Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944

The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about — or maybe an exposé of — bar staff in London pubs.

It’s credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ and is entitled Gulliver Peeps Behind the Bar implying a connection to the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s perhaps not the stuff footnotes are made of, unless carefully worded. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plenty of creative licence in writing up material from various sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:

‘You’ll get thirty-five bob a week,’ said the barmaid ducking through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her peroxide head popped up again in the frame of the ornamental bottles and frosted glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morning til eleven at night.’

She went on to detail the various ways barmaids in London pubs compensate themselves for their miserable lot, namely ‘fiddling’.

‘Go on with you,’ said the barmaid. ‘You know what fiddling is, making a bit on the side.’ She gave a mascara wink.

First, there was the barmaid who took additional compensation in the form of drink, ‘a bottle of gin before breakfast’, the empty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sherry’ to cover her tracks. The customers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.

The cover of Lilliput, December 1944.

Then there was a barman who was in the habit of slipping coins into his waistcoat but was found out because his pocket was wet: ‘Don’t you know that money taken over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the prevalence of this kind of thing, according to Gulliver’s informant, most pubs banned bar staff from having any money in their pockets at all.

There were various methods for fiddling the till. First, there’s the simple wheeze of taking orders for multiple rounds but only ringing up the price of one — easy, but risky. Alternatively, they might work with a friend posing as a customer on the other side of the bar: ‘Every time the accomplice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elaborate approach sounds positively ingenious:

Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The people in the bar used to drop the money on the floor, shuffle it down the hole and the cellarman used to catch it in a beer filter.

She explained that such dishonest bar staff worked in gangs, moving around to avoid the police, and alternating so that some worked while others laid low. They found new jobs using forged references, ‘sixpence each’.

The article concludes with details of a clever customer-side con trick that’s new to us:

The most famous trick is called ‘Ringing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Immediately after, the accomplice goes into the public bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the number. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accomplice had just handed in. Well, when that happens, the landlord has to pay up.

Can anyone who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still happens today, or have CCTV and the death of the multi-bar layout out done for this (ahem) fine old tradition?

The main illustration above is signed ‘Victoria’ which we think means it’s by Victoria Davidson, 1915-1999.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 March 2017: Bibles, BrewDog, Bulldogs

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related news and reading that’s seized our attention in the last week, from marriage equality in Australia to takeover tremors at BrewDog.

A quick mention, first, for Nathaniel Southwood whose post on why he’s done with beer festivals went mildly viral on Reddit this week, somewhat to his surprise. We’re also festival sceptics and so, it seems, are plenty of other people out there.

Portrait shot of Mike Marcus.

For Brewers’ Journal editor Tim Sheahan has profiled Mike Marcus, the outspoken founder of Manchester’s Chorlton Brewing Co. At times aggressively political on social media, and committed to producing challenging beers, his comments come across as refreshingly unvarnished:

Some people can’t understand why we don’t have a business model to sell to a bigger business. Sure you have some exceptions in the UK with the sales of Meantime and Camden Town but with something like 1,700 breweries, how many are going to exit like that. Ten, maybe. Who knows? I want an investor that backs me and works with me. It’s why we’ve never done crowdfunding, everyone is looking for an exit.


A glass of beer at BrewDog Bristol.

With that segue, let’s turn to BrewDog: in the last couple of weeks the Scottish brewery has written to shareholders (PDF) and posted on the forum for ‘Equity Punks’ (crowd-funding backers) with news of changes which pave the way for an outside investor to acquire a 30 per cent share of the company by, in effect, downgrading the value of shares held by smaller investors. There’s a short summary of the main points by Kadhim Shubber at the Financial Times (registration required) and Glynn Davis at Beer Insider provides helpful commentary:

Crowd-funding is being marketed to very small investors who probably do not have much finance experience. They think they are buying ‘shares’ but if their pre-emption rights are being widely removed as an original condition, then they are not getting what any reasonable person would view as equity… I strongly suspect that the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) will be along shortly to inform BrewDog, CrowdCube et al of this very fact.

Detail aside, this tells us that a move everyone has been waiting for is finally underway. We doubt very much that the particular investor BrewDog is courting is a big multi-national brewery — they’ve just banged on about that so much when they didn’t need to that we can’t see it happening. But who knows.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 March 2017: Bibles, BrewDog, Bulldogs”

Fameusement British — Watney’s in Belgium, 1969

The October 1969 edition of Watney’s in-house magazine, The Red Barrel, contains a substantial feature on the British mega-brewery’s operations in Belgium. Here are some highlights.

The author was John Nixon, editor of The Red Barrel, and what took him to Brussels in the summer of 1969 was the presentation of an award for the quality of Belgian-brewed Red Barrel keg bitter. (We think we’ve got that right — the text is a bit vague.) At that ceremony M. Orban of L’Institut Mondial pour la Protection de le Haute Qualite Alimentaire spoke of ‘the progress of an ideal to which men, calling themselves European, have dedicated their best efforts for so many years’. Highly topical in 2017… Can we even say poignant without having someone tick us off?

The feature proper is entitled ‘Continental Journey’ (as above) and is a charming period travelogue with a focus on beer. Mr Nixon observes, first, that Brussels isn’t far away once airport rigmarole is out of the way: ‘[Only] about the same distance from London as is Manchester — what an incredible difference that strip of water makes!’. Then, after a few observations about the terrible driving, the high price of food and drink, and the low cost of renting flats, he gets down to business:

I finished the [first] evening at The Red Lion, one of the first English pubs in Brussels. The house is going incredibly well and as I walked through the door I was greeted by Mine Host Major John Reynolds, his charming wife Pat and a vast chorus of slightly obscene singing from a circle of British Leyland apprentices — exactly what they were doing in the city I didn’t find out as the Reynolds rushed me upstairs to another bar where we could swap news in comfort and my delicate ears would not be affronted by the lyrics of British Rugby songs.

Ah, the British abroad! (See also.) Mr and Mrs Reynolds benefited in business terms but suffered personally as a result of the absence of British-style regulated licensing in Brussels:

They open at 9.00 am and are then continuously engaged until 5 o’clock in the morning. Of course, they have a bevy of carefully selected British and Belgian barmaids to assist, who ‘live in’ above the pub, but Mr and Mrs Reynolds have to work in shifts, sometimes seeing each other only for an hour or so each day or passing on the stairs in the small hours of the morning as one gets up and the other goes to bed!

Le Real, Brussels, 1969.

The next day Mr Nixon was escorted around the city by M. Joary, Watney’s PR man in Belgium, and (supposedly) a former boxing champion, Jean Charles, who was then in charge of sales to cafes in Brussels:

Our first stop was the Cafe Real, situated at the edge of a park and frequented by professional men — lawyers, doctors and business men who work in the area. The establishment is designed to represent a cafe in the Black Forest, Germany. It is panelled throughout in red pinewood, well decorated with chandeliers, flowers, advertisements, Red Barrels and the illuminated fluorescent advertisements which are a feature of nearly all Belgian cafes… You can buy most kinds of food at the Cafe Real… Drinks range from wine through to beer, with simple but unusual items like freshly-squeezed orange juice, which you could not obtain in most British cafes or pubs.

Continue reading “Fameusement British — Watney’s in Belgium, 1969”

Considerable Resentment

On Saturday we did something we’ve been putting off for a long time: we submitted a rating to CAMRA’s national beer scoring system (NBSS).

What took us so long? The faff of logging on to the website to submit a score, for one thing, although it was pretty painless once we were in, but also, there was a reluctance to get sucked into robotic ticking-scoring-logging behaviour.

We were prompted to action by the fact that, for the second year in a row, the only Penzance pub in the Good Beer Guide is The Crown — a very decent place in its own way but whose beer isn’t the best in town by a long chalk. Perhaps there aren’t many scores logged down this way, or perhaps those that are recorded come from people who (as is common among older Cornish drinkers) have ongoing beef with St Austell, or with particular publicans. Whatever the reason we suspect, or hope, our scores might actually make a difference.

Getting used to the system might take a while, though. We’ve chuckled over the NBSS scale before, when we saw it reproduced in a local CAMRA magazine, but were amused anew when we refreshed our memories in the pub at the weekend:

0. No cask ale available.
1. Poor. Beer that is anything from barely drinkable to drinkable with considerable resentment.
2. Average. Competently kept, drinkable pint but doesn’t inspire in any way, not worth moving to another pub but you drink the beer without really noticing.
3. Good. Good beer in good form. You may cancel plans to move to the next pub. You want to stay for another pint and may seek out the beer again. 
4. Very Good. Excellent beer in excellent condition.
5. Perfect. Probably the best you are ever likely to find. A seasoned drinker will award this score very rarely. 

Our favourite is number 1 which conjures an image of a hard-done-by Albert Steptoe figure grumbling into a pint, too nervous to take it back but too tight-fisted to walk away. But, of course, we’ve all been there, and the same goes for the more positive number 3.

Exactly how rarely will a ‘seasoned drinker’ give a perfect score? We’re probably fairly well salted and peppered these days and, unfortunately, have become quite fussy — it sometimes feels as if all we do is moan. Nonetheless, we regularly come across pints of St Austell Proper Job — a beer we know very well — in absolute peak condition. It would seem daft to hold off awarding 5 just in case there’s an even better, magically wonderful pint to be found somewhere down the line.

What we won’t be doing is using NBSS scores to communicate our experiences here on the blog. No, sorry, but you’re stuck with ‘like licking Kia Ora off a pot plant’ and all that for the time being.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 11 March 2017: Queues, Le Coq, Suffragettes

Here’s all the beer and pub writing that grabbed us in the last week, from business rates to faux-Belgians.

Written as part of his journalism degree James Beeson’s piece on the threat to pubs from forthcoming business-rate hikes, aimed at mainstream audiences, is a handy primer:

According to rates and rents specialists CVS, 17,160 pubs will have to pay more in business rates from April, and this is just the start, with rates expected to rise by £421m in the next five years.  This hike means that pubs will need to pour an extra 121 million pints to fund increases in property taxes paid to councils. CVS estimate that high business rates have contributed to one in five pub closures in England and Wales over the last six years.

As it happens, in his budget on Wednesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced business rate relief for pubs, as reported by the Morning Advertiser, albeit coupled with an increase in beer duty.


Price list in a pub.

We’ve already linked once this week to Peter McKerry’s thought-provoking piece on why people choose to drink at home or the pub but there’s been more chatter around this interesting subject, notably from Mark Johnson who argues that drinking at home isn’t really cheaper. He roots his argument with a welcome discussion of price-per-litre and relative value:

Bottles of good beer aren’t cheap. I very rarely purchase, in my most frequented bottles shops, a beer for under £3. Most of the time I’ll purchase 5 or 6 bottles at a time and this shop is never under £25… 5 or 6 pints in the pub doesn’t cost me £25+… A pint of cask beer in my favourite pub ranges from £2.60 – £3.60, dependent on strength and purchase price. This is for a 568ml measure of beer as opposed to the standard 330ml size for bottles or cans in the beer shop. In terms of quantity equivalent (ml to ml) 6 beers in the pub will cost approximately £18.60. The bottles will cost me approximately £43 for the same amount of beer.


A queue at Magic Rock's brewery tap.

Staying with the same author, Mark also asked this week why on earth people would go to Huddersfield and join a long snaking queue for the Magic Rock brewery tap when there are so many other great pubs in town:

This is an anecdote that canvasses my feelings at present about anything that involves queuing or FOMO. This won’t be the only time I see people queue for a pub I’m sure. It’s just like those that scurry for online beer releases the moment it goes on sale. It is only for certain breweries with certain beers. It is the same ones doing the rounds on Facebook forums. There’s no frenzy for beers that aren’t universally praised, just like there seems little desire to drink in establishments that don’t have some form of bucket list status behind them.

(For what it’s worth, if we’d gone all the way to Huddersfield specifically to visit the MR tap for whatever reason, we’d probably have joined the queue, but when we found a similar line running out of the door at the Wild Beer Co bar in Bristol the other week, we walked.)


The Crynes on a beer festival balcony.
The Crynes at the GBBF in the 1980s.

For Craft Beer London, the website that accompanies the book and very useful smartphone app of the same name, Will Hawkes trailed the London Drinker Festival with a profile of two key figures in the British beer scene, Christine Cryne and her husband John:

‘We’ve had hate mail!’ says Christine. ‘Some stalwarts think having keykeg is the sell-out of sell-outs.’ She doesn’t seem overly concerned. ‘For me it’s about also being commercial. We need to make this beer festival a success. Young people don’t distinguish between real ale and non-real ale – for them it’s all craft. That’s what we’re doing here: for people who aren’t into real ale, we want to encourage them to try it. If we don’t do that, how will we get those youngsters in in the first place?’


The Shades, Hartlepool, closed and boarded.
A closed and boarded pub in Hartlepool.

An interesting nugget from Tandleman: looking back over his considerable archive he found mention of a pub that was doomed in 2009 and wondered what had become of it since. (It would be an interesting project to look back at a whole lot of stories like this and see how often they have a similar punchline.)


Text from a bottle of Harvey's Imperial Stout: A Le Coq.

You might not have the stomach for the in-depth details of his family tree that follow but the headline in this story about Albert Le Coq by Martyn Cornell is a killer for beer history nerds:

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.


A bit of brewery closure news from the US: two Californian outfits have folded in the past week, San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers and Orange County’s Valiant Brewing.


And, finally, amongst the flood of cheering, inspiring images and stories that accompanied International Women’s Day on Wednesday this 1908 cartoon stood out:

(You can see the original at the US Library of Congress website.)