The Mystery of the Rock House Tavern

We spotted the above post one one of our favourite Instagram accounts the other day and thought it ought to be a doddle to track down the history of the Rock House Tavern. Well, it wasn’t, but we think we’ve got there, and the solution offers an intriguing glimpse into the past.

First, yes, Liz is right– there is no useful information online, or in our copy of the 1975 pub guide, or in newspapers archives. Searching for mention of pubs around that location in more general terms, though, did point us to a 1986 book called City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner by Fred Moss. It might surprise some people to discover that Bristol had coal mines but it did. Fred Moss was born in 1906 and started work as a miner in 1921. Here’s what he has to say about drinking, on p.37:

[Let] me tell you about “The Long Bar”. This consisted of a lane running from Deep Pit Road to Holly Lodge Road. There were just a few houses in Holly Lodge, only a couple of miners lived there. Now about half way up this lane there was a pond called the “Lilly Pond”. It was a pool consisting of water pumped from the nearby pit. In this lane there was also a single railway track, which was used to carry trucks of coal from Speedwell Pit to the main Great Western Railway line and of course the Midland Railway line. The track was also used to take trucks of small coal to the coke ovens and washing plant.

Now, near this lane there was an off-licence beer house. The afternoon shift miners would buy beer at this off-licence and on a nice sunny day would to to this lane and have a chat and a drink before descending the pit…. There would be twenty or thirty men either sitting on a grass bank of leaning against a wooden fence drinking and chatting before working and when the morning shift came up from work, some of them would buy a drink and stand or sit in the lane before going home. Yes! I would say that was the longest bar in the world.

We find this fascinating — another reminder that people enjoyed beer in all kinds of ways in the past, not only in what we would now recognise as pubs, and following all kinds of patterns dictated by their work.

Fred’s memoir gives us some hard information to work with and we are blessed in 2018 with easy access to historic maps, satellite imagery and Google Street View which means it’s quite easy to pin all this down.

Here’s the lane we think Fred is describing as pictured in an OS map from the immediate post-WWII period, via Know Your Place:

Map showing the lane, 'Brook Road'.

The Rock House is at the very bottom left corner, marked “BH” for beerhouse; the lane is Brook Road which runs off immediately opposite passing a reservoir (the pond Fred mentions?) and crossing a small railway line on the way to Holly Lodge Road, which also fits with Fred’s description. One small wrinkle: there is another beerhouse marked on the map, also near the point where the lane spits out, so maybe he didn’t have The Rock House in mind. But we still reckon all this, especially the BH designation on the map, explains why The Rock House is so obscure: though it may have started as a proper drink-in beerhouse c.1830, it probably became a purely take-out premises in the wake of the 1869 Licensing Act.

But that’s just somewhat informed guesswork. If you know otherwise, drop us a line or comment below. We’ll keep an eye out in books and archives as we go and, as Google Maps satellite imagery suggests the lane is still there and now a public footpath, we’ll also go exploring and see what we can see.

Main image, top: Bristol miners c.1906 via City Pit.

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.)

Continue reading “Charabanc Fever”

QUICK ONE: The Flea and Sawdust School, 1927

The English Public House As It Is, a book by social observer Ernest Selley, was published in 1927. Re-reading it in search of a reference, we spotted a passage that hadn’t previously grabbed our attention.

In it, Selley reports on his visit to The Fellowship Inn, Bellingham, South London (pictured above when we visited in August), where he met someone who was unimpressed with the new style of ‘improved public house’:

Evidently this man is a member of what I once heard described as ‘The Flea and Sawdust School’; one of the type which prefers the stuffy ‘coziness’ of the dirty, ill-ventilated taproom to any of the ‘new fangled’ ideas.

Some ancestor of The Pub Curmudgeon, perhaps? (That’s not us having a go: we suspect he’ll quite like the comparison.)

It’s interesting to us that this lobby, which we associate with a certain wing within CAMRA today, was sufficiently well-developed by the mid-1920s for Selley to say he had ‘met several of these critics’, and for it to deserve a nickname. It was clearly, as they say, ‘a thing’.

The Fellowship Inn when it was new.
The Fellowship Inn in c.1920s. SOURCE: Inside Housing.

Also of note, in the section that immediately follows, is an account of early beer snobbery: Selley records a meeting with a bloke who won’t drink at the local improved pub because ‘the beer is rotten’. Selley says he tried it and found it anything but ‘rotten’. In his view the man was prejudiced because he resented the posher, more expensive pub, even though Selley was sure he would have enjoyed the very same beer served at the more down-to-earth ‘Pig and Whistle’. We can’t say for sure what was really going on — Selley was prejudiced too in his own way, in favour of improved pubs — but this kind of debate about value, quality, and the qualities of a ‘proper pub’ is certainly still going on 90 years later.

Pub Culture: The Lost Art of Spitting

One of the weirdest, grimmest things about our recent Big Project has been the amount of time we’ve spent reading about spitting.

We knew it used to be common in pubs from the detailed coverage in Mass Observation’s The Pub and the People but that’s nothing compared to what we found in Industrial Town: self-portrait of St Helens in the 1920s by Charles Forman, published in 1978. The bulk of a small section on pubs is given over to a woman in her sixties recalling life as the teenage daughter of a publican. Here’s what she had to say about spitting (look away now if you’re squeamish):

My sister and I used to do all the cleaning when we left school, polishing the floors… There were spittoons, because they used to smoke a lot of pipes then, and they have had worse chests than we do now. They smoked long clay pipes and dipped the ends into the beer to keep them cool. The spittoons were iron, and terrible to clean out — you used to have to put sawdust in. Imagine cleaning what someone had been spitting out! When the floors were carpeted, they daren’t spit on them and went outside to do it. They used to spit on the fire; you used to have to clean off what stuck on the grate after bad aiming. They always spat on the fire at home.

It seems weird to think this was ever acceptable, doesn’t it? We wonder (nervous to mention it because people do get narky on this subject) if this is how people will think about smoking in pubs in a few years time. Or maybe this is another thing (tuberculosis risks aside) that ought to make a comeback, with a little symbol in the Good Beer Guide?

Pub Preservation: The Railway Hotel, Edgware

Railway Hotel in the rain.
‘Railway Hotel Unloved’ by Matt Brown, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

We don’t usually get involved in campaigns or promote petitions but this one struck a particular chord with us.

It was set up by Mark Amies (@superfast72) who blogs about history and architecture and has a particular interest in inter-war pubs in the Greater London area. His piece on The Comet, Hatfield, is a particular favourite of ours.

The Railway Hotel in Edgware, North London, the subject of his petition, is another pub from the same period, so few of which are left that the remaining examples have become precious.

It’s a pub we know quite well even though we didn’t make it there on our tour of outer London’s inter-war pubs earlier in the year. It is mentioned in passing in Basil Oliver’s essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House as a notable example of the kind of ‘imposing inn… quasi timber-framed’ that Truman, Hanbury & Buxton were building at the time. Now, Mark says:

It closed in the early 2000’s and has remained boarded up and unloved since. Last month there was an arson attack which left a portion of the ground floor ruined, as yet no one has been prosecuted for this to our knowledge. The Railway Hotel has has several owners since last year.

These situations can be turned around. A couple of weeks back we visited The Fellowship Inn, a similar premises in South London, which having been listed is now the focus of a well-funded project which promises not only to restore the building architecturally but also to bring it back to life, giving over the pub to experienced chain operators, installing a microbrewery, and turning the derelict dance hall into a cinema.