As ‘new towns’ and Corbusier-inspired estates were built in the rubble and green field of post-War Britain, pubs were a focus of debate.
At least that’s what preliminary research for one of several embryonic projects we have on the go suggests, though we’ve a lot more reading and pondering to do. In the meantime, here are a few nuggets we’ve stumbled across which start to hint at what else might be out there for us to find.
The argument seems to have been between, on the one hand, those who thought pubs were essential components of working class communities; and, on the other, those who saw pubs as part of slum culture, and so regarded this as an opportunity to sweep away a ‘social evil’ that was holding back progress.
Now, we’re not sure if the world needs beer architects, or if the term is one we’d like to see stick, but it’s an interesting way of framing the discussion.
Until fairly recently, there were no architects — only builders, and, later, master builders. Then came people like Christopher Wren — intelligent to the point of genius, and bred to practice good taste at a pitch most humans can’t detect — who made a living conceiving of buildings or estates; sketching them; modelling them… and then contracting someone else to get their hands dirty in the construction.
For those of us who feel sad whenever a pub vanishes, this is a sad life. Progress, reconstruction, town-planning, war, all have one thing in common: the pubs go down before them like poppies under the scythe.
Maurice Gorham, The Local, 1939
Early in 2012, regulars at the Ivy House, a 1930s pub in Nunhead, South London, were stunned when its owners, Enterprise Inns, gave the manager a week’s notice and boarded the building up.
Howard Peacock, a secondary school teacher in his 30s who regarded the Ivy House as his ‘local’, felt what he calls a ‘sense of massive injustice’:
[The] pub was one that should have been able to stay open in any fair trading environment. The small local pubco that was running it… had been making a go of it even with restricted stocking options and limited profit margins thanks to the beer tie…
But he and his fellow drinkers (Tessa Blunden, Emily Dresner, Stuart Taylor and Hugo Simms) did something more than merely grumble and begin the hunt for a new haunt: instead, they launched a campaign to SAVE THE IVY HOUSE!
Nowadays, the idea of a community campaign to save a pub hardly seems remarkable — they are seen as an endangered species, the cruel property developers’ harpoons glancing off their leathery old skin — but a hundred years ago, thing were very different. Then, a cull was underway.
Maurice Gorham’s best-known books on pubs are The Local (1939) and Return to the Local (1949), neither of which we have yet read. What we did acquire, thanks to a tip from Herb Lester, was a battered copy of Inside the Pub (1950), a pub designer’s manual which Gorham wrote with Harding McGregor (‘H. McG.’) Dunnet for the Architectural Press.
It’s an interesting book for various reasons but what leapt out at us were the opening lines of the introduction by J.M. Richards, on the subject of the alchemy of pub atmosphere:
If I were asked what are the qualities I would like to find in a pub I would say simply, ‘the right atmosphere’, and if asked to be a little more precise I would say that the right atmosphere is one which provides warmth, cheerfulness and a sense of seclusion and one in which the charm of the familiar is somehow combined with a sense of something intriguing just round the corner. A pub should make people feel at home and yet have the capacity to lift them a little out of themselves.
Later in the book, Dunnet says that many pubs built just before the war suffer from the lack of nooks and dividers, offering only a ‘large bleak interior’; they are sometimes ‘indistinguishable from post offices or banks’; they ‘deny the whole pub tradition and only succeed in discouraging the customer from joining his cronies round the kitchen chimney corner’.
We can think of a few pubs to which that description would apply.
We’d never heard of Ian Nairn until a couple of weeks ago, but he’s unavoidable if you spend any time at all reading newspapers from the 1950s and 60s. He made his name with Outrage (1955), a treatise on the architectural (and therefore cultural) homogenisation of British culture, lavishly illustrated with photographs from towns around the country which demonstrate the increasing difficulty of telling the suburbs of Southampton from those of Carlisle. Thereafter, he wrote hundreds of weekly columns and books, and hosted several TV shows up until the 1970s.
He worked with, and was a disciple of, Nikolaus Pevsner, but his own books were much more accessible. Perhaps disproving the point we made here, his architectural guide to the capital, Nairn’s London (1966), includes almost thirty pubs and, in many cases, mentions the quality of the beer. (Nairn liked a drink. No, actually, Nairn liked lots of drinks.)
He writes about pubs with flourish and wit.
The Barley Mow, Marylebone: has ‘cubicles… for romantic indiscretion or flogging atomic secrets’.
The Beehive, a Fuller’s pub in Brentford: ‘a song’, but causes him to lament that ‘there don’t seem to be the same number of real people around any more, especially among the designers of pubs’.
The Black Friar, Blackfriars: ‘tainted with a particularly musty imagination which has clouded the space like a bad pint of bitter’.
The Black Lion, Plaistow: ‘has gone back to the fountain-head of human pubbiness’.
Crown and Greyhound, Dulwich: ‘an act of love, it bursts out all over — and has the same reverberating effect as a an untouched nineteenth-century pub, because it is set off by a similar gusto’.
The Grenadier, Wilton Row: ‘untouched by half timber, leaded light, chromium plate, or Festival of Britain lettering… the old servants’ pub that has short-circuited to become a local for rich mews-dwellers’.
The Swan and Mitre, Bromley: ‘teeters all the time on the brink of preciousness, but never quite falls in… the tension is invigorating… The notice requesting you not to take draught beer into the lounge… is in fact topographically just: this really is the place where you drink with your little finger crooked’.
Our 1967 paperback, on the brink of disintegration, wasn’t cheap: if you see a copy, snap it up.