The Fellowship Inn at Bellingham, south east London, was the first pub to be built on a council estate and as such was a focal point of our research for 20th Century Pub, not least because it was a rare example of a pub of this vintage still trading – just barely hanging on – when we were writing the book.
To briefly summarise the story, which is told in more detail in the book, prior to and immediately after World War I, pubs were still seen as part of a disreputable legacy of the slums that new home-builders were keen to leave behind.
When traditional neighbourhoods were cleared and populations rehoused, they were dispatched to estates that were free of licensed premises.
Unsurprisingly, the more enterprising breweries started to think about how they could clean up their offer to make it acceptable to local councils with a barely-contained prohibitionist streak.
London brewers Barclay Perkins were pioneers in this regard, having been working with the Trust Houses since 1916 and with Alexander Part, legendary licensee and sometime spy, in particular. This meant that it was easier for them to demonstrate that they had been operating on ‘improved’ public house principles for some time and so get a foot in the door at Bellingham.
The London County Council minutes record the plan as follows:
“The building is designed to contain a large refreshment room, smoke room and lounge with ample seating accommodation as well as a spacious dining hall which could also be used as a recreation room and for social events and other meetings. There would also be a roof garden. No drinking bars would be provided…”
It was designed in glorious mock-Tudor style by Barclay Perkins’ in-house architect F.G.Newnham. On the opening day in 1924, Barclay Perkins reported that over a thousand meals were served. Again, check 20th Century Pub for more contemporary accounts of the life and colour of this and other big interwar estate pubs.
When we visited in 2016, a small part of the pub was still trading, though most of it was empty and and terrible disrepair. We were shown round by a representative of Phoenix Housing who led us through the abandoned ballroom and derelict upper floor workers’ quarters while she explained their plans for the future.
Its decline had in some ways been its saviour – much like the Ivy House in Nunhead, lots of original features remained because entire rooms had simply been closed off and ignored during the worst of the refurbishment era. In 20th Century Pub, we wrote:
“It is hard to say whether Bellingham’s locals will take to a cinema-cafe-microbrewery-pub but it can scarcely be any less popular than the current offer – a dingy bar used regularly by only a handful of residents. It certainly seems likely that it will draw in the ever-increasing middle-class population of south London’s suburbs with baby strollers and a taste for craft beer with their Sunday roast. Either way, the building, and its remarkable architecture and history, will be preserved.”
It actually reopened three years on from our visit, in June 2019, operated by the Electric Star Group, and thus renamed The Fellowship & Star. The planned microbrewery, a relic of when Laine’s were slated to take it on, didn’t make the cut, but the cinema and everything else did.
We visited shortly after opening on a Sunday when it was fairly quiet but with a good number of reservations for lunch later in the afternoon. They had had a busy night before, too, as suggested by the dry pumps and confirmed by the staff behind the bar: “Well, we did have Don Letts here last night.”
We were really impressed with the transformation, or rather the comparative lack of it. While it definitely clean and contemporary the original wooden panelling was visible throughout, barely even retouched or varnished in some places.
What was formerly the central office, a fascinating feature of these sort of pubs where the manager could hide behind the counter, had been partly absorbed into the bar, but was still distinctly visible.
There was still a clear sense of different rooms – partitions and visual obstacles which give a sense that there’s always something else going on round the corner – a characteristic which can make an even fairly sparsely populated pub feel buzzy.
There was a great balance of illumination and shadow, too, thanks mostly to the natural light fighting its way through tall, thin original windows.
We had a bit of a nose around the other parts of the building that were accessible and noted that other original features were still in place there, too.
Is it gentrified? Five Points Pale Ale was £4.20 a pint, which is at the lower end of prices in London, these days but rather underlines the point that almost any pub trading in London these days is by definition something of a luxury venue.
The staff were professional and down to earth rather than aloof or cool, though, and it looked like Guinness got as much action as the craft taps.
Children are welcome, as long as carefully written ground rules are followed, and football was being shown in a couple of parts of the pub – surely a signal of sorts.
In some ways, it’s sad to see the old pub, and the culture it represented, disappear. On the other hand, the pub was originally designed to serve people of different classes, drinkers and non-drinkers, eaters and boozers, children and families… So it’s really just returned to its true purpose.