Becky’s Dive Bar: the First ‘Beer Exhibition’?

Becky's Dive Bar in the early 1970s.

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.

Two young men stand at the bar while Becky serves them.
Robert Runge, ‘an intre­pid Yank search­ing for old Lon­don’ (right), with a friend at Beck­y’s in 1974. (Pho­to © Robert Runge, used with per­mis­sion.)

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.

Ref­er­ences

  • 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.

Notes

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.

Updates
  • 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.

27 thoughts on “Becky’s Dive Bar: the First ‘Beer Exhibition’?”

  1. Am I right in think­ing Ger­man theme pub Katzen­jam­mer is now where Beck­y’s Dive Bar was sit­u­at­ed?

    1. We’re not sure – it’s either Katzen­jam­mers or the “new” Wheat­sheaf. Hop­ing to find some firm evi­dence either way soon.

      1. I used to drink in Beck­y’s Dive Bar in the ear­ly 70’s.… Rud­dles and Shep­herd Neame beers. I’ve been using The “New” Wheat­sheaf for awhile. But it was so obvi­ous to me when I popped down to Katzen­jam­mers the oth­er day that that was good ole Beck­y’s; the shape, the size.….

        1. Hmm. We’ve just found a pic of the Exchange in 1944 that shows The Dive sit­u­at­ed where the Wheat­sheaf is now…

  2. Accord­ing to Beer In Britain, a book pub­lished by The Times Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny in 1960, a “Dive” was “orig­i­nal­ly an ille­gal drink­ing den locat­ed under­ground (US, 1882, now usu­al­ly a base­ment Snack Bar”, and a “Snack Bar” was “the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of the Buf­fet Bar”, “of Saloon Bar sta­tus”, and the same as a “Lunch Bar”.

    I’m 6,000 miles from my copy of Beer and Skit­tles – did Boston call Beck­y’s “orig­i­nal­ly a sand­wich shop”? Was it, in fact, orig­i­nal­ly called a “Snack Bar”, and did Boston get con­fused by that into think­ing it was a sand­wich shop, where­as in fact it was always a licensed bar that sold food, which is what a Snack Bar/Dive Bar was?

    HOP, of course, as South­wark’s tele­phone exchange des­ig­na­tion in the days of “three-let­ter” exchanges, still has an echo today: many phone num­bers around the Bor­ough have the numer­i­cal equiv­a­lent to HOP, 407, in the first part of the num­ber, so that, eg, The Rake’s phone num­ber is 7407 0557 – or 7HOP 0557.

    1. He says: “In addi­tion to cre­at­ing a great pub out of the sand­wich bar Becky took over in 1954”. The update above, from the 1968 Lon­don Pub Guide, sug­gests it was pre­vi­ous­ly a kind of pri­vate can­teen for the hop mer­chants, which might per­haps explain the con­fu­sion.

      We’ve just start­ed to dig Boston’s orig­i­nal beer columns out of the Guardian archives and they con­tain a lit­tle more infor­ma­tion, includ­ing an account of a beer-hunt­ing coach trip to Rut­land with Becky, the bar staff and a group of reg­u­lars.

  3. Great to have this in one place guys, I knew I’d read about it some­where! Beer & Skit­tles is a great wee book

  4. Excel­lent post (and a rather long one at that). It sounds like one hel­lu­va place to have had a drink.

        1. Bit hazy! Mem­o­ries tie in with the accounts above, though I admit to not remem­ber­ing Har­ry and his gut.As a cal­low youth I was intrigued by the gen­er­al louche ambience:something a bit dif­fer­ent from the upright Ken­tish pubs I was most famil­iar with. Rud­dles Coun­ty was the draw,gravity of 1050? when most beer in Lon­don was pret­ty thin and dull. Thwait­es was rumoured to be avail­able , or com­ing soon, though I nev­er came across it. We seem to have com­bined our vis­its with the Hole in the Wall under­neath Water­loo East. A good edu­ca­tion, but one which I fear is unavail­able to my son and his mates, or per­haps they aren’t telling.

  5. No rebec­ca dunne in dublin in the 1911 cen­sus of that age, there is a 9 year old though so she could have lied about her age.
    Great job on this.

    1. We found a record for Rebec­ca Mary Dunne born in South Dublin in 1907, but there’s no men­tion of her any­where after that, which is why we’re a bit wary of say­ing it’s her for sure.

  6. Great post.
    It reminds me of a time when ( before the advent of the internet,blogging,online search engines,beer geeks,‘elf and safety,pub grub,quiz nights,the smok­ing ban,loud music,poncy furniture,wankers with mobile ‘phones,lager,Sky Sports,expresso machines,immaculate blond wood­en floors,menus on tables,credit card beer-dis­pens­ing machines for fuck­’s sake ) when you stepped out on a pub crawl with your own per­son­al GPS( Get­ting Pissed Sur­rep­ti­tious­ly) and sim­ply mooched in and out of pubs till you found one with an agree­ably rak­ish atmos­phere.
    Clients always includ­ed women not unlike Becky suck­ing heav­i­ly on an omnipresent Embassy Regal and drop­ping hints about her emp­ty glass of Gin and Bit­ter Lemon, an ex-mil­i­tary chap with a murky past and ladies of a not always dis­cernible virtue.
    I know many of the pubs were shit­holes but they were fun in a scary sort of way.

  7. Inter­est­ing article,however the Dive Bar may not have been the first ‘The Book of Beer’ by Andrew Campbell,published 1956,describes Ye Olde Mitre St Mar­t­in’s Lane Lon­don as offer­ing draught beers includ­ing Bass Mild no6,Worthington Pale Ale,Flowers Bitter,Ind Coope Mild xxx,‘a typ­i­cal Bur­ton in the win­ter and Bar­clay’s Win­ter Brew togeth­er with a large vari­ety of bot­tled beer

  8. Won­der­ful, won­der­ful read. Fan­tas­tic stuff, guys. Enlight­en­ing, inter­est­ing sub­ject mat­ter. Bril­liant.

    1. Excel­lent stuff. The Book of Beer is bril­liant, there’s also Frank Baiille’s Beer Drinkers’ Com­pan­ion, which came out just before or around about Boston’s book.

  9. Fas­ci­nat­ing post, great read. Thanks for tak­ing the time to share all your research.

  10. A qual­i­ty piece of research! I just winged it on what I could remem­ber. I think the pho­to of Becky is tak­en in the saloon bar, which was dis­tin­guished by actu­al­ly hav­ing seats as opposed to oblig­ing the cus­tomers to sit on beer bar­rels as in the saloon. The graf­fi­to RUTLAND LIVES is, I think, a ref­er­ence to the infa­mous Heath Local Gov­ern­ment Act 1972 which abol­ished Rut­land as well as a num­ber of oth­er his­toric coun­ties. Rut­land made a come­back in 1994!

  11. Sor­ry wrong way round. I mean the pub­lic bar – the con­fu­sion in my mind is prob­a­bly explained by the fact the pub­lic bar seemed posh­er by virtue of hav­ing actu­al seats as above

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