So Low You Can’t Get Under It

The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.

With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’

We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.

Fired tiles at the Prince Alfred, a Victorian pub.

Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.

Continue reading “So Low You Can’t Get Under It”

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.

GALLERY: Pub Architecture, 1846

We’ve been reading Victorian Pubs by Mark Girouard (1975; rev. 1984) which pointed us toward J.C. Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furniture published in 1846. This being the 21st century, it’s available in full online via, and has about 50 pages on inns and pubs (pp.675-726).

These designs are ideal templates rather than referring to specific pubs — has anyone ever seen an Italianate or Swiss-style inn in the wild? (Serious question.)

Pubs: Forget Sky Sports, Get Rats!

Billy the celebrated rat-killing dog.
Billy the celebrated rat-killing dog, 1822.
The grand consumption of rats… is in Bunhill-row, at a public-house kept by a pugilist. A rat-seller told me that from 200 to 500 rats were killed there weekly, the weekly average being, however, only the former number; while at Easter and other holidays, it is not uncommon to see bills posted announcing the destruction of 500 rats on the same day and in a given time, admittance 6d. Dogs are matched at these and similar places, as to which kills the greatest number of these animals in the shortest time.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor1851.

Mock up of a flyer quoted by Mayhew.
Our mock-up of a flyer quoted by Mayhew.

* * *

I now propose laying down a few abstract questions for the due consideration of our worthy magistracy, as to the propriety of their interference in rat-matching, &c. The first point I would wish to draw their attention to, is the case of the rat-catcher of Witnesham in Suffolk, who brought, in twenty-one weeks, to one public-house in Ipswich, no less a number than 11,465 rats, which he sold at two shillings and sixpence per dozen. This man, in this short space of time, took from the public-house the sum of £254; and all these were genuine barn-rats, which were brought for the purpose of training dogs, matches, &c…

I shall now lay before you the complaint of a landlord of a tavern. His house was situated about a stone’s throw from the police-station. Here he was landlord for seven years and, though considered something of a sporting house, still, during that period, he declared that not one case of disturbance ever went from his tavern to the station… Yet because this man had rat-matches in his establishment, and trained dogs in the art of rat-killing, he was persecuted… till he was compelled to leave his house.

James Rodwell, The Rat: its history & destructive character, 1858.

* * *

In 1812, a RAT of astonishing Size, was killed at a Public-house, in East Clandon, near GUILDFORD; it measured from the tip of the Nose, to the end of the Tail, two Feet three inches, and was of proportionate Bulk. It is supposed, he had infested the Cellar, where caught, for Years, and the Landlord calculates, he had drank at least a Barrel of Beer, out of the Tap-tub, and eat upwards of a Bushel of Bread, besides a Quantity of Other Provisions.

William Barker Daniel, Supplement to the Rural Sports, 1813

* * *

With apologies to the squeamish, this post was inspired by reading E.S. Turner in Angus McGill’s anthology Pub (1969), and Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld (1970). Now let us never speak of rats again.

More ale in literature: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Courtesty of Anne Bronte:

‘I don’t take wine, Mrs. Markham,’ said Mr. Millward, upon the introduction of that beverage; ‘I’ll take a little of your home- brewed ale. I always prefer your home-brewed to anything else.’

Flattered at this compliment, my mother rang the bell, and a china jug of our best ale was presently brought and set before the worthy gentleman who so well knew how to appreciate its excellences.

‘Now THIS is the thing!’ cried he, pouring out a glass of the same in a long stream, skilfully directed from the jug to the tumbler, so as to produce much foam without spilling a drop; and, having surveyed it for a moment opposite the candle, he took a deep draught, and then smacked his lips, drew a long breath, andrefilled his glass, my mother looking on with the greatest satisfaction.

‘There’s nothing like this, Mrs. Markham!’ said he. ‘I always maintain that there’s nothing to compare with your home-brewed ale.’

‘I’m sure I’m glad you like it, sir. I always look after the brewing myself, as well as the cheese and the butter – I like to have things well done, while we’re about it.’

Nice to see that a good head was preferred on a pint even back then (although Anne was a northern lass, of course, so she would be that way inclined).  It’s also a good reminder of the fact that making ale was women’s work until comparatively recently.


Text courtesy of Project Gutenberg.