The Pubs of Boggleton, 1837–2017

Illustration: The New Red Lion, an art deco pub.

The development of Boggleton, a small English town which I have traced at set periods in the next pages, is symptomatic of all England. We can learn the character of a country from the scars and wrinkles on its face.”

John Bet­je­man, ‘1837–1937’, 1937

With apolo­gies to Sir John what fol­lows is our attempt to con­dense the over­all plot arc of the Eng­lish pub in the last two cen­turies. It’s simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a bit of fun – well, it was cer­tain­ly fun to write – and semi-seri­ous in intent, giv­en that the town is pur­pose­ful­ly gener­ic and com­plete­ly made up.

This also seems like a good place to announce what most of you have prob­a­bly already guessed from all the hints we’ve been drop­ping about The Big Project: we have a new book on the way. It’s going to be called 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub: from beer­house to booze bunker and is due out this sum­mer. It cov­ers every­thing from improved pubs to microp­ubs (the long 20th Cen­tu­ry, shall we say), via estate pubs, theme pubs, Irish pubs, Wether­spoons, and numer­ous oth­er stops.

1837

Header graphic: 1837 town map.

Bog­gle­ton, being a rel­a­tive­ly sober town much dom­i­nat­ed by church folk, had only twelve pubs, to serve a pop­u­la­tion of 3,000 peo­ple. They were not called pubs at the time, how­ev­er. One, The Dol­phin, was most cer­tain­ly a great Inn, sit­u­at­ed on the main street, busy with coach­es and the hors­es that drew them. It had beds, served meals (grudg­ing­ly, it must be said) and all sorts of drinks from ale to wine. The build­ing ram­bled, was rid­dled with mice, and was marked by a gild­ed sign hang­ing over the street depict­ing some­thing like a mer-tiger.

The Red Lion on the mar­ket square was small­er, sag­ging and smoky, intri­cate­ly half-tim­bered. It too was an inn, at least on paper, but peo­ple rarely stayed or ate there. Some­times it was referred to as a tav­ern, but it was not quite that either – there was noth­ing of the city about it, and it had no wine of dis­tinc­tion. It was most often called a ‘pub­lic house’ and was busiest on mar­ket days when farm­ers from the sur­round­ing vil­lages came into town, stuffed into shirts and waist­coats, sweat­ing and mer­ry.

The rest were beer­hous­es, or beer­shops – small estab­lish­ments more-or-less resem­bling the cot­tages that sur­round­ed them. They were licensed to sell only beer and were brought into being by the pass­ing of the 1830 Beer­house Act. None had promi­nent or elab­o­rate heraldic signs and many were sim­ply known by the names of the peo­ple who ran them. Thompson’s Beer­house was typ­i­cal: a sin­gle room – for­mer­ly the par­lour of old Thompson’s own home – with bare plas­ter on the walls, scrubbed floor­boards, a bench against one wall, and a wood­en cask of home-brewed beer on a rough-hewn table in the cor­ner. The beer­hous­es could be wild places and soaked up work­ing men’s wages which wor­ried the pious peo­ple of the town, but all they could do was com­plain, and watch like hawks.

1867

Header graphic: 1867 with Victorian manicule.

When the rail­way came in the 1850s, New Bog­gle­ton was cre­at­ed. There came row after row of hous­es for rail­way­men and for work­ers at the new fac­to­ries, as well as sub­urbs and vil­las for the well-to-do. And for 100,000 peo­ple, twelve pubs were hard­ly enough.

Despite the efforts of the Bog­gle­ton Tem­per­ance Soci­ety, found­ed in 1855, the beer­hous­es had grown in num­ber and some, the most suc­cess­ful, had increased in size, too, until they rivalled The Red Lion. Thompson’s had become The White Hart and scarce­ly a trace of the orig­i­nal dwelling from which it had sprung remained.

Nor could the Tem­per­ance Soci­ety pre­vent the mag­is­trates from grant­i­ng licences for new beer­hous­es on street cor­ners among the ter­races, until it was said that from any point in town you could always see two pubs. The Venezuela on Oxford Road, serv­ing the pis­ton works, was pur­pose built by the firm that con­struct­ed the sur­round­ing hous­es in 1860. It was small but nonethe­less had two rooms, one a touch more respectable and suit­able for fore­men and clerks.

Amid the new shops and offices on the busy town cen­tre streets there also appeared a hand­ful of ful­ly-licensed pub­lic-hous­es in a more ornate style ges­tur­ing at, but stop­ping short of, big city glam­our. The exte­ri­or of The Adams­bec Arms was typ­i­cal: built by one of the eight local brew­eries, it was bla­zoned with paint­ed signs, a large lamp brought up from Lon­don hung over the door, and there were clas­si­cal and goth­ic details thrown togeth­er like fruit in a sal­ad. High win­dows, sparse­ly engraved and inlaid with small but colour­ful stained pan­els, made warm jew­els of the light inside. The pub, named after the wealthy fam­i­ly whose state­ly home once stood near the town, had pre­ten­sions, offer­ing chop lunch­es, and fur­nished snugs in which busi­ness­men might con­spire. For all that, the main bar was still a bare room where peo­ple spat, swore and ate street-sell­ers’ pies of inde­ter­mi­nate fill­ing.

Road traf­fic had dwin­dled and most trav­ellers now stayed at the new Rail­way Hotel oppo­site the sta­tion, leav­ing the poor old Dol­phin strand­ed at the tum­ble­down, half-aban­doned vil­lage cen­tre. One of its wings was entire­ly closed off and near col­lapse – a sad rel­ic of the pre-indus­tri­al age.

1907

Header graphic: vaguely Art Nouveau gilded 1907.

Eight brew­eries became six, each with its own estate of ful­ly-licensed pubs (as they had at last come to be known) acquired out of prag­ma­tism as the num­ber of out­lets for their beer began to shrink after a long boom. Some pubs that had seemed smart 30 years before were now decrepit and dirty, like The Venezuela. The brew­ery that owned it had no incen­tive to keep it up. If a ten­ant could be found, and the cus­tomers kept com­ing, that was fine. If the coun­cil and mag­is­trates pressed them to sur­ren­der the licence of this and one or two oth­er pubs in return for the right to build a big new one, where more beer could be sold by few­er staff, all the bet­ter.

The third gen­er­a­tion of the pis­ton mak­ing fam­i­ly – one broth­er a Lib­er­al politi­cian, the oth­er run­ning the firm – stopped short of being tee­to­tallers but did sub­scribe to mod­ern ideas about drink and pub­lic hous­es. Con­se­quent­ly, they spon­sored a grand new pub­lic house on the edge of the fac­to­ry estate, to be run by a pro­fes­sion­al man­ag­er from Lon­don employed on a fixed salary by a trust. It was their idea that, with such a place on their doorstep, the work­ers might drink less and eat bet­ter food, per­haps while read­ing an improv­ing news­pa­per. Some did, but oth­ers grum­bled that The Earl Grey was like ‘a rud­dy morgue’ – too big, too clean, with alto­geth­er too much sar­sa­par­il­la where there ought to be mild ale. If it failed as a pub, The Earl Grey was at least well-built, dec­o­rat­ed in the arts and crafts style, and was the mak­ing of the young archi­tect who took on the job and wrote it up for the jour­nal of his insti­tute.

1937

1937 header graphic, black-and-white film title card style.

Six brew­eries became two through merg­ers and expan­sion. The sur­vivors were both sub­stan­tial con­cerns whose man­ag­ing direc­tors were pub­lic school men and mem­bers of the Brew­ers’ Soci­ety, more at home in Lon­don than Bog­gle­ton, truth be told. Greenleaf’s beer was cheap and, it was said, ‘Not fit to wash the dog’, while Iron­side spe­cialised in refined draught bit­ter and bot­tled pale ale for the nation­al mar­ket.

Greenleaf’s estate of pubs was rather sor­ry com­pris­ing most of the remain­ing slum beer­hous­es (though no-one called them that any­more) and one larg­er pub just off the town cen­tre which, though intend­ed to be the flag­ship house, always looked as if it need­ed spray­ing with DDT. They refur­bished when the mon­ey could be got togeth­er but oth­er­wise were quite hap­py to wait for the pubs to be demol­ished for road widen­ing or slum clear­ance and claim com­pen­sa­tion.

Iron­side, on the oth­er hand, had an in-house archi­tects’ depart­ment led by the man who had built The Earl Grey before the war. It was respon­si­ble for sev­er­al impres­sive new pub­lic hous­es in Bog­gle­ton. The Heart of Oak, built to serve Adams­bec, the Homes for Heroes coun­cil estate near the old Abbey, came first, with bowl­ing green and baro­nial affec­ta­tions. Though only a decade old it was often mis­tak­en for a medieval inn. On sum­mer nights, the sounds of a band could be heard drift­ing over the lawn as cou­ples in Sun­day best swooned on the ter­race in the moon­light.

Then, at the head of the widened Lon­don road, there came The New Red Lion – new indeed, its out­landish curves cov­ered with white plas­ter, resem­bling a cin­e­ma or cruise ship more than a pub. In lieu of a paint­ed sign it had a sculp­ture of a lion that might have passed for some­thing raid­ed from a tomb in the Val­ley of the Kings, but was actu­al­ly the work of a Lon­don man who also designed sports cars and, it was said, had two wives. At week­ends, the car park filled with motors which dis­gorged laugh­ing young peo­ple into the lounge where they drank cock­tails, best bit­ter and lager. The peo­ple in the pub­lic bar were just the same Bog­gle­ton folk, though, in flat caps and work boots, tip­toe­ing about to avoid smudg­ing the spe­cial­ly designed geo­met­ri­cal­ly pat­terned linoleum.

In the mean­time, The Dol­phin, that ancient coach­ing inn, lost a wing and all its sta­bles (a branch of Boots was built on the site) but gained a car park. It was giv­en incon­gru­ous half-tim­ber­ing, too – nailed on, in line with fash­ion, and pub­lic expec­ta­tion of a Quaint Old Inn.

1957

1957 header image: A Brighter Boggleton.

After the war, Iron­side swal­lowed up Green­leaf, and Bog­gle­ton found itself down to a sin­gle vast, tow­er­ing brew­ery – one of the town’s largest employ­ers. The Green­leaf pubs were either sold off or, when per­mis­sion could be gained from the Min­istry, refur­bished in a cut-price ver­sion of the mod­ern style. Once build­ing restric­tions were lift­ed and the rationing of sup­plies came to an end, Major Iron­side, so often seen shoot­ing about town in a sports car with his mil­i­tary mous­tache flut­ter­ing in the breeze, cut the rib­bon on five new pubs in a six-month peri­od.

The Sir Edmund Hillary, The Spit­fire, The Atom­ic Arms, The Pis­ton­mak­ers and The Long­wood were like quin­tu­plets – the same size and basic shape, made from the same mate­ri­als (brick, wood, glass, asbestos, fibre­glass, and so on), and with signs paint­ed by the same artist over the course of one fort­night. Like the new hous­ing estates on which they stood, they were the prod­uct of much study and the­o­ry, but lacked romance. The city folk who moved to ever-expand­ing Bog­gle­ton to take hous­es on those estates liked the new pubs well enough but were often to be heard rem­i­nisc­ing in bit­ter-sweet terms about the Vic­to­ri­an ones they had left behind.

The Heart of Oak on the inter-war hous­ing estate had gone bad. Major Iron­side regard­ed it as a bur­den – too big, too elab­o­rate­ly dec­o­rat­ed, too old-fash­ioned, and too out of the way to be turned into a restau­rant. An attempt to bring it up to date by knock­ing down inte­ri­or walls and clos­ing the bil­liard room did lit­tle to help. The coun­cil bought the bowl­ing green and on it erect­ed a health cen­tre.

The New Red Lion, on the oth­er hand, had found a place for itself as a place where boys on motor­bikes con­gre­gat­ed. They drank more cof­fee than beer, and occa­sion­al­ly raced or brawled, but it was bet­ter than demo­li­tion, just.

The Dol­phin had shrunk fur­ther and become a tea shop – hard­ly The Dol­phin at all, except that the sign remained. The Old Red Lion, how­ev­er, was much as it had ever been only now uni­ver­si­ty peo­ple with archi­tec­tur­al gazetteers came to look at it and take pho­tographs: ‘A remark­able sur­vival! Fine ver­nac­u­lar style.’

1987

The Venezuela -- pub sign.

Iron­side hav­ing sold out in the 1960s almost all of Boggleton’s pubs now belonged to one of the big Lon­don brew­eries who had out­fit­ted them with up-to-date match­ing plas­tic signs in the cor­po­rate style.

There were excep­tions. In the old town cen­tre, now crowd­ed with antique shops, The Dol­phin became a pub once again under a sign that said: ‘THE OLDEST PUB IN BOGGLETON’.

The own­ers of The Red Lion dis­agreed, of course, and had signs of their own: ‘A PUB FOR AT LEAST 400 YEARS – 10 REAL ALES’. There, a refit car­ried out in the 1970s had added more wood­en beams, brand new authen­tic fire­places, and at least a ton of horse brass­es. The line of hand-pumps ensured a con­stant turnover of out-of-town pil­grims as well as a reg­u­lar clien­tele of social work­ers, col­lege lec­tur­ers, and jour­nal­ists from the local news­pa­per.

A few doors down was The Angel Inn, con­vert­ed from a run of three ancient cot­tages knocked togeth­er, and with yet anoth­er sign: ‘ON THIS SITE SINCE THE 17th CENTURY’. A sub­tle fib, of course, but the slop­ing floors, bulging walls and creak­ing tim­bers sold the con – sev­er­al guide­books insist­ed it was an ancient pub and The Angel’s own­ers did not cor­rect them. The small brew­ery installed in the base­ment turned out a house brew, Angel’s Tears Strong Ale, ‘brewed to an old recipe’.

Out on the post-war hous­ing estates the ‘mod­ern’ pubs suf­fered a vari­ety of fates: The Sir Edmund Hillary was renamed The Charles Dick­ens and giv­en plas­tic bow win­dows; The Spit­fire burned down and was not replaced; The Atom­ic Arms and The Pis­ton­mak­ers were pop­u­lar, both being far from town, but grew tat­ti­er and less appeal­ing to out­siders with every pass­ing year; while The Long­wood became a kind of night­club with blacked out win­dows and bounc­ers. None of them looked mod­ern any­more, just plain, and unlike their Vic­to­ri­an pre­de­ces­sors they gained no char­ac­ter with age.

The Art Deco New Red Lion was gone, demol­ished to make way for a bypass. The Heart of Oak on the Adams­bec estate hung on, at least osten­si­bly, though its mul­ti­ple bars and func­tion rooms were all closed, trade being con­tin­ued in one small, sor­ry front bar. The kitchens and liv­ing quar­ters upstairs were flood­ed and home to flocks of pigeons. A tree grew from the roof.

In the ter­races of New Bog­gle­ton, now itself more than a hun­dred years old, many of the cor­ner pubs had gone, but a few could still be found, kept alive by their darts teams and Sat­ur­day night pub crawlers who would make their way into the cen­tre on foot and stop for one or two at each pub they passed.

The Venezuela, in Lon­don brew­ery liv­ery, looked smarter than in many years. A per­son with a note­book and cam­era came one day and mar­velled at the won­der­ful­ly pre­served snug, the ornate win­dows of c.1898, the sur­viv­ing but unused gas lamps, the pre-WWII bell push­es, and every oth­er fea­ture of which suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of pub­li­cans had been faint­ly ashamed. It won an award sim­ply for exist­ing. When the brew­ery tried to knock down a wall, there was a protest, with songs and ban­ners. The locals watched with amuse­ment as anorak-wear­ers crept in through the door and ordered pints of mild, oth­er­wise drunk only by Old Har­ry who lost a leg at El Alamein.

2007

Header image for 2007: gastropub plate.

Inclu­sion on the Cam­paign for Real Ale’s list of her­itage inte­ri­ors couldn’t save The Venezuela. The pub com­pa­ny that acquired it from the Lon­don brew­ery after the Beer Orders were passed in 1989 didn’t know what to do with it and wait­ed until no-one was look­ing before tear­ing out the fix­tures and fit­tings in a ‘con­tem­po­rary makeover’ that made it feel cold and dead, like bleached coral. It was per­ma­nent­ly either UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT or A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO RUN A PUB. Its pulse slowed almost to a stop.

All the estate pubs were gone –burned down or turned into con­ve­nience stores – except The Heart of Oak, closed for a year, now, with steel shut­ters on its win­dows, but still stand­ing and the­o­ret­i­cal­ly ready for duty. The locals watched it anx­ious­ly – would it too go up in flames one day?

The Dol­phin was bought by a tele­vi­sion chef and became a gas­trop­ub – the kind of place where staff said, ‘Yes, of course you can just have a drink’ with­out con­vic­tion, ush­er­ing such thirsty unfor­tu­nates into a cor­ner out of view of the din­ing room. A lit­tle more prim than two hun­dred years before, per­haps, but not inapt for an estab­lish­ment where respectable trav­ellers had stopped on their way from town to anoth­er.

The Angel, after a decade as Ma Flaherty’s, had just revert­ed to its old name, but with a new surf-and-turf Cajun bar­be­cue con­cept menu. The Adams­bec, late­ly known as Stinky O’Hara’s, became The Cork & Lob­ster wine bar. The Red Lion, firm­ly pro­tect­ed by the her­itage estab­lish­ment, had been saved the indig­ni­ty of being renamed, but the Lon­don brew­ery (which had long stopped brew­ing) made it the restau­rant of a new bud­get hotel next door, with full con­ti­nen­tal break­fast buf­fet and two Olde Red Lion burg­ers for £9.

The biggest change of came with the con­ver­sion of the old Quak­er Meet­ing House into a brand new pub, The Josi­ah Jenk­ins, by a nation­al chain. It gained a nev­er-end­ing new con­ser­va­to­ry with space for fifty tables and infor­ma­tive posters recount­ing the his­to­ry of the town. Josi­ah Jenk­ins him­self looked down from the wall with dis­tinct dis­ap­proval as meal deals and pitch­ers of lager were fer­ried about beneath him. Local anti­quar­i­ans were divid­ed – it was an act of van­dal­ism, said some, while oth­ers sug­gest­ed that the alter­na­tive – col­lapse or demo­li­tion – was worse. The pub was live­ly, at any rate, and brought the breath of life to the old town.

2017

Pub window: The Lanky Plank, est. 2017.

When the city peo­ple realised Bog­gle­ton was only an hour’s com­mute on the fast train, or a short dri­ve down the motor­way, they began to arrive in num­bers. They colonised the vil­las and the larg­er ter­raced hous­es where fac­to­ry man­agers and clerks had once lived. Tin pots of herbs appeared on win­dowsills and refur­bished Vic­to­ri­an front doors were paint­ed in Greek Thyme or Atlantic Mist.

For The Venezuela, this was good news. The pub com­pa­ny that had all but for­sak­en it leased it for what they thought was a pun­ish­ing fee to a young entre­pre­neur. It was renamed for the first time in its life: ‘The Ven’. The frontage was paint­ed black, the name picked out in wide-spaced sans serif text. Pic­nic tables appeared on the pave­ment and signs offered Sun­day roasts, burg­ers and but­ter­milk fried chick­en. The new fur­nish­ings looked remark­ably like those that that had been cast into a skip a decade before – mis­matched chairs, church pews, and unadorned wood­en tables. Young par­ents came with strollers and dog own­ers with poo­dles. A few old Bog­gle­to­ni­ans who had hung on in the area took it more or less in their stride, ignor­ing the jazz sound­track, work­ing on their pints in the com­pa­ny of the ghosts of their grand­par­ents.

The Heart of Oak was in the process of com­ing back to some kind of life in the hands of a com­mu­ni­ty group. The ball­room, they said, would make an ide­al arts cin­e­ma, once the rot­ten floor was fixed, and there was inter­est in turn­ing the lounge into a yoga stu­dio. The small­er pub­lic bar, the old read­ing room, would make a good cof­fee bar and com­mu­ni­ty library. And there would be beer, of course – hope­ful­ly made on site, using ingre­di­ents grown by the coop­er­a­tive allot­ment project, assum­ing the grants came in as planned.

On the Long­wood Estate, where the post-war pub of the same name had long ago col­lapsed as a result of fire and flood, an unlike­ly event occurred: in a parade of shops, between a butch­er and a shop sell­ing fish­ing tack­le, there appeared a brand new pub. The Lanky Plank had enough room for ten cus­tomers at most and sold only real ale. The land­la­dy, who had sunk the entire­ty of a redun­dan­cy cheque into the project, was scarce­ly out of the local paper in the first year and won every CAMRA award on offer. Most of the locals were bemused but there were a few loy­al drinkers whose cus­tom was bol­stered by a con­stant stream of anx­ious vis­i­tors clutch­ing copies of the Good Beer Guide. It felt, odd­ly, more like Thompson’s beer­house of 1837 than any oth­er pub in town.

* * *

Per­haps you think we’ve been too opti­mistic, or too cyn­i­cal. If so, why not get cre­ative and give us a para­graph on how you think this sto­ry should have unfold­ed? Or, indeed, tell us about a made-up town you know well.

7 thoughts on “The Pubs of Boggleton, 1837–2017”

  1. Very very good. Made me smile so much and reread. Thank you.
    “It won an award sim­ply for exist­ing”. Epic.

  2. Real­ly liked this, and look­ing for­ward to the book!

    assum­ing the grants came in as planned” 🙂

  3. It’s when the pubs start­ed out-claim­ing each oth­er to be the old­est that struck a chord with me. But this Bog­gle­ton is equal­ly about the drinkers who crave the reflect­ed her­itage and his­to­ry.
    I was remark­ing that Bog­gle­ton is unique in nev­er hav­ing had an Irish theme pub but there it is – Ma Flaherty’s.
    I think you’ve checked them all off. Very well done and look for­ward to the book.

  4. As a (very) pot­ted his­to­ry of pub devel­op­ment over the last 200 years, excel­lent.

  5. I’m not sure, despite the long his­to­ry of Quak­er-owned brew­eries, that a for­mer Quak­er meet­ing house would be allowed to become a pub: I feel pret­ty cer­tain there would be a restric­tive covenant in any sale doc­u­ments bar­ring this. (My first wed­ding was a Quak­er one, in a love­ly old meet­ing house, and we weren’t allowed even a glass of cham­pagne on site after­wards before every­body moved on to the recep­tion.) How­ev­er, if some­one can point me to a real-life exam­ple, I’ll hap­pi­ly admit to being wrong …

    1. I’d agree it would be unusu­al – not least because the Quak­ers seem to have been bet­ter at hold­ing on to prop­er­ty than the CoE. It’s not quite what you mean but Liverpool’s Hole in Ye Wall was built on a demol­ished meet­ing house – they couldn’t dig a cel­lar because of the graves. And both Dis­ley and King’s Lynn meet­ing hous­es are in for­mer pubs – the lat­ter still has its “Bar” etched glass.

      The only Quak­er wed­ding I’ve been to had the recep­tion in a mar­quee in the gar­den of the meet­ing house. There was cer­tain­ly no short­age of alco­hol there, and we were hand­ed a glass as we exit­ed the build­ing, so I sus­pect that there’s cer­tain­ly some scope for flex­i­bil­i­ty when it comes to the demon drink.

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