English Pubs on the Continent

The Sir Winston Churchill, Paris, 1966.

In 1965, British mega-brewery Watney Mann opened a pub in Paris — the Sir Winston Churchill.

According to Helga Graham in an article in the Guardian published in 1970 (‘Mild and Bitter Spoken Here’, 27/09, p.15), this started when Watney’s hired Serge Herblot, ‘a very French Frenchman in an English blazer and tie’. He was tasked with driving a Bedford van with a mobile bar in the back around Paris and giving the hard sell to Bistro owners; they thought him ‘seriously affected by English eccentricity’ and weren’t interested. It was he, Ms. Graham says, who came up with the idea of building a pub, for which Watney’s put up 50 per cent of the capital.

The pub sat on the corner of the Rue de Presbourg and the Avenue d’Iéna, near the Arc de Triomphe. It was designed by a Russian, Vyacheslav Vasiliev, AKA ‘Slavik’, who said: ‘It is not a real pub — only a parody of the French bourgeoisie.’ (‘In an Alien Culture’, A Monthly Bulletin, June 1966.)

From the outside, it certainly looked like a Watney’s pub with the familiar Design Research Unit branding, as shown in the photo above. In the Red Barrel in-house magazine for April 1966, there was a short article about its November 1965 opening:

The bars, with their oil lamps and red plush seats are as unmistakably English as the Victorian exterior, and the name… Sir Patrick Reilly, British Ambassador, [opened] the Sir Winston Churchill by drawing the first pint of Red Barrel.

By 1968, Watney’s chairman, D.P. Crossman, was boasting in the company report (Financial Times, 04/01, p.6) that the Churchill was ‘without doubt the most famous pub on the continent’, and that Watney’s beers were ‘selling well’ at similar pubs in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Munich, with Florence in the pipeline.

When in the same report he added that ‘Outside this country the image of the public house has never stood in higher esteem’, he was taking a dig at the government and their ongoing threat to interfere in or even abolish the tied-house system. Exporting the concept of the English pub abroad, opening up new markets for (easy-to-transport kegged and bottled) British beer, was seen as a vital insurance policy. It lay behind numerous instances of what we would now call ‘pop up’ pubs at trade fairs across Europe and around the world, beginning with the Britannia in Brussels in 1958.

A report in the Financial Times (08/02/71, p.14) summarised the extent of the British invasion by the beginning of the next decade:

This afternoon Bass opens its seventh pub in Sweden — the Francis Drake at Uppsala… All the major British brewers are now on the Continent. Allied has its Double Diamond houses in Rotterdam and Brussels, Courage’s golden cockerel swings over the Cockney Tavern and the Pill Box in Paris as well as other pubs in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Whitbread has 17 houses in Paris and, of course, Watney Mann is probably the daddy of them all… In Paris the red barrel hangs over The Clipper, The Sir Winston Churchill, The Golden Hat, The Mayflower, The Ten Gallons (opened only last month under the famous Olympia Music Hall), the Red Lion and the London Tavern. In Bordeaux there is The Drug Store. At La Baule… it has The Kent Arms. And in Northern France the Queen Victoria rules over Lille. Watney has another 25 pubs Belgium, 12 in Germany, five in Italy and one each in Sweden and Switzerland.

The same article also explained that the whole enterprise relied on marketing British beer as a high-quality premium product for connoisseurs, and jacking up the price accordingly:

In the more sophisticated city centres, with their cosmopolitan populations, the cachet of drinking bitter seems to have had some success, particularly in Paris where there is a distinct preference for top-class beers.

A pint of brown ale at the Winston Churchill cost 6s 6d in 1965, according to a writer in the Guardian (01/12/65, p.11) which, as far as we can tell, is about three times the going rate at home.

Charrington advert: The Pickwick, Geneva.
Detail from a Bass Charrington advertisement, 1973.

Even so, the author of the FT piece concluded, most such pubs were not generally profitable and were really exercises in ‘flag-waving’, and intended to hold territory in advance of Britain’s entry into the Common Market when the real fun could begin.

With the demise of the Big Six and their tied pub estates in the UK, their Continental pub chains also seem to have fallen apart, though it’s hard to say for sure as it happened slowly and apparently wasn’t considered newsworthy. Certainly most of those listed above seem to have disappeared or been renamed. We could not find the Kent Arms in La Baule, for example, although there is a pub called The Salisbury which, despite its name and distinctly English design, calls itself a ‘pub Irlandais’ — how many Whitbread and Watney’s pubs reinvented themselves in this way, with a pot of green paint, and a Guinness font where the keg bitter used to be? We’d guess this Irish pub on Rue Lincoln, Paris, is what remains of Whitbread’s King George.

There are still plenty of faux-English pubs — Charles Wells of Bedford has a decent French pub estate, for example — though it our impression that they aren’t as trendy as in 1970, and we’ve certainly seen some tatty-looking examples on our travels.

Much to our surprise, unlike most of the trendily-designed new-build pubs trumpeted in the Red Barrel in the mid-1960s, the original — The Sir Winston  — is still there proudly declaring itself ‘Un des plus vieux pubs anglais de Paris‘. We’ll have to pay homage next time we pass through.

2 thoughts on “English Pubs on the Continent”

  1. Very interesting stuff, I wonder if this the direction in which Brewdog are heading with their overseas bar expansions, though with fewer pints of brown ale, though I wonder how well expanding 1960s British beer into Belgium and Germany was ever going to go.

    I like the idea the pubs reinvented themselves as Irish ones in order to keep going, shows the constantly evolving nature of their trade.

  2. Interesting that the contemporary commenters never mention the beer in any meaningful way. At most, it’s a vague reference to “bitter” or “brown ale” (brown ale?). What’s really important about the British pub – the dispense of traditional top-fermented styles of beer, is disregarded. One would at least expect a question on these lines, “What types of beer are being sold in Paris at the new pub”? “Well, we have only the top of the line pressurized bitter that is becoming so popular at home as well, and sometimes a similar form of our mild beer”. “Do you mean they have the old hand pull system still quite common in our country?”. “Oh no, that kind of beer won’t do for the Continental market you see”. But nothing.

    I guess it echoed the torpor in the domestic arena at the time, but still.

    Gary

Comments are closed.