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20th Century Pub london

The Tabard – the first improved pub?

It’s always a delight to discover historically-interesting pubs, even if it messes somewhat with the narrative of the book you sweated over for two years.

When we came across mention of The Tabard, Bedford Park, our first thoughts were “Wow, that looks like a prototype improved public house” and “How did we miss this when we were researching 20th Century Pub?”

Of course, one reason for missing it is that it was built in 1880 and so was well out of the scope of our book. We did, however, highlight some examples of pre-WWI improved pubs, or pubs built in a different style to the prevailing late Victorian/Edwardian gin palace cliche. For example, the Forester in Ealing, built 1909 by Nowell Parr. 

We even formed a theory that there was some specific trend-bucking in West London (or rather the Middlesex Licencing area) in the Edwardian era. That is, at a time when most magistrates in England were concerned with reducing the number of licenced premises, there seemed to be a lot of new pubs being built in Ealing and other areas of West London.

We wondered whether local breweries such as Fullers and the Royal Brentford Brewery enjoyed a particularly productive partnership with the local justices, perhaps because these breweries were prepared to build posher pubs. Or maybe the magistrates were more relaxed. Or perhaps a combination of the two.

Unfortunately, this was something we couldn’t pin down with facts and figures so we left it out of the book. 

Back to The Tabard: what do we know? It was part of the privately developed Bedford Park suburb, described by some as “the first garden suburb”.

The architect was Richard Norman Shaw, one of the most renowned architects of his time. The Historic England listing for the Tabard describes it as “Queen Anne style” while the Camra pub heritage site entry highlights its Arts and Crafts features.

Several websites, including Historic England, refer to the pub being a “pioneering improved pub”. Improved pubs, as you probably know, is a term generally used to describe a particular trend or movement in the early 20th century which sought to elevate the status and reputation of pubs. Not to make them posh, as such, but more respectable, largely in an effort to head off any moves toward prohibition.

Now, unpicking this a bit more, we think we’d probably challenge the claim that The Tabard qualifies. On an architectural level, you can see a relationship between this and the Nowell Parr pubs, and from there you could draw a link to the neo-Georgian movement.

And perhaps more compellingly, there’s something about its status as a community space, not just a drinking den. Searches in the newspaper archives throw up countless examples of it being used as a meeting place or a concert venue. And its current incarnation hosts a small theatre, so there is a pleasing continuity there.

However, we would stop short of calling it “an improved pub” firstly because we don’t have any evidence of this concept existing in 1880. At this point, although England’s pubs were past their all time historical high numbers, magistrates hadn’t really begun flexing their muscles, the temperance movement had not gained significant political traction and the Trust House movement was a good 20 years in the future.

Secondly, there’s no evidence that it was an influence on later “improved pubs” in the way that Harry Redfearn’s pioneering work in Carlisle was. We couldn’t find anything about the pub being designed to be more efficient, for example, or laid out in a way to discourage drunkenness.

So, we don’t think we need to beat ourselves up about not mentioning The Tabard in our book. However, it is further evidence that there was more going on in Victorian pub architecture than gin palaces and beer houses and is, of course, a fascinating thing in its own right.

We can’t wait to visit, hopefully later this year.

Main image via Village London, 1883.

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