The Britannia, Brussels, 1958

Illustration: the exterior of the Britannia with parasols and staircases.

The Expo in Brussels in 1958 was an opportunity for Britain to present its culture to the world so, of course, we sent a pub.

At a press con­fer­ence in 1957, it was announced that 500 British ‘con­cerns’ were to take stands at the Expo, and that a high­light would be the Bri­tan­nia Inn, to be built and run by Whit­bread. They were, in the late 1950s, the sin­gle biggest exporter of British beer to Bel­gium, and were will­ing to stump up the £40,000 the project was expect­ed to cost.

The Britannia, Expo 58, Brussels.
SOURCE: The Sto­ry of Whitbread’s, 1964 edi­tion.

(They weren’t alone: John Smith’s and the Hope & Anchor brew­ery of Sheffield announced plans to run a more mod­est ‘patio bar’ else­where on site.)

The Bri­tan­nia was intend­ed to demon­strate the ‘warmth and friend­ly atmos­phere’ of the tra­di­tion­al pub, but also that the pub­lic house, and Britain more gen­er­al­ly, was mov­ing with the times.

Britannia pub sign, 1958.To mod­ern eyes, it seems to be an exam­ple of that poor, unfash­ion­able rel­ic – ‘the estate pub’. Flat-roofed and square-edged, it was built from pale mod­ern brick with white wood slats, and avoid­ed cod-Vic­to­ri­an brown­ness. Its ter­race was cov­ered with white tables and para­sols, while the inte­ri­or was designed to evoke the feel of the roy­al yacht with which it shared a name. The sou­venir book­let designed for the event by Richard Lons­dale-Hands Asso­ciates, print­ed on heavy paper, said:

Like most exhi­bi­tion build­ings ‘The Bri­tan­nia’ is mod­ern if not advanced in style. It would fit well in any of the new towns that are being built, and has that gae­ity which is the mer­it of inte­ri­ors now… Black-and-green che­quer-pat­terned floor­ing and a black-and-white car­pet give a touch of vari­ety… The long red-topped bar of light and dark woods stretch­es down much of one side, front by its row of bar stools. Along the oth­er walls there is the famil­iar bench seat­ing, while round tables incor­po­rate ‘Schweppeshire’ maps, and the indi­vid­ual chairs are in yel­low and black.

Whit­bread also brewed a spe­cial beer for the pub, Bri­tan­nia Bit­ter. It was con­sid­ered remark­ably strong by British stan­dards (we don’t have any stats, though) and was pre­sum­ably intend­ed to appeal to the Con­ti­nen­tal palate.

Not every­one liked the Bri­tan­nia and C.F. Hueb­n­er of Kent wrote to the Times (17/05/58) to com­plain.

The seri­ous crit­i­cism I would make of the British exhib­it is that the so-called Bri­tan­nia pub does not tru­ly rep­re­sent an Eng­lish pub and I am amazed that the brew­ing firm who spon­sored it, who in oth­er respects are an excel­lent organ­i­sa­tion, should not have made sure the rep­re­sen­ta­tion was more real.

Quib­bles aside, the Bri­tan­nia worked well for Whit­bread and almost every press report about the British stand at Expo 58 men­tioned the pub as a high­light. In his 1959 review of trad­ing (Observ­er, 26/07) Colonel T.H. Whit­bread said of the Bri­tan­nia that it had been “a much greater suc­cess both finan­cial­ly and from a pub­lic­i­ty point of view than I ever thought pos­si­ble”.

In the years that fol­lowed, attempts were made to cap­i­talise on fond mem­o­ries of the Expo.

Britannia Bitter beer mat.Bri­tan­nia Bit­ter remained in pro­duc­tion as a ‘pre­mi­um’ prod­uct, sold exclu­sive­ly, at first, at the Samuel Whit­bread, a state-of-the-art pub on Leices­ter Square, from 1958.

Though the pub build­ing was moved else­where in Bel­gium and became a pri­vate house (FT 24/10/58; does any­one know where it is?) its name, sign and ‘exhibits’ (mod­els and paint­ings of ships called Bri­tan­nia) were moved to Dover in the UK, where it com­menced trad­ing in 1962. It was also sup­plied with the sup­pos­ed­ly upmar­ket Bri­tan­nia Bit­ter, which became a nation­al brand from 1967 onwards (Times 23/01/67).

The Britannia’s true lega­cy, how­ev­er, is prob­a­bly the idea of the pre-pack­aged Eng­lish pub abroad, such as Watney’s Sir Win­ston Churchill opened in Paris in 1966. In a 1967 report for the Finan­cial Times Christo­pher Meakin (29/06) made clear that the Bri­tan­nia wasn’t the first pub to be shipped over­seas but argued that its suc­cess gave the trend impe­tus. At first, they were most­ly a nation­al pub­lic­i­ty tool accom­pa­ny­ing British trade exhi­bi­tions, but, as Meakin reveals, brew­ers and entre­pre­neurs weren’t blind to the com­mer­cial poten­tial:

One man at least already spe­cialis­es in pro­vid­ing instant tra­di­tion­al British atmos­phere for pubs abroad, and is cur­rent­ly nego­ti­at­ing a string of 200 Olde Eng­lishe Innes to stretch coast-to-coast across Amer­i­ca.

We pro­vide them with every­thing – false oak beams, false fire­places, hunt­ing prints and horns, pewter tankards, stuffed fish, warm­ing pans and horse brass­es,” Mr Leslie Kostick, man­ag­ing direc­tor of K.B. Con­tracts told me.

Mr Kostick pro­duces three vari­eties of pub for over­seas use – Tudor, Vic­to­ri­an and Regency. So far K.B. Con­tracts has com­plet­ed a ‘Bri­tan­nia’ in Hol­land, ‘The Bull­dog’ in Cana­da and the ‘John Bull’ in Por­tu­gal.

Though there are such Eng­lish pubs to be found around the world today, they are far out­num­bered (it seems to us – we haven’t count­ed) by Irish pubs, set up using the same busi­ness mod­el.

Is it too much to say that the Bri­tan­nia in Brus­sels begat the Blar­ney in Berlin?

PS. We haven’t read it yet, but Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 is a peri­od com­ic thriller set in and around the Bri­tan­nia.

UPDATED 25/05/2016: Gen­er­al tidy up; added link to the Sir Win­ston Churchill; added quote from The Bri­tan­nia Inn, Whit­bread, 1958; replaced fea­tured image with an illus­tra­tion from the same book, artist uncred­it­ed.

8 thoughts on “The Britannia, Brussels, 1958”

  1. Very per­ti­nent his­to­ry and you are sure­ly right that the inter­na­tion­al pub­lic­i­ty for the Bri­tan­nia helped kick­start the world­wide devel­op­ment of the British pub as a meme of Britain. Read­ing this, I was think­ing of 1970’s pubs in Mon­tre­al, Que­bec that fol­lowed an Eng­lish or Irish mod­el, prob­a­bly not all that authen­ti­cal­ly! I used to go to one or two for a drink, and amaz­ing­ly some­one has col­lect­ed all the names with asso­ci­at­ed mem­o­ries here:

    http://dcmontreal.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/back-when-i-was-young-montreals-angloirish-pubs/

    Of these, in the mid-70’s I used to have a drink some­times at Fyfe & Drum and John Bull Pub. I don’t recall going to the oth­ers men­tioned, except Cock ‘n Bull once or twice. The first two had a stu­dent crowd and the last one an old­er crowd, hence prob­a­bly this choice. Only in the lat­er 1970’s did import­ed British and Irish beer become avail­able so it was all bot­tled beer as the writer said, “(Labatt) 50” and “Labatt Blue” and such. Per­haps the odd import was offere, I recall Bass Pale Ale in stub­by bot­tles avail­able in the LCBO. And so, one way or anoth­er, the Brit­ta­nia did launch a broad trend and you see the evi­dence here in far­away Que­bec Province 40 years ago.

    Gary

  2. Apolo­gies, not LCBO, I meant, the Que­bec Liquor Board (now called, Soci­ete des Alcools). Also, when I said import­ed British and Irish beer wasn’t avail­able until the lat­er 1970’s in Mon­tre­al, I meant draft beer.

    Gary

  3. Fas­ci­nat­ing, very much a mod­el for the glob­al theme pub, includ­ing the ‘Scot­tish pubs’ that now seem to be pop­ping up state­side. C.F. Hueb­n­er of Kent sounds like he’;d be right at home in a newspaper’s online com­ments sec­tion and it sounds like a great idea and roar­ing suc­cess.

    I am though intrigued by the descrip­tion of the Samuel Whit­bread as a state-of-the-art pub, any idea what this would have entailed for 1958 – live sport on the wire­less?

  4. The Jonathan Coe book is a very enter­tain­ing romp – I think you’ll enjoy it.

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