a publicity point of view than I ever thought possible”.

In the years that followed, attempts were made to capitalise on fond memories of the Expo.

Britannia Bitter beer mat.Britannia Bitter remained in production as a ‘premium’ product, sold exclusively, at first, at the Samuel Whitbread, a state-of-the-art pub on Leicester Square, from 1958.

Though the pub building was moved elsewhere in Belgium and became a private house (FT 24/10/58; does anyone know where it is?) its name, sign and ‘exhibits’ (models and paintings of ships called Britannia) were moved to Dover in the UK, where it commenced trading in 1962. It was also supplied with the supposedly upmarket Britannia Bitter, which became a national brand from 1967 onwards (Times 23/01/67).

The Britannia’s true legacy, however, is probably the idea of the pre-packaged English pub abroad, such as Watney’s Sir Winston Churchill opened in Paris in 1966. In a 1967 report for the Financial Times Christopher Meakin (29/06) made clear that the Britannia wasn’t the first pub to be shipped overseas but argued that its success gave the trend impetus. At first, they were mostly a national publicity tool accompanying British trade exhibitions, but, as Meakin reveals, brewers and entrepreneurs weren’t blind to the commercial potential:

One man at least already specialises in providing instant traditional British atmosphere for pubs abroad, and is currently negotiating a string of 200 Olde Englishe Innes to stretch coast-to-coast across America.

“We provide them with everything — false oak beams, false fireplaces, hunting prints and horns, pewter tankards, stuffed fish, warming pans and horse brasses,” Mr Leslie Kostick, managing director of K.B. Contracts told me.

Mr Kostick produces three varieties of pub for overseas use — Tudor, Victorian and Regency. So far K.B. Contracts has completed a ‘Britannia’ in Holland, ‘The Bulldog’ in Canada and the ‘John Bull’ in Portugal.

Though there are such English pubs to be found around the world today, they are far outnumbered (it seems to us — we haven’t counted) by Irish pubs, set up using the same business model.

Is it too much to say that the Britannia in Brussels begat the Blarney in Berlin?

PS. We haven’t read it yet, but Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 is a period comic thriller set in and around the Britannia.

UPDATED 25/05/2016: General tidy up; added link to the Sir Winston Churchill; added quote from The Britannia Inn, Whitbread, 1958; replaced featured image with an illustration from the same book, artist uncredited.

8 thoughts on “The Britannia, Brussels, 1958”

  1. Very pertinent history and you are surely right that the international publicity for the Britannia helped kickstart the worldwide development of the British pub as a meme of Britain. Reading this, I was thinking of 1970’s pubs in Montreal, Quebec that followed an English or Irish model, probably not all that authentically! I used to go to one or two for a drink, and amazingly someone has collected all the names with associated memories here:

    http://dcmontreal.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/back-when-i-was-young-montreals-angloirish-pubs/

    Of these, in the mid-70’s I used to have a drink sometimes at Fyfe & Drum and John Bull Pub. I don’t recall going to the others mentioned, except Cock ‘n Bull once or twice. The first two had a student crowd and the last one an older crowd, hence probably this choice. Only in the later 1970’s did imported British and Irish beer become available so it was all bottled beer as the writer said, “(Labatt) 50” and “Labatt Blue” and such. Perhaps the odd import was offere, I recall Bass Pale Ale in stubby bottles available in the LCBO. And so, one way or another, the Brittania did launch a broad trend and you see the evidence here in faraway Quebec Province 40 years ago.

    Gary

  2. Apologies, not LCBO, I meant, the Quebec Liquor Board (now called, Societe des Alcools). Also, when I said imported British and Irish beer wasn’t available until the later 1970’s in Montreal, I meant draft beer.

    Gary

  3. Fascinating, very much a model for the global theme pub, including the ‘Scottish pubs’ that now seem to be popping up stateside. C.F. Huebner of Kent sounds like he’;d be right at home in a newspaper’s online comments section and it sounds like a great idea and roaring success.

    I am though intrigued by the description of the Samuel Whitbread as a state-of-the-art pub, any idea what this would have entailed for 1958 – live sport on the wireless?

  4. The Jonathan Coe book is a very entertaining romp – I think you’ll enjoy it.

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