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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.

Categories
20th Century Pub beer and food

When did coffee in the pub become a thing?

Here’s a gripe of traditionalists and pub staff alike: people ordering hot drinks, especially when there’s a queue at the bar.

Of course pub companies and breweries like offering hot drinks:

  1. It enables them to compete with Costa and Nero.
  2. The markup is good.

And, as drinkers, we’ve often found it handy when we’re with a designated drinker or teetotaler.

But only the Wetherspoon chain seems to have worked out how to handle it without disrupting everything else.

That is, by selling customers an empty mug and making them self-serve from that machine over there… no, further… keep going… Bit further…

We’ve been wondering about when coffee in pubs first became an option.

Our guess is that it started in earnest in the 1950s and became more common in the 1960s – but no doubt with odd outliers long before then.

Let’s test that assumption.

Espresso in pubs in the 1950s and 60s

We know from the research we did for 20th Century Pub that Italian-style coffee, and coffee bars, came to London from 1952 onward.

There’s even an entire episode of Hancock’s Half Hour built around this trend – ‘Fred’s Pie Stall’ from 1959.

But how early were pubs in getting in on the game?

Dipping into the marvellous British Newspaper Archive we instantly found an answer of sorts, in an article from the West London Observer for 6 June 1956:

“A coffee bar attached to a pub is something new in London life. But the Venetian (that’s the coffee bar) opened at the Royal Oak in Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington, seems, after only a few weeks, to be firmly established… There you can have just espresso coffee, a chocolate, a light ale or whatever ‘yours’ may be. They pass the drinks which are a bit stronger than coffee or chocolate through a hatch which connects Venice (the decor is so realistic) with London… When I dropped in there the other day I heard a queer round ordered: a coffee, a coffee and brandy, a chocolate and a glass of stout.”

Going back a little further we can find notice of the opening of this coffee bar in December 1955. It replaced what had been the ‘ladies’ bar’.

The moaning started early, too. On 7 August 1957 Arthur Eperon wrote a piece for the Daily Herald in which he mentioned The Royal Oak and a nameless pub in Cambridge as signs of the grim future of the pub: “They are going to make us sup our pints elbow-to-elbow with addicts of sundaes and coffee…”

In 1961 Maurice Gibbs, consultant surveyor to the Brewers’ Society, predicted there would be more coffee in pubs, as reported the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 5 July that year:

“Because of the high cost of building new houses. brewers are likely to seek ancillary sources of attraction and profit. It is more rewarding to sell either a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup or a sandwich than a glass of beer. and possibly a hairdressing shop in a pub would be popular if customers could enjoy any of these things while they waited their turn.”

But was he right? Did it take?

Well, not really. Scouring our collection of pub guides from the 1960s and 70s, we can’t find many examples of pubs with coffee as a selling point.

The Tiger at East Dean in Sussex, mentioned in Sussex Pubs from 1966 is an exception: “The house purveys… morning coffee freshly distilled from ground beans and not out of a tin…”

Green and White’s London pub guide, in its 1973 edition, lists all sorts of features of pubs, from drag acts to wine menus, but doesn’t mention coffee.

Pub Catering is a very boring but extremely useful book from 1986, edited by John Fuller. Among pages and pages of advice about spuds and gateaux it has two paragraphs on coffee:

“A number of pubs are now serving coffee, both as a separate service outside licensing hours and as an after-dinner drink. The publican must assess how this affects his sale of liquor…”

And, of course, we’ve got the evidence of our own memories to rely on here.

As recently as the mid-2000s, it seemed remarkable to us to see an espresso machine in a pub.

We also know that Wetherspoon pubs started selling coffee nationwide in 2000 and that St Austell launched its Brewer & Bean sub-brand in 2014.

So we can probably say it’s really a 21st century phenomenon – and almost certainly a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks et al from the late 1990s onward.

Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

Watered-down beer in Oldham, 1960

In 1960, a mysterious man slid into pubs in and around Oldham and secretly tested the strength of the beer. What he found was criminal.

We first came across a version of this story back in 2016 when we filleted a 1969 book called How To Run a Pub by Tony White.

His version goes like this:

In 1965, fourteen Manchester licensees, all in roughly the same area of the town, were fined a total of £557 (the highest fine £37) for this very offence. It is interesting to note that these prosecutions were successfully brought as the result of a tip-off from a mystery man, whose identity has never been revealed and who never explained how he came to his conclusions, though the accuracy of his findings suggests that he had some special knowledge or know-how (some say he was an employee of a rival brewery).

This Mr X seems to have gone round his locals, sampled their beer and sent in a report on twelve of them to the police. The Customs and Excise boys immediately went into action and swooped down on about twenty pubs in the area including those mentioned by their anonymous informant. To their astonishment, they discovered that in ten cases out of twelve Mr X was proved right, though in only one case did the landlord actually admit to watering his beer.

Having done our usual checks in the archive, we can’t find any reference to such an event in 1965.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that his dates are wrong – only that if it did, and his dates are right, then either:

  • it didn’t get a write-up in the papers
  • or those papers haven’t been digitised yet

What we did find, however, was a remarkably similar story, from the same part of the world, from 1960.

Here’s how it was reported in the Birmingham Daily Post for 14 April that year:

Twenty-five Oldham and district publicans appeared at Oldham yesterday as a result, it was stated, of a sampling drive carried out by officers of the Customs and Excise Department. All pleaded guilty to being in possession of beer that had been diluted with water, three admitting that they had diluted the beer. A fine of £15 plus 1 guinea costs was imposed on each summons. Mr. W. S. Hill, for the Customs and Excise, said that in 22 cases they could not prove that a deliberate fraud had been committed by the licensees.

The excuses given by publicans for why there was water in their beer are funny, a little embarrassing, but also illuminating:

Mrs. Emma Lees of the Old Post Office Public House, Manchester Road, Oldham, Clifford Pybus of the Wagon and Horses, Manchester Road, Oldham, and Donald Jinks of the Church Inn, Middleton Road, Royton, admitted having diluted the beer.

Mr. Hill said that Jinks had written stating that he had accidentally knocked over a bucket of beer, and had added some water to the beer.

We’re not sure we quite follow this one. Why was the beer was in a bucket? Possibly because it was about to be returned to the cask from… wherever it had been before that. Then he trips over it, or whatever, spills some, and tops it up? This sounds exactly like an excuse made up on the fly.

Mr. J. Lord, for Mrs. Lees, said that she had been under the impression that when beer was muddy on being pumped she was entitled to add some lemonade to it. This she had done. The lemonade cost more than the mild beer.

That she thought this was legal, or claims as much, suggests that it was a reasonably common practice, doesn’t it? We might quite like to try (unmuddy) mild with a lemonade top.

Mr. Harold Riches, for Pybul, said there had not been a deliberate attempt to defraud the customers. but Pybus had carried out injudicious piece of manipulation. He had put a quantity of bitter beer that was rather clouded into the mild beer. Other explanations were that water must have got into the beer while the pumps were being cleaned.

This practice of dumping bad bitter into mild, where it wouldn’t be noticed, has come up before. Maybe that would interfere with gravity readings.

But it does feel more likely, despite all this wriggling, that he put a bit of water into the cask to stretch it further. Especially as we know (same link as above) that this was standard practice:

It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”… Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?

If you know anything about Tony White’s 1965 Manchester Excise swoop, do let us know, especially if you have clippings or the like.

Main picture: The Cranberry, which happened to be the only 1960s Oldham pub of which we had a handy photo.

Categories
20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv

The 1950s pub captured in a 1980s film

Distant Voices, Still Lives from 1988 is Terence Davies’ attempt to capture working class Liverpool life of the 1940s and 50s on film. His evocation of pub life is particularly powerful.

Perhaps a fifth or a quarter of the whole film takes place in or outside the pub.

Cosmetically, most of the details are right. We see etched glass bearing the name of Higson’s, bottles of Mackeson Stout, ten-sided pint glasses, and bell pushes on the benches where the ladies sit.

It’s run-down and plain, this pub, but that doesn’t matter because the people bring it to life.

It is where families and friends get together, crowding every space.

In a repeated shot, from the lounge or saloon into the public bar, we see men ordering rounds of drinks:

“Nora! Hey, Nora! Can I have two ‘alves of shandy, a Mackies, a Double Diamond, a pale ale and lime, a black-and-tan, a pint of mix, a rum and pep, a rum and blackcurrant, and a Guinness?”

“Rum and pep” is rum with peppermint cordial; “mix”, also known as half-and-half, is 50/50 mild and bitter.

Another reason this pub feels so vibrant is the constant singing.

Eileen (Angela Walsh, second left) sings in the pub in Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Singing is how the women in the film express their feelings, from sadness to joy.

Taking it in turns to perform, or harmonising together, they sway with their glasses:

“When that old gang of mine get together… On the corner of my home town… We were friends in the past… And our friendship will last… ’Til the curtain of dreams comes down!”

Would people put up with it these days? You’d probably end up in a snarky video on social media.

There’s also a strong implication that men who don’t like the pub – who don’t go, or complain about having to go – are the most likely to be unhappy:

“Come on, Les, just one drink.”

“Alright, just one, to wet the baby’s head, but we’re not staying here all fucking night.”

They simply don’t have what it takes to rub along with other people.

There are plenty of pubs on film but this portrayal seems, somehow, more real than most. Perhaps its because it isn’t treated as special – just part of everyday life, like the back yard or the kitchen.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is available via the BFI.

The trailer for the recent rerelease of the film in a restored version.
Categories
20th Century Pub pubs

Evidence of Brickwoods vs. United in Portsmouth

In Portsmouth, the Victorian and Edwardian pubs built by two competing breweries offer an interesting way of understanding and navigating the city.

We were tipped off to this by an architectural guide by Alan Balfour published in 1970.

In his three-page introduction, Mr Balfour dedicates a good chunk of text to pubs:

Later 19th century pubs, such as The Northcote Hotel and The Eastfield Hotel, are almost over-pretentious in contrast to their surroundings. This pretentiousness goes deeper than the street elevations – it confirms the separate identities of the two major brewers in the area at the end of the 19th century, Brickwoods and Portsmouth United Ales… The brewers’ house styles emerged towards the end of the century, United pubs being clad in a deep green tile on the ground floor, with arched openings, and light green glazed bricks above… Brickwoods developed an extravagant ‘Tudorbethan’ style, with endless variations in the pseudo-timber framing and decoration.

The letters P, B and U intertwined, in cream and green ceramics
An Edwardian logo for Portsmouth United Breweries from the former Egremont Arms.
A wrought-iron sign with elaborate curls and decoration.
A Brickwood & Co Ltd sign on the former White Swan, now a branch of Brewhouse & Kitchen.

On our first wander through town, we spotted examples of both. Some were trading, others were derelict, and still others had become nurseries or shops.