20th Century Pub pubs

The Chelsea Drugstore – the pub of the future?

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 symbolism feels a bit on the nose, really, but The Chelsea Drugstore replaced a Victorian pub called The White Hart – though a pub of that name was trading on the site at least as early as 1805.

The White Hart c.1900. SOURCE: WorldsEnder/AngloSardo.

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.

CHELSEA DRUGSTORE London's most exciting spectacular' requires a deluge of dollies to cope with the crush in our nosh area restaurant, snack bar and pubs. Please! If you can wait with wit and cope with 'celebrities' (even on a part time basis we don't expect EVERYONE to be brave for ever) then dolly on over and see George Firmage at CHELSEA DRUGSTORE. 49 KING'S ROAD If you don't swing, don't ring.
A job ad from June 1968. SOURCE: The Stage, 27 June 1968, via The British Newspaper Archive.

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.

The restaurant at The Chelsea Drugstore in 1968. SOURCE: RIBA

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.

Alan Walker of Bass Charrington (right) at the opening of The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968. SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, August 1968.

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.

Alex visits a record shop (The Chelsea Drugstore) in A Clockwork Orange, 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.)

A compromise.

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.

A tatty looking Chelsea Drugstore.
The Chelsea Drugstore in 1976. SOURCE: Klaus Hiltscher/Flickr.

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.

11 replies on “The Chelsea Drugstore – the pub of the future?”

Worked in Kings Road 1971-1974, often spent lunchtimes listening to records in The Chelsea Drugstore, often late back to work. Often in the Birds Nest further along Kings Road, and Trafalgar opposite….and that was Fifty Years Ago.

I assume it is the ‘Chelsea Drugstore’ mentioned in the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want:
“I went down to the Chelsea Drugstore,
To get your prescription filled,
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And, man, did he look pretty ill”

The Rolling Stones name-check it in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: “I went down to the Chelsea Drugstore, to get your prescription filled / I was standing in line with Mr Jimmy, and man did he look pretty ill”. Mr Jimmy might have been Hendrix, who knows. Here they are performing it at Rock ’n’ Roll Circus in December 1968, so the song must have been written just a few weeks after the Drugstore opened.

I always assumed the Chelsea Drugstore pub was name-checked in the song. I think likely Jagger was mixing references as according to this account, the Jimmy incident happened years earlier in Minnesota, involving an American drugstore (which frequently had a soda fountain):

The Paris influence of its Le Drugstore rings a bell too, from research I did a while back.

The McDonald’s refit is at least in keeping with the American vibe of the song…

Great song too, from a time the Rolling Stones used production effectively to enhance their basic folkish song structures. Later, material as good was written but presented more stripped down, often just the band itself with another player possibly, and it never sounded as good.

Aha – so it’s possible Jagger saw the London pub and was reminded of the drugstore incident in Minnesota several years earlier? I find that plausible. Especially as “drugstore” wasn’t common in British English (we would say “chemist”).

This sounds the most plausible to me, Rob, yes, short of B&B or others unearthing more. The Stones played Paris a lot and would have known of Le Drugstore there too, it was on the hip international circuit then.

Here are my thoughts. We know the Stones were in London the overwhelming majority of 1968.

In March 1968 Mick Jagger bought a flat on Cheyne Walk, two streets away from the King’s Road. Jagger also says he was socialising a lot and not taking many drugs during this time.

Jagger is known to have attended the demonstration against the Vietnam war at the American Embassy in March, which fits with the other line in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: “I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse”.

The Stones spend April to June recording Beggar’s Banquet in London and the better part of July in Los Angeles mixing it.

They are back in London with the album finished, just as the Chelsea Drugstore is opening.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” had been written by early November 1968 when they started recording it, and they performed it live at the abortive Rock n Roll Circus event in December.

The timings fit so well that if you are going to argue that the song is actually name checking a different Chelsea Drugstore, you need substantial hitherto unrevealed evidence.

Pretty convincing, TBH. Still feels as if even though he might have borrowed the name (as often with Jagger) he’s really singing about some mythical America.

I can’t believe Bass Charrington got away with that hideous facade, but it was the sixties,i suppose! It was Christopher Hutt’s “Death of the English Pub,” that first drew my attention to the Chelsea Drugstore, and the book mentions the brewery having to return part of the pub to something more traditional, after just four years.

I was only 13 years old, when the Drugstore first opened, so never got the chance to experience it for myself. The concept might have worked better in a modern building, rather than being super-imposed on a traditional Victorian pub. Same it ended up as a McDonald’s, though.

“Bass Charrington made noises about expanding the concept” reminds me of their 1980 conversion of Stafford’s Baths Hotel to Pitchers, meant to be the prototype of their new wine bar concept. The 1892 main street pub was knocked into one room, as happened with many pubs at the time, and probably had a proper selection of wines but essentially remained a pub until it was renamed Dougals Bistro in 1992. It was a Seamus O’Donnells from 1999 until being sold to Enterprise Inns two years later.
I remember most new wine bars around 1980 not being because people wanted to drink wine and/ot liked the ambiance of a wine bar but because of the “need” restriction for new licenses. The LVA regularly reminded the licensing justices that there were plenty of pubs in town, and so of course no “need” for another public house, but a canny local entrepreneur could apply to open a wine bar, of which the town had none then just one, and easily get a license.

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