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A wake for the pubs of East Bristol

The neighbourhoods of Barton Hill, Lawrence Hill and Redfield in East Bristol are something of a graveyard for pubs, it turns out. On Wednesday 16 March, I attended the wake.

The Barton Hill History Group, itself founded in a pub in 1983, tracks changes, gathers information, and engages the community in the collection of memories.

A talk at a local social club was part of that process of outreach.

In his introduction local historian Andrew Jones explained how, by the 1960s, the number of pubs in Barton Hill had dwindled to a mere eight. Then, with eyes wide, he asked the audience: “How many pubs are there now?”

A collective sigh-groan went up.

“None!”

Mention of the closure of The Rhubarb in 2020, the last pub in the area, was greeted with similar mournful sounds.

Those continued throughout the evening, occasionally mixed with cries of wistful delight.

One thing Mr Jones and his colleague David Cheesley did especially well was to use pubs as anchor points for explaining how the very shape of the streets has changed.

Great Western Road, for example, named for the enormous cotton works, no longer exists.

Once an important arterial road, its line was broken when flats were built in the post-war period.

Now only its tail-end, Great Western Lane, survives.

Of its three pubs – the upper, middle and lower houses, as they were known – only The Lord Nelson can be seen today, in the final stages of conversion to flats.

The Lord Nelson after post-war refurbishment. SOURCE: Barton Hill History Group.

When a picture of The Lord Nelson in its prime appeared on the screen, there was a ripple through the crowd.

Grey and white-haired audience members remembered drinking there relatively recently.

They also recalled their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers visiting – and scrapping in the street outside.

Mr Cheesley’s photographs are remarkably unremarkable.

He took most of them himself between the 1980s and the present and many have that inherently nostalgic quality that comes with images shot on film.

A picture of a Ford Cortina parked outside a tatty looking pub, cast in a warm Kodak glow, feels like a window through time – not to Great Events but to everyday life.

Other pictures, often in black-and-white, he retrieved from the waste bin at the council planning office where he worked for decades.

Taken for valuation purposes, usually shortly before pubs were demolished, they’re less vivid but arguably more valuable.

They capture pubs that disappeared in the 1960s and 70s, including those on streets that were sacrificed for The Roundabout.

Oh, The Roundabout – the villain of the piece, mention of which caused members of the audience to boo and mutter.

Bristol’s post-war redevelopment put cars first. If that meant breaking important roads in two, severing community connections, and demolishing street after street, so be it.

The Lawrence Hill Roundabout is a great crater in the ground surrounded by tower blocks.

It used to be where Lawrence Hill joined the city centre: a major road lined with shops, churches and factories, with terraces and backstreets behind. Now, it’s a void.

Several pubs went too, of course, including what strikes Jess and me as perhaps the most significant loss: The Glass House on Lawrence Hill, knocked down in 1969.

The Glass House. SOURCE: simondsfamily.me.uk
A tower block by a main road.
The approximate site of The Glass House as it looks in 2022.

Whereas many of the other lost pubs were fairly modest, The Glass House was a substantial main road gin-palace-type pub, of which Bristol has relatively few surviving examples.

For the Barton Hill History Group, there’s a particular frustration: how can there be no photos of the interior of such a well-loved, well-remembered, well-photographed pub?

“We had our wedding reception there!” shouted one elderly woman.

“I used to go to the pigeon loft!”

“There used to be a big pair of horns above the bar – the Buffs!”

But nobody said, “I’ve got an album full of pictures.”

Maybe none will ever turn up. Maybe none were ever taken, because who on earth took a camera to an ordinary working class pub in the 1960s?

(This is a general problem for pub historians. If you have photos of pub interiors from before about 1980, do find a way to share them.)

As pints of cider, lager and Old Speckled Hen went down, audience participation became more frequent:

“I used to play bagatelle at The Royal Table.”

“The skittle alley there was bloody terrible – you could throw it right down the middle and it would always go left or bloody right.”

“It was only small but they used to have a dancefloor there anyway.”

The St George’s Hall in 2022.

To my surprise, the pub that got perhaps the strongest reaction of the entire night was The St George’s Hall, a recently-closed Wetherspoon pub on Church Road. 

It wasn’t an attractive pub – not a JDW flagship – nor especially historic.

But as the older pubs closed, one by one, or hippified and gentrified, it’s perhaps understandable that ‘Spoons became an important community hub. It was somewhere everyone could afford to drink.

Towards the end of the night, there was some grumbling about “demographic changes”.

The reason the pubs have gone, the argument goes, is that there are too many people in the area who don’t drink, or don’t drink in pubs.

We don’t really buy that.

But if you do, here’s a thought experiment: if you could click your fingers and fill every flat and house in East Bristol with white working class families, how many pubs could the area support?

Probably no more than it has now. Probably fewer.

Nobody has any money – and the fact is that the days when people spent multiple nights per week at their local have passed.

The front of the social club with a Greene King ale banner.
The Board Mill Social Club in 2021.

In the meantime, the venue for the talk, The Board Mill Social Club, allows something of that ‘traditional’ pub life to go on.

On a Wednesday night in March there was a game of skittles underway, a crowd around the bar, and a buzz in the air. With ale at £3 a pint, and no real alternative, you can forgive a bit of utilitarian clubland decor.

There are also some cautiously optimistic noises in the campaign to save The Rhubarb with multiple credibly parties apparently interested in running it as a pub.

Barton Hill might not be able to support eight pubs but surely there are enough drinkers to keep one alive.

Main image adapted from a postcard from Know Your Place Bristol.

2 replies on “A wake for the pubs of East Bristol”

What a well-written piece! But the conclusion that the reason that so many locals seems simplistic. Clearly money in the pocket is important, but there are other factors: other leisure choices have long been available. TV (and perhaps more importantly central heating) in the 1950s began to encourage drinkers to stay at home where it was increasingly more comfortable. From the 1980s it was was possible for ordinary people to eat out at least once a week, which is why most pubs are now basically restaurants. I bet few of the closed pubs of East Bristol offered anything then a pickled egg and a packet of crisps. The old manual trades have largely gone with their traditions of heavy drinking. And to my mind most pubs today seem designed the drive customers away with their loud piped music and the TV (I’m probably just getting old here)

Thanks, Simon. For the non-simplistic version, see our book 20th Century Pub! We do think it mostly boils down to (a) the affordability of the pub and (b) alternative distractions, such as telly.

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