The Launch and Sinking of a Flagship

Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown.
Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Next time you find yourself picking the gherkins out of a Whopper® in the Burger King® on Leicester Square in central London, take a moment to appreciate the building’s place in British pub history.

In the 1950s, Whitbread, like many other breweries, were desperate to revive enthusiasm for the public house — to show that it could be part of modern life alongside satellites, pop music and trendy coffee bars, and wasn’t just a quaint relic of a bygone time.

They commissioned architects T.P. Bennett & Son to design a brand new pub which wouldn’t look out of place alongside the planned housing estates and brutalist office blocks which were appearing across the post-Blitz capital.

Bennett came up with a multi-storey block with a curved frontage which looked like anything but a pub — a department store, perhaps?

Architect's pre-construction visualisation of the Samuel Whitbread.

Whitbread decided to go for it, investing £150,000 (£3m in today’s money) in what Colonel T.H. Whitbread, company chairman and managing director, declared ‘a most audacious undertaking’.

During its construction, there was, according to Alan Reeve-Jones, author of London Pubs (1962), disquiet among enthusiasts of more traditional drinking holes:

[The] fitful muttering could be heard as far away as Oxford Circus… An oval-fronted building lapped in sheets of glass. Broad acres of naked tippling, spilling their familiarity on to the pavement. No Public Bar, as such. No Jug and Bottle. Little wonder heads shook doubtfully and thirsty tongues were arched and moist in readiness to phrase a protest.

It opened in December 1958, and was named after the brewery’s founder. Reeve-Jones again:

[When] someone pulled a string that brough the dust-sheet fluttering to the ground the doubters could see that they had suffered from a needless anxiety… the Samuel Whitbread is just as much a fine old English public house as any from the past.

Another writer, Denzil Batchelor, went further in his book The English Inn in 1963, declaring the Samuel Whitbread to be ‘the supreme creation in the world of inns… the last word in English pubs at the time of writing’.

So impressive an exterior meant plenty of space inside to cater for different tastes, and interior designers Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates created four distinct spaces.

1961 promotional video for the Lonsdale-Hands Organisation from Hirschl & Adler Galleries on Vimeo. The Samuel Whitbread is at 7:03.

The cellar was given over to a dive bar (obviously a trendy turn of phrase back then) with a more-or-less traditional pub feel. The ground floor housed the Zodiac Bar, an early example of the theme pub, and also a small but luxurious pre-dinner cocktail bar. The dining rooms, on the upper floors, looked out over the busy square and had yet another colour scheme and style.

These days, ‘British food with a contemporary twist’ has become a cliché, but the Samuel Whitbread’s offer of Victorian beef stew, Yorkshire apple pie with Wensleydale, and Stargazy Pie, was rather original for the time.

The beer was, of course, from Whitbread, but here too, the boat was pushed out: the pub was the first (and for a time only) outlet for the premium Britannia Bitter, developed for the Brussels World Fair.

Whitbread were extremely proud of the Samuel Whitbread. They used it as the setting for corporate and PR events, such as their annual barmaid of the year competition, and the 1964 edition of the short official company history includes a glamorous full-page photo of the pub glittering in the London night.

But, slowly, as the 1960s wore on, the Samuel Whitbread lost its edge. The interior design began to look old-hat without the saving grace of being traditional, and the architecture, which had once seemed so bold, began to seem a bit Festival of Britain.

In around 1970, Whitbread gave up on the project and sold the pub to Forte. They obviously had to rename it and, for some reason, chose the bizarre Inncenta. (Half inn, half placenta?) At least for a time, they also gave it a pirate themed makeover. (Pirates? In Leicester Square? Really?)

It slowly went downhill under their management until, by the late 1970s, it was infested with mice and other vermin, while Leicester Square itself had become a place no true Londoner would be seen dead in — the perfect tourist trap.

Nowadays, though the elegant curve of the frontage remains, there’s no Poacher’s Soup, and certainly no Britannia Bitter.

Other sources

  • 1959 Company statement by Colonel T.H. Whitbread, Times, 27/07/1959.
  • ‘Brewery’s Ideal Barmaid’, Times, 31/08/1967.
  • ‘The Local Gets a Face Lift’, Derek Richards, Financial Times, 27/01/1969.
  • ‘Brewers Move in on the Nightlife Market’, Antony Thorncroft, Times, 04/01/1971.
  • Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs, Martin Green and Tony White, 1973.

6 thoughts on “The Launch and Sinking of a Flagship”

  1. It’s interesting how purpose-built pubs of the 50s and 60s, although often designed with the best intentions, very rarely seem to have “worked”.

  2. I think with its location and Whitbread behind it, this clearly could have successfully continued. However, as you say, Whitbread lost interest; they were looking elsewhere and like a lot of their estate at the time, it suffered. As an aside, IIRC Colonel Whitbread was a bit of an old goat whose love life used to appear in the papers.

  3. Really cracking read that. The different concepts on different floors is fascinating, and outside some hotels, not something that seem to have crept into the wider pub/bar industry as a whole.

    I agree, Inncenta is a shocking name and a pirate themed bar is bad enough in the first place, but especially somewhere like Leicester square is plain bizarre.

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