Nineteen-Seventy-Four: Birth of the Beer Guide

In 1974 the first edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was published. We spoke to those who were involved in its genesis to find out how it came to be. Here is the story in the words of those who were there, a version of which first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of BEER magazine.

John Hanscomb
Early CAMRA member, and first editor of the Good Beer Guide
We all knew we liked proper beer but the problem was, we didn’t know where to drink – we didn’t know where the pubs were. There was Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion but that was all about the breweries, not the pubs, although it did give you an idea of their trading areas. And the brewers… The brewers wouldn’t give me any information! I rang up one and asked them which were their pubs and which sold proper beer and they wouldn’t tell me because they thought I was from Watney’s or Whitbread: ‘We don’t know who you are.’

Michael Hardman
Co-founder and first chair of CAMRA
John Young [of Young’s brewery] was championing cask ale in a very serious way, and had been holding out for a decade before CAMRA came along. He thought of himself as the only one left. Young’s had never been a particularly profitable company. They had some pretty dingy pubs, and a very ‘bitter’ bitter that was going out of fashion. In 1963, he’d been approached by Derek Peebles, a former naval officer, who said: ‘What you need is a PR campaign, and I’m the man to do it!’ What he did was put together the first ever comprehensive list of Young’s pubs under the title ‘Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It’.

Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It

John Hanscomb
The Young’s guide was undoubtedly an influence, very much so. With Young’s you could guarantee that all their pubs would have proper beer. John Young deserves a lot of credit.

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Charabanc Fever

Main image above: ‘Sebastopol Inn, Ladies Outing, Preston’, from Preston Digital Archive on Flickr.

A few weeks ago Doreen (@londondear) made us pause and think when she said she had been puzzled by the mention of ‘charabancs’ in our recent book, 20th Century Pub, and had to look up what it meant.

Somehow, we’ve always known about charabancs, though they’ve been effectively extinct for more than half a century and the word is now only used as a deliberate archaism. While researching the book charabancs became a kind of running joke for us as trying to find historic photographs of pubs without charabancs parked in front of them was often a challenge.

But Doreen is quite right – we probably ought to have given a few words of explanation, but now those few words have turned into this rather long blog post. We’re grateful to Patreon subscribers like Harley Goldsmith and Peter Sidwell for giving us an excuse to spend quite so much time on it.

* * *

Vintage illustration.
A wagonette. (SOURCE: The Book of the Horse, 1880, via the Internet Archive.)

The word charabanc comes from the French char-à-bancs (literally a carriage with benches) and became attached in Britain to large six- or eight-seater carriages previously known as wagonettes, probably because it sounded fancier.

The popularity of charabancs among working class people arose alongside the very concept of leisure time. An account from 1872 describes how shop assistants in Devon celebrated the introduction of early closing on Thursday afternoons by taking a charabanc trip to Babbacombe. [1]

Hiring a charabanc was an indulgence but an affordable one and clubbing together to pay for it, then travelling in a merry group, was half the fun. By the 1880s there were charabancs pulled by four horses capable of carrying 21 passengers, or even 35. [2]

Pubs were natural hubs for clubs, societies and teams, and an equally obvious centre for the organisation of charabanc trips, and for the pick-up and drop of daytrippers. Thus charabancs came to be strongly associated with pubs. (But not exclusively — church groups were also big charabanc fans.)

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Complete Guide to Bristol’s Pubs, c.1976

Cover of The Complete Guide to Bristol's Pubs.

Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.

We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.

We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.

We’re still not 100 per cent sure when it was published but we know from Andrew Swift that a partner volume covering Bath came out in 1976 so that seems like a reasonable assumption and is consistent with the contents.

Now we want to share a few nuggets that highlight what we’ve lost, and perhaps gained, as pub culture has changed in the past 40-odd years.

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The Reality of the Village Inn

Two old men in a village pub.

English village pubs are mythologised, romanticised and eulogised, but what are they actually like in the 21st century?

We’ve been tinkering with a version of this post for months but were prompted to finish and post it by this Tweet from an academic conference on drink and drinking:

The talk (as far as we can glean from Tweets) went on to mention the decreased centrality of the inn in village life even as its absolute centrality to the idea of the perfect village persists in popular culture. Hopefully we’ll get to read the finished study at some point but, for now, we thought we’d share a few observations of our own.

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Rigby’s Bier Keller, Liverpool, 1968

In the 1960s and 70s German-style beer cellars were all the rage in Britain popping up everywhere from Blackpool to central London, and Liverpool did not miss out on the trend.

We’ve touched on this subject a few times including in an article on theme pubs for CAMRA last year and in 20th Century Pub. Just recently we wrote a substantial article, also for CAMRA, which we expect to appear in the next issue of BEER magazine. This post, however, zooms in one one one example via an article in the in-house magazine of the Tetley Walker brewery group for autumn 1969.

Cover of the magazine.

Rigby’s on Dale Street is a famous Liverpool pub now run by Okell’s of the Isle of Man. In 1968, however, it was part of the Allied Breweries empire managed under as part of the Walker Cain sub-group. Just before Christmas that year Rigby’s newest feature, a Bierkeller, was unveiled in the low-beamed cellar:

Much of the character of the keller was already there, for the old cellars of Rigby’s still have their ancient flagstone floors, original cast iron stanchions and stone block walls… To this existing setting were added girls in traditional Bavarian costume to serve the drinks, long beech tables and benches — four tons of timber went into their making — German poster on the walls and two doors marked Damen and Herren.

The Keller

It’s sometimes hard to tell how seriously breweries took this kind of thing. Sometimes it seemed to be a sincere effort to evoke a German atmosphere — don’t forget, many British drinkers at this point had actually been to Germany thanks to the war and the subsequent cold war — while others were… less so. Rigby’s was certainly an example of the former perhaps because Liverpool in particular had strong German connections (think of the Beatles in Hamburg) and a fairly substantial reverse traffic with enough Germans in Liverpool to warrant their own church from 1960. There was also a permanent German consulate and it was the commercial attache, H.C. von Herwarth, who opened Rigby’s Bierkeller and “drew the first stein of lager”.

Opening night at Rigby’s Bierkeller. Those aren’t Bavarian hats.

But Rigby’s German-flavoured venture had another advantage: the licensee was one John Burchardt:

Mr Burchardt came to England as a prisoner of war in 1946. He worked on farms in this country and he liked living here so much that when he was released and was given the option of returning to his country…. he decided to come back and take a civilian job…. He married an English girl and Mr and Mrs Burchardt have a family of four boys.

A family photograph.
The Burchardts.

For once, we have been able to gather a bit more biographical information about the nameless spouse: Mrs Burchardt was called Edith and was born in Wales in 1932. The same source tells us that John was actually called Werner and was born in Dortmund but perhaps grew up in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) which might be why he didn’t want to go home. And another perhaps: he may have ended up in Liverpool because of family connections as one Otto Burchardt was appointed consul to the King of Prussia in Liverpool in 1841 and was buried there when he died in 1882.

But, back to pubs: John Burchardt told the reporter for TW magazine that he didn’t see much difference between running a Bavarian Bierkeller and an English pub like the one upstairs. Here’s the public bar in a shot taken, we think, from just about exactly where we sat when we visited in 2016:

Pub interior

We don’t know yet what became of Rigby’s Bierkeller but, based on our research into others, we’d guess it slowly went downmarket and became less German before folding in the late 1970s. (The standard pattern.)

But if you know otherwise, or remember drinking there during its Germanicised phase, do comment below or drop us a line.