Beer history london pubs

Bits We Underlined in… The London Spy, 1971

Cover of the 1971 edition of The London Spy. (Bright red, peering eye.)

This ‘discreet guide to the city’s pleasures’ naturally contains lots of details on pubs and beer, not only in the section on drinking but also scattered throughout.

It was edited by Robert Allen and Quentin Guirdham and was a follow up to a 1966 edition edited by Hunter Davies with the slightly different title of The New London Spy, which we wrote about years ago.

In general, the 1971 edition is more sex-obsessed than the 1966 and, by modern standards, pretty obnoxious in places. There’s an entire chapter advising blokes on how to ‘pull’, for example, which is supposed to be cheeky but now just reads as incredibly creepy. Conning your way into halls of residence for young women and stalking around the corridors harassing anyone you bump into is one particularly sociopathic suggestion. There are fewer contributors than in 1966 but some big names still appear, not least Sir John Betjeman and Bruce Chatwin.

Anyway, let’s dive in.


The 1966 edition has section on pubs which somehow avoids mentioning beer altogether. By 1971, though, things had changed.  The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) was well underway and the Campaign for Real Ale was just wriggling into life. There was something in the air, in other words, which perhaps explains this very CAMRA-esque passage:

It is still possible to get good beer in London. Two independent breweries are left, Young’s and Fuller’s, and while beers from the large nationwide chains are deteriorating, some of them still produce good prestige beers like Worthington E and Whitbread’s Britannia. The trouble with most bitters is simply their ordinariness, they get closer each day to the classless beer, hygienically brewed, massively advertised, and as tasteless as the fizzy concoction of the rest of the world, laughingly known as lager.

It’s good to add ‘prestige beer’ to the list of euphemisms employed over the years for The Beer We Drink And They Don’t, along with premium, craft, boutique, designer and all the other favourites. There’s a bit more info on Britannia, originally brewed for the pub of the same name, here.

The author goes on to summarise the situation which gave rise to CAMRA:

The search for a good pub is now no longer based on atmosphere, but on the quality of its beer. This is quite sensible, for the pubs with the best atmosphere are those where knowledgeable drinkers drink. Atmosphere was always a doubtful criterion, since its quality can only be appreciated in time, and those pubs with one obtrusive enough to be noted at once tend to superficial or pretentious. What good drinker anyway cares for the surroundings that mist before him as he savours the tang of a well-kept beer?

Now, let’s not read too  much into that word ‘tang’ although it is perhaps another bit of evidence to support the idea that connoisseurs back then liked their beer a bit dirtier than their counterparts today. (See also: cloudy beer in history.) Otherwise, that passage is fascinating because it suggests that something fundamentally changed between 1966 and 1971 — that you could no longer take for granted that the beer would be at least decent (that is, tasty) in a characterful London pub.

There then follows a startling statement: ‘The beer-drinking heartland is south of the river.’ Here’s the list of pubs that accompanies this bold claim in case anyone (Des?) feels like undertaking the field work:

  • The Coach & Horses, Barnes
  • The Coach & Horses, Richmond
  • The Charlie Butler, Mortlake
  • The Spotted Horse, Putney
  • The Old Ship, Richmond
  • The White Cross Hotel, Richmond
  • The Crooked Billet, Wimbledon
  • The Dog & Fox, Wimbledon
  • The Rose & Crown, Wimbledon

Other pubs are recommended by district (Chelsea, West End, Hampstead, City & Islington) with the odd pithy comment, e.g. of the Admiral Codrington, SW3, which has ‘the public school young… All the pale young men with their pale young girls.’ And we’d like to know more about the Ship & Shovel’s ‘archetypal bacon and kidney sandwiches’.

Gambrinus Waltz ’71

A chapter on squares and statues provides a walking route which suggests a refreshment stop:

Turn down Soho Street and pause perhaps for a litre of Lowenbrau in the Bier Keller on the right. A tasty drink but rather pricey and stronger than it looks. Expatriate Japanese gather here to sing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. If you don’t like lederhosen slapping yodellers keep away.

There’s the odd mention of this place online from which we gather it was at number 7 and… that’s it. How has it avoided the attention of the London retro wallowers? There must be a photo or two out there at least. Anyone?

Pubs, Assorted

The Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street: ‘If, as occasionally happens, you are performing the offices of nature in the Gentlemens and you notice a figure beside you in doublet, hose, buckled shoes and powdered wig do not take fright. It happens to be the head waiter who wanders about in period costume.’

Sketch of two people at a pub bar.
Kaffe Fassett 1966 illustrations were reused in 1971 but this is one of the handful of additional pictures contributed by Vici Williams.

Greenwich Market: ‘If you’re around at dawn there is a pub inside the market which enjoyed unusual licensing hours. Take along a bag of sprouts and look bona fide.’

Thomas a Beckett, Old Kent Road: ‘You can see good boxers train in the gym above the bar and there are always tickets to be had.’

The Underworld

Like the 1966 edition the 1971 London Spy has a section on criminals and gangsters. The passage of time, however, means that the later edition can be more frank in discussing the Kray twins. The author of this chapter makes a good point about the London villain’s relationship with pubs:

The physical organisation of such empires is baffling. They still conduct their business in public, more specifically in pubs. It has been the undoing of many, even if a well patronised saloon bar half-an-hour before closing time with the TV or juke-box blaring is about the least promising environment for eavesdropping, human or electronic, yet devised. But guilt by association is still the principle weapon of detection in these fields and it is hard to explain the continuance of this practice, stretching back to the mercantile coffee houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by anything more profound than the desire to invest an essentially boring way of life (long periods between jobs) with the excitement engendered by being known and recognised as a strong man among the other strong men at the bar.

Of the Krays specifically the author of this section writes: ‘The transcript of the first Old Bailey trial of the brothers and their associates in 1969 must hold the record for the number of pub names it contained.’ The pubs associated with the Krays, in case you want to attempt some version of that crawl, are:

  • The Blind Beggar, Whitechapel, obviously
  • The Lion AKA The Widows, Bethnal Green (already gone in ’71)
  • The Chequers, Walthamstow (trendied up but still there)
  • The Prince of Wales, Southwark (gone)
What’s It All About, Alfie?

The chapter on pulling (the creepy one, mentioned in the intro above) mentions pubs, of course, and there’s some interesting stuff in between the ickiness. This bit on the macho value of pints vs. half-pints is interesting, for example:

Much cheaper than the discotheques, obviously, and even cheaper than the dance halls. Because all you need to work yourself into a striking position is a half pint of bitter in your hand (though it is a fact that top pullers tend to be turps bandits too and, as such, are rarely seen with half pints in the hand).

Pubs are particularly good places to meet middle class girls, he observes, because they are from families used to scrimping to pay school fees and so don’t object to a cheap night out on half-pints of bitter: ‘Yes, they’ll even drink beer too!’

What’s more, middle class birds can also be found in middle class pubs on their tod, in little groups of two or three flatmates… So you’ve often the choice between executing a crafty switch and snatch from under the boyfriend’s nose… or introducing yourself to an unescorted team with a view to abducting the tastiest.

The sad counterpart to all this is in the brief section advising women on how to deal with men:

Whatever the time of day, do not go into a pub or licensed club alone… You may be thirsty, but nobody, nobody, will believe you.

Long-Haired Dachsunds

One of the most interesting chapters, which must have seemed quite brave at the time, advises gay men on how to find each other: ‘Well, the first things to do are the pubs.’

There’s a directory of pubs each of which has a brief description of the scene and the kind of person you might pick up:

COLEHERNE, 261 Brompton Road, SW10
Perhaps the most famous, particularly for leather. But a dolly friend who accepted a party invite of this genre swears that, on arrival, only the long-haired dachsunds were randy. Because it’s so famous, lots of tourists or provincial lovelies who knows no better at the time…

It’s interesting to see the Salisbury on St Martin’s Lane on the list, even with the disclaimer that it was ‘mixed and tense’. The full list, which might make for an interesting study in the loss of London’s gay nightlife, is:

  • The Coleherne, Brompton Road
  • Bolton’s, Earls Court/Brompton Road (‘More genuinely butch than the Coleherne’)
  • The Champion, Bayswater Road (‘Butch-ish but a difficult ambiance to define’)
  • The Peg O’Wassail (Pig & Whistle), Little Chester Street (‘Young, pretty and piss-elegant’)
  • The Salisbury, St Martin’s Lane
  • Tattersalls, Knightsbridge Green (‘The other place to watch the Changing of the Guards’)
  • The William IV, Heath Street (‘arty, youngish and smartish… Usually mixed’)
  • The White Bear Inn, Piccadilly Circus (‘World infamous.’)
  • The Admiral Duncan, Old Compton Street (‘very butch, very pretty, very Guarded.’)
  • The Golden Lion, Dean Street (as above)
  • The Vauxhall Tavern, Kennington Lane (‘tourists’)
  • Union Tavern, Camberwell New Road (‘for fun rather than frolic’)
In Conclusion

Of course much of this sounds fascinating and romantic, and of course we’d love a time machine to see it for ourselves but… Don’t London drinkers maybe have it a bit better now than then, on balance?

Our slightly tatty copy of the book cost £3 at a second-hand bookshop in Bristol. Thanks, Ewan — this one was on you, via your much-appreciated patronage!

5 replies on “Bits We Underlined in… The London Spy, 1971”

+1 on bacon & kidney – may have to try that one myself….

On the tang thing – one might presume that was associated with wooden casks, presumably there are good records of when Fullers & Youngs migrated to stainless steel casks (and in particular different cleaning regimes associated with same?). I can imagine them being later than some others, so the move to stainless steel might have happened between ’66 and ’71?

Thanks for the article – always useful to be reminded that maybe things weren’t so much better in the Good Old Days, particularly if you weren’t a white, straight man.

“turps bandits” – what, raging alcoholics? I suppose we’re not that far away from a time – and a culture – which romanticised people with serious and sometimes life-threatening drinking problems, treating them at worst as quaint eccentrics (think Oliver Reed, Jeffrey Bernard, George Best). But the casualness of that reference – as if to say that every social group has one – brought me up short. Different times.

Exaggeration for comic effect — just means they put away the pints. Some of those CAMRA founders and pioneers we interviewed a few years ago told terrifying stories of all day, every day drinking on Fleet Street.

Must get a copy of this — and you’re right, would make for some good ‘where are they now’ pieces.

The recommended beer pubs are not just all south of the river, they’re all southwest and, unsurprisingly given the territory all Young’s. Still open apart from the Charlie Butler. The Rose and Crown was in the first edition of my guide as a good beer recommendation close to the All England Club but it wouldn’t be my top choice for a Young’s pub in that part of town today.

Missing from the list of Kray-connected pubs is the Carpenters Arms E2 which was the pub the twins bought for their old mum. It’s actually rather a pleasant pub today and has been in both editions of my guide.

The gay pubs list is particularly fascinating. Three of the twelve are still gay venues today: the Admiral Duncan, the King William IV and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I put the (ahem) ‘Pink Willie’, as it’s known locally, in the first edition of my guide as a recommendation for that rare beast, a gay pub that has decent cask, though couldn’t really justify it for the second edition. The Union Tavern in Camberwell is a huge and fascinating pub — last time I went past it was Portugese-themed. Camberwell was a bit of a focus for the early gay scene for some reason — London’s first regular gay disco took place in the now-closed Father Redcap on Camberwell Green.

The Salisbury on St Martin’s Lane is of course a notable heritage pub. It was long popular with people from the nearby theatres and was noted as ‘theatrical’ and tolerant of gay clientele in Oscar Wilde’s day. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the unarguably camp makeover it received at the turn of the century, bronze nymphs and all. It was used as a location for Basil Dearden’s groundbreaking 1961 film Victim starring Dirk Bogarde as a gay lawyer who is blackmailed. When I was first out in London in the mid-1980s it was known as ‘tolerant’ rather than ‘gay’, and I gather that there was subsequently a deliberate management effort to drive out the queer customers and make it respectable.

Both the Earls Court pubs mentioned, the Coleherne and the Boltons, are now thoroughly transformed and gastro’d up. My ex-partner, who grew up in Fulham, favoured the Boltons for the same reason as the writer of this guide. I remember it as a very dodgy place, also used by people who weren’t necessarily gay but found it a convenient venue for illicit activities such as drug deals. I have a very clear memory of a bizarre conversation in there with a rather inebriated trans Glaswegian ex-shipyard worker in a Dorothy-style gingham frock with a thick crop of chest hair sprouting from her cleavage. Those were the days.

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