In the 1960s, British brewers sometimes behaved as if they didn’t believe the traditional English pub had a future and scrambled to find ways to reinvent the pub for the late 20th century. For Bass Charrington the solution was a glass and metal wonderland in West London, on the King’s Road – The Chelsea Drugstore.
The new pub took eight months to put together at a cost of about £180,000 (equivalent to around £3.3 million in 2022), involving a serious roster of swinging sixties talent.
The architects were Patrick Garnett and Anthony Cloughley, who had experience building amusement parks, and Erik Blakemore, who had worked on film sets. Their firm GCB had previously designed kitsch Tiki bars for Butlin’s seaside holiday camps.
Graphic design was handled by Martin Stringer and Tony Guy (AKA Stringer & Guy) and Push Pin Studios of New York City, founded by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.
Interior design was by Baron Alessandro Albrizzi who had a trendy furniture shop at 182 Kings Road.
It didn’t stop there – even the staff uniforms had a name designer, Tom Gilbey, who had earlier tailored the capes the Beatles wore on the cover of their 1965 album Help! In particular, he designed minidresses for the barmaids which were to be a major selling point.
Despite all that revolutionary talent, the new building wasn’t actually new at all. It was built around the existing pub and even retained the shape of its arched windows, behind a shiny glass and aluminium ground-floor frontage.
What was the Chelsea Drugstore like?
A contemporary description of the impression it made can be found in the Brewing Trade Review for August 1968:
To capture in words the mirror dazzling effect of the place, quite astonishing when first encountered, is not easy. Some floors are of marble, others have specially designed carpeting in aubergine, gold and grey. Counters in the gift shop, the tobacconist’s and so on, are of stainless steel and glass with polished brass and glass panel fronts. The bar and restaurant counter tops are of stainless steel. All the ceilings are of polished aluminium and practically all the lighting spills from floor level, where fixtures have been set within the brass and tinted glass panels. The result is that the movement of people past these fixtures breaks the light beams and causes reflections in the surrounding polished surfaces, so creating a constantly changing light pattern. One cannot be alone, or certainly get the impression of being alone in the Chelsea Drugstore.
The inspiration for the name of the new pub was said to be Le Drugstore, a shop-bar-cafe in Paris which was, in turn, inspired by late-night venues in New York City.
It’s hard to imagine that someone, somewhere in the Bass Charrington organisation wasn’t also, rather bravely, thinking that the word ‘drugstore’ was a loud, clear signal to London youth about what might be on offer.
In advance of the Drugstore’s opening on 8 July 1968, Bass Charrington’s marketing machine set about building hype, as reported in the Brewing Trade Review:
From the start it was obvious that the Chelsea Drugstore was going to be different. The invitation took the form of a label wrapped round a non-returnable bottle of beer (full). On it, in mauve lettering on a silver background, one read that “Mr. H. Alan Walker, Chairman, Bass Charrington Ltd., takes pleasure in inviting you to the opening of the Chelsea Drugstore, 49 Kings Road, Chelsea, S.W.3.” One’s admission ticket for this Sunday morning occasion? The mauve and silver decorated bottle top.
The hype, and the signalling, worked.
“The day they opened, we were all so damn high we ran around putting handprints all over it until owners had to set up a roadblock to keep stoners off,” Beverley ‘Firdsi’ Gerrish is quoted as saying in a biography of Syd Barrett.
Apart from the visual aspect of the design, the business model was new, too. Bass Charrington needed to recoup its investment and intended to sweat the premises for every penny.
So, as well as selling its beer in two bars, they also sold breakfast, lunch and dinner; records; tobacco; soda; delicatessen products; and, of course, drugs, in a late night pharmacy.
As Jack Amos wrote in the Financial Times for 6 July 1968, in an article called ‘The Changing Face of the English Pub’:
By keeping the shops open when a view the bars are closed the brewery hopes (with good reason) for a better return than could be expected from a normal pub with restricted hours. In addition, the shops will stay open as late as possible within the confines of a 16-hour trading day…
Was the Chelsea Drugstore the future of the pub?
Business was good at first. It sold its first week’s supply of beer in 48 hours, along with twelve designer shirts at six guineas a pop (about £120 each).
It continued to do good business for a year or two and Bass Charrington made noises about expanding the concept.
Other brewers were inspired by The Chelsea Drugstore, too, launching their own youth-focused discotheque pubs, such as the Watney’s Birds Nests.
But the locals didn’t like The Chelsea Drugstore at all. “I think it sounds frightful,” said Miss Iris Medlicott of the Royal Avenue Residents’ Association before it even opened (Chelsea News, 21/06/1968). Once it began trading, there were constant complaints, as summarised in the same newspaper on 5 September 1969:
To anyone who has known and loved the old village for up to almost half a century… this corner rendezvous which has caused so much high blood pressure will never fit in with our King’s Road… without or without its controversial lights, which as someone has wittily put it, “accentuate that our gin palace is a tin palace”.
Others complained that the beer was expensive and the setup gimmicky. The kind of place, in short, that you went once and didn’t bother coming back to.
It’s sometimes described as having become a tourist attraction – or maybe a tourist trap. In 1970, the Lord Mayor of London hosted a lunch there for British teenagers to thank them for their part in attracting visitors to the city. (Kensington Post 10/04/1970.)
Later the same year, it played the part of a teenage hangout of the future in a film, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971.
Then Bass Charrington quietly redesigned the pub and relaunched it in September that year. This time, their aim was not to reinvent the traditional pub but to reintroduce it.
This new version of the Drugstore had one modern bar and one kitted out in traditional fashion. At the opening, a mini-skirted model sat on the lap of a Chelsea Pensioner, to signify this union of old and new. (Kensington Post 24/09/1971.)
Always a good sign.
Decline and decay
The problem with any design built around shiny, brand new hipness is that it is doomed to (a) go out of fashion and (b) get tatty.
The typical old-fashioned pub, on the other hand, has the advantage that generally the more worn-in it gets, the better.
Martin Green and Tony White, authors of the wonderful time capsule The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs, were not impressed at all by what The Chelsea Drugstore had become by 1973:
In transforming what was a decent Victorian pub, the White Hart, into a sterile complex of shops, boutiques, cafes and bars, Bass Charrington demonstrated that when brewers start anticipating what they imagine to be exciting surroundings for people to drink in they can be very wrong. The Chelsea Drugstore has now hived off all the activities extraneous to that of selling food and drink, but it is still probably not taking much more nowadays than the White Hart did of old. In the old days you could sit outside and watch the birds go by or admire the frontage of Thomas Crapper’s shop across the road; now, alas, all is stygian gloom and red plush.
The Chelsea Drugstore lost its mojo altogether within a decade and in a famous photo from 1976 looks as if it might be more at home on the seafront at Blackpool.
By 1984 it was being described as “that awful rambling sixties relic on the King’s Road” (The Stage, 26/07) and in a 1991 song, ‘Did Ya’, The Kinks sang “Now the Chelsea Drugstore needs a fix, it’s in a state of ill repair”.
Today it is a branch of McDonald’s – certainly somewhere you can hang out and get served at all hours of the day, as long as you don’t want a pint of Bass with your Egg & Cheese McMuffin®.
Main image adapted from a photo at The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea photographic archive. To read more about how pubs changed in the 1960s and 70s check out our 2017 book 20th Century Pub.