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20th Century Pub london pubs

Watney’s Birds Nest pubs: go-go girls and truncheons on the dancefloor

In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.

First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.

In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.

You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.

With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.

The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.

They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.

They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.

It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:

[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.

This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.

The Chelsea Birds Nest.

Source: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries.

If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.

As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.

In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.

The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.

This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:

His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)

Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.

Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.

Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.

Not everyone welcomed this new development.

“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.

The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:

A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.

It turns out that Watney’s training programme for in-house DJs was somewhat influential, for better or worse, giving James Whale his start in radio and cropping up in accounts of the birth of UK dance music.

And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)

In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.

Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.

For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.

WATNEY MANN have vacancies for Young married couples as MANAGERS or to train for future management of their Birds Nests

SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.

We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:

The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.

Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.

In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)

Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)

In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”

With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.

So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.

The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.

What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.

But that’s pop culture for you.

This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.

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20th Century Pub pubs

Comus Elliott’s 10,000 pubs

You don’t forget a name like Comus Elliott so when we came across it in an article from 1971, we remembered the story at once: he was arguably post-war Britain’s most famous pub crawler.

From that article, which appeared in brewing industry publication A Monthly Bulletin for May 1971, here’s his own account of how his quest began:

I first set foot inside a pub in August 1954. I have now been inside 4,250 different inns, pubs and hotels, the majority of them since 1957, when I started my hobby of visiting a new and different pub every day… Not long ago I visited once more my first pub, The White Lion at Aston Clinton, in Buckinghamshire. Over my pint, I recalled the midday break when inside a pub for the first time, I self-consciously drank ginger beer, in what, until then, had been forbidden territory… I do not often have time for second visits to pubs on my list so I doubt that a similar incident will occur again, if only because pubs everywhere in the country have changed so drastically during the past few years.

A new pub every single day! This made for a good story and was covered in various American newspapers during 1971.

Jeff Morgan’s ‘Dining with wine’ column in the Oakland Tribune from 6 January that year, for example, included more detail on Elliott’s approach to ticking:

Comus Elliott, a 30-year-old bank clerk who lives in Braintree, England… carries a notebook with him on his pub crawls and carefully notes the name and address of each, and the time of day the pint was consumed.

And it turns out this was a family business. The same article says he inherited this hobby from his father, Charles Elliott, who, in 1971, had visited more than 8,000 pubs. A brief entry in the 1971 edition of the London Spy reveals that Charles Elliott generally confined his pub crawling to London and, as of that year, had visited 4,500 pubs in the city – that is, more or less all of them.

Another American newspaper column from 7 January 1971, mining the same United Press wire, introduces us to yet another member of this pub crawling family:

Life for Rosemary Elliott, 25, has become one long pub crawl since she married Comus Elliott, 30, three years ago. “My husband is determined to drink a pint of beer in each one of Britain’s 70,000 pubs,” she explained. “It’s a fun hobby, you know.” So far Mrs. Elliott has been to 1,657 pubs and gets an autograph from each proprietor. “Comus has passed the 5,000 mark in 14 years,” she reported. “It will take us forever to do them all, but it’s nice to have a lifetime ambition.”

On 22 July 1983, Mr Elliott (or Elliot – we’ve seen it spelled both ways) held a party at the Leather Exchange, a Fuller’s pub in Bermondsey, to celebrate his 10,000th pub visit. (Liverpool Echo, 19.07.83.)

The 1971 article from A Monthly Bulletin that nudged us to look into this story is interesting because it reflects Elliott’s observations of how pubs had changed during the 1960s. In it, he expresses his delight at the emergence of pub grub – well, you would, wouldn’t you, if you’re visiting a new one every day? – and dismay at the loss of local beers in favour of national brands.

This is our favourite bit, which captures the voice of a pub ticking bank clerk perfectly:

To attract and hold the new young trade, brewers have started to offer something more than a pint or a ‘short’ in arid surroundings. To become part of the new swinging scene, many pubs are run almost as mini-music halls where young musical ‘groups’ have ousted ancient pianists. We can now see ‘go-go’ girls dancing, and, if we know where to go, can even see ‘drag’ or strip-tease shows. Some pubs have been restyled as Birds Nests which have, among other things, real life Disc Jockeys, dancing girls, soft lights and numbered tables with telephones so that in the good old Continental fashion you can order your beer, request a song or ‘chat up’ a blonde sitting at a distant table without having to get up… In saying this, one cannot always sound as enthusiastic as one would wish.

Birds Nest pubs are interesting – we’re going to write something about that brief craze another time.

Now, here’s a final interesting point. Until recently, Mr and Mrs Elliot were based in the North East of England and still contributing to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. So, if anyone happens to be in touch with them, do drop us a line.

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20th Century Pub pubs

The Champion, Fitzrovia: a Victorian fantasy

Until we started studying pubs it had never occurred to us that The Champion was anything other than a wonderfully preserved Victorian survivor.

Leaded windows, glinting mirrors, polished wood and ornate details that give a thousand layers to every shadow – it’s one of those places that makes you suspect that, at any given moment, a hansom cab might be passing in the street outside.

In fact, it’s a product of the 1950s and the flowering of art and design that followed the Festival of Britain.

The Festival, which took place in 1951, was intended to reignite British pride and optimism. Its various guiding creative hands concocted a unique style that overlaid elements of the Victorian (especially typography) onto economical, prefabricated modernism.

Having survived the war, The Champion looked a bit sad in the early 1950s. An earlier inter-war makeover had brought it in line with prevailing ideas of cleanliness and simplicity – wipe clean, plain.

Plain pub interior.

The Champion before its 1954 refurbishment.

In 1954, Barclay Perkins commissioned architects and designers Sylvia and John Reid to bring it up to date by taking it back to the newly fashionable 19th century.

These days, the Reids are best known for their Scandinavian-style S-Range furniture, now manufactured by their son, Dominic, which indicates where their hearts lay: they were modernists, not nostalgists.

Accordingly, they told the brewery that they didn’t intend to create a straightforward pastiche or reconstruction of a Victorian pub. Instead, their plan was to identify what made pubs feel pubby and then achieve the same atmosphere with modern materials and craft.

The Champion sign. Pub interior with new Victorian style.

There were even rumours, says fellow pub designer Ben Davis in The Traditional English Pub, 1981, that the Reids got the final say in choosing the couple who were to run the pub, keen to ensure that they were the right type.

“It can – indeed it should – be in the best of taste, but it must be larger than life, an exaggeration of the interiors its customers know…”

In his book English Inns, from 1963, Denzil Batchelor compares The Champion to The Sherlock Holmes, one of the first theme pubs, and seems unconvinced:

The Champion… is an example of a Victorian pub as beautifully reconstructed as the arena of a chariot-race in a billion dollar film. THe beer-mugs are authentic as the handles of the beer-engines. To visit it to pay a Chinese respect for your grandfather’s memory… [But for] all their merits you could hardly call The Champion or The Sherlock Holmes unselfconscious.

Generally speaking, though, people seemed to like it, not least as an antidote to the unabashed, stark modernism of many post-war pubs.

Alan Reeve-Jones says, in his snarky 1962 guidebook London Pubs, that “The work was carried out with such skill that it takes an expert eye to see where the old left off and the new began looking like the old.”

Official photographs of the newly refurbished Champion, without drinkers in the way of the detail, do indeed reveal a blend of old and new.

Pub window.

Etched windows evoke the Victorian era while at the same time employing the kind of lettering very much in fashion after the Festival of Britain. Gill Sans was out, a relic of the 1930s; modern adaptations of the kind of bold typefaces seen on Victorian posters were in.

Ornate bar.

More of the same can be seen over the bar, advertising mild ale, best bitter, DBA and lager  – a nice snapshot of the move towards ‘premium’ beer styles in the 1950s.

There’s lots, in fact, that would become standard in pub makeovers in the decades that followed. Leather seating, barrels as decoration, and vintage mirrors doing a lot of heavy lifting.

The funny thing is that The Champion today isn’t the Reids version – it’s a later refurb that does exactly what they wouldn’t. Pure Victorian pastiche. The modern arts-and-crafts they commissioned have gone, from the painted sign on the exterior to the modern-retro window designs.

A useful reminder, at least, that much of what evokes The Olden Days in British pubs is rarely more than 30 years old.

Images, details and quotes from A Monthly Bulletin for January 1955.

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20th Century Pub pubs

FAQ: When did beer mats come in?

This is the first in a new series of short posts attempting to give straight answers to direct questions, all of which we’ll be collecting on a new permanent page.

This one, which we were asked ages ago by the folks at The Station House in Durham, turns out to be easy to answer. Sort of.

Beer mats, because collecting them is a hobby, are fairly well documented and have an established origin story.

Here’s a version from the British Beermat Collectors Society (BBCS):

The first beermats as we know them were cardboard based and produced in Germany by around 1880 by Friedrich Horn, a German printing and board mill company. Not only did they create small thin(ish) cardboard mats but they also printed messages on them, something that would eventually open up a whole new world of advertising! This was quickly taken to a new level by Robert Sputh, also in Germany who began to produce much thicker, highly absorbent mats…

So, printed cardboard beer mats arrived in Germany in the 1880s. But when did they hit the UK?

Consensus seems to be that it was in the early 1920s when Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. introduced two mats advertising Watney Pale Ale and Reid’s Stout.

The BBCS says this happened in around 1922, though other sources say 1920. The date can be estimated because the printers included their own names on the mats, says the BBCS.

We’d really like to find a contemporary document pinning this down – a note in the board minutes, for example, or a newspaper report. We’ll keep looking.

After Watney’s, says the BBCS…

A number of other breweries also began producing mats in the 1920’s, for example Massey’s… And by the mid-late 1930’s many of the recognisable ‘names’ in the brewing world were producing them and British manufacturers such as Quarmby and Regicor can be seen on many mats from this period.

We’d observe, though, that British newspaper articles in the 1930s still felt the need to explain what beer mats were, and associated them entirely with Germany and the Continent:

‘Absorbent cardboard discs as mats for beer glasses are a familiar object in nearly every German public-house…’ – Belfast Telegraph, 2 December 1936

‘The cardboard mat on which the German puts his pot of beer is a frequent cause of trouble…’ Liverpool Evening Express, 29 May 1939

‘Perhaps beer mats is not the official description, but you may know what they are; I saw them on the Continent years before they were used in this country; they are round and absorbent, and they protect tables from liquid drippings.’ – Leeds Mercury, 30 May 1939.

We did, after quite some hunting, manage to find this image of a 1930s pubs with beer mats in plain view, and another here, from c.1938. They’re in the posher rooms – smoke rooms and lounges – and perhaps that makes sense. Spit, slop and sawdust in the public bar; dainty drip-collectors for gentlemen and ladies.

Like many other aspects of UK beer advertising, beer mats seem to have taken off in earnest in the 1950s and 60s with the rise of competition between national brands.

There are lots of mentions of beer mats in 1950s newspapers, none of them feeling the need to explain what a beer mat is.

Many concern the new hobby of ‘tegestology’ or ‘beermatology’ as one report calls this particular collecting mania.

So, here’s our straight answer:

The modern beer mat emerged in Germany in the 1880s, reached Britain in the 1920s, and became common from the 1950s onward.

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20th Century Pub featuredposts pubs

The Comet, Hatfield, 1936: streamline total design

A totally modern pub, unapologetically of the 1930s, designed to look like an Art Deco racing aeroplane? No wonder it keeps going viral.

We first encountered The Comet, a big inter-war hotel on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, when we began researching 20th Century Pub. Basil Oliver mentions it in his essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House and we found further information in this 2015 post by retro-vintage blogger Mark Amies.

Although we only had space for an overview of the ‘improved public house’ movement of the inter-war years, and a brief mention for The Comet, we actually gathered a fairly substantial amount of research material, and have collected more since.

Here, for example, is the opening of an article from the journal of the Royal Institue of British Architects (RIBA) from January 1937, about a month after The Comet opened:

This new hotel is of interest for the following principal reasons:

1. It represents a new type of hotel, namely, one that caters for the best class of traveller, yet is situated not in a large centre of population, but on an arterial road in rural surroundings. There is, however, an aerodrome, an aircraft factory and some house property nearby, the occupants of which will provide some local trade. Mainly, however, it will depend on visitors from London and travellers on the Great North Road.

2. The architect was given complete freedom not only in the general plan and design in all details. Such items as the lettered notices, the menu cards, most of the furniture and many of the textiles were designed by the architect. The ensemble, which is remarkably well carried out, has therefore unusual unity.

3. The plan is both simple and efficient. Its main element is the grouping of the public rooms round the service and kitchen. Yet so well is this done that the feeling of segregation of different classes of trade, commonly experienced in inns and public-houses having this plan, is absent. Each public room is a separate unit.

4. The general exterior form is novel, yet expresses the structure and plan exactly.

The Comet – full exterior view.
SOURCE: The Renaissance of the English Public House, Basil Oliver, 1947