Beer history

Harp: the cool blonde lager born in Ireland

Harp Lager was once a household name in the UK but, never much loved by beer geeks, and outpaced by sexier international brands, has all but disappeared.

It was launched in Ireland in 1960 as Guinness’s attempt to steal a slice of the growing lager market, hitting the UK in 1961. It is still brewed in Dublin and apparently remains popular in Northern Ireland. We can’t recall ever seeing it on sale in England, though – even in the kind of social clubs where you might still find Whitbread Bitter or Bass Mild.

There’s always something fascinating about brands that arrive, dominate, and disappear. Harp Lager in particular is interesting because of the sheer amount of time, money and energy which Guinness sunk into it over the course of decades; because it provided a glimpse into the era of multinational brewing that was just around the corner; and because it tells a story about the early days of the late 20th century UK lager boom.

The tale begins in the post-war era when, for reasons that are much debated, British drinkers began to turn away from cask ale and towards bottled beer, with hints that lager might be the next big thing.

Guinness was then very clearly an Anglo-Irish business, with major brewing operations at both Park Royal in London and at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and managed largely from London.

Beer history bristol

William Herapath – Bristol’s crimefighting brewer-chemist

It’s amazing how often an innocent question leads to a brewery. In this case, it was wondering about the origins of the name of Herapath Street, not far from our new house.

It’s from ancient Greek, surely; Hera was the wife of Zeus, queen of heaven; and the suffix ‘path’ we know from telepath, sociopath, psychopath… Whatever it means, why on earth would a backstreet in a Bristol suburb have a name like this?

It turns out to have been named after one William Herapath, a local boy who made a big name for himself as a chemist. But he commenced his career in the family trade – as maltster, brewer and publican.

Before Herapath’s birth in 1796 his father, also called William, was the proprietor of the Horse & Jockey on Marybush Lane in central Bristol.1 In 1800 he took over the Packhorse Inn and its attached brewery. When he died in 1816, young William, at the age of 20, inherited the business.2

The Packhorse, Lawrence Hill.

Though The Packhorse has a fairly modest footprint today, maps from the 19th century show it taking up most of the block with a substantial brewery and/or malthouse behind. (We’ve known to look out for ‘P.H.’ to spot pubs on old maps for a while; we now know that ‘M.H.’ is ‘malthouse’, too.)

This might have provided quite a living for a young man but, according to an obituary notice from 18683, having been encouraged to study chemistry as part of his training as a maltster, he discovered a taste for it and decided to pursue it as a career.

He co-founded the Bristol Medical School, where he was appointed professor of chemistry and toxicology from 1828, and, in 1841, was one of the founders of the Chemical Society of London.

To normal people not obsessed with beer and brewing, the most interesting thing about Herapath’s career is his involvement as an expert witness in criminal cases. His particular speciality was identifying the victims of arsenic poisoning and finding traces of arsenic in foodstuffs and on kitchen implements.4

SOURCE: Know Your Place.

Despite Herapath’s illustrious career in chemistry he seems to have maintained an interest in malting and brewing. He gave lectures on the science of brewing, among other subjects and, in 1829, was a delegate of the Committee for the Protection of the Malt Trade, challenging the terms of an act designed to regulate the industry.5

He also ran a sideline in the chemical analysis of alcoholic drinks and as late as 1874, several years after his death, his name was invoked in a posthumous testimonial for a brewery in Devon.

SOURCE: Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 January 1874, via the British Newspaper Archive.

It’s fascinating that someone routinely described as “the most eminent chemical analyst in this country” should be so little known. Barring a plaque on The Packhorse, installed by the local civic society in 2017 and, of course, obscure, unremarkable Herapath Street, there’s very little to remember him by in his own city.

We’re not even sure that street is named after him. His son William Bird Herapath was also a chemist and discovered Herapathite; he also died in 1868. And their cousin, John Herapath, was a noted physicist who – this is getting weird now – died in 1868, too.

When the street came into being (it’s not on maps from the 1870s, but is there by the 1890s) who knows which of them it was named for. That it was across the road from a giant chemical works must surely be a clue, though.

You know what would be a good tribute? If someone were to brew a beer in his honour and get it served at The Packhorse.

UPDATE 10.04.2021: Maybe don’t rush that tribute beer into production just yet… Pete Forster was kind enough to email us with some of the material he found when researching William Herapath – specifically notes of his 1853 court case. He was accused of forcing a kiss on a young woman, Mrs Wildgoose, who came to his office to discuss the sale of some property on behalf of her husband. You can read more in the Bristol Mercury for 2 July 1853, on page 8, if you’re keen to know more.

Main image: we think this is William Herapath – it’s reproduced all over the internet without source information, with his name attached. But it might well be William Bird Herapath, his son. Further information welcome.

  1. Matthews’ New History of Bristol or Complete Guide and Bristol Directory, 1793, via
  2. ‘The Lives of Two Pioneering Medical-Chemists in Bristol’, Brian Vincent, The West of England Medical Journal, Vol. 116 No. 4, 2016.
  3. Western Daily Press, 15 February 1868.
  4. Numerous newspaper reports but notably a piece on the murder of Clara Ann Smith by Mary Ann Burdock, Bristol Mirror, 11 April 1835 – apparently his first criminal case.
  5. Various newspapers from June 1829, via The British Newspaper Archive. It feels as if we should know more about what was going on with malting in 1829 – reading suggestions welcome.
20th Century Pub Beer history

Comus Elliott’s neverending pub quest in his own words

When we came across the story of compulsive pub ticker Comus Elliott, we wrote it up, with at least a small hope that it might prompt him to get in touch. And it did.

Mr Elliott is still with us and still visiting pubs, plagues permitting, and through his daughter, Caroline, made contact. We emailed a few prompts – where and when was he born and brought up? How did his father, Charles, get into ticking pubs? Which are his favourite pubs? And so on.

In response, he sent some handwritten notes on his life and career which we’ve typed up and present below with some small edits for clarity.

* * *

I was born 1940 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and moved to North London in 1945. Attended Princess Road Junior Mixed School, near Primrose Hill, and then William Ellis Grammar School (Boys) at Parliament Hill till 1958. After 8 O levels and 3 A levels I joined Barclays Bank in September 1958 and was employed in the Trustee Department dealing with estate administration, investment management and taxations where I stayed until 1994.

With Barclays, I moved from North London, West End, City and then to Chelmsford, Essex, Preston, Lancs, and Manchester and Knutsford in the North West.

When the bank reorganised the trustee side, I took (very) early retirement, but continued working in probate with a firm of solicitors in Maidstone, Kent.

All those moves assisted enormously in notching up new pubs!

I have no idea now my father started except for some reason he wanted to visit, and drink in every pub within the London Postal District, then round about 4,400 of them. He actually achieved 4,200 before his death in 2001. He did also keep a record of other pubs in the country but, important as they were, they were not his main aim.

I visited my first, but under age at 16, but was never challenged on age until the eve of my 18th birthday. I had by then decided that I would, too, record pubs visited – not in competition, though.

I kept (still keep) a fairly comprehensive record of those visited, with card index style systems for both names and locations. I also keep a chronological list of London Postal and each individual county, noting name, address, overall number in list of visits, brewery ownership or free house, and date visited.

My father was press and public relations officer for the Gas Council in London and therefore had many contacts in the newspaper world and eventually we were taken on a London pub crawl (six) one evening by the then News of the World who wanted to write a feature article.

That was followed up by several others, including Austin Hatton’s A Monthly Bulletin, so publicity started and continued on and off for some years, including TV appearances on About Anglia in 1968 and Look North West in Manchester, 1981.

Main publicity was attracted when my father and I reached significant milestones on our journey – the 100th, 5,000th, 10,000th, and my father’s 4,000th London Postal District pub. At such events we held parties for drinking companions who knew of our obsession.

Pubs have changed a great deal since my early collecting days, and not always for the better. Nice old drinking dens have either been closed or tarted up, often now food led. There are still nice old pubs if you can bother to seek them out (the Good Pub Guide and Good Beer Guide are invaluable). I much prefer a simple, old-fashioned pub – town or country – with good beer, good atmosphere, no loud games, TV.

Yes, some decent food, but not to the extremes that some so-called ‘gastropubs’ go to.

“Due to Covid, I’ve only done seven new ones in 2020, but my total is just over 16,000 now.”

Comus Elliott

Nice old original features have so often been ripped out in the guise of progress. Certainly the ideal English pub is not dead as some would have it but we should be careful to protect what is left.

In my prime I would try and average one new [pub] per day – not every day, but 365 [new pubs] in [each] year. I usually managed till I retired in 2000, and living in rural Northumberland, it’s difficult to find many new ones – fortunately, those that are within striking distance are well worth visiting time and again. Due to Covid, [I’ve] only done seven new ones in 2020, but my total is just over 16,000 now.

As regards my ‘favourite’ pubs – how about the one that I am in at the time? Different pubs for different reasons – one next to a sports event, after the theatre, to take your wife, to take somebody else’s wife, it’s the closest and nearly closing time, etc. etc…

Individual favourites include my own current local in Seahouses, The Old Ship – brilliant (old, good beer, good situation in the harbour, excellent long-serving staff (been in one family over 100 years).

Then there is The Blue Lion, East Witton, Yorks (food, atmosphere, Black Sheep, and a lovely place to stay).

The Red Lion, Burnsall, Yorks – I first stayed there with my father in 1961, when we were walking in the Pennines. Through a distant family connection I’ve been back a few times in the past three years and it’s as good as ever. Family run, like most good pubs seem to be – you can tell the difference between such, and a managed pub.

Pubs sadly gone include The Crown and The Paxton at Gipsy Hill in South London, and several village pubs in Quainton, Bucks, where my aunt and uncle kept The George & Dragon for some years in the 1950s and 60s.

I joined CAMRA for news of pubs and books, but have never been an active member. I never joined the SPBW.

Generally, friends and relations have looked kindly (perhaps enviously?) upon my hobby and are quite happy to join in, either with transport or advise on new pubs in their area. They also like the celebratory milestone parties!

20th Century Pub Beer history

All hail the hearty goodfellow: the Toby jug

Pick up a pub and shake it and the chances are a Toby jug or two will fall out, along with a porcelain dog advertising whisky, a few dusty bottles of Royal Wedding beer and some foxed and faded Victorian prints.

What is a Toby jug? It’s a colourful pottery vessel, usually depicting a seated man in embroidered coat and tricorn hat holding a mug of beer and a pipe – decorative rather than useful.

More than that, though – Toby jugs are a symbol, a marker, of a Proper Pub. Like other forms of greebling, they add depth, detail and hint at antiquity.

They’re also a sort of summoning totem: this jovial, hollow-legged fellow is exactly the kind of customer we want.

Because Toby jugs are collectible, they’re also well studied. The website has a concise history, for example, and there are numerous books.

What most experts seem to agree on is that they emerged in Staffordshire in the West Midlands of England in the 18th century and evolved from earlier character jugs which turned the typical tricorn hat of the period into a handy pouring spout.

The Toby of Toby jug fame is often given the full name Toby Fillpot and this ballad dating from 1757, around the same time as the jugs became popular, would seem to make the connection clear:

Tom this brown jug that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale,)
Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er drank a bottle or fathom’d a bowl.
In boozing about ‘twas his praise to excell.
And among jolly topers he bore off the bell.

It chanc’d as in dog days he sat at his ease.
In his flow’r woven arbour as gay as you please;
With a friend and a pipe puffing sorrow away,
And with honest old stingo was soaking his clay.
His breath-doors of life on a sudden were shut,
And he died full as big as a Dorchester butt.

His body when long in the ground it had lain,
And time into clay had resolv’d it again.
A potter found out in its covert so snug.
And with part of fat Toby he form’d this brown jug;
Now sacred to friendship and mirth and mild ale.
So here’s to my lovely sweet Nan of the vale.
Vale, sweet Nan of the vale.

That’s right: the Toby jug is literally made from decomposed, recomposed flesh of Toby Fillpot himself. How’s that for a macabre magical totem?

That poem was anonymous on first publication but was later claimed by Francis Fawkes, a clergyman from Croydon.

In his 1968 book about the history of Toby jugs, however, John Bedford traces this ballad back to an original 16th century text, originally in Latin, by the Italian Geronimo Amalteo. That piece also talks about a pitcher made from corpse-clay.

It seems likely that Fawkes’s poem, which was much reprinted, inspired the production of Toby jugs in Staffordshire in the 1760s as a kind of cash-in or spin-off. The poem was certainly sufficiently well known that inspired a popular print that first appeared in the 1780s and was reissued several times thereafter.

A corpulent man with a quart of ale.

Toby Fillpot by Carrington Bowles, 1786. SOURCE: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Could it be the other way round – did the jugs inspire the poem?

Well, probably not, as the mug described by Fawkes is plain and brown. The Potteries take on the idea is more literal: the remains of Toby Fillpot’s body used to make a jug in the shape of Toby Fillpot’s body.

Ralph Wood of Staffordshire, AKA Ralph Wood II, was one particularly famous early designer of Toby jugs but there were multiple manufacturers by the end of the 18th century.

A selection of Toby jugs.

Early Toby jugs, including several by Ralph Wood (155-157). SOURCE: The Earle Collection of Early Staffordshire Pottery, 1915.

Toby jugs continued to be produced throughout the 19th century, mass produced in traditional styles as ornaments, and also taking on new forms: characters from Dickens, for example, or John Bull, or Father Christmas.

By the early 20th century, Georgian Toby jugs had become collectible antiques, evoking a romantic vision of the pre-Napoleonic era. Writing in The Queen magazine in 1903 columnist ‘The Collector’ said:

Old English pottery is subject to a good deal of imitation… [especially] Toby jugs. These have been turned out in Staffordshire by the thousand, and the country is flooded with them, the makers having taken the trouble to besmear the coloured ones with matter to produce the semblance of age. Genuine coloured Tobys are very scarce, and for a pair with the tops complete five guineas would be asked, or perhaps more.

During the Boer War, Toby Jugs representing Lord Kitchener emerged; then, during World War I, other military and national leaders got the same treatment – Lloyd George, Admiral Jellicoe, General Joffre. Later on, Winston Churchill got his own Toby model, too.

Mass production, nostalgia and nationalism – the perfect conditions for the infestation of pubs by Toby Jugs.

It’s probably no coincidence that Toby jug collections started to appear in pubs in the post-war period, just when pubs themselves felt at a low ebb – battered by bombs, imperiled by the rise of bottled beer and television. This is how it used to be, they said, and could be again.

If you’ve read 20th Century Pub you’ll know that before the theme pub emerged, it wasn’t unusual for publicans to use their personal collections as a way of giving unique character to their establishments. In the post-war period, many pubs had displays of model ships, ties, horses brasses and, of course, Toby Jugs.

Take George Henderson of the Priory Hotel, Larkfield, Kent, for example, whose Toby Jug collection took more than 30 years to put together and was worth thousands of pounds.

At The Old Mint House at Southam, Warwickshire, landlord Fred Dards had a “museum” of Toby jugs, willow pattern plates and spirit measures above the bar. (Birmingham Weekly Post, 04/05/1956) while The Roebuck Inn at Rugeley had its collection of around 50 Toby Jugs destroyed when a lorry drove through the pub (Rugeley Times, 14/04/1956).

And when the owners of The English Pub in Miami, Florida, wanted to ensure it had the correct flavour, they decked it out with 200 Toby jugs, along with 300 other assorted beer mugs. (Daily Mirror, 08/05/1962.)

Toby jugs also became part of brewery and pub branding. In fact, London brewery Hoare & Co registered a Toby Jug as their new trademark as early as 1907, and had a beer branded Toby Ale.

A Toby jug come to life.

An advertisement for Toby Ale from 1955. SOURCE: British Newspaper Archive.

A massive inter-war pub.

The Toby Jug. SOURCE: The Builder, December 1937.

Charrington took over Hoare in 1934 and adopted the Toby jug logo, as well as continuing to brew Toby Ale. They even built a flagship inter-war ‘improved’ pub called The Toby Jug at Tolworth, Surrey, in 1937.

In 1983, Toby Bitter became one of Bass Charrington’s flagship national brands and the Toby Grill and Toby Carvery chains – a response to the success of Berni Inns, we suppose – were launched in the late 1980s.

It now feels almost unusual to find a pub with any pretension to Properness without at least one Toby jug somewhere on the premises, though they more often come in packs, leering down from high shelves like tipsy homunculi – gloriously grotesque English kitsch.

Beer history

Dial-a-pint, Bolton, c.1977

If photographer Don Tonge hadn’t snapped the shot above, we’d probably have no record of Dial-a-Pint, Bolton 31922.

We came across it last week in a Twitter thread, without credit. In fact, worse, someone had gone to the trouble of carelessly snipping Mr Tonge’s credit off the picture, leaving just a few scraps of letters in the bottom left corner.

A brief digression: nostalgic photo accounts that do this kind of thing are awful. They often know who took a photo or, with reverse image search and the like, could easily find out. They choose not to credit because (a) they might get told to take it down and (b) they want to keep shares and likes for themselves rather than the original creator.

So, if you’ve ever @-ed us into a Tweet with a cool picture and wondered why we weren’t more enthusiastic, it’s probably because of this.

Anyway, back to Dial-a-pint: we asked Mr Tonge if he could remember when and where it was taken. He said: “I can only imagine it was someone doing homebrewing and trying to be entrepreneurial. Bolton mid 1970s.”

So, nothing precise.

What additional information can we glean from the photo? We know that the van was registered in 1972.

And as our pal @teninchwheels pointed out, the gawking man is wearing a Starsky cardigan; Starsky & Hutch was first broadcast in the UK in 1976 so we can probably assume this picture dates from around 1977. (Could we even guess that his mum knitted it for him from this Sirdar pattern for Christmas 1976?)

1977 would also tie in with the height of the real ale craze when all sorts of people were setting up beer-related businesses.

That phone number ought to tell us something, right? Bolton 31992. Well, so far, it hasn’t. We can’t find any current Bolton numbers with those digits, or any historic classified ads in local papers.

Ah, yes… Searching newspapers let us down on this occasion. You can usually rely on finding a smirking story about anything beer related but we couldn’t dig up anything searching dial-a-pint, beer delivery, or related terms.

There is always one last goldmine to explore, though: Facebook local history chat. This photo has been shared quite a few times, including by Mr Tonge himself, and Jan Taylor asks an interesting question in one comment: “Is this the back of Kingholm Gardens?”. And do you know what, it could well be. Someone else suggests Cramond Walk. Consensus seems to be that it’s Halliwell, anyway.

So, for now, we have no way to be sure what was going on here. Our guess is that it was someone delivering cask ale to drink at home, probably a spin-off from an off-licence.

If you were knocking about Bolton in 1970s, or have access to local sources we don’t, and can provide more information, please comment below.

Image © Don Tonge. You can find it in his book Shot in the North available here at £29.