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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!

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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 tobyjugcollecting.com 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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Beer history Belgium

Book Review: Brussels Beer City by Eoghan Walsh

Brussels Beer City finds different paths to walk down, previously unseen things to look at and fresh things to say about Belgian beer, brewing and drinking culture.

We’ve enjoyed Eoghan’s writing online for years and were excited to see a number of his articles brought together in this book, which amounts to a series of short histories of a number of key breweries in the city.

Names such as Brasserie de Boeck, the Grande Brasserie de Koekelberg, Wielemans Ceuppens and Leopold illustrate the administrative complexity of Brussels, the French enclave in Flanders.

Some are strange while others feel vaguely familiar thanks, perhaps, to years of looking at Belgian cafe greebling over the rims of beer glasses.

The book begins with a startling fact: from an estimated 250 breweries in the late nineteenth century, Brussels was left with just one by the 1980s – Cantillon.

Many of the stories of individual breweries will, in their broad outlines, be familiar to anyone who has studied the fate of British breweries in the 20th century. First, they rise to local dominance; then there are buyouts and a period of consolidation; before they are eventually swallowed up by big multinationals.

The book also acts as an extended explainer on the concept of Brusselization – the frenzy of post-war development that makes the Belgian capital look as if it was Blitzed when, in fact, it wasn’t.

Consider Brasserie de Koekelberg whose buildings were listed and protected from demolition until… they weren’t. With talk of dry rot, they were torn down in the 1990s:

Today, Place van Hoegaerde is an anonymous, down at heel corner of Koekelberg towered over by social housing complexes. It’s a quiet place; the buildings all around protecting it from the bustle of the main road and metro station two streets over. Of the de Boeck brewery only fragments remain. The cold neoclassical brewer’s house that forms the sharp edge of one corner of the square is still there, abutted on one side by the old redbrick perimeter wall of the brewery. A black metal gate stands tall at the brewery’s old service entrance; several years ago, barely perceptible from the rust, you could still make out the name of the brewery, but that fence has been replaced.

What gives the book energy is Eoghan’s dogged determination to find the very last traces of these stories in real life – a broken chimney here, a faded sign there.

It’s no deskbound, bookbound work of dry scholarship and even, at times, suggests mild peril. Poking through the ruins of a brewery by torchlight, kicking through the traces of recent trespassing, who or what might we bump into?

It also makes the reader want to get moving — there’s a walking tour implicitly suggested in these pages and we can’t wait to go back to Brussels and follow Eoghan’s trail.

There’s plenty for fact-accumulating trivia fans, too. We found it hard to get through a chapter without disappearing down rabbit holes on Google.

Did you know, for example, that the Belgian brewers collectively sponsored a Disneyesque idealised Belgian village at the 1958 Brussels Expo? Neither did we.

The author stresses in the Foreword that this is “not a narrative history of Brussels brewing. That book is still to be written.” Perhaps a publisher could take this hint and commission Eoghan to finish what these snapshots begin?

It’s a fairly short book, but that does no harm at all. There’s no waffle or padding and the author’s prose is elegant throughout. We read it in a couple of sittings in lieu of a trip to Belgium, washing it down with Tripel, but dipping in now and then to read one story at a time would no doubt be equally rewarding.

We bought the Kindle eBook edition of Brussels Beer City for £4.47. It is also available as a print-on-demand paperback at £9.23.

Categories
Beer history Germany

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, beer geek and pub crawler

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the fathers of English romanticism, had opinions on beer and pubs, it turns out.

I ought to have known this. Growing up in Somerset, where Coleridge lived for a few important years of his life, you get a decent dose of him, not least because every other building has a plaque saying he stayed or preached there.

Then I ended up studying him formally from the ages of 16 to 21, and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on… Er, actually, I can’t quite remember. I know I had to slog through the Biographia Literaria and every scrap of poetry, even the unfinished bits, to make what I’m sure was a very compelling argument about something or other.

The problem is, I was very much done with bloody Coleridge after all that and my interest in him and his work didn’t overlap with my fascination with beer.

That is until a couple of weeks ago when my little brother very kindly sent me a book in the post – a copy of Coleridge Among the Lakes & Mountains, a selection of the poet’s letters and journal entries, published in 1991.

As often seems to happen these days, I opened it at random and at once saw a reference to beer:

Saturday, May 11th, 10 o’clock, we left Göttingen, seven in party… We ascended a hill N.E. of Göttingen, and passed through areas surrounded by woods, the areas now closing in upon us, now opening and retiring from us, until we came to Hessen Dreisch… They were brewing at the inn – I enquired and found that they put three bushels of malt and five large handfuls of hops to the hogshead. The beer as you may suppose, but indifferent stuff.

My immediate thought was, wait, was Coleridge some sort of proto beer geek? Am I going to find beer on every other page of this book?

Well, we’ll get to that, but, first, let’s unpick the quotation above and see if we can find the place he drank at.

Coleridge wasn’t, it turns out, very good at German place names. There is nowhere called ‘Dreisch’ north east of Göttingen, although there is a Dreiech near Frankfurt. In the same entry, he mentions ‘Rudolphshausen’ and ‘Womar’s Hausen’, neither of which seem to exist either, even on older maps.

Kathleen Coburn identifies the latter as Wollbrandshausen, though, which does make sense, especially when you plot a route from Göttingen to Wollbrandshausen on Google Maps and it happens to take you through Radolfshausen.

Tracking back through the route Coleridge describes, through ‘coombes very much like those about Stowey and Holford… [with] great rocky fragments which jut out from the hills’ via ‘a lofty fir grove’, we reckon Röringen might be the place where Coleridge stopped for his mediocre lunchtime pint. But that’s a bit of a guess. And there’s no obvious old inn there.

So, further suggestions are welcome, especially from Göttingen locals, German speakers who might be able to make sense of Coleridge’s mangling of the local place names, or experts in German history.

While Coleridge was exploring, his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth were hanging out in Goslar, which they hated. Coleridge passed through and wasn’t impressed either and, though this book doesn’t include his thoughts on Gose, it turns out he did translate a bit of German doggerel on the subject:

This Goslar Ale is stout and staunch;
But sure ‘tis brewed by Witches!
Scarce do you feel it warm in paunch,
‘Odsblood, ‘tis in your Breeches!

Just in case you’re not a trained literary analyst like wot I am, it’s suggesting that Gose makes you shit yourself.

As for the recipe, I’ve got no idea why Coleridge thinks it ought to be obvious that beer would be ‘indifferent’. Bushels of malt, handfuls of hops – is he saying it’s not hoppy enough? Too sweet?

Coleridge on British beer and pubs

The next big question: does Coleridge have lots to say about beer elsewhere? Well, no, not really. He was much more into laudanum and laughing gas, which he got from his mate Humphrey Davy.

But there are some nuggets.

In Llangynog, Wales, in July 1794, he had lunch at the village inn, enjoying ‘hashed mutton, cucumber, bread and cheese and beer, and had two pots of ale – the sum total of the expense being sixteen pence for both of us!’ Note the distinction between beer and ale, there.

In 1801, he briefly became obsessed with the idea of making productive use of acorns:

I am convinced that this is practicable simply by malting them… last week as I was turning up some ground in my garden, I found a few acorns just beginning to sprout – and I ate them. They were, as I had anticipated, perfectly sweet and fine-flavoured… I have no doubt that they would make both bread and beer, of an excellent and nutritious quality.

In the same year, he went walking around Sca Fell in Cumbria, and on 4 August stopped at a lonely alehouse at ‘Bonewood’ (Boonwood) above Gosforth where he ‘drank a pint of beer’. And that’s it – that’s the review. You might expect better tasting notes from a poet, mightn’t you? I wonder if the pub was what is now The Red Admiral.

In August 1802, he stopped at The Blacksmith’s Arms, Broughton Mills, where he ‘Dined on oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries’, which sounds pretty good.

Finally, in August 1803, he went to Gretna Green:

A public house with a gaudy daub of Hope. ‘To crown returning Hope’ – no beer! – What then? Whisky, gin and rum – cries a pale squalid girl at the door, a true offspring of whisky-gin-and-rum drinking parents.

It’s been nice to get reacquainted with Coleridge and to be reminded of the pleasure of dipping into a randomly chosen book with beer in mind.