Old Pubs on New Estates in the 1970s

A tower block on a North London housing estate.

Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working-class City is a study of the lives of Ordinary People and so of course features a pub or two.

It was written by David Robins and Philip Cohen and published by Penguin in 1978. The fantastic period cover design is by Red Saunders. The back blurb includes a quotation from ‘What’s My Name’ by The Clash and there’s plenty inside to interest students of youth culture, London life, and the polarised politics of the 1970s. As usual in this kind of book all the names are changed, including those of the estate itself, and the pubs. It’s possible some dates and other details were also adjusted to make it harder to pin down.

The overarching narrative concerns a particular pub which the authors call The Black Horse:

Monmouth estate is a ‘new’ GLC estate: it was first occupied in 1960 and is still (1977) incomplete… In the middle of the estate, as if stranded by the tide of ‘progress’, stood the old public-house, the Black Horse. A solid-looking building, with a large ground floor for business, a huge cellar, and two upper floors which had served as living quarters. The pub was scheduled for demolition, like so much else in the neighbourhood, and there were vague GLC promises of a community centre being built there in a few years’ time.

The cover of Knuckle Sandwich, 1978

What happened next was that local youths, with the guidance of radical youth workers, decided to take over The Black Horse and make it an unofficial community centre instead. With the backing of a local tenants’ association, the Open Space Committee, squatters moved in upstairs ‘quietly and efficiently’, acting as caretakers. Before this it was used to stash stolen goods and as a hideout for teenage gangs, so people generally found this an improvement.

The estate’s other pub, called here The Cross Keys, was across the road from The Black Horse. Here’s how Robins and Cohen describe it:

The Cross Keys was the recognized headquarters of the local villains, the fraternity of scrap men, fences, shotgun merchants — another reason why the [Open Space] Committee would not go into it. (It offended their code of moral respectability — not one that was forged out of any deference to middle-class decency, however; it was more that they had a position to keep up.) He fact that the Cross Keys was often the quietest pub in the neighbourhood, and the brewers had withdrawn their franchise on the place, made some tenants suspect that the landlord must be involved in some close working relationship with his customers. Ironically, the local villains had an interest in the Black Horse… It was well-known they were after the lead and timbers contained in the old building. This was one of the main reasons why the committee had backed the squat, to prevent the roof mysteriously disappearing one night.

Near The Cross Keys was a dosshouse for old men and Irish labourers, the so-called ‘Gallagher lads’ who frequented the public bar of the Cross Keys:

By all accounts, Gallagher ran a tight racket and exploited his clients for whatever he could get out of them. He had made a considerable fortune in this rough trade. The area surrounding the Black Horse was considered dangerous largely because of his these lads’ presence. Before it closed the Black Horse had been their main drinking place. Unlike the Cross Keys it had been rough inside. A few weeks before closure, the public bar had been the scene of a stand-up fight between the Irish lads and some black workers living in the vicinity. The reputation of the Black Horse as a dangerous and undesirable place to go remained with it to some degree after it closed for business and opened for the community.

Map from Knuckle Sandwich.

Over the course of the book we learn that the downstairs of The Black Horse was converted into a disco but then, with rumours of sex and drug use among the teenagers, tensions arose and the estate elders withdrew their support. The pub was then systematically wrecked and then burned down in what the authors describe as a ‘professional job’:

Three men had been seen entering the place — with a key — shortly before the wrecking was discovered. They, if it was they, had worked quietly, professionally, unemotionally. Who were they? One is tempted to say simply the self-appointed executioners of the sentence of this community on the ‘notorious’ old pub…

This all seems very interesting in the context of the 2010s and the rise of social-enterprise community pubs. These days such an attempt at revitalisation would never involve squatters and teenagers and the pub would probably remain a pub even if it did gain peripheral functions as well.

One question to which we can’t easily find an answer is where The Black Horse really was, or what it was really called. Based on the map in the book we reckon the Monmouth Estate is actually the Bemerton Estate, off the Caledonian Road. Assuming the pubs are placed somewhat accurately that means The Black Horse was probably really The Pembroke Castle which people seem to recall as being demolished c.1972-3 — perhaps actually when it was boarded up? Or maybe Robins and Cohen obfuscated the dates a bit, too. And the Cross Keys must surely have been — this is a weird name — The Cobbled Fighter.

Or maybe not. If you know for sure one way or another — perhaps you grew up round there, or have access to local newspapers from the period — do drop us a line or comment below.

UPDATE 11:30 24/04/2017: Ewan of Pubology fame has looked at some maps and reckons The Cross Keys must have been The Independent on its original site. The Cobbled Fighter is a bit of a mystery, picked up via Pubs Galore, but might have been a short-lived name for the same premises.

UPDATE 15:20 24/04/2017: Cobbled Fighter link changed from defunct pubology.co.uk page to pubsgalore.co.uk

2 thoughts on “Old Pubs on New Estates in the 1970s”

  1. “Cobbled fighters” are bare-knuckle street fighters – i.e. people who fought in the street (on the cobbles) for an audience. I can see how it might have seemed like a good idea to name a pub after them, just about, & I can certainly see how it might have seemed like a good idea to change the name to something else.

  2. The estate I grew up on in Belgravia was built in the late 1960s. The developers very kindly included a shop that sold crack cocaine, an amusement arcade and a pub. The pub, from memory, was either called the Rusty Kumquat or the Sir Fred Housego.

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