In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, you took good beer where you could get it, and if that meant descending a rickety staircase into a dingy basement with pungent-smelling toilets, so be it.
We were tipped off to the existence of Becky’s Dive Bar by beer writer Des de Moor who thought it might be a candidate for one of the first ‘real ale pubs’ or ‘beer exhibitions’ – somewhere whose main selling point was the availability of varied cask ales from far-flung, out-of-town breweries. In his 1976 book Beer and Skittles, Richard Boston supports that view, arguing that Becky “made it [the Dive] a living gallery of beer from all over England, more than 10 years before anyone else did anything similar”. (If you think otherwise, comment below.)
‘Becky’ was born Rebecca Mary Dunne in 1907, possibly in Dublin, though she claimed to be from “a family of Manchester coopers” (Green/White, 1968). She married William Willeter, a sixty-five year old widower, veteran of World War I, and experienced pub landlord, in Surrey in 1943. William’s grandson, Robert, told us something of the family drama that accompanied her arrival: his grandfather and father, also Robert Charles Willeter, had been running the Golden Lion pub in Caterham, Surrey, but when Becky arrived she ‘took over’, dividing the father and son team. Reading between the lines, the family saw her as something of a gold-digger.
Early in 1954, without Robert, they moved to 24 Southwark Street, London SE1, in the basement of the Hop Exchange. The Exchange is a vast, grandly Victorian building occupying an entire block, and one which any passing beer geek will certainly have noticed: it is decorated all over with hops and hop bines. It was opened in 1867, operating, as the name suggests, as a marketplace for dealers in Kentish hops, but its builders over-estimated demand for a central hop-dealing centre, and it was never as busy as they’d hoped. Over the next eighty years or so, it was damaged by fires and bombs, partly demolished, and eventually, all but abandoned by the hop trade, its spaces were rented out as offices and shops.
According to Richard Boston, the basement premises was a sandwich shop when the Willeters took it over, though The Dive is an odd name for such a business, and it had been called that since at least 1949. Martin Green and Tony White describe it as “originally a kind of private licensed canteen for the hop merchants”, which might make sense.
Unfortunately, shortly after they moved, in April 1954, William died. Thereafter, the widowed Becky appears for the first time under her own name in the London phone book as R.M. Willeter, proprietress of The Dive, with the apt phone number HOP 2335.
By the 1960s, the Dive was known as a pub specialising in serving hard-to-find out-of-town ales from casks mounted on the bar and had somehow acquired a reputation as “the oldest Free House in London” (Len Deighton’s London Dossier, 1967) – nonsense, surely, but a telling mistake, suggesting that the place quickly came to feel like an institution. It was probably Becky who promoted this story, and she certainly put on a show for Brian Schwartz who visited in 1974 prior to writing an article for Off Duty, a magazine for US servicemen in Europe, rattling a set of manacles she claimed to have found in the basement, and telling stories of the Dive’s various ghosts.
Ruddles, a brand now owned by Greene King, was a particular draw, as the ‘Rutland Lives’ graffito in the picture above attests, but Becky was proud to say she could offer 250 different beers, including European imports from, amongst other countries, Czechoslovakia (Skittles and Beer). Was she also the first publican to sell Urquell or Budvar in the UK? The pub also offered beer from Thwaites, Adnams, Duttons and Shepherd Neame at a time when those were as rare in London as today are products from, say, Mikkeler. The beer was not always good, though, at least according to CAMRA-founder Michael Hardman: “It was bloody awful, like porridge.”
Recollections of Becky herself suggest a woman who, having reached her prime in the nineteen-thirties and forties, resolved to remain there. Her hair was dyed black, she wore lipstick “half an inch round her mouth”, and tended to wear clothes recalling fashions of decades before, with a beehive hairdo – “the last in London“CP. Maximus Bibendus recalls her having the nickname ‘California Becky’, but no-one seems to know why.
The bar had a 78rpm gramophone record player which she would use to blast out songs by George Formby, Flanagan and Allen, and even the speeches of Winston Churchill, evoking the Blitz spirit in what you might call her underground shelter, when there wasn’t someone playing the piano or Hammond Organ (Green/White, 1968) in the corner.
Those who frequented the Dive recall that she drank constantly and heavily, rarely making much sense by the end of the night, though her authority was never questioned. She was accompanied by a drunken pianist called Norman; various eccentric, heavy-drinking regulars; and a barman called Harry whose beer belly was legendary.
This blog post by Andrew Keogh – one of the few mentions of Becky’s anywhere online – recalls the atmosphere and layout of the Dive Bar in the mid-seventies. It paints a picture of a dirty, scruffy, smelly pit with barely functional toilets. That view is supported by the recollections of others:
The furniture was mostly beaten up sofas which had probably been found on a rubbish dump. A visit to the toilets was extremely hazardous as it was down the cellar steps which were very steep and had no handrails. From memory one could have a piss and look at the casks at the same time.LD
It was carpeted, too, with leftovers, scraps and “ends of rolls”. It stank of urine and stale beer. Michael Hardman recalls his wife being served a gin and tonic with a fly swimming in it. When he complained, Becky speared the fly with a cocktail stick and handed the drink back.
But the Dive’s foulness, decrepitude and air of eccentricity, along with the ‘exotic’ beer, seem to have contributed to a certain cult appeal (“…the place rocked”) and an air of naughtiness.
In the early seventies, I was courting a girl who worked in the same building as me in Finsbury Square. We used to trot over London Bridge regularly to Becky’s… as it was a place we were confident none of our respective work colleagues would find us… The attraction for us other than privacy was it sold my favourite beer of the time, Ruddles County, and my girlfriend just loved the bottled Ruddles Barley Wine.LD
Friday and Saturday nights, according to Andrew Keogh, were particularly hectic and exciting, and things only got busier after 1974 when the Dive was a finalist in the Evening Standard pub of the year award. When another small Southwark drinking establishment with cult appeal, the Rake, was named Time Out pub of the year in 2007, it was all but overwhelmed by new visitors for some months afterwards, and the effectof the Standard coverage on the Dive must have been similar.
Unfortunately, as the Dive went mainstream, its borderline-dangerous architectural features and unsanitary facilities came to the attention of the authorities. Becky cooked sausages and made sandwiches which “must have caused most of the custom at Guy’s A&E on Saturday nights” in a filthy kitchen coated in grease, and it was probably this which tipped the balance. In 1975, it was forcibly closed down, and Becky, it seems, retired.
After 1975, the phone books show an R.M. Willeter moving from one place to another in London and its suburbs before eventually leaving the city behind and, via a long stint in Southend-on-Sea in Essex, ending up in Suffolk, where she died in 1997. That’s right – she reached ninety years old after working for twenty years in a dangerous, unsanitary basement, with a drink constantly in her hand. Make of that what you will.
Pending further research, we can’t be 100 per cent sure what happened to the Dive next, but, by 1985, according to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1986, it was trading under the name Barker’s Dive Bar, ‘Original floor and character all its own’. Nick Boley recalls drinking there up until possibly as late as 1982 and, though Becky was gone, says the bar was still known by her name. We’re not even certain which particular cellar it occupied, as both Katzenjammers and the ‘new’ Wheatsheaf share a postal address and have similar-looking entranceways. The cellar which is now the relocated Wheatsheaf was, from the early nineties, a wine bar called the Hop Cellars. If that’s the one, then we’ve got a story of the UK pub trade in microcosm: from free house to wine bar to chain pub, in the course of thirty years.
The good news for British beer drinkers was that, even as Becky’s was on its last legs in the mid-seventies, real ale was making a slow comeback elsewhere and other pubs soon appeared to fill the gap in the market left by the Dive – on the beer front, at least, if not in terms of the romantic, underground dinginess and constant partying that gave it such cult appeal.
- CP – Chris Partridge who we emailed after seeing his comment on Caroline’s Miscellany.
- LD – an anonymous London drinker with whom we exchanged emails.
- Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston (1976), p.96–98.
- “Food” by Adrian Bailey, in London Dossier, ed. Len Deighton (1967), p44.
- Out of the Hay and Into the Hops: Hop Cultivation in Wealden Kent and Hop Marketing in Southwark, Celia Cordle (2011), p123.
- “Guide to London Pubs” by Martin Green & Tony White (1968), p131.
- Conversation with Michael Hardman, November 2012.
- Emails from Robert Willeter, October 2012.
- ‘…and here’s where to get it’, Brian Schwartz, Off Duty, November 1975.
When we know more, we’ll update this post. In particular, we want to confirm we’ve got the correct R.M. Willeter in the records and try to find details of when the Dive became licensed to sell beer. And what’s the Mitchell’s and Butler’s connection that led to their slogan being painted on the shutters in the picture above? Any further recollections, facts or photos very welcome, either by email or in comments below.
Thanks to Des for the tip-off; Steve ‘the Beer Justice’ Williams for help in various ways; to Tandleman for checking his 1980s Good Beer Guides for mentions of the Dive; and to Andrew Keogh for his original blog post and some very helpful back-and-forth by email.
A note on the photos: Brian Schwartz provided these, though he didn’t take them. He wrote an article on the Dive for a small magazine aimed at US servicemen in Britain and the photos were taken to accompany it. He’s given us provisional permission to use them while he tracks down the photographer and also hopes to share his original article with us if he can dig it out.
- 25/07/2012 Added information from Guide to London Pubs by Martin Green & Tony White (1968), via Vagrantpunk’s scans at Flickr; also an additional line of information based on comments from Nick Boley who drank at the Dive in the early 1980s.
- 09/08/2012 The photographer was Grant W. Corby, who we are now trying to track down.
- 02/12/2012 Revised based on research from the last few months.
- 06/10/2013 Barker’s Dive Bar incarnation confirmed.
- 02/05/2016 Added a photo from 1974 courtesy of Robert Runge.