Australian drinking culture in London, 1966–1970

Barry McKenzie.

One of the perks of having been blogging for as long as we have is that people find us via Google and send us interesting things without us having to make the slightest effort.

At the begin­ning of Feb­ru­ary, Sal­ly Mays emailed us ask­ing for help track­ing down infor­ma­tion about a pub she remem­bered vis­it­ing years ago, the Sur­rey, just of the Strand in Lon­don:

I went there a num­ber of times with my boyfriend when I was a very young woman, around 1970. We were plan­ning to trav­el to Aus­tralia as Ten Pound Poms and Aus­tralia House (where we were inter­viewed) was just around the cor­ner from the Sur­rey – well, actu­al­ly on the oth­er side of the Strand, on a cor­ner oppo­site Sur­rey Street.

I’m not sure quite how we became aware of the pub but it was main­ly fre­quent­ed by Aussies and New Zealan­ders and served most­ly (per­haps only) Foster’s beer (or lager, I should say). I think it was the only peri­od of my life where I imbibed the amber nec­tar.

It didn’t look much like a pub – it was housed in one of the build­ings on the right hand side of Sur­rey Street, as you walk down it towards the Embank­ment. Its décor was very basic – plain, I seem to remem­ber, with lots of beer spilled onto the floor, and a rau­cous ambi­ence.

Those were days when it was still pos­si­ble for [incom­ing] trav­ellers to park their Com­bi vans down by the Thames for the pur­pos­es of sell­ing [them on to out­go­ers].

[The pub] was a very male-dom­i­nat­ed place – the sort that wore shorts and flip flops no mat­ter what the weath­er!

Sal­ly also point­ed us to one of the few sources she’d been able to find – a 1966 diary by a young Aus­tralian trav­eller in Lon­don shared on a blog – but we think it’s now been hid­den from pub­lic view.

The good news is that the first book we reached out for, Green and White’s 1968 Guide to Lon­don Pubs, had a detailed entry on the Sur­rey that con­firmed Sally’s mem­o­ries:

The Sur­rey, just off the Strand, is the first vis­it­ing-place of the new­ly arrived Aus­tralian; though they don’t actu­al­ly serve schooners of beer, you can get two home-brewed vari­eties: Swan’s Lager on draught and Foster’s in the bot­tle. The present house dates back to the turn of the cen­tu­ry and had, until a recent fire, a fine col­lec­tion of Aus­traliana; this was reduced to a cou­ple of boomerangs and pho­tographs of vis­it­ing crick­eters. It is the sort of place in which the lone Pom­mie, towards clos­ing time, feels rather uncom­fort­able; there is a lot of back-slap­ping and singing and rather too much noise. Oth­er­wise, it is a per­fect­ly nor­mal pub, serv­ing lunch and snacks all day. The upstairs bar is a tri­fle small, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it gets crowd­ed at lunch-time, but there is plen­ty of room down­stairs, and even a dart­board. A vis­it­ing Cana­di­an pro­fes­sor once refused to buy his pub­lish­er a box of match­es here, but the staff oblig­ing­ly accept­ed a 2d cheque, which must prove some­thing. Being handy for Aus­tralia House, the prospec­tive migrant, har­ried by bad weath­er, hous­ing and tax­es, might well take a drink in the Sur­rey to see how the natives dis­port them­selves.

Since Jan­u­ary, we’ve also man­aged to find our copy of The New Lon­don Spy, edit­ed by Hunter Davies and pub­lished in 1966. Its sec­tion on ‘Aus­tralian Lon­don’ men­tions the Sur­rey repeat­ed­ly as some­thing of a cen­tre of Aus­tralian life in Lon­don:

Here, on a Fri­day night, elbow to elbow, sur­round­ed by boomerangs and famil­iar accents, London’s Aus­tralians sip their Fos­ters (Mel­bourne) and Swan (Perth)… and com­plain about jobs (‘lousy bloody sev­en quid a week’), food (‘I haven’t had a decent steak since I got here’ and the weath­er (‘How can you ever get a tan in this place?’).

The pace of drink­ing is, by British stan­dards, express-like, but even so it is unlike­ly you will see that well-known Aus­tralian sight, rare in Britain, the-face-on-the-bar-room-floor. (You can, by the way, pick out the old Aus­tralian from the new­ly-arrived. The sea­soned man drinks iced Eng­lish beer instead of iced Aus­tralian.)

This book, though, also lists oth­er notable Aus­tralian pubs: the Zambe­si Club and the Ifield, both in Earls Court, then known as ‘Kan­ga­roo Val­ley’ because of its sup­posed pop­u­la­tion of 50,000 row­dy Aussies.

An arti­cle by Rod­ney Burbeck in Tatler for 7 May 1966, avail­able in full via to sub­scribers to the British News­pa­per Archive, puts this influx down to the open­ing of the Over­seas Vis­i­tors Cen­tre (OVS) in Earls Court in 1955. It also has notes on the cul­ture clash between British drinkers and Aus­tralians:

Bill Robert­son, 28-year- old farmer, strolling along Earls Court Road on his sec­ond night in Lon­don [said] ‘We went to Wim­ble­don last night to see how the oth­er half live. Walked into a pub and every head turned round. We were strangers, for­eign­ers. And what’s more they didn’t drink as quick­ly as Aus­tralians.’ In Earls Court you can walk into a pub and be the only Eng­lish­man there. Col­league John McLeod, who writes the Lon­don Life drinks col­umn, doesn’t like Aus­tralians in pubs. He thinks they are row­dy and boor­ish and drink too much. I have a friend who says you can always tell an Aus­tralian in a pub because when he has fin­ished drink­ing he falls flat on his face… One girl liv­ing in Earls Court says ‘The only Aus­tralians I have met have only been inter­est­ed in two things: rug­ger and beer.’

The 1972 film The Adven­tures of Bar­ry McKen­zie includes a scene set in an Aus­tralian pub in Lon­don, with Bar­ry dis­gust­ed by Eng­lish beer and demand­ing ‘a decent chilled Foster’s’. It might be satire but it prob­a­bly cap­tures to some degree how these pubs real­ly felt. (For now, you can see it here, at 14:46.)

It feels as if there’s a lot more to be explored here. If you’re an Aus­tralian who lived in Lon­don in the 1960s-70s with mem­o­ries of pubs and of hunt­ing ‘iced beer’, do drop us a line.

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