20th Century Pub london pubs

Henekey’s Long Bar and the birth of the pub chain

Henekey’s was one of Londons most famous pubs and kickstarted a pub chain more than 50 years before Wetherspoon ever existed.

In 1831 a London wine merchant called George Henekey, born in 1784 and in the trade since at least the 1810s, opened a new wine and spirit bar:

“THE PUBLIC are respectfully informed that business commenced in the Wholesale Department of this Establishment on the 26th of September, on an entirely New System by which the consumer will be convinced that every article purchased must be free from Adulteration… For Draught Wines, the advantages proposed the Public are these – there will no Secreting in the recesses of Vaults and Cellars of any one thing offered or intended for Sale; nothing will be hid from the Public; every article cleared from the Docks will warehoused in view the consumer, and there will be always on Draught from 40 to 50 pipes of different Wines, the purchaser may make his selection, and, if he thinks fit, may have it measured off in his presence, and sent at once to his residence.”

The bar was at number 23 High Holborn, at Gray’s Inn Gate, an entrance to one of London’s four inns of court.

An engraving of a cellar with huge barrels and a vaulted stone roof.
A view of the vaults at The Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment from an 1830s advertisement.

The building was probably built in the 17th century, although a plaque on the site claims there was a pub there from 1430. It was originally called The Queen’s Head Tavern or, in later years, The Queen’s Head Coffeehouse (“Frequented by professional gentlemen”).

Under Henekey it came to be known as The Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment.

After Henekey died in 1838, at the age of 55, the wine importing business carried on under his name. There were, however, no Henekeys involved in its running and his son, George Henekey Jr, actually set up a rival business right across the road.

During the 19th century, the firm changed hands multiple times, becoming Henekey Kislingbury & Co, then Henekey Barker & Co, then Henekeys Abbott & Co, then Henekey Rogers & Co., and eventually just Henekey & Co.

Enter the Callinghams

At some point around the turn of the century the Callingham family took control of Henekey’s and oversaw a serious expansion of the pub estate.

In a company report from 1934 the chairman, L.F. Callingham, said the firm was doing well and the increase in expenditure was down to acquiring or building new pubs. At that point, a site in Brighton had just been acquired and construction was underway.

In 1935 Henekey’s was advertising 17 branches:

  • The head office at High Holborn (now The Cittie of Yorke)
  • Churton Street, London SW1 (AKA The Constitution)
  • Lupus Street, London SW1 (gone)
  • High Street, Guildford (AKA The Vintner’s Arms, closed)
  • Strand, London WC2 (now The Lyceum)
  • King Street, Hammersmith (AKA The Lord Raglan, gone)
  • George Street, Richmond (AKA The Artichoke Inn, closed)
  • Camberwell New Road, Camberwell (AKA The Athenaeum, closed)
  • Freemans Court, London EC2
  • King Street, Twickenham (The George)
  • Rye Lane, Peckham (AKA The Hope, closed)
  • Kingly Street, London W1 (AKA The Red Lion)
  • Robertson Street, Hastings (AKA French’s)
  • High Street, Hounslow (Gio’s Bar is now on this site)
  • High Street, Bromley (gone)
  • The Town, Enfield (AKA The Beaconsfield Arms, closed)
  • Ship Street, Brighton (AKA The Ship, now Hotel du Vin)

The original pub, the old Queen’s Head Tavern or Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment, was demolished in 1920 and rebuilt in 1923-24.

The new building was a typical interwar architectural fantasy – a sort of medieval theme pub in what Historic England calls ‘neo Tudor’.

Perhaps this historical tendency explains some of the odd claims they made about the firm’s history. Advertising from the 1930s started referring to the firm as dating back to 1695.

And they’d even claim that the Callingham’s had been involved since around then, too.

Maybe both of these statements are true but we can’t find evidence to support them.

A pub with a faux-medieval interior, including galleries and sherry casks.
A branch opened in Ramsgate, Kent, in 1939, following the house architectural style. SOURCE: Bill Finch via

In one of his contributions to the 1950 survey of trends in pub design Inside the Pub Maurice Gorham wrote approvingly of the Henekey’s house style:

From the [beginning of the evolution of the pub]… we find the other type of house which set out to provide something grander than the patron normally had at home. This might be either the tavern or the inn. Professor Richardson’s reconstruction of the Mermaid Tavern in Cornhill in 1420, soon after Chaucer’s time, shows us a big lofty room under an open-timbered roof with screen and gallery, with a log fire blazing on the stone hearth, and oaken tables scattered here and there, at which the patrons sat drinking the blackjacks of strong ale, Rhenish wine in silver mazers, and bottles of Bordeaux, brought to them by the drawers from cellars where they were carefully counted out by the cellarers using their tally-sticks. Making due allowances for the changes of five centuries, this seems to me not at all unlike the big bar at Henekey’s in High Holborn, where the medieval style has been reproduced with more than usual success. Take away the long bar-counter down one side, strew the floor with well- trodden rushes amongst which dogs and rats snuffle for bones, and you might well be going into a fifteenth-century tavern when you penetrate into that long high-raftered hall; all the more so if they would only borrow those heavy oaken doors, iron-studded, swinging on strap hinges, from Henekey’s in the Strand.

In The Local, published in 1939, he described some other branches:

[Henekey’s] specialize in a style of antique decoration that is much more pleasing to the eye than antique styles usually are in pubs. The big Henekey’s in the Strand, near Wellington Street, is a good example of the sort of thing-heavy doors swinging on straps, panelling that looks dark with age, a step down into the bar, and so on. Henekey’s in High Holborn is even more old-world, since it has a row of cubicles each containing a table and chairs, which give a comfortable illusion of privacy. There is another big Henekey’s in Kingly Street, behind Regent Street, which is a gay scene on Christmas Eve, when the girls from the big dress shops make up parties and buy each other drinks. And there is a smaller Henekey’s in Marylebone High Street, which is interesting as showing how the style looks when it is quite new. Only a year or two ago this was the Angel; then Henekey’s took it, rebuilt it, and made a very nice job of it, clean and bright in spite of being conscientiously antique.

Enter Lady Docker

Clement Callingham (1892-1945) became chairman of the firm in 1938 and his playboy tendencies would put Henekey’s in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

He met Norah Docker (1906-1983) at London’s Café de Paris where she worked as a ‘dance hostess’. They had an affair and she moved into his house before his divorce was settled. They married in 1938 and were together until his death in 1945.

The cover of Norah: the autobiography of Lady Docker showing her dancing in a sailor's hat while an approving crowd watches.
Lady Docker’s tell-all autobiography published in 1969.

When Clement died he left Norah with a son, a big wedge of cash, and a substantial share in Henekey’s.

What made her famous in later years was her knack for marrying rich men like Clement. In 1946 she married Sir William Collins, head of Fortnum & Mason. And after he died in 1948 she married Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) and became Lady Docker.

Through Lady Docker’s influence, Sir Bernard became chairman of Henekey’s in 1954 and stayed in the job until 1967. During his time, the chain had more than 40 pubs across the UK.

Pubs with a cult reputation

Almost every post-ear guide book to London, pubs, or London pubs, mentions Henekey’s in glowing terms.

In his amusing book London Pubs (Batsford, 1963) Alan Reeve-Jones says:

“The Henekey houses, of which there are fourteen in London, have a perfect right to consider themselves a cut above the rest if they feel like it, because every one of them looks like that romantic ideal of an English pub usually existing only in the mind of a Christmas Card designer.”

In his entertaining architectural guide Nairn’s London (Penguin, 1966) Ian Nairn says this of the High Holborn branch of Henekey’s:

“Any long bar implies serious drinking, but this has a sense of dedication that is far beyond mere commerce. Perhaps because of this it is often cram-full: it is more of an experience to be un- comfortable here than to relax amongst a farrago of clichés. It does not depend on Victorian ornament either. The effect is due to the long, tall proportions, the dark woodwork and especially to the scale of the huge oval barrels behind the bar, as concise as an airliner’s skin. A walkway high up connects rooms tucked under the roof and you expect to see acolytes coming out on it to perform some liturgy of alcohol. Cabins all round the walls, as a souvenir of Belfast or Dublin; but this place needs no stage props. They sell spiced buns.”

He also calls the pub The Long Bar – the name by which it’s most often remembered these days.

Oddly, the earliest reference we’ve come across to this name is from 1951, but didn’t turn up until 2014. It’s in a note attached to a lost poem by Dylan Thomas, discovered among his wife’s papers: “This little song was written in Henneky’s Long Bar High Holborn by Dylan Thomas in 1951.”

In their Guide to London Pubs (Sphere, 1968) Martin Green and Tony White call it ‘Henekey’s Long Bar’. It’s also referred to this way in a 1966 article in Tatler. So, clearly, this name had taken by the mid-1960s.

And it does, to be fair, have a very long bar. Is it, as is often claimed, the longest bar in Europe? We’ll let someone else investigate that question.

In his 1964 novel Funeral in Berlin Len Deighton’s nameless spy (Harry Palmer in the films) has a few words to say about the Portobello Road branch:

“Henekey‘’’s is a great barn of a place, bare enough not to be spoiled by the odd half-glass of best bitter being spilled across the floor; cashmere, suede, straw, leather and imitation leather jostle, jabber and posture with careful narcissism.”

Might this be the earliest instance of a chain pub being described as ‘barn-like’?

The medievalish exterior of The Cittie of Yorke.
Adapted from ‘Cittie of Yorke pub, London’ by the Wub, via Wikimedia Commons, under a licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Goodbye Henekey, hello Samuel Smith

As the 20th century wound to a close, many old brewing and pub businesses found themselves in trouble. Henekey’s was no different.

When Sir Bernard Docker stepped down in 1967 he sold his shares to a mystery buyer. After much speculation it was revealed to be catering and hospitality magnate Sir Charles Forte. By the 1970s, the Henekey’s chain was part of the Trusthouse Forte empire.

Then, towards the end of the 1970s, Trusthouse Forte began selling off pubs. Samuel Smith of Tadcaster snapped up some of the best in around 1979.

Henekey’s on the Strand, for example, became what we now know as The Lyceum.

Henekey’s Long Bar was also renamed. As a grand Yorkshire embassy in the capital it became The Cittie of Yorke – the name by which it still goes today. (Ye Olde English Pube?)

The 1970s logo for Henekey Inns.

Whitbread bought what remained of Henekey’s (or Henekey Inns, as it had become) in 1984, amounting to 22 ‘steakhouses’.

This was around the same time it also took a share in Pizza Hut, being keen to move into the growing market for pub grub.

They extended the brand to some of their existing pubs including their former London flagship The Samuel Whitbread – now Burger King on Leicester Square.

Because the closure of chains is rarely announced – they just tend to peter out with a pasted notice on the window – it’s hard to say how long the Henekey’s name lingered on.

There are few references to it in the 1990s and most of those are nostalgic, or refer to pubs losing their Henekey branding.

One interesting story, though, is from 1996, when the Morning Advertiser published a collection of publicans’ ghost stories.

The former landlady of the Henekey’s in Ramsgate, which burned down in the 1960s, claimed to have once seen a beer barrel move across the cellar floor.

She reckoned she knew the identity of the poltergeist: “old Henekey outraged at the pub’s refit”.


20th Century Pub beer and food pubs

Pub carveries: another slice, madam?

For a couple of decades in Britain, there was no greater treat than a trip to a pub with a carvery – like Christmas dinner any day of the year.

The concept is this: customers line up and file past a hot counter where various joints of roasted meat are on display. Slices are carved on request, often by someone in an apron and a tall chef’s hat. You might have one meat, two, or even three.

Then you shuffle along and are either served, or serve yourself, roast potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire puddings, and any other ‘trimmings’ that might have been supplied.

“I think I remember my first carvery,” says Ray. “My Uncle Norman got excited about the concept and insisted we all had to go to The Brent House. Me, my brother, my parents, and my grandparents. As a ‘growing lad’ the idea that you could have as much food on your plate as you wanted seemed so cool.”

In a comment on Patreon Tania McMillan said:

“I think perhaps there’s a certain generation that lived through rationing who saw carveries as the ultimate indulgence and celebration… the very fact you could have more than one roast meat on the same plate was such a novelty. The only other time anyone would generally experience that I guess would be the traditional Christmas dinner where there might be turkey and ham on the same plate! So going to the carvery was like it was Christmas and a celebratory meal, for a fixed price.”

The format is supposed to suggest the bountiful plenty of a mythical medieval banqueting hall, or a Pickwickian country inn.

The most famous branded version was the Toby Carvery chain, which span out of Bass Charrington’s Toby Inn in the 1980s. Its name and logo evoked the Toby jug, a symbol of traditional British pub culture – a rotund Falstaffian figure.

“Greed is good”

The 1990s was the heyday of the carvery, at least according to a rough tot up of the number of times the word appeared in British newspapers over the course of the later 20th century. From 60 mentions in the 1950s, it was up to 60,000 by the last decade of the century.

But of course there are those early outliers. An early report of something called a carvery, albeit not in a pub, appears in a 1959 newspaper story about the popularity of self-service all-you-can-eat “Billy Bunter restaurants”. It includes this anecdote:

“There was a man in here the other day who calmly slipped all but a complementary fragment of a joint Into his newspaper and transferred it to his briefcase. I must have flickered an eyelid because he came up to me and said: ‘lt tells you to eat all you can for 12s. 6d. – right? It does not tell you to eat it on the premises – right?’”

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 31 December 1959

Self-service was an important part of the carvery offer when it was a new idea.

The kind of behaviour described above perhaps put paid to that.

Certainly by the time we ever got to visit one, there was someone at the counter wielding the blade, keeping things civilised.

Illusions of plenty aside, like so many British experiences, it often feels more like a school canteen: “Move along, don’t be greedy, follow the rules.”

It’s a perfect setting for passive-aggression: you can ask for more, and we’ll keep serving you, but we’ll let you know when you’ve asked for just a little too much. And do you really want to hold up these nice people in the queue behind you?

But if, like Ray’s Uncle, you are confident and without shame, you might walk away with a mound of food bigger than you have any reasonable hope of eating.

In a comment thread on Patreon Michael Young discussed his tactical approach in the carveries that can still be found around Newport in Wales:

“I’ve learned to just pile your plate as high as possible and polish it off in one sitting as opposed to going up for seconds.”

Eyes bigger than your belly

It feels as if the high point of the carvery is over and they’re much rarer nowadays than 30 years ago.

So much so that we couldn’t decide whether to talk about them in the present or past tense for this piece.

Tania McMillan has noticed the same, with Birmingham in mind:

“I remember when they were more common. There used to be one in Selly Oak that students would go to for a massive feed when their relatives came to visit. That pub then changed over the years, to become a ‘sizzling steakhouse’, then one of those yellow student pubs. I think it’s now been demolished… There was another carvery-focused pub up the road too which again has ended up being demolished.”

As with many pub-related trends, we suspect there are various challenges contributing to this decline.

First, fashion, of course. Doesn’t a carvery feel old hat, like Spud-u-Like or a prawn cocktail?

Then there’s the openness of it all. How do people feel about all-you-can-eat displays post-COVID-19?

And have people perhaps become fussier about the quality of their food?

Perhaps they’re less willing to pay for potatoes cooked hours or even days before, or for damp cabbage kept warm under a heat lamp.

It might be fair to say that as the gastropub rose, the carvery fell.

But it’s no doubt the margin that’s the biggest problem.

How much would you expect to pay for a carvery meal?

In the mid-1980s it would have been around £4, which is £18 or so in today’s money. It wasn’t cheap, but it felt like good value.

Now, in 2023, our nearest Toby offers a midweek meal for £9.79, with the option to ‘go large’ for another £1.99.

And Brent House, which is still trading, and still popular, charges a bold £12.99 for a midweek carvery.

Back in Cornwall, we remember talking to people in our local pub who were outraged when a local pub put the price of its carvery above £10 for the first time. Suddenly, they felt it was a “rip off”.

How do you deliver a carvery at around the £10 price that feels right and natural to customers, in a long period of wage suppression, topped with a cost of living crisis?

By skimping on the offer, of course, and by counting the pennies.

“Feel free to go back” says the Toby Carvery menu carefully, “for more vegetables.”

20th Century Pub pubs

The weekend barman con, 1949

The Weekend Barmen was apparently a classic scam designed to target pubs. We wonder if it still goes on?

We’ve been collecting notes on cons and fraud in pubs for a while now.

Stories tend to crop up in how-to manuals for publicans and in newspaper reports.

We found this particular story in a 1949 edition of the gentleman’s periodical Lilliput.

A curious small-format magazine bordering on pornographic – each issue has one or two oblique nude portraits – Lilliput is easy to find in secondhand bookshops for a couple of quid a copy.

We always flick through having found gold in the past.

Pubs and beer weren’t much written about at this time, being regarded as about on a par with toilet business as suitable subjects for polite conversation.

But Lilliput, being somewhat earthy and irreverent, often had a piece touching on this subject so close to many gentlemen’s hearts.

In this case, our attention was grabbed by a story entitled ‘Gulliver and the Week-end Barmen’, credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ (Macdonald Hastings). It opens like this:

“All right, Joe,” said the over-dressed young man, reaching for the telephone in the corner of the shoddy little café where we were having a coffee with one of our less reputable friends, “that’ll be for me.” And picking up the receiver, he said:

“Cock and Magpie, Soho. Speaking. Bert Copley? That’s right. He’s worked for me nearly two years. Yes; he’s a very good lad. I was sorry to lose him, but he said he wanted to be nearer his mother that’s been took ill. Walworth, I think he said. Oh, you’re speaking from Walworth? Well, he’s a good lad. Glad to be of service. I suppose he’ll be along for his kit sometime. Good morning. Don’t mention it.”

This fraudulent reference is just one small con trick played on publicans, as ‘Gulliver’ finds out when he invites the young man, Corkey, to join him. Corkey explains that this is a standard wheeze:

“You see, mister, this pal of mine, Copley, is working the pubs… just talking his way into a job, making what he can from the till, and that, and moving on somewhere else in a few days. It’s not a bad racket – you can make ten or twenty quid easy…”

What if they don’t accept phone references? Corkey has headed notepaper from the Cock and Magpie he can use in an emergency. What if they want to see a stamped National Insurance card? You just say “It’s on its way” for long enough to finish the job.

Corkey then outlines a few other angles that can be worked:

  • A babyfaced con man can pretend he’s never worked in a pub before and pass as “nice innocent young man”. He just has to remember to be bad at pulling pints, even though he’s actually very experienced. Then, of course, skim from the till.
  • End-of-shift wallet inspections can be dodged by passing stolen money to a pal in the gents toilet, or leaving it stuffed behind a pipe to be picked up.
  • You can use the classic ‘convincer’ – be overly honest for the first day or two, insisting on handing “the boss half a quid” insisting you must have put it in your pocket by mistake.
A cartoon showing dodgy barmen at work.
One of the cartoons illustrating the article. Note the ‘Beer is Best’ sign in the background.

The con we found most interesting, because it is most elaborate, involves two men working together:

“Why, I knew two blokes who used to keep themselves at the seaside all summer by doing good turns to pub managers… Well, let’s call them Jim and Joe… Jim goes to Margate and gets himself a job and, for a few days, he does very nicely, handing out the stuff to Joe, like I said. Come Friday, when the week-end rush is just blowing up, Joe, who is now rated a good customer, hauls the boss aside and says he’s been watching Jim short-changing customers all week.”

What next? Joe, casually mentioning that he’s an experienced barman himself, steps into help out when Jim is fired:

“He steps out next Monday with three quid special wages and twenty more that he’s fiddled, and moves along the coast to get Jim the sack from the new job he’s just got at Southend.”

Gulliver gives some final notes on a con that actually involves beer. A temporary barman in a large busy pub, Corkey says, is perfectly placed to dilute the beer with water: “So if you water five or six barrels out of the 12 that a big pub’ll sell in a day you can make quite a bit by deducting the difference out of the till.”

If the manager notices, he says, the chances are he won’t do anything about it, as long as the stock-take adds up. “And, besides,” says Corkey, “he does not want the talk to go round that his beer’s been watered.”

It’s possible, of course, that ‘Gulliver’ made all this up. He’s certainly not presenting it as journalism. But the essence of it rings true to us.

20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs of England in the winter of 1963

In 1963 writer Nicholas Wollaston toured England, visiting cities and towns such as Blyth and Burnley. He was naturally drawn to pubs.

We acquired our copy of Winter in England, published in 1966, when Ray saw a copy in a charity shop and fell in love with the cover.

It wasn’t until we sat down (in a pub, of course) and really looked at it that we realised why that might have been: it depicts the quayside in his hometown, Bridgwater, in Somerset, including a Starkey, Knight & Ford pub.

Wollaston’s idea was not especially original.

We’ve got quite a collection of similar books in which a university-educated writer, academic or journalist hits the road to take the temperature of the nation.

The spines of various old books about England on a shelf.

There’s sometimes an angle, such as a focus on a particular region, or on small towns, or social problems.

More often than not, though, they feel quite random and organic – the record of a kind of purposeful drifting.

And because they’re supposed to record reality, taking middle and upper class readers to places they perhaps wouldn’t go themselves, pubs feature more frequently than in other types of writing.

When we were writing 20th Century Pub we found ourselves quoting them often.

There’s Orwell on inter-war pubs in The Road to Wigan Pier, for example: “As for the pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor…”

Or J.B. Priestley in Bradford where he finds a pub that has “five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter” and annoying the barmaid. “Nothing wrong with the place”, he writes, “except that it was dull and stupid.”

Winter in England, written 30 years on from Priestley and Orwell, is sharply observed, a little sour (“dyspepsia benumbed my appreciation”), and does not flatter its subjects.

There’s a portrait of a Lowestoft herring boat skipper, for example, that might have got Wollaston duffed up if he dared to go back after the book came out.

The book is worth tracking down if you’re at all interested in how Britain felt at this time (through a privileged lens, at least) and not just in the corridors of power. But let’s look at the notes on pubs and beer in particular, that being our beat.

First, at Ramsgill in “Yorkshire’s Little Switzerland”, Wollaston found that the pubs had “fallen to outsiders” – that is, become gentrified:

The Yorke Arms… is probably less of a pub, more of a hotel, than it used to be, with more copper and brass about the place, and a breathtaking upper-class waitress on holiday from a domestic science college… Though some of the beer is still kept in wooden barrels, most of it comes from steel casks or bottles, and I suppose that the customers are not quite what they used to be, either.

A touch of the SPBW tendency there, perhaps.

At Blyth, in the North East of England, Wollaston found winter in late summer:

Although it was still August coal fires had been lit in the pubs. Men were standing at the bars speaking an unknown language. It might have been better if I could have spoken it too. I asked for a Scotch and the girl gave me an Edinburgh beer… “Oh, you mean a whisky,” she said when I complained. These were foreign parts.

The front of a pub with a brewery sign.
The Fountain, Bridgwater, in 2007.

As hinted at by the cover, there is, in fact, an entire chapter about Bridgwater – a sign that Wollaston was serious in his intent to go to places other writers might have overlooked. Growing up, Ray had the impression that Bridgwater was an unusually well-pubbed and boozy town. Wollaston’s observations support this:

[In one pub] a middle-aged couple was hopping among the tables, while a man punched away at a husky piano. ‘Somebody stole my girl’, they all sang, and the darts were flying wild. When a pint glass crashed to the ground the pianist switched into ‘Marching through Georgia’. A pearly-coloured woman with a bronchial cough, ageless and rather tight, came in; she had been to the pictures, Tom Jones, which was partly filmed in Bridgwater, but nothing had impressed her except the actresses: “They’ve got wonderful bosoms on them, right up here,” and she demonstrated with her own.

His notes on Bridgwater also provide one of those useful reminders that pub culture can be as much about excluding people as making people welcome:

To me the only jarring note in such a genial town was the notice, stuck in the window of almost every pub, “No gipsies served here.” It showed a vehemence quite out of character, and nobody could really explain the reason. “The gipsies, you see,” one man told me cryptically, “come down from the Quantocks,” as though that explained it all; while another man said, “The gipsies, you see, come down from the Mendips.” A third said, “They come for the pea-picking,” and a fourth said, more plausibly, “They get a skinful of cider.”

On cider, he gives an account of a conversation with an old man in the pub next to the town hall (probably The Mansion House) who complains about the decline of cider drinking.

At the age of 14, he says, he was drinking cider with breakfast, throughout the day, and all evening. “One night, for a bet,” Wollaston writes, “he had drunk fourteen pints in an hour and a half, and then bicycled three miles home…”

His own cider was improved by the addition of hunks of raw meat which dissolved off the bone in the vat.

Wollaston seems to have found Liverpool, the only big city on his itinerary, rather depressing, with soot-stained buildings, murky air and everyone exhibiting “the bronchial Liverpool cough”. It’s stuck in the past, he suggests:

This feeling of solid out-of-dateness is reflected in some of the pubs round Dale Street; in the men in bowler hats tucking into shrimps and mussels and plates of red roast beef; in the photos of tall-funnelled steamers on their first voyage through the Panama Canal; in the stout waitress leaning over a balcony and shouting, “Any oysters left, John?”; in the notice, “Gentlemen are re- quested not to smoke before 2.30 pm.”; and in the clusters of plasterwork on the ceilings and marble-topped bars and engraved mirrors, not deliberately preserved as they would be in London, but simply still going strong.

Those with an interest in the history of pop music might also enjoy his account of a city obsessed with The Beatles – and his assumption that they’re a flash in the pan.

Exterior view of a modern pub; interior view of the same.
The exterior of the Kingfisher and a view of its lounge bar.

Arguably the most interesting passage in the whole book (unless you’re from Bridgwater) is a lengthy depiction of a post-war estate pub at the new town in Corby, Northamptonshire. These pubs weren’t often written about because they weren’t regarded as romantic, historic or symptomatic. But Wollaston rightly spotted that they meant something, even though they were “huge and quite un-memorable, like canteens”:

In the bar of the Hazel Tree, a modern pub in a housing estate called Beanfield, I found myself next to an Ulsterman. He had been a policeman in the colonial service and was now a security officer at the Corby steelworks. He was wearing his uniform trousers and heavy black boots, but had slipped on a tweed coat to come out to the pub.

This individual, an open racist, has a particularly strong hatred for a group of migrants that had come to dominate Corby: Scottish people, whom he refers to as “a lot of bloody savages”, who “brought out their bagpipes at any excuse”. He had also observed their drinking habits: “Six or seven pints a night, he said, was almost a rule.”

Despite the blandness of these new pubs, they were busy. Once again, Wollaston’s detailed, pithily expressed observations would have been handy when we were writing our book:

The bar was packed full. There were people playing dominoes and darts, and young Scotch steelworkers smoking cigars with girls drinking Italian apéritifs. The divisions were not by class but by age-groups; one generation of men wore cloth caps and bicycle clips, another wore belted raincoats and trilbies, a third wore Beatle jackets and winkle-pickers. At a table in the middle were two thin boys in skin-tight jeans, with pale hunted faces and long cavalier ringlets, dirty copper-colour… “The C.N.D. brigade,” said the Cockney. “I bet there’s many a girl’d like that hair.”

In Chertsey in the London commuter belt, he finds a pub that sounds much like you might expect to find there today: food led, rather middle class, “teacups and muzak everywhere, and china ducks in flight across the cream embossed wallpaper”.

Beyond pubs, there are also glimpses of other drinking places and cultures, such as the Viennese Beer Garden at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness, and its twin, Ye Olde Pig and Whistle. We might have found space for this quote in the chapter on theme pubs in our book:

In the Tudor Bar elderly campers yawned under a gigantic plaster tree, or giggled at the plight of a real pigeon that had flown in and was battering itself among the saucy little lattice windows above them. Even the indoor swimming-pool lay under a jungle of synthetic greenery. This obsession with the bogus and the dangling may have served to disguise the architecture of the buildings, and certainly the rain that in places dripped through the roof added authenticity to the picturesque settings, but it was disappointing to find that so few modern ideas of design had been adopted.

There are portraits of working men’s clubs, too. In Blyth it was The Coronation Club:

Clubs, with their bingo evenings and old-time dancing, are more important than pubs in Blyth, and one of the reasons may be that beer costs a shilling and a penny a pint; even ‘cellar’, a stronger brew, is only one-and-fivepence. At Ashington, a mining town a few miles inland with a population of thirty thousand, there are only three pubs, but more than twenty clubs… Each club still had its leek show, and many of the pubs. There were to be prizes of six hundred pounds in one of them.

It’s interesting to read these notes on drinking culture with contemporary novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in mind:

Booze, at any rate round the tables in the Coronation Club lounge where women were allowed, was the main topic, as it was also the main preoccupation. The universal aim of the club’s members… was more drink at less cost. The men drank pints of ‘cellar’ – pints and pints of – and the women drank Advokaat, or alternate cherry brandies and tomato juice. When the men had to go to the lavatory they stopped at the bar, where the women were not allowed, for a large whisky or a liqueur before going back to join the women at the tables…

Our overall impression is that what’s changed most is the density of pub life. They were everywhere, and everyone went to them, when they weren’t drinking somewhere else.

What do you think? Would it be fun to go for a night out in the winter of 1963 – or would it be an ordeal?

Your answer might well depend on whether you’re a man or woman, and which box you ticked under ethnicity on the 2021 Census.

20th Century Pub pubs

The Venetian Coffee Bar at The Royal Oak, 1955

In December 1955 Whitbread opened an espresso bar in a pub in Paddington, London. We wrote about this in a post last year but now we’ve found more details, and photos.

The Venetian Coffee Bar got an entire feature in Whitbread’s in-house magazine, The House of Whitbread, in spring 1956.

The article gives us a few details that weren’t in the newspaper reports, including the specific date of the launch party – 6 December 1955.

The photos of the launch party are slightly more interesting than usual, too. They show the famously hammy British horror actor Tod Slaughter in attendance, dressed in fine Victorian style, shortly before his death in February 1956.

A group of people in formal wear drinking from stemmed glasses.
Tod Slaughter is the man in this picture who looks as if he would be called Tod Slaughter.

The article tells us that Whitbread only acquired the pub in February 1955, having supplied it for years.

It goes on to fill in some details of the artists and architects involved in the renovation:

Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates were commissioned to carry out the interior decoration in accordance with the company’s policy of establishing distinctive houses with an individual atmosphere. The murals were painted by Mr Peter Stebbing.

If you’ve followed us for a while, or read 20th Century Pub, you’ll know that we’re a bit obsessed with theme pubs but it hadn’t occurred to us that this might count as one.

Lonsdale-Hands was involved in several high-profile projects for Whitbread including interior design for its flagship post-war project in Leicester Square, The Samuel Whitbread. He also put together a collection of cricketing memorabilia for The Yorker on Piccadilly, which also opened in 1955.

Stebbing is an interesting character, too, from what little concrete information we can find. He was well-known in his day and his wedding was reported in Tatler.

His particular area of expertise was painting trompe l’oeil murals – a useful trick in theme pubs when you need to add scale and ‘production value’ without additional construction.

His involvement also says something, we think, about:

  1. the amount of money Whitbread was throwing at these projects
  2. the meeting of art and commerce in the ‘new Elizabethan age’

Another pleasing detail in the article is an explanation of why Paddington was chosen as the location for this particular experiment:

In a neighbourhood where many Continentals live who enjoy a coffee and liqueur, and were born boulevardiers, The Venetian meets an evident need. It should have a particular appeal to the ‘under twenties’.

And, of course, Paddington does have those lovely canals. Little Venice, in fact, they call it.