A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968

Birmingham 1968.

“The typical English pub, sought after by the foreign tourist, is an established part of the British way of life. But like everything else it is changing. What was it, what is it and what will it be?”

That’s the question John Merilion asks at the opening of a substantial article published in the arts supplement of the Birmingham Post for Saturday 30 November 1968.

Merilion was a design consultant working in the Midlands and a lecturer at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, and was apparently still around as recently as 2014. He was professionally involved in pub design as in the case of the Red Admiral on the Sutton Hill estate at the new town of Madeley in Shropshire.

The Red Admiral, Madeley.
John Merilion’s butterfly for The Red Admiral, Madeley. SOURCE: Madeley Matters.

His article for the Post offers a summary of the development of the design of the English pub with a strong line of argument: Victorian town pubs were beautiful, offering a bold, glittering contrast to the slum houses around them; but when breweries began to own large estates of their own pubs and then, after World War I, to set up their own architects’ departments, it all went wrong. They became too clean, lacking atmosphere and distinction, as homes came up in quality to meet them.

What’s really interesting to us about this piece, though, is that Merilion offers a considered, balanced, occasionally surprising view of where pubs were at in 1968, at the height of the theme pub craze:

Ask most people and they seem to want atmosphere – the only universal plea – with comfort running a close second. There are of course a few chaps who say that all they want is well-kept beer!

(Note there more evidence of the CAMRA tendency well before CAMRA.)

Nobody actually says they desperately want to drink in a hunting lodge in Harborne, or beer cellar in Bearwood, or a galleon on the Ringway. However, most people do not actively dislike these surroundings, and no doubt a strong case can be made out for their existence. They are surely preferable to the pseudo-traditional Georgian or Tudor chintz tea-room versions.

Despite seeming to stick up for theme pubs to a degree, Merilion goes on to stick the knife in:

This extension of the name of the pub setting the theme for the entire interior decor is a comparatively recent innovation and is being employed extensively where new urban pubs are concerned. Any why should the brewers neglect such a sure-fire idea which is obviously popular with the customers? After all, the opportunities are fantastic – why not a Dr Who space-fiction set, or the labyrinth from Barbarella… Only that all these things are sheer gimmickry, equally suitable for coffee bars, restaurants, night clubs and boutiques. They represent lost opportunities for the daring and exciting use of contemporary methods and materials to maintain the specifically public house atmosphere.

Too many theme pubs were excessively literal, working the theme throughout the whole pub, literally “turning the building into a fake castle, paddock or barn”. This pressure, according to architects and designers he spoke to, came from the breweries, and the over-the-top, over-literal theme elements were sometimes applied to the pub after the fact, rather against the designer’s intent.

None of the new pubs in Birmingham were any good, in his opinion,  failing to achieve a state of “friendly but not freaky”, though he does have a couple of kind words to say about The Outrigger in the city centre where “a good atmosphere exists in the pseudo-galleon (complete with sea-sounds)”.

The Outrigger.
The Outrigger, Birmingham, posted online by ‘Zak’. SOURCE: Birmingham Forum.

Merilion’s argument hereafter is a smart one: putting aside specific Victorian style and method, why shouldn’t a modern pub designer seek to achieve the same essential effects of light, reflection and “glitter” using up-to-date materials? Suburban pubs in the 1960s, he says, have bad lighting — “an all-embracing orange gloom” which fails to provide highs and lows — why not take advantage of modern technology to vary the colour and intensity throughout a pub?

It’s at this point that he comes out with something we could have used a couple of years ago when we were writing 20th Century Pub: a defence of the Chelsea Drugstore.

The Drugstore, as you might know, was Bass Charrington’s trendiest, most self-consciously modern pub, which opened in West London in 1968, and famously appears in A Clockwork Orange as the futuristic hall-of-mirrors shopping boutique where Alex the Droog hangs out.

The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968
The Chelsea Drugstore. SOURCE: RIBA.

Merilion says:

One could dismiss its decor as trendy and fashionable… but nevertheless is has much of the traditional atmosphere, with its glittering air of excitement, vibrant clientele and robust self-expression.

Returning to Birmingham, then under heavy redevelopment, he makes a final plea:

Let us hope that the breweries give the right architects and designers a freer hand to produce exciting and appropriate solutions. Please, not Ye Olde Meate Shoppe, The Town Gaol, and The Sinking Barge.

If you wan to read the entire article it’s available via the British Newspaper Archive here.

In general, the BNA is a service we highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history, nostalgia or British culture; it’s about £80 a year, or alternatively, you can probably access it at your local library or archive.

7 thoughts on “A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968”

  1. All these years I never knew that Mick was just going down the pub… Mind you, he’s described the song himself as “a moody song about drugs in Chelsea”, so maybe there was more than one, er, Chelsea drug store, know what I mean, squire.

    1. That’s an example of something we just assume everyone knows because it came up in the first sweep of research for the book, before we even got into deep archive digging. Lots of good stuff on the Drugstore knocking around online, especially in Facebook groups where former staff and customers reminisce about their escapades.

  2. I used to drink in the Outrigger as a teenager in the late 80s. I can’t remember any “pseudo-galleon” features, apart fromteh anem. Perhaps they’d gone by then. The “sea-sounds” had certainly been replaced by northern soul.

    1. Well it looked a bit like a galleon from the outside in the early to mid 80s, but such a grim-looking galleon I never went in. 😉

      1. And I missed out the key and potentially useful bit – I think it was refurbished around 85 or 86, certainly lost something of the galleon look from the outside somewhere around then. I wasn’t sure if it looked smarter, or less interesting. Either way, it was only the very vaguest attempt to look like a galleon, a few ropes and the like, to soften the brutalism.

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