With photographs by Teninchwheels.
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.
Before World War II, there was a general feeling that pubs needed to be either demolished or ‘improved’. After several decades of unfettered development in the 19th century, there were lots of them, and they were felt to exert a ‘bad influence’ on the ‘working man’, tempting him to neglect his family and to spend his wages on beer, rather than new shoes for the children.
Temperance campaigners were influential with local government bodies which began to put pressure on brewers, refusing to grant licenses for new pubs unless several old ones were ‘retired’. The brewers did not object too vigorously: pubs which were larger, more efficient, and which might attract a better-off crowd, had a certain appeal. Brand new mansion-like buildings began to appear, equipped for a brave new world, as expressed by the Royal Commission on Licensing in 1931:
The ideal towards which modern conceptions are tending is to make the public house, as it ought to be, a place where the public can obtain general refreshment, of whatever variety they choose, in decent, pleasant and comfortable surroundings… [The] best types of public house today are a direct discouragement to insobriety…
There had long been middle class interest in picturesque ‘inns and taverns’, especially those with historic associations, but only a handful of hopeless romantics seemed to be able to see any appeal in the fast-disappearing corner boozers. On the eve of World War II, journalist Maurice Gorham wrote the following in The Local, a short book about London pubs illustrated by Edward Ardizzone:
The question of rebuilding demands a passing mention, as it is one of the ever-present factors in the pursuit of pubs. Here the sentimental pub-goer is opposed to all the interests – brewer, Bench, publican, and, very often, staff. The modern café-pub, clean, light, airy, spacious… has the blessing of modern thought. It is left to the sentimentalists… to reply that the modern pub may be better, but the old-fashioned pub was nicer…
Friendly Bombs & Ambitious Planners
World War II changed things. First, it accelerated the process of the disappearance of the ‘locals’ Gorham so admired, as Luftwaffe bombs pounded Britain’s industrial neighbourhoods, destroying not only pubs but often the very communities they served. (London lost 400 pubs through enemy action, according to one estimate.)
At the same time, it also sharpened people’s sense of what they were fighting for – of what was quintessentially British – and made them look back with fondness on the supposed idyll of the pre-war years. This was doubly true for those who had spent years abroad yearning for a pint at the Dog & Duck.
The scene was set for yet another war.
On one side were town planners who saw Britain’s damaged towns and cities as canvases for ambitious schemes in concrete and glass which left little room for crumbling Dickensian pubs. When in 1949 Maurice Gorham made a Return to the Local, he added a new chapter entitled ‘Obituary’: the pub, in his view, was in terminal ill health.
But, as it turned out, the planners would find themselves contending with a new enemy – a sharp-elbowed preservation movement with supporters in high places, willing to fight for almost any Victorian building, however humble.
Cuban Mahogany and Cut Glass
Victoriana was as unfashionable as could be in the 1930s but, after the war, buildings which had previously been considered gloomy and vulgar began to find fans, such as the German-born architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner. Though he was not himself much of a drinker, in 1947, he came out in favour of the preservation of Victorian pubs, ‘rather to his own surprise’ according to his biographer Susie Harries. She quotes a 1947 radio broadcast in which he rebutted Basil Oliver’s book The Renaissance of the English Public House and its championing of ‘improved’ mansion-like pubs:
[He] calls what Renaissance what I’d call Decline and Fall… [The] many new inns of the motor roadside or the new housing estate, decent, clean places… [look] for all the world like post-offices… The pub is a beery place, and in our climate, it must be sheltered, low, cosy… snugness, not smugness.
The Victorian pub with its ‘rich Cuban mahogany, its bevelled and diamond-cut glass, its grotesque and florid lettering’ was perfect – why change it? His feelings were echoed in various writings by another architectural big-hitter, John Betjeman, who would later become poet laureate.
Nonetheless, the prevailing view among town planners and developers was that Victorian buildings were dirty, ugly, and standing in the way of better things.
In 1958, both Pevsner and Betjeman were among the founder members of the Victorian Society. While it established itself and tried to draw up a framework for what was ‘worthy’, it lobbied, without success, to save the grand arch outside Euston station. If something so iconic had no place in the 1960s, what hope for Victorian pubs? At that time, not one had ever been ‘listed’ for protection by the Government.
T.M.P. Bendixon, writing in the Guardian in 1961, highlighted this problem, but also suggested one problem with the campaigners emotional tactics:
There is a third class of buildings… that seem to possess neither architectural nor unique sociological merit. Innumerable solid Victorian pubs, mansions, and nondescript commercial buildings whose only value is contrast with the simplicity of modern architecture seem equally without distinction… Many, unfortunately, are either obsolete or obstruct essential town replanning, but others fail to get reprieve because appeals against their destruction are hysterical and without finance.
Amongst many other more substantial buildings in the City of London, Betjeman is said to have led a campaign against the demolition of one particular pub, a gorgeous arts-and-crafts-meets-art-nouveau extravaganza called the Black Friar. Built in 1863, it was in 1905, in the words of Nicholas Taylor writing for the Architectural Review in 1964, ‘transformed into a luscious folk-fantasy in about 1905 by H. Fuller Clark, an otherwise unknown architect, and Henry Poole’. Outside London, he also appealed against the demolition of the Bear and Baculus as part of the redevelopment of the centre of Warwick. Both buildings were saved.
A younger cultural critic, Ian Nairn, though he didn’t particularly like the Black Friar, would take the baton from Betjeman and become a particular champion of pubs throughout the 1960s, especially in his 1966 book Nairn’s London.
A consensus was emerging among critics: pubs could have cultural and aesthetic value, and their demolition should not be taken lightly.
A Cry for Help
Despite the tentative efforts of Betjeman, Nairn and others, by the early 1970s, a young writer called Christopher Hutt was declaring The Death of the English Pub in a short book of that name:
With a few exceptions… people have not effectively resisted the changes that have been forced upon their pubs. On the face of it, the reason could be that they do not care about these changes , even that they welcome them. Anyone who knows a pub that has been tarted up and given a gimmick treatment, or where the local beer has been discontinued after a takeover, will know that this is not true.
Hutt combined the abstractions of the architectural critics with an enthusiasm for actually drinking in them, making explicit the fact that without pubs – without cellars and beer engines and hand-pumps – there could be no ‘traditional draught beer’.
He also highlighted the particular impact of the brewery takeover mania of the 1960s as breweries found themselves running multiple pubs in competition with each other:
Until the mid-1960s there were three pubs in the village [of Stiffkey] which had traditionally belonged to three separate breweries, each based in Norwich. All three breweries were swallowed up by Watney’s, whose rationalisation programme arrived in Stiffkey when the Victoria, the former Steward & Patteson house, was closed in 1966. In 1969, it was followed by the Red Lion, which had previously belonged to Bullard’s, and in 1971 the pub that had once been owned by Morgans Brewery… was shut down…
Hutt went on to be the second Chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and his book became one of the Campaign’s founding texts. It was impossible to care about beer in Britain without also caring about pubs, and CAMRA was to become a major player in the preservation movement
In Manchester, campaigners had calculated that in Salford, 65 of 250 pubs had been lost between 1963 and 1978. In 1977, they fought alongside J.W. Lees brewery to prevent the compulsory purchase and demolition of Lees’ last pub in Salford, the Welcome, on Ordsall Lane. They whipped up public support, gained huge amounts of press coverage, and delivered a petition with more than a thousand names. The Council, meanwhile, remained dispassionate and logical:
At the enquiry a Council planner produced an impressive array of statistics to show the acute housing shortage in Salford, but she talked of ‘Category Two Dwelling Units’, ‘football playing surfaces’ and ‘child bed spaces’… She didn’t talk about people, children, communities, social life, friendship, Salfordians or anything else which is important to the people of Ordsall. (From Pub Preservation, CAMRA, 1980.)
The compulsory purchase order was upheld, but CAMRA campaigners learned a valuable lesson: reasoned argument and ‘playing’ the bureaucracy was more effective than cheap PR stunts. In 1978, they defeated the Council’s plans to demolish the Grey Mare and the Old Veteran, Weaste. This was a victory in its own right, but also led the Council to reconsider its policy of sweeping clear entire areas for development. Arguing with CAMRA and community representatives was simply more trouble than it was worth.
Poacher Turned Gamekeeper
Like Christopher Hutt, Peter Lerner grew up in Cheshire. He joined CAMRA as a student in 1973 and, by the late seventies, was a committed activist with his local branch in North Hertfordshire, where there was great concern over the closure of pubs which were seen as ‘rural gems’.
At the same time, in the real world, and partly inspired by Ian Nairn, he had embarked on a career as a town planner. As he grew to understand the system from the inside, Lerner began to wonder if CAMRA might not have more success in saving pubs if it engaged with the bureaucracy. He put this idea to local organiser James Lynch who encouraged him to speak to the National Chairman, the bear-like and affable Joe Goodwin. He recalled the conversation in correspondence with us:
Joe introduced me to three people who were campaigning against pub closures and desecration in the North of England. Ian MacMillan and the late Tony Molyneux were writing radical articles in Mersey Drinker and organising radical pro-pub campaigns in Liverpool, and Robin Bence was part of a group in Manchester who were documenting the history and survival of the great pubs of that city.
Together, they formed the committee of CAMRA’s new Pub Preservation Group, which got underway in July 1979, with Lerner as Chair:
I guess that our viewpoint was partly driven by nostalgia or ‘small c’ conservatism – why do things which have been loved and celebrated for generations need to change?
By the turn of the 1980s, many of the grand town planning schemes of the post-war period had either been completed or, like the redevelopment of London’s Covent Garden, abandoned altogether. So, at first, the emphasis for the PPG was on preserving the unique character of individual pubs rather than preventing their demolition.
The PPG battled valiantly under the leadership of Lerner and later Jenny Greenhalgh. It declared 1984 the Year of the Pub, and began to give awards not only for preservation but also for newly designed pubs that reflected essential ideas of ‘pubness’.
The PPG was never entirely sure of the support of CAMRA’s membership, however, as the Campaign went through a ‘wobble’ in the early 1980s, unsure where to direct its efforts now that, in the eyes of many, the battle for cask ale had been won. Peter Lerner:
[We] met quite a few CAMRA members who could not get past the idea that the beer was the reason for campaigning, and as long as there was somewhere to drink it, the surroundings did not matter.
As for brewers, they thought they’d got the message: Victorian pubs were what people wanted, and that’s what they were going to get. Whenever they were built, from 1660 to 1960, pubs across the country were given tacky faux-19th century makeovers, all dark wood, mirrors and carpets, but done on the cheap, and to a uniform design.
Meanwhile, many real historic pubs continued to be sold off for residential or commercial use by brewers who could not afford to be sentimental.
But, over the course of the next decade or so, the idea that pubs were part of our heritage and needed to be preserved seeped into mainstream thought. New concepts such as the high street ‘super pub’ brought home to people with no special interest in beer or architecture that something special was being lost, and the idea that the pub was ‘doomed’ became a commonplace idea reflected in endless newspaper articles.
In 1991, CAMRA’s Pubs Group (what had been the PPG) began to collate a ‘National Inventory’ of historic pub interiors as an ‘emergency’ measure, with the hope of prompting a ‘national outcry’. They hoped to find 500 reasonably intact pub interiors, but they found less than half that number. In particular, they discovered that unspoiled, simple rural pubs with little architectural value were particularly scarce: they found fewer than 20.
It certainly contributed to the pressure on government and 1994 saw English Heritage publish guidelines for preserving pubs, and encouraging customers to recommend their local for listing on the grounds of historic or architectural significance. Then, from 1996, CAMRA launched another publicity drive and began to indicate historic interiors in the Good Beer Guide. The tone of this exercise, however, was rather pessimistic – warning poachers off the last few specimens in the wild, with every expectation that they would soon be extinct.
Has the pub preservation movement, on the whole, been successful? Peter Lerner thinks not:
Far too many (in my opinion) pubs have closed for good, but at the same time, people’s changing habits mean that they no longer value their local in the way that they might have done even thirty years ago. This is not to say that there are not some splendid and characterful pubs still around, and well done to those who have worked hard to keep them that way. But for every unspoiled gem there are twenty Harvesters or All Bar Ones, and there is little difference between them and your local branch of Costa or Pizza Express. And nobody is going to campaign to preserve those.
But there is a glimmer of hope for those who think pubs are worth saving. Last year, after a long battle, the Ivy House in Peckham was indeed saved.
The 2011 Localism Act gave new powers to community groups. In 2013, Howard Peacock and his colleagues became the first to use those powers to save a pub by having it certified as an ‘asset of community value’, and asserting their right to run it themselves as a ‘service’:
Now that the pub is up and running there is a different kind of stress: the knowledge that we have to have a business which is not only profitable but also lives up to the expectations of the community and – frankly – is the best pub in the world.
Suddenly, it seems, it is less important how a pub looks, who built it, or whether Nell Gwynne once bought a pork pie in the lounge bar – what matters is that people love it.
About the Photographs
Teninchwheels (@teninchwheels) is a London-based graphic designer and photographer. See more of his work at Moorstoneimages.wordpress.com and at his beer and pub blog Teninchwheels.wordpress.com. Pictures © 2014 and not to be reproduced or re-used without permission.
- Correspondence with Howard Peacock, February 2014.
- Correspondence with Peter Lerner, February 2014.
- Various editions of CAMRA’s What’s Brewing, 1978–1984.
- Anon. ‘Heritage Pub Interiors’, CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1998, 1997.
- Anon. ‘Warwick Plea By Mr. Betjeman’, The Times, 11 March 1967.
- Anon. ‘Place of the pub in a town’s life’, The Times, 29 April 1958.
- Bendixon, T.M.P. ‘Memorials to Victorian Culture’, Guardian, 11 December 1961.
- Garmston, Dave and John Clarke. ‘Pubs to Save: CAMRA’s national inventory’, CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1997, 1996.
- Gorham, Maurice and Edward Ardizzone. The Local, 1939.
- – Return to the Local, 1949.
- Harries, Susie. Pevsner: The Life, 2011.
- – ‘Pevsner in the Pub’, https://susieharries.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/pevsner-in-the-pub/
- Hillier, Bevis. Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter, 2004.
- Licensed Victuallers’ Association. An Examination of the Evidence before the Royal Commission onLicensing-England and Wales-1929–1930, 1931.
- Nairn, Ian. Nairn’s London, 1966.
- Oliver, Basil. The Renaissance of the English Public House, 1947.
- Lerner, Peter, et al. Pub Preservation, 1980.
- Royal Commission on Licensing. The Report of the Royal Commission on Licensing, 1931.
- Taylor, Nicholas. ‘Decoration: Black Friar’, Architectural Review, November 1964.