The Launch and Sinking of a Flagship

Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown.
Burg­er King, Leices­ter Square, by Matt Brown, from Flickr under Cre­ative Com­mons.

Next time you find yourself picking the gherkins out of a Whopper® in the Burger King® on Leicester Square in central London, take a moment to appreciate the building’s place in British pub history.

In the 1950s, Whit­bread, like many oth­er brew­eries, were des­per­ate to revive enthu­si­asm for the pub­lic house – to show that it could be part of mod­ern life along­side satel­lites, pop music and trendy cof­fee bars, and was­n’t just a quaint rel­ic of a bygone time.

They com­mis­sioned archi­tects T.P. Ben­nett & Son to design a brand new pub which would­n’t look out of place along­side the planned hous­ing estates and bru­tal­ist office blocks which were appear­ing across the post-Blitz cap­i­tal.

Ben­nett came up with a mul­ti-storey block with a curved frontage which looked like any­thing but a pub – a depart­ment store, per­haps?

Architect's pre-construction visualisation of the Samuel Whitbread.

Whit­bread decid­ed to go for it, invest­ing £150,000 (£3m in today’s mon­ey) in what Colonel T.H. Whit­bread, com­pa­ny chair­man and man­ag­ing direc­tor, declared ‘a most auda­cious under­tak­ing’.

Dur­ing its con­struc­tion, there was, accord­ing to Alan Reeve-Jones, author of Lon­don Pubs (1962), dis­qui­et among enthu­si­asts of more tra­di­tion­al drink­ing holes:

[The] fit­ful mut­ter­ing could be heard as far away as Oxford Cir­cus… An oval-front­ed build­ing lapped in sheets of glass. Broad acres of naked tip­pling, spilling their famil­iar­i­ty on to the pave­ment. No Pub­lic Bar, as such. No Jug and Bot­tle. Lit­tle won­der heads shook doubt­ful­ly and thirsty tongues were arched and moist in readi­ness to phrase a protest.

It opened in Decem­ber 1958, and was named after the brew­ery’s founder. Reeve-Jones again:

[When] some­one pulled a string that brough the dust-sheet flut­ter­ing to the ground the doubters could see that they had suf­fered from a need­less anx­i­ety… the Samuel Whit­bread is just as much a fine old Eng­lish pub­lic house as any from the past.

Anoth­er writer, Den­zil Batch­e­lor, went fur­ther in his book The Eng­lish Inn in 1963, declar­ing the Samuel Whit­bread to be ‘the supreme cre­ation in the world of inns… the last word in Eng­lish pubs at the time of writ­ing’.

So impres­sive an exte­ri­or meant plen­ty of space inside to cater for dif­fer­ent tastes, and inte­ri­or design­ers Richard Lons­dale-Hands Asso­ciates cre­at­ed four dis­tinct spaces.

1961 pro­mo­tion­al video for the Lons­dale-Hands Organ­i­sa­tion from Hirschl & Adler Gal­leries on Vimeo. The Samuel Whit­bread is at 7:03.

The cel­lar was giv­en over to a dive bar (obvi­ous­ly a trendy turn of phrase back then) with a more-or-less tra­di­tion­al pub feel. The ground floor housed the Zodi­ac Bar, an ear­ly exam­ple of the theme pub, and also a small but lux­u­ri­ous pre-din­ner cock­tail bar. The din­ing rooms, on the upper floors, looked out over the busy square and had yet anoth­er colour scheme and style.

These days, ‘British food with a con­tem­po­rary twist’ has become a cliché, but the Samuel Whit­bread­’s offer of Vic­to­ri­an beef stew, York­shire apple pie with Wens­ley­dale, and Stargazy Pie, was rather orig­i­nal for the time.

The beer was, of course, from Whit­bread, but here too, the boat was pushed out: the pub was the first (and for a time only) out­let for the pre­mi­um Bri­tan­nia Bit­ter, devel­oped for the Brus­sels World Fair.

Whit­bread were extreme­ly proud of the Samuel Whit­bread. They used it as the set­ting for cor­po­rate and PR events, such as their annu­al bar­maid of the year com­pe­ti­tion, and the 1964 edi­tion of the short offi­cial com­pa­ny his­to­ry includes a glam­orous full-page pho­to of the pub glit­ter­ing in the Lon­don night.

But, slow­ly, as the 1960s wore on, the Samuel Whit­bread lost its edge. The inte­ri­or design began to look old-hat with­out the sav­ing grace of being tra­di­tion­al, and the archi­tec­ture, which had once seemed so bold, began to seem a bit Fes­ti­val of Britain.

In around 1970, Whit­bread gave up on the project and sold the pub to Forte. They obvi­ous­ly had to rename it and, for some rea­son, chose the bizarre Inn­cen­ta. (Half inn, half pla­cen­ta?) At least for a time, they also gave it a pirate themed makeover. (Pirates? In Leices­ter Square? Real­ly?)

It slow­ly went down­hill under their man­age­ment until, by the late 1970s, it was infest­ed with mice and oth­er ver­min, while Leices­ter Square itself had become a place no true Lon­don­er would be seen dead in – the per­fect tourist trap.

Nowa­days, though the ele­gant curve of the frontage remains, there’s no Poacher’s Soup, and cer­tain­ly no Bri­tan­nia Bit­ter.

Oth­er sources

  • 1959 Com­pa­ny state­ment by Colonel T.H. Whit­bread, Times, 27/07/1959.
  • Brew­ery’s Ide­al Bar­maid’, Times, 31/08/1967.
  • The Local Gets a Face Lift’, Derek Richards, Finan­cial Times, 27/01/1969.
  • Brew­ers Move in on the Nightlife Mar­ket’, Antony Thorn­croft, Times, 04/01/1971.
  • Evening Stan­dard Guide to Lon­don Pubs, Mar­tin Green and Tony White, 1973.

6 thoughts on “The Launch and Sinking of a Flagship”

  1. It’s inter­est­ing how pur­pose-built pubs of the 50s and 60s, although often designed with the best inten­tions, very rarely seem to have “worked”.

  2. I think with its loca­tion and Whit­bread behind it, this clear­ly could have suc­cess­ful­ly con­tin­ued. How­ev­er, as you say, Whit­bread lost inter­est; they were look­ing else­where and like a lot of their estate at the time, it suf­fered. As an aside, IIRC Colonel Whit­bread was a bit of an old goat whose love life used to appear in the papers.

  3. Real­ly crack­ing read that. The dif­fer­ent con­cepts on dif­fer­ent floors is fas­ci­nat­ing, and out­side some hotels, not some­thing that seem to have crept into the wider pub/bar indus­try as a whole.

    I agree, Inn­cen­ta is a shock­ing name and a pirate themed bar is bad enough in the first place, but espe­cial­ly some­where like Leices­ter square is plain bizarre.

  4. Pingback: MR | First Edition, July 2014 | Drunken Speculation

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