Sir Charlie and the Elephant: Unreconstructed and Underdone

Pubs built in the period after World War II have, on the whole, had short, rather sad lives, but there are two still trading (for now) at Elephant and Castle in South London. What can they tell us about the fate of the post-war urban booze bunker?

Elephant (as we’ll call it from here on) was a furious cauldron of development in the 1960s. What remained of the old district after the Blitz was levelled and a new traffic hub for south London was created. Office blocks were built to house government staff, like the Ministry of Health building, Alexander Fleming House, designed by the famous Hungarian-British architect Ernő Goldfinger. Most importantly an enormous modern shopping centre was built, ‘a giant new type of building, a fully enclosed American style mall over three levels surmounted by an office block’.

It was amid all this excitement that Watney’s and Truman’s breweries built flagship pubs there, the Charlie Chaplin and Elephant & Castle respectively. In August, we decided to visit both.

Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, 1960s.
Artist’s impression of the shopping centre by Willett Developments Limited.

In the image above from Watney Mann’s Red Barrel magazine for June 1965 the site of the Charlie Chaplin, on the central island and appended to the shopping centre itself, is marked with an orange arrow. This is how it looked on launch:

Publicity photographs in black and white.
The saloon bar (top) and cocktail/grill bar.

A major feature of the house… is a wrought-iron mural of Charlie Chaplin. Designed by G. Dereford of Marlow Mosaics and made from metal springs to epitomise the spirit of the film Modern Times, the sculpture runs the full height of the first and ground floors… The Charlie Chaplin was designed by Erdi & Rabson, built by Sinclair & Son (London) Ltd and is let to the Westminster Wine Co whose manager will be Mr H.W. Moles.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Watney’s aspired for it to be an upmarket pub for shoppers, cinemagoers and office workers rather than as an ‘estate pub’. But the shops and shoppers never came to Elephant — it was a famous failure in commercial terms — and when a huge housing estate, Heygate, opened right next door in the early 1970s, the Charlie Chaplin seems to have ended up serving it by default.

The exterior of the Charlie Chaplin in August 2017.

In 2017, with the threat of closure and demolition hanging over the ‘mall’, as it has been for several years, and in the aftermath of a stabbing incident, the Charlie Chaplin feels a bit bleak. At some point it contracted to a single large room on the ground floor and received a half-hearted faux-Victorian makeover, leaving it neither thrillingly modern nor genuinely cosy. Given the tendency to connect the fate of pubs with that of the white working class it was interesting to see that the regulars were roughly fifty-fifty black and white, mostly solo drinkers, and entirely male. At one point a young woman in office clothes came in and took a seat by the window. As she talked on her mobile phone the woman behind the bar came over and asked her brusquely if she intended to buy a drink or not. The young women told the person on the phone, pointedly, that they should meet in a different pub instead, and left. We weren’t made to feel unwelcome in any overt, specific way but it did feel as if we’d intruded upon a private party, or perhaps a wake. It was literally and spiritually gloomy.

The Elephant & Castle neon sign in 2017.
The Elephant & Castle photographed in February 2017.

Across the road (or, rather, under it via the subway labyrinth) is the Elephant & Castle the history of which we’ve written about before as part of a round-up of 1960s Truman’s pubs so here, for variety, we’ll quote Danny Gill’s 2012 memoir Have Trowel Will Travel (via Google Books) which features a chapter on the pubs in this area as they were in the 1960s and 70s:

[The designer] must have had shares in a mirror company, as soon as you walked in the door there were mirrors everywhere, on the walls, toilet doors, behind the bar, and also some on the ceiling. The only place there weren’t any mirrors was on the floor. No matter where you stood in the pub, as you raised your glass to your mouth, your reflection was everywhere you looked. I must say I didn’t like this pub; it was too open for me and felt cold.

The bare ceiling of the Elephant & Castle pub.

These days, after becoming very rough and eventually escaping conversion into an estate agents, it is run by London pub company Antic, AKA ‘hipster Wetherspoons’. They have given it a retro brutalist makeover, all functional mid-century furniture and exposed structural concrete, which is somewhat in keeping with the period in which it was built, and interesting to gawp at, but also completely inauthentic. It too felt oddly gloomy — that’s bunkers for you, we guess. Although the wide range of cask and keg beer on offer looked enticing the former was in lacklustre condition and expensive, too. (We preferred the Guinness at the Charlie Chaplin.) The pub was at least buzzing, though, and if we felt out of place it was only because we had at least a decade in age on most of the clientele.

This experience probably informed a suggestion we made on Twitter earlier this week that there ought to be a prize for the first post-war pub to undergo an historically accurate refurbishment — to bring back the Formica tables, linoleum tiles, mustard-coloured lounge chairs and fibreglass friezes on the bar. The apparent alternatives — neglect or trend-chasing upmarket superficiality — seem rather sad.

This post was edited to remove a reference to the subway system which was apparently closed recently. We used to use it a lot when we regularly commuted through Elephant and must have got temporally confused. Also, we had consumed beer.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 July 2017: Crowdfunding & Flat Roofed Pubs

Here’s everything on the subject of beer and pubs that’s grabbed our attention in the last seven days from crowdfunding to flat-roofed pubs.

First, with his industry analyst hat on, Martyn Cornell has given some thought to the question of crowd-funding in British brewing, asking bluntly: ‘Is that money down the drain?’

A total of £50m has been raised in the UK over the past four years in crowdfunding efforts by more than 40 different craft breweries, and half a dozen craft beer retail operators who have tapped tens of thousands of – overwhelmingly male – investors… But how many of those investors will ever see a decent return on their money, other than the warm glow of owning a small slice of the maker of their favourite beers? With three quarters – 18 out of 25 – of the companies involved for which financial records have been published reporting losses for their last financial year, the answer is likely to be: “Not many, and even then, not for quite a while”.


'Women Drinking Bocks', 1878.
‘Women Drinking Bocks’, 1878.

We’re not sure these days that daft attempts to market beer at women don’t particularly need to be Taken Down — they’re usually so inept they crash themselves — but Suzy Aldridge’s rant on the subject, prompted by the latest effort in the genre, is great fun:

I don’t want some bloody pilsner in champagne bottle that looks like a bottle of bubble bath that you got from your great aunt for Christmas. I don’t want “a representation of a woman’s strength and a girl’s tenderness”, I want a pint. A girl shouldn’t be fucking drinking beer anyway, give her a J20 and introduce her to a nice porter on her 18th birthday.


Lounge bar: carpets, leather banquettes.

Restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin is one of the headline acts for the launch of Eater London (of mince on toast fame) and she has confession to make: ‘I don’t like pubs.’

I don’t like beer. I particularly don’t like warm beer. It was a suffocatingly hot day, and the idea of lurking inside a dark, whiffy-carpeted room — or worse still, outside on grimy, fume-clogged London pavement with the smoking fraternity, zero by way of shady umbrellas, on cheap metal furniture searing scorch marks onto my thighs — did not appeal. They don’t do decent wines (well, hello, mass-produced pinot grigio) or cocktails properly. Even an acceptable gin and tonic (quality ingredients, big glass, generous wedge of lemon or lime, plenty of good ice — yes, there’s bad ice out there) seems beyond most of them. And don’t speak to me about the food: the miasma of elderly fish ‘n’ chips that seeps out of that carpet, the pies, the bloody roast dinners.

It’s a reminder (like Victoria Coren’s similar piece from earlier this year) that the pub isn’t beyond criticism, or universally appealing, and, as O’Loughlin concludes, that’s fine.


The Willow, a flat-roofed pub in Harlow.

Grumble moan mutter… In an excellent article for the Guardian Karl Whitney reflects on the disappearance of the post-war flat-roofed estate pub. We’re grumbling, of course, because this is the subject of one of the chapters of our new book and his piece not only makes some of the same points but also quotes some of the same people:

In his blog Manchester Estate Pubs, [Stephen] Marland photographs pubs just like the Gamecock. He thinks pubs “are almost a barometer of community and how a community is doing. If a pub’s doing well, then the community’s doing well.”… He feels the demise of estate pubs is due to factors including changes in patterns of leisure activity, the rise of supermarkets as a source of cheap alcohol, and the increasing real estate value of their sites – it’s more economically viable to build apartments on a pub site than to keep it going as a business, or even a community resource. He believes councils in Greater Manchester are buying up pub sites for future redevelopment, leaving “whole deserts of publessness” in certain neighbourhoods.


A Gibbs Mew pub.
‘Gibbs Mew: The Albion Hotel’ by 70023venus2009 from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Benjamin Nunn‘s ongoing project to record his memories of only relatively recently lost breweries continues with this entry on Gibbs Mew of Salisbury:

It’s hard to believe, given the relative ease with which we can enjoy 8-10%+ DIPAs and Imperial Stouts these days, but there was a time, specifically the time when I started drinking, when almost all beer was in the 3.7-4.6% ABV range… And that’s one of the reasons Gibbs Mew… stood out among the regional breweries of their day. Their flagship beer, Bishop’s Tipple, weighed in at 6.5%. And that, in them days, was a fairly big deal.


Sierra Nevada have disappointed the Beer Nut by giving into the 21st century fad for bunging fruit in IPAs:

I honestly don’t know why anyone thought beery perfection like Torpedo needed tweaked but here we are… Sierra Nevada would be better sticking to humulus lupulus as the centre of their pale ales. Nobody will remember these beers when the fruit IPA craze has come to a merciful conclusion.


And finally, some odd bits of news, for the record as much as anything:

Truman’s Post-War Pubs, 1967

This set of pictures and accompanying notes come from editions of the Truman Hanbury & Buxton in-house magazine, the Black Eagle Journal, published in 1967.

As before, we’ve tried to include information on when buildings were actually opened; credits for photographers and architects where available; and updates on how the buildings look 50 years on.

1. The Elephant & Castle, London

Exterior of the Elephant & Castle, a brutalist block.

We’re starting with a bit of a superstar pub — one many of us will have heard of, if not visited, and after which this whole area of London is named. We’ve got an earlier article from the Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette boasting about the modernisation of the pub in 1900. By the mid-1960s, when the area was being comprehensively redeveloped, that Victorian pub was doomed.

The idea for this uncomprisingly brutal new design seems to have come from the Greater London Council’s planners and the developer’s architect Ernő Goldfinger who suggested that ‘the public house should appear to float on glass’. Truman’s in-house architect, Frederick G. Hall, interpreted that instruction as above, his design being implemented by A.P. Ciregna. It’s nice that in this case we not only have an architect’s credit but also a photo of Mr Hall drinking the first pint pulled at the new pub while being applauded by brewery director Sir Thomas Buxton.

F.G. Hall drinks the first pint at the Elephant in 1967.

Footnotes: pumpclips have definitely arrived by this point but that they are tiny; note also dimple mugs, which had overtaken ten-siders by this point.

Continue reading “Truman’s Post-War Pubs, 1967”

The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s

The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.

We found the photo in the autumn 1957 edition of the Hopleaf Gazette as shared by Raymond Simonds on his website — a wonderful trove of archive material from his family’s brewery. It accompanies a brief profile of the Architects’ Department which mentions Reg Norkett’s name in passing.

Without any great expectations we Googled him and found his address on the website of a professional organisation for architects; we wrote him a letter and have since exchanged a few emails. What follows is a lightly edited version of his responses to our questions with a little commentary from us here and there.

First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?

I was born in Reading in 1936, educated at Redlands Primary School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Reading Blue Coat School at Sonning near Reading as a boarder from 1948 to 1953.

During my time at school I realised I was interested in a career in the building/construction industry as, e.g. a surveyor or architect. I managed to obtain the required number of O levels to commence professional training and was initially employed in the Borough Architects Deparment at Reading Borough Council, as Junior Assistant in the Clerk of Works Section. I commenced training in part-time study for a National Certificate in Building at the local Technical College.

However I was keen to be involved in the Design and preparation of drawings and so on, which I discussed with the Borough Architect. He  approached the Chief Architect at H&G Simonds, Mr Reginald Southall, who is shown in one of the photographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you forwarded.

I was offered a junior position in the Architects Department, joining the company in 1954, and commencing study part-time at the Oxford School of Architecture.

Continue reading “The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 April 2017 — Swearing, Spontanpeckham, Stans

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last week from bad language to bad interior design.

Richard Coldwell at OuHouse has given some though to one of the top stories of last week — the apparent ban on swearing in Samuel Smith pubs. He says:

Taking the argument a stage further; if the pub has a tap room then I’m okay with swearing in moderation. I’m as guilty as anyone. In all other areas of a pub then there is absolutely no need for swearing at all. End of discussion here, and I’m fully behind Sam’s on this. I just don’t get the blanket ban across the entire estate, in all rooms. I don’t want to get judgemental, and it takes all types, but trying to enforce a swearing ban in somewhere like the very busy General Elliot or The Duncan in Leeds city centre would be like trying to plait snot. I quite liked the CAMRA stance, reported on in The Morning Advertiser , ‘Pubs should be encouraging good behaviour rather than opting for complete bans on those who swear’. I might go a bit further here myself and say, ensuring good behaviour.


Spontanpeckham in its saucepans.

Here’s just the beginning of the story of ‘Spontanpeckham’ from Kat Sewell at Have I Got Brews for You, whose home brew setup and plans are on another level of sophistication:

I transferred my wort into two 5 litre stainless steel cooking pots and tied cheesecloth over the top to stop any insects from getting in.  I left these under the trees in my garden overnight (1 cherry blossom and 2 sycamores)… I’m going to leave this for at least a year.  I’ll check on it from time to time to see if it needs ditching, I’m not expecting much, it’s more just for my own interest of witnessing a spontaneous fermentation in action.


Illustration: beer on a table.

Tony Naylor, best known for his work in the Guardian, reflects on pub design for Big Hospitality, reacting against the kind of sterile would-be-modern makeover that too often strips pubs of their character:

Fundamentally, for me, interior design in pubs is a retro project; one at its best when it is intuitively sympathetic to the building, whether it dates to 1974 or the 17th century. That need not be executed in clichéd ways with Victoriana and Punch prints (alarmingly, The Hinds Head will feature ‘eccentric curiosities’), nor does it mean your pub must look old, tatty and dingy. Pubs can be polished up, sensitively.


Still from the video for Stan by Eminem.
SOURCE: YouTube/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records

Mark Johnson is shooting arrows again, this time at brewery fanboys:

Though they never asked for the attention it must be incredibly fulfilling to have your work praised by strangers in the pub. Still, there are continuing elements that must be draining. Like running a social media account where people feel the need to unnecessarily tag you in every comment they make regarding your beer. Or even worse, where people don’t tag the offending brewery, but the brewer’s personal profile themselves, in order to really garner attention.


The Woolpack, Salford.

On of our favourite blogs, Manchester’s Estate Pubs, has come out of hibernation with a gorgeous photo essay on The Woolpack, Salford.


Gig posters on a pub in Manchester.

For reference rather than to read: Kaleigh (@kaleighpie) at the The Ale in Kaleigh is managing an events calendar for beer-related events in Manchester which you might want to review and bookmark.


Finally, here’s regular commenter Dave, who also blogs at Brew in a Bedsit, saying something profound with remarkable economy:


We’re away today so this post was put together on Friday and scheduled. If anything exciting happens in the meantime, we’ll Tweet about it.