Categories
Beer history

A century before Summer Lightning, Golden Sunlight

Alright, fine, we give in: perhaps Summer Lightning wasn’t the original golden ale.

One of the topics we spent months researching when we wrote Brew Britannia between 2012 and 2014 was the origins of a style that had come to take a substantial chunk of the ale market.

In the end, we broadly agreed with the narrative set out by Martyn Cornell in his excellent 2011 book Amber, Gold & Black: Exmoor Gold may have come first, in 1986, but it was Hop Back Summer Lightning, first sold in 1989, that really kicked off the craze.

It won awards and prompted imitators throughout the 1990s and, eventually, laid to supermarket bestsellers like Thwaites Wainwright, and less popular cash-ins such as John Smith’s Gold.

But we’ve known all along that there were even earlier beers that could be argued to count as golden ales – not least because, again, Cornell acknowledges them in his brief history of the style.

Some are contenders because they were, well, golden.

Others because they were advertised with the phrase ‘golden ale’, or similar.

But most felt like footnotes, failing to tick enough boxes:

  • Very pale in colour.
  • Described as gold or golden.
  • Sold under a brand name referencing sun or summer.
  • Popular and/or influential.

Then, the other day, we came across an 1888 advertisement for one of the early beers Cornell mentions in Amber, Gold & Black and thought, oh, this really does sound like Watkins of Hereford invented golden ale before or around 1887.

"Golden Sunlight" Ale, A light pale golden ale of wonderful value.

SOURCE: Public Record Office/British Library, via Time Gentlemen, Please! by Michael Jones, 1997.

It’s clear from this that Golden Sunlight is definitely a brand name, if not a trademark – and, in fact, the brewery itself eventually came to be known as the Sunlight Brewery to cash-in on the popularity of this particular product.

The beer was, indeed, “light pale”.

And there it is, in black and white: “golden ale”.

Just to cap it off, it was also promoted as being similar to German-style lager, just as Hop Back Summer Lightning would be a century later.

A quick note on dates: we’re a bit suspicious of what is supposed to be an 1851 advertisement for ‘Golden Sunlight Pale Ale’ on the Brewery History Society website. That’s 30-odd years earlier than any other reference to this product in print and, frankly, it looks as if someone drew that ad with a felt-tip pen sometime in the past 40 years. But it’s possible, we suppose, that this ur-golden-ale was first brewed 170 years ago.

It’s probably too much to hope for brewing log to turn up so we can find out more about the colour and likely taste of the beer but we do know from a note in The Brewers’ Guardian for September 1892 that Watkins & Sons was buying up ‘Early Goldings’ hops.

The same article describes the beer as “renowned” and elsewhere in the local press it was referred to as “famous”. (Western Mail, 03/11/1898.)

All of which makes us wonder why golden ale didn’t take off and become a breakaway style in the early 20th century.

Did its similarity to lager do for it in the patriotic fervour of World War I?

Or was it only ever a novelty in a sea of mild, bitter and stout?

Categories
Beer history pubs

Afraid to go to the pub, 1974

Some pubs in the city centre had to restrict services when bar staff were too frightened to report for duty. Bars and lounges normally packed on Friday night were almost deserted. Doors were guarded and people were searched before they went in.

Mr John Hill, manager of The Parisian – an underground bar in Cannon Street, was only able to open one bar because of lack of staff. “Their mothers or their husbands have asked them not to come and they haven’t,” he said.

His normally crowded bar was almost deserted.

Wendy Hughes, Birmingham Daily Post, 23 November 1974

In times of crisis there’s a certain comfort in looking back on previous crunchpoints and realising that we got through them.

In the mid-1970s, the IRA launched a bombing campaign in England which targeted city centres in particular. In November 1974 they planted bombs in two pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people.

There’s been plenty written about the awful immediate effects of the bombing and of the miscarriage of justice that ensued but we want to focus on something else: the fact that these attacks made people afraid to go into town and to go to the pub.

If, as some argue, the point of terrorism is to spread fear and disrupt the economy, the Birmingham bombings were apparently effective.

In the run up to Christmas 1974, England’s second city was unusually, worryingly quiet, as reported in the first instance two days after the bombings, in the article from which the quote that opens this post is taken.

On 26 November, almost a week after the bombings, the same paper had the headline ‘Stores hit as fear keeps away shoppers’:

People were still staying clear of Birmingham city centre yesterday and business was ‘very quiet’ for the third trading day since Thursday’s bombs… Many managers thought trade would pick up by the weekend if the city centre remained quiet… Mr S.N. Hancock, general manager of Rackhams, said: “Trade is much slower than it should be. We are down by about 25 per cent. Perhaps it will pick up by the weekend, provided nothing else happens.”

A quiet Christmas can be hard for a hospitality business to recover from, can’t it?

Ongoing anxiety in the wake of the bombings also prompted other risky behaviour: in December 1974, English fire brigades were forced to issue warnings to publicans against resorting to the locking of rear fire exits as a supposed security measure. (Belfast Telegraph, 30 December 1974.)

It’s worth putting some of this in a broader context.

Throughout 1973, Coventry, another Midlands city, had been in a state of permanent anxiety as a series of bomb hoaxes caused panic, eventually culminating in James McDade’s failed and suicidally fatal attack on the telephone exchange in November that year.

In Birmingham itself, a bomb disposal officer was killed in Edgbaston in September 1973 and there were also constant bomb hoaxes keeping people on edge.

Pubs in particular were targeted at Guildford in September 1974 – another tragedy, another miscarriage of justice – and earlier in November 1974, in London, a bomb thrown into a “pub frequented mainly by soldiers” (name obscured for security reasons, presumably) killed two, including the barman.

We’ve only found one instance so far of a pub operator citing the IRA bombing campaign as the reason for the failure of their business, from the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 3 January 1976:

Coventry’s German-style Bier Keller is to close next week – in the backlash of the terrorist bombings of more than a year ago…. Trade was booming in the Hertford Street underground club until November 1974… “It seems as if the public have been scared off going in places like this,” said Mr David Jones, a director of EMI Cinemas and Leisure, who own the Bier Keller. “This was one of our more profitable establishments until the bomb explosion. Trade did pick up for a short time at one stage for it fell off again.”

It would be interesting to look into local archives documents – licensed victuallers’ meetings, council minutes – to find out if it was generally felt that the bombing campaign had reduced trade in pubs in Midlands cities in the later 1970s.

Categories
Beer history pubs

Pub culture: the tower of pennies for charity

Looking through old brewery in-house magazines from the 1950s and 60s, one recurring image is inescapable: a monstrous pile of pennies on a bar, in the process of being toppled by a celebrity.

Investigating this oddity of pub culture has been on our to-do list for some time but John Clarke (@beer4john) raised it with us recently which prompted us to dig into the archives.

First, we started with our own collection of magazines from Whitbread and Watney’s. Between them, they give a clear idea of when this trend took off and explain the mechanics.

How it worked

The House of Whitbread for spring 1955 has the earliest reference with a wonderful photograph of Mr. R. Back, tenant of The Trooper Inn, Froxfield, Wiltshire, and a customer placing a penny.

Towers of pennies in a pub.

Publicans with a tower of coins.

The Red Barrel for August 1955 has another early reference, with more detail:

Congratulations to Mr and Mrs George Jones of The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, [London] WC2, who, through their efforts and the generosity of their customers collected a tower of coppers, totalling 4,602, and amounting to £19 3s. 5d. The amount netted was given to the Spastics, and the pennies, stuck with beer, nearly reached the ceiling. The ceremony of ‘Pushing the Pennies’, that is tumbling over the tower, aroused considerable interest, including that of Alan Dick of the Daily Herald who reported the event.

The key detail there: the coins were glued together with beer.

It’s also worth pointing out that the National Spastic Society, founded in 1952 to support parents of children with cerebral palsy, and now known as Scope, was a frequent recipient of funds raised from penny towers. We wonder if this was something they suggested to publicans as part of their fundraising activity?

The next entry from the Red Barrel, from October the same year, concerns The Northumberland Arms in Isleworth, West London, offers more info on how these towers were structured and on the fund-raising tactics surrounding them:

The pyramid of pennies shown in the picture was built on a half-pint glass, and so large did it grow that it overtopped the tall figure of Wag Carbine, a regular customer, as he stood on the bar beside it. Carbine craved the favour of pushing over the pyramid of pennies christened ‘Little Willie’. Jack Cannon, the publican, consented, with the proviso that he had £5 to the pennies for the privilege… During the evening of ‘Little Willie’s’ demise shillings were paid for the opportunity to guess the amount collected.

Wag Carbine! What a name.

In total, they raised about £70 which paid for the old folk of the Isleworth Silver Threads to spend a day at the seaside.

When did it start?

Elsewhere, we’ve found reference to this trend having begun in 1954, specifically at The Masons Arms in London’s Fitzrovia district. And here’s evidence that, yes, that pub did have a coin tower at that time:

But it didn’t take long to find earlier examples via the marvellous British Newspaper Archive, such as this from the Birmingham Mail for 10 August 1943:

This is not a Fasces – the symbol of the defunct Fascist regime – but a pillar of British money collected in two months from June 1 to July 31 by patrons of The Corner Cupboard licensed house, Union Street, Birmingham. Including two 10 [shilling] notes and a reinforcement of half-crowns in two layers, the ‘pillar of wealth’ contains about £40 with a pint glass base on which it stands full of silver and octagonal [threepenny] pieces and a V for Victory sign made up of shillings and sixpenny pieces.

There are also earlier references to ‘pyramids of pennies’ outside pubs, at market town carnivals, from the 1930s. As ever, if you know of an earlier example of a tower of coins in a pub, we’d be delighted to hear about it.

For now, though, we’ve got a hazy chronology: it began between the wars, crept into pubs in the 1940s and became a full blown craze in 1954-55.

The celebrity connection

The presence in the film clip above of actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles shows that celebrities were connected with this almost from the beginning.

There are accounts of publicans inviting the Queen to knock down their towers (she didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh sent a cheque) and no shortage of photos like this absolute corker:

Or films like this in which former Goon Show star Harry Secombe does the honours:

In fact, go and spend a few minutes lost in this carefully calibrated Google Image search.

When did it stop?

The short answer is, it hasn’t. When we asked on Twitter, people told us they’ve seen this happen in recent years and here’s an account of a penny-pile pushover event from 2018.

But it’s fair to say its heyday was the 1950s to the 1970s and that its popularity began to tail off after that, perhaps as pubs became more corporate and less characterful.

Or maybe it just began to seem a bit naff with fruit machines and jukeboxes competing for that loose change.

There’s also the fact that on at least one occasion, the vast weight of one of these towers caused material damage to the pub, as reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 16 December 1966:

A pile of pennies – £90-worth of them, collected for charity at the Old Mill Inn, Baginton, was so heavy that the stout oak bar counter cracked under the weight. When two members of Coventry City football team ceremoniously pushed the pile over, it was found there were 2,160 pennies, weighing over three hundredweight. The manager of the inn, Mr. Harold Smith, said today: “Towards the end, we noticed a dip in the counter. Then we could see a crack.”

When you think about it, a precarious tower of metal covered in sticky stale beer doesn’t seem entirely safe or hygienic, does it?

Categories
Beer history pubs

What is the oldest pub in England?

This is an interesting question with all kinds of philosophical implications: is a pub a building, or an entity?

When people ask this, we think they want to know about the oldest historic pub they can go for a drink in – not an old building that was converted to a pub in 1983, or a building that used to be a pub but is now a private home.

The other problem is the tendency of pubs to tell outright fibs about this kind of thing. It turns out that many such claims can be dismantled with a bit of work and you soon learn to ignore any information board that opens with it “It is reputed that…”

In their book Licensed to Sell, published in 2005 and revised in 2011, pub historians Geoff Brandwood, Andrew Davison and Michael Slaughter dedicate a chapter to the myth of ‘Ye Olde Englishe Pube’. They dismiss waspishly claims to great antiquity from several of the best-known contenders, which arguments we’ve drawn on below.

It’s a great book – do buy a copy.

Some contenders for oldest pub

(Ye Olde) Fighting Cocks, St Albans | Claim: 8th century | Brandwood et al are very snarky about this one: the building dates from the 17th century, the licence from the early 19th, and the claim to antiquity is a 20th century development.

Eagle & Child, Stow on the Wold | Claim: 10th century | Not recorded as a pub until the 18th century, the building is from c.1500.

Bingley Arms, Bardsey | Claim: 10th century | Brandwood et al confidently state that this is an 18th century building with no evidence to suggest an earlier founding.

(Ye Olde) Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham | Claim: 1189 | The famous cellars may have been used for brewing at around this date but the pub building dates to the late 17th century.

(Ye Olde) Man and Scythe, Bolton | Claim: 1251 | Supposedly mentioned by name in the town’s market charter of 1251, except… it isn’t, according to this 1892 history of Bolton. The present building is mostly from the 17th century.

The George Inn, Norton St Philip | Claim: 14th century | “Believed to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built inn, it was erected in the late 14th century… [and] refronted about 1475-1500.” – Brandwood et al.

So, the oldest pub is…

The George Inn seems to have a pretty convincing case, only strengthened by the fact that it isn’t called Ye Olde George Inn. If it’s good enough for Big Geoff B, it’s good enough for us.

If you know of other contenders, and can point to evidence to support the claim from a source other than a board inside the pub or a souvenir booklet, we’d be interested to hear more – comment below!

Categories
Beer history

From barley broth to Wompo: a dictionary of beer and pub slang

We’ve been collecting these bits of beer and pub slang for a while and thought they deserved a more permanent home than the occasional Tweet.

act of parliament. c.1785. Military. Small beer, from the legal obligation of landlords to provide five pints of weak beer to each soldier free of charge. (FG85)

admiral of the narrow seas. c.1750. Drunkenly vomiting into the lap of another person. (EP)

Alderman Lushington is concerned. c.1823. Said of someone who is drunk. (FG23)

ale draper. c.1823. Alehouse keeper. (FG23)

barley broth. c.1785. Strong beer. (FG85)

beggar maker. c.1785. Publican. A pub is ‘the beggar maker’s’. (FG85)

belch. c.1823. Beer. (FG23)

belly vengeance. c.1864. Small beer likely to upset your stomach. (H64)

bene bowse. c.1785. Good, strong beer. Thieves cant. (FG85)

blind excuse. c.1823. An obscure pub. (FG23)

bowsing ken. c.1823. An alehouse or gin-shop. (FG23)

bub. c.1823. Strong beer. (FG23)

bubber. c.1823. Drinking bowl. (FG23)

buy the sack. c.1823. To get drunk. (FG23)