Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.
We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.
We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.
We’re still not 100 per cent sure when it was published but we know from Andrew Swift that a partner volume covering Bath came out in 1976 so that seems like a reasonable assumption and is consistent with the contents.
Now we want to share a few nuggets that highlight what we’ve lost, and perhaps gained, as pub culture has changed in the past 40-odd years.
1. “There are over 400 pubs in Bristol (one for every thousand of population)”. This line from the introduction is interesting because it roughly matches our estimate for the number of pubs in 2018. Mr Pearce and his co-author David Wilson are talking very specifically about the city, not the wider urban area, but, still, it’s suggests there’s not been such a shocking collapse in pub numbers as might be assumed. (Our observation: many inter-war suburban pubs may have closed but they’ve been replaced by new-builds on nearby retail parks; and large areas of Bristol were fairly under-pubbed to begin with.)
2. Class distinctions. The entry for The Drawbridge on St Augustine’s Parade next to the Hippodrome says it’s a “working class watering hole… middle class go to The Bunch of Grapes”; the entry for the Bunch has an F — “more than a rudimentary range of food”. The American Eagle (great name) was a “Working class husband and wife” pub with a “cramped spit and sawdust bar” while up the hill The Portcullis was all “deerstalkers, polonecks and Oxford voices… aging Clifton trendies”. The Cambridge Arms on Coldharbour Road was for “jacket and open neck shirt characters…. in flash cars”. Then, right across town, there was the Criterion on Ashley Road with “a collection of elderly, infirm, pissed, and otherwise derelict humanity”. (In 2018 there are all sorts of code words and phrases for getting across the same information.)
3. Period decor. The Quay Bar on Broad Quay has “brightly-painted pipes emanating from seats, bars, the ceiling, etc., before making a couple of U or S bend and disappearing into any convenient object” — how very PoMo! The Shakespeare on Prince Street had “old bits of lino for beer mats”. Bristol Fashion (at the base of what is now a Premier Inn) had the SS Great Britain “painted onto the bar itself… In the centre of the room is a mast with red plastic seats all the way round and a rope ladder with four rungs up the middle!” At The Horse & Groom “Copper kettles hang from the beams — including an electric one!” The Midland in Barton Hill had
Gaudy decorations: orange and brown wallpaper, purple and white curtains, yellow and grey paintwork, red, black and white tiles…. green ceiling, neon red and white sign over the bar.
Well, it was the 1970s.
4. Price of a pint. The Naval Volunteer is singled out as expensive with Worthington E at 26p a pint. The Standard of England, an estate pub at Southmead, charged “1p or 2p a pint over city centre prices in spite of having higher turnover” — a strange inversion of what we might expect to find today. (Related: it was two songs for 5p on the jukebox at The Star Inn, Fishponds.)
5. Pub grub. The Bank Tavern, a current cult favourite in Bristol, offered chicken pie, two veg and chips for 50p; the Bridge Inn had German sausages dangling from the ceiling; you could get sausage and mash for 20p at the Greyhound on Broadmead; steak for 80p a The Bear; and The Seven Stars on Thomas Lane had a microwave oven. There were jellied eels and cockles at the Air Balloon in Two Mile Hill — some sort of cockney ghetto?
6. Breweries and beers. The Bay Horse on Lewins Mead, now a bland chain place, was the only Davenport’s pub in Bristol and Messrs Pearce and Wilson were very impressed by their “gas-free” bitter and “continental” lager. The Rummers had “Market Gibbs Bitter”. The Rose of Denmark boasted George’s Glucose Stout, a beer from before the Courage takeover. The Kings Arms, Stokes Croft, had Devenish. The Railway Inn, Stapleton Road, was notable as one of the few houses selling mild anywhere in Bristol. The Bridge Inn was a proper free house with beer from Truman, among others, as was the Phoenix with beer from Ansells, Wadworth, Brickwoods and Cobbs, among others. Throughout there are mentions for Colt 45 malt liquor “seen by [Courage] as a long-term rival to lagers”.
7. Gay pubs. “Under its old landlord the Elephant was one of the premier folk music pubs in Bristol…. But he’s gone now removed under a cloud by Courages who then decided they wanted another gay pub in the centre. Customer is now solidly gay — as are most of the bar staff…. And trade is booming. Looks like wily Courages were right.” The other gay pubs were The Radnor and The Ship on Upper Maudlin Street.
8. Race relations. It’s quite startling to find race discussed so frankly. At The British Queen, St Pauls, Pearce and Wilson met the “only black landlord… in all of Bristol… a big sharply dressed guy who runs a small but very lively house… you can hear the reggae music…. from the end of the street.” The Swan, Stokes Croft, was “one of the few which attracts black customers”, while The Duke of York, Montpelier, had “a mixture of whites, blacks and Asians”. The nearby Gloucester House was a “white pub with an immediately hostile atmosphere”. The Duke of Cambridge on Lower Ashley Road had “young blacks and old whites” while The Prince of Wales on Ashley Road was effectively segregated: “Main public bar is dominated by whites, black customers tend to use the corridor”. At the Rummers there were, Pearce and Wilson reckoned, “black guys looking for white girls”, which brings us to…
9. Girls and Boys. The Bell on Prewett Street was “a young kids pub” with “lots of groups of girls looking for a pick-up”; The Crown & Cushion had “lots of 15-year-old girls sitting in pairs looking at 17-year-old boys”. At the Eastfield, Henleaze, “for misogynists the private bar is for gentleman only”, but on the other hand The St Nicholas House in St Pauls was “a friendly middle aged old ladies pub”. The music of Barry White is mentioned three times in the guide as an indicator that the pubs in question were for trendy, amorous young people, and therefore best avoided. And brace yourself for this bit of period sexism: The Bull in Two Mile Hill had “the biggest busted barmaids in Bristol”.
10. Real ale. In general, there was lots of bad beer — “they never clean their pipes” — but also some good. The Port of Call had fake casks concealing pressure pumps, a big problem for CAMRA in the 1970s. The real ale at The Phoenix was so good that it was beginning to attract “student and trendies” — apparently very bad news. The Old Fox, of course, gets a chunky entry: “[CAMRA] managed to buy it because nobody else wanted it…. a bizarre mixture of locals and real beer pilgrims.” Our favourite bit in the whole book though might be this from the entry for The Portwall:
“We’re in the CAMRA guide through pressure of circumstance,” quipped the barmaid. “The cellar’s completely unusable so we can’t put keg barrels in.”
12. Animals. The Cornubia had “a very fat cat” while at the Greyhound on Princess Victoria Street there was “a cat that sits on the one-armed bandit”. The Coach & Horses on Old Market not only had a “big alsatian called Toots” but also “a stuffed monkey shaving a stuffed cat in a display cabinet on the wall”. The White Horse, Lower Ashley Road, had a mynah bird, “and a talker as well”, but The Essex Arms and King’s Head across the road from each other in Two Mile Hill both had chatty parrots — what rivalry did that represent? The mynah bird at The Black Horse wouldn’t talk and the bird cage at The Bell in Bedminster was empty. The Post Office Tavern, Westbury Hill, had “fish (1) in tank”.
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It’s hard not to plough through that lot and think that things are better now than then, on the whole. There was boring keg Watneys and Courage, or vinegary cask Courage and Bass, but not much beer that really seemed to excite them. Suburban and estate pubs seem to have been busier than they often are today but city centre pubs sound almost uniformly dreadful — either plasticky or dreadfully tatty. There’s the odd exception, of course, but it doesn’t read like a golden age. But perhaps Fred Pearce was just jaded after visiting 400 pubs.