Categories
breweries bristol

An incomplete history of Smiles Brewery of Bristol, 1977-2005

Smiles Brewery came and went, leaving small traces of itself all over Bristol. As is so often the case, however, it is the breweries that failed in living memory whose stories are hardest to trace.

This post isn’t intended to be definitive. We just want to put together the facts that are available, with a little digging, so that others can find them – and perhaps tell us more.

Why does it matter? Because Smiles was one of the first UK microbreweries, founded in the CAMRA-led boom of the 1970s.

And because – it does not feel an exaggeration to put it this way – it was the pride of Bristol.

It’s also a story familiar to those who’ve tracked the craft beer boom of the past decade or so, with idealism eventually giving way to commercial pressure.

Let’s go back to the start, to the back room of a restaurant, at the tail end of the 1970s.

Bell’s Diner in 2018. It is now Bianchis.
A fair haired man in a check shirt.
John Payne. SOURCE: YouTube (see below).

Smiles Brewery and Bell’s Diner

“It began as a plastic bucket effort,” John Payne, founder of Smiles, told beer journalist Brian Glover. “I ran a vegetarian restaurant with my girlfriend, and we thought we might as well sell decent beer with the meals.” [1]

Payne was born in Scotland in 1953 and came to Bristol later in life. When? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know. If you know, let us know in the comments below. And actually, was he Scottish? This is only mentioned in one source.

What we do know is that from November 1976 he was running Bell’s Diner alongside his partner, Shirley Anne Bell, and by 1977 was brewing on the side.

He was not by any means a professional. The official history of Bell’s Diner suggests that he “began brewing beer in a tea urn under the stairs”.

Another source, a 1980s promotional video for the brewery, of doubtful provenance, says in its voiceover that he “started brewing at university” and then got a “brewing bucket” for Christmas. (The video says this happened in 1978; it was more likely 1976.)

This makes sense. Home-brewing was booming in the late 1970s, with features in national newspapers and equipment increasingly easy to buy in high street shops.

In all accounts of these early days, there is a common theme: the reaction of restaurant customers to Payne’s homebrew was positive. That encouraged him to stick at it, and to think about going professional, on a larger scale.

He asked some pubs, free of any tie to the dominant local giant Courage, to try selling his beer over the bar and report back on customer reaction. [2] The response was good. It was time for phase two.

The exterior of a pub.
The Colston Yard pub in 2017.

Smiles Brewery at Colston Yard

The back page of CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing for November 1977 contained a small story under the headline ‘Bristol Ale’:

The West country is to get its second new brewery within six months… John Payne has produced his traditional Smiles Bitter for his restaurant, Bells Diner, York Road, Bristol, for the past year. Now he has got permission to set up a new brewhouse in the heart of the city at Colston Yard. Production will be about 30 barrels a week and Mr Payne says he already has strong interest from the local free trade.

‘Bristol Ale’, p.12

Colston Yard was a Victorian industrial space off Upper Maudlin Street, behind a row of shops, where there is currently an Indian restaurant called Haveli.

Permission to brew was one thing but paying for the building of a new brewery was another. Payne mortgaged his house to find the £6,000 needed – about £30,000 in today’s money. [3]

The new brewery was ready by 1978 and Payne set about learning how to brew in this new, more professional environment.

In a 1981 interview he said:

In the early weeks I relied heavily on a friend of my father’s, a brewing chemist… He was like a doctor. I would tell him everything I had done and when I had finished he would tell me where I had gone wrong.

‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Payne, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.

By April that year, he was happy with the quality and consistency of the beer being produced.

That first beer, Smiles Best Bitter, was brewed without sugar or malt extracts, with an original gravity of 1040 (about 4% ABV). It was fermented with yeast from the Courage brewery in Bristol. [4]

In November 1978, with winter coming, Payne added a second beer to the line-up: Champion, at 1051 (around 5.3%).

He took on his first employee, Harry Mansfield, the former cellarman at the Bristol Student Union, initially as a part-timer. [5]

They worked flat out through 1978 and 1979, including a particularly hectic Christmas in 1979, which saw them working 18-hour days to brew “265 barrels” in four weeks. [6]

Payne claimed to have drawn no salary himself in this period [7] but it was clear the business was on the right track.

As Brian Glover wrote in his decade-on retrospective:

By 1981 demand had out-stripped production, and the self-made brewery was completely re-equipped to increase capacity three-fold, backed up by a new laboratory.

New Beer Guide, 1988.

In 1982, Smiles acquired its own pub, The Highbury Vaults at the top of St Michael’s Hill. This was a response to the disappearance of freehouses in Bristol as larger brewers such as Allied, Marston’s, Eldridge Pope and Devenish snapped them up.

Payne was especially frustrated by CAMRA’s decision (or rather, that of CAMRA Real Ale Investments) to sell its own Bristol pub to Marston’s:

[They] said they were pulling out of The Old Fox as their job was done. But they sold out just when they were needed as the free trade was beginning to disappear then.

‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, David Jarvie, What’s Brewing, October 1983.

Until this time the brewery’s de facto brewery tap had been The Sea Horse, across the main road from the brewery. When it began to seem under threat, Smiles entered a bidding war with Marston’s and Allied for The Highbury Vaults instead.

They were rumoured to have paid £125,000 for the pub – a shocking price for a small neighbourhood boozer at the time. [8]

Payne doesn’t seem to have wanted to buy a pub, or to have much enjoyed being responsible for it. “It diverts a lot of our attention,” he told CAMRA’s David Jarvie in 1983.

But it was vital because, according to Payne, there were only four other suitable outlets in the city.

A glance at copies of the Good Beer Guide from the period backs this up: almost every pub listed was selling beer from Courage, or was tied to an out-of-town brewery such as Wadworth or Davenport’s.

A vintage lorry outside The Pickwick Inn.
The Smile’s Brewing Co. dray c.1994 by Mark Shirley.

Real People making Real Ale

The brewery continued to grow through the 1980s, as recorded in this rather marvellous artefact – a promotional video apparently from 1984:

There’s not much information on its source, why or exactly when it was made, or who uploaded it. Enjoy it while you can.

It tells us that by the mid-1980s Smiles was brewing more than 3,000 gallons of beer each week (about 83 barrels) with Harry Mansfield now as full-time head brewer.

We also meet three other new employees: Sue Pinnell, a brewery assistant; Nicholas Martin, a spectacularly bearded drayman; and Peter Taylor, a rather dashing marketing and sales executive.

There are various clues to the brewery’s brand identity in this video: old-fashioned barroom piano music; the vintage Bedford dray of c.1950; and faux-vintage hand-painted graphics on every surface.

The slogan at the end is: “Smiles – real people making real ale.”

A second video from the same source is an out-and-out advertisement, attempting to compete with those from, say, Courage, or Whitbread.

This has more of the same, including flat caps all round, knitted vests and ten-sided pint glasses. Smiles, the advert implies, has been serving Bristol for years – for generations, even. 

Never mind the facts.

Four young people in 1990s clothing stand slightly awkwardly around the bar in a pub.
A promo photo for the newly launched Brewery Tap (Colston Yard) via What’s Brewing for February 1992. We think that’s Nicholas Martin, the pub’s designer, on the right.

The Pride of Bristol

In 1992, when the brewery was approaching its 15th anniversary and owned multiple pubs, John Payne gave a rare interview to Stephen Cox for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing.

Cox was a fan of Smiles and the piece is celebratory, not only of Smiles 15 years’ of success but also of Payne’s approach to the business of beer.

“I dream of locking some brewery executives in the Tap for a week with John Payne”, he wrote. “But I doubt the common sense would rub off.”

In the interview, Payne attempted to articulate “the Smiles Way”:

All you can do is be committed to a quality product, put out your stall, and let them decide. If it’s any good, it doesn’t need advertising.

A colleague, Martin Love, expanded on the idea: “It’s something to do with not forcing things down people’s throats.”

We learn that Smiles’ pubs didn’t serve stout or draught lager on principle, only the brewery’s own beer, along with guest ales from other independents.

Nor did they have gambling machines.

“If you measure the space they take up,” Payne is quoted as saying, “and fill that space with drinkers, you make as much money. Besides, pubs are about talking to people.”

This preceded similar policies and rhetoric from the micropub movement by about 20 years.

All of these principles were put into practice in a brand new pub, The Brewery Tap, constructed in front of the brewery premises on Upper Maudlin Street in 1991. (It was later known as The Colston Yard.)

It was notable for opening at 8am to serve breakfast, extending the business’s viable hours beyond those when it could legally sell alcohol. [9]

In 1992 it won CAMRA’s pub design award – the first time any pub had proved worthy of the prize since 1985. An article in What’s Brewing described its “clean cut, attractive appearance”:

Ash wood and a slate bar, together with a black-and-white tiled floor, give an impression that is reminiscent of a good Belgian café. The Brewery Tap manages to be in the mainstream of the traditional pub without resorting to tiresome alehouse clichés.

Behind the scenes, though, the brewery was struggling.

Four men in suits outside a pub.
From left to right: Martin Love (sales manager), Ian Williams (new owner), John Payne (founder), Nigel (Harry?) Mansfield (head brewer).

The management buy-out trend

A month after Stephen Cox’s gushing interview with John Payne, and in the same month the design award victory was announced, Iain Loe’s regular column in What’s Brewing for February 1992 included this item:

The first brewery news to reach me is another brewery takeover – the first of 1992. But the deal doesn’t feature a well-known company whose shares are traded on the Stock Market but a micro-brewer who has sold his company to someone who liked the brewery enough to stump up £2 million… The purchaser, Ian Williams, has an accountancy background… and has financed the £3 million deal, which includes covering bank borrowings of £1 million, with the help of a £½ million input from [private equity firm] 3is.

Williams had worked for the accountancy firm which managed Smiles’ accounts and he knew the business well. So, although not part of the Smiles management team, this was nonetheless reported as a form of ‘management buyout’.

Management buyouts were a big thing in the 1990s – see the Redruth Brewery for another example.

More usually, they involve people already working in a business to acquire it from either the founder (perhaps a hippy hipster brewer) or a larger corporate owner (such as Whitbread) which had lost interest.

They offered a route for businesses that were stumbling or failing to go on, with new leadership that was either more money-minded or more passionate about the product, depending on circumstances.

Smiles continued to expand under Ian Williams until it eventually had 17 pubs – a substantial estate for a regional independent less than 20 years old.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable. In November 2000, most of the pub estate was sold to London brewery Young’s for £5.8 million. [10]

Thereafter, what was at that point Bristol’s only remaining brewery seemed to be in retreat, though local real ale drinkers continued to regard the beer fondly.

The brewery was sold again in 2003 to City Centre Breweries Ltd, a new company run by Ron Kirk, formerly managing director of Mansfield Brewery.

Then, in December 2004, it was announced that the brewery had gone into administration. Staff were laid off and production of Smiles-branded beer was moved to the Highgate Brewery in Walsall. [11]

Smiles-branded beers seem to have disappeared from the market altogether after 2007, at least as far as we can tell from online beer review websites.

Tatty old posters on a brown pub wall.
Smiles memorabilia at The Highbury Vaults.
A tatty photo of men drinking beer.
A still from the 1984 promo video on the pub wall.

Just about remembered

There are still occasional reminders of Smiles to be seen around Bristol, most notably at The Highbury Vaults.

Beneath 20-plus years of Young’s branding can be seen the odd bit of Smiles signage – and a photograph from that early 1980s promo shoot still hangs on the wall in the snug.

We’re frustrated by the bittiness of the story we’ve been able to tell above. It feels unfinished – and we’re certain people are going to have additions and corrections.

To which we say, bring it on!

We’d love version two of this post to have more human voices, more pictures, and more detail from the frontline.

If you worked at Smiles, or, indeed, founded it, we’re contact@boakandbailey, or @boakandbailey on Twitter, if you want to get in touch.

Notes

  1. New Beer Guide, 1988, p.52.
  2. ‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Pryce, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.
  3. Pryce, 1981.
  4. ‘Selling beer: it’s Payne and Love’, What’s Brewing, January 1992.
  5. Promotional video, 1984.
  6. Pryce, 1981.
  7. Pryce, 1981.
  8. ‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, 1983.
  9. CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1992, published in 1991.
  10. The Times, 17 November 2000.
  11. ‘Smiles Brewery Closed’, Richard Brooks, Pints West, Spring 2005.
Categories
Beer styles breweries bristol

West Country Weizen

Bristol is good at German-style wheat beer, it turns out – we’ve had three this year that might be beer-of-the-year contenders.

It makes sense, we suppose. When we think of the defining Bristol style, what pops into our heads is slightly hazy, soft-edged, fruity, barely-bitter pale ale.

From there to Weizen is only a short hop.

The first one that grabbed our attention earlier this year was Bristol Beer Factory’s Lost in Munich. You might regard it as a step between the two styles, in fact, being an open homage to Schneider’s Hopfenweisse – Weizen with IPA hopping.

BBF’s version, available in 440ml cans, actually pours stubbornly clear, or at least only faintly hazy. It has vanilla in the aroma and, of course, a bunch of banana. At 5%, it’s not as strong as the Schneider original – or, indeed, as most standard German wheat beers.

We liked it so much we bought a box of 12 to drink at home. Perhaps others don’t share our enthusiasm, though, because it was discounted to £25.60 – about £2 per tin. At present, they don’t have any in stock.

A bigger surprise, perhaps, was Left Handed Giant’s take. We say it’s a surprise because we don’t always click with LHG beers, which often sound and look better than they taste.

LHG Hefeweizen is another 5%-er and, we gather, is regularly available at their colossal, rather impressive brewpub-taproom at Finzel’s Reach, on the site of the old Courage brewery.

We found it on draught at The Swan With Two Necks and Ray (the bigger wheat beer fan of the two of us anyway) loved it so much he stuck on it for the entire session.

Our notes say ‘pretty convincing… less banana, more strawberry’. The point is, though, that it isn’t a ‘twist’ on the style; it doesn’t have fruit, or unusual hops, or breakfast cereal. It’s a straight-up, honest beer.

The same might be said for Good Chemistry’s punningly-named Weiss City, also with an ABV of 5% (was there a memo?), and on draught at their taproom the last couple of times we’ve been.

To underline the point we made at the start of this post, here’s how it looks alongside their session IPA, Kokomo Weekday, which is at the back:

Two similar looking beers, both hazy and golden.

We’re not sure we’d know it wasn’t an authentic German product if we were served it blind, in appropriate glassware.

That is a problem, of course: all the examples above were served in standard UK pint glasses, with little room for the customary meringue-whip head.

Perhaps at some point we’ll re-run the wheat beer taste-off we did a few years ago from which we concluded…

German wheat beer is more subtle than we had realised — an end-of-level-boss technical challenge for brewers. Too much of those characteristic aromas and flavours and it tips over into caricature, or just becomes sickly. Despite looking dirty, it actually needs to be really clean to work: acidity knocks it right off course, and there’s no room for funk or earthiness. The carbonation has to be exactly calibrated, too, or the beer simply flops: bubbles are body.

It feels as if perhaps things have moved along since then. But until we drink these Bristol beers alongside, say, Franziskaner (bang at the centre of the style in our minds) then it’s hard to say for sure.

Categories
bristol pubs

Pub & Club News – optimism and energy

Our local Pub & Club News, printed on folded and stapled sheets of A4 in black-and-white, is a reminder of a world where beer isn’t everything. From roast dinners to rock music, pubs are about so much more.

We like to pick up a copy of PNCN, as it’s sometimes abbreviated, whenever we come across it. It’s usually stacked on a table or shelf near the door, shouting out “FREE ISSUE – PLEASE TAKE ONE!” from the cover.

It might be alongside the local CAMRA magazine, Pints West, or perhaps with a pile of flyers advertising a local hair salon.

We found the most recent edition, for May 2022, volume 32, issue 361, at The Horseshoe in Downend, and flipped through it as we drank Greene King IPA and ate deep-fried snacks.

It’s almost entirely made up of advertisements with just the bare minimum amount of editorial material. That includes a report on the performance of Yate Town FC and notes on the Chipping Sodbury and Yate Ladies’ Darts League:

Congratulations to everybody who took part this year. This was our first time back since 2020 and we were all a little out of practice but I think we all enjoyed getting back on the oche and seeing friends again.

The ads are where the real interest lies, though, giving publicans space to set out what they believe makes their pub special.

What that isn’t, generally, is real ale. In the whole publication there are only a couple of mentions of CAMRA and – remember this? – Cask Marque.

Instead, the emphasis tends to be on the ethos…

Gilly and Dave’s motto is
‘Come in as a Stranger, leave as a Friend’

Lynne and Steve welcome customers old and new

Brendan, Becky & team offer a warm welcome to all

Ang, Ian & staff offer a warm welcome to all

Jemma, James & staff offer a warm welcome to all

…or the food…

SUNDAY ROAST DELIVERED TO YOUR DOOR
Small £7 Medium £9.50 X/Large £13.50

Friday 6th – BURGER BUS in the car park 4-8pm

Seniors Menu, Monday-Friday, 2 course £6.99, 3 course £7.99

Small sausage (plain) £1.00

…or an unusual drinks menu…

BEST PLACE TO GET YOUR THATCHERS SLUSH AND FROZEN DAIQUIRI

THATCHERS INFUSED CIDERS NOW ON-SALE HERE!!
Dark Berry, Bloody Orange and Cloudy Lemon

Why not book a PROSECCO BRUNCH!
Unlimited Prosecco for 2 hours and a beautifully fresh Ploughman’s lunch

Full selection of flavoured Gins and Sambucas

…or price…

Serving ‘Probably the cheapest beer in the village’

Penny puddings! 1p for dessert!

Refreshing offers – all day, everyday, *new* Heineken Silver – 2 for £5 in May

Serving Tribute @ £2 a pint!!!

…or facilities and events…

Large family beer garden, heated patio area, bird aviary, meerkats and rabbits for the children to enjoy!

EVERY TUESDAY EVENING
AMERICAN TRUCKS CAR SHOW
GATES OPEN 6PM – FREE ENTRY
BBQ & MUSIC FROM ALEX
Large garden for displaying vehicles
Everyone and bikes welcome

JOIN US FOR THE QUEEN’S PLATINUM JUBILEE CELEBRATIONS

…or music:

KARAOKE with DJ GRAVY

LIVE MUSIC with WHISKEY CHASERS and music with SIZZLING DAVE

ROCKABILLY NIGHT with THE RHYTHM SLICKS and DJs Slugs and Alex

KLEZMER SESSION (8pm)
(Balkan/Gypsy)

DJ DAMPY (3pm)

What comes across is the sheer amount of effort people are putting in to keep their pubs and communities buzzing and alive.

There’s evidence of diversification into takeaway and home delivery, for example, while others have side hustles – “Why not visit the Plant Barn adjacent to the pub?” – and niches: “Four dart oches… Dart teams required.”

And these ads, in their chaotic, Victorian circus poster style, are alluring.

They make us want to visit – to hear the ska bands, eat the cream teas, see the meerkats; to come as strangers and leave as friends.

You can also find Pub & Club News online at pncnews.co.uk

Categories
bristol pubs

When it comes to pubs, you’ve got to have a system

When you’re faced with overwhelming choice, you need a strategy. Last weekend, we adapted an approach that’s worked with Belgian beer lists to help us choose which pubs to visit.

For beer, it goes like this:

  1. drink something completely new to us
  2. something we’ve not drunk for a long time
  3. and one that’s a stone cold classic

In category two you’ll often find things like Charles Quint or the various Duvel knockoffs. They’re beers we don’t remember especially fondly, or at all.

Category three is where you find Duvel itself, Westmalle Tripel, de la Senne, De Ranke, and so on.

This really works for us as it balances our desire to try new things with our increasing unwillingness to waste alcohol units on something we have to slog through – especially when the best beer in the world is so readily available.

For pubs, we hoped, the same might hold true.

We still have between 50 and 100 new pubs to visit for our #EveryPubInBristol challenge. Covid killed our momentum on this and we’ve been struggling to pick it up again.

The problem is, they’re increasingly far flung; rarely near each other (or, indeed any other pubs at all); and, let’s be honest, not particularly attractive from the outside. 

However, we probably do better at visiting completely new pubs than revisiting ones that for whatever reason we just didn’t click with.

There’s been many a time when we’ve finished a visit to a new pub, and said something like “That was fine, wasn’t it? If we lived round here we’d come here more often.”

Which means, in practice, that we never go again.

But pubs do change ownership and direction, sometimes for worse, sometimes very much for better, and we know we could be missing out on some newly-polished gems by sticking to reliable favourites.

To put the theory into practice, we planned a trip to Southville which would include The Avon Packet (new to us), The Old Bookshop (we went once in 2018) and then a city centre favourite, to be confirmed based on how the afternoon had gone.

This was a great success.

We’d heard various positives about The Avon Packet even though it doesn’t look all that welcoming from the wrong side of the heavy net curtains. Anything could be going on in there.

We came in as the server was part way through the biggest bank holiday lager-and-chaser order of all time. That gave us time to take in the decor, barely changed from the photo in our 1975 pub guide.

Of key interest to us was the mirrored Bass box on the bar because the pub is famous for its Bristol-style (flat) Bass.

Flat Bass (Ray) and creamy Guinness (Jess) duly obtained we went out into the unexpectedly huge and bird-filled garden. There is a duck enclosure and, possibly due to the supply of feed, a deafening chatter of birds from the nearby hedge.

The atmosphere was great and the pub very much ‘proper’ making this yet another great example of why we do #EveryPubInBristol – to make sure we don’t overlook hidden gems through sheer laziness or cowardice.

The Old Bookshop.

When we visited The Old Bookshop almost four years ago we wrote a note: “Is it a pub? More like a cool bar in Kazimierz.” (Think Krakow’s answer to Shoreditch.) We can’t remember what we drank but the fact we didn’t write anything down suggests it didn’t especially grab us. 

We’d heard the offer had been revamped, however, so were hopeful of an interesting round or two. But we weren’t expecting to like it as much as we did.

We’d assumed that the relaunch of a bar in trendy Southville might mean more cans from breweries like Deya and Cloudwater – not our thing.

We were totally wrong.

What we found was a small, well-curated and varied beer list, including Tegernsee Helles, De Ranke XX, a cask beer from Elusive, and an enormous range of lovingly described ciders and, er, mezcals.

It isn’t cheap. Tegernsee was towards £6 a pint, for example. But there is a house ale at just over £4 and third-of-a-pint measures are available. More to the point, a lot of thought and care has clearly gone into this list and its presentation.

The place had been opened out, too. There’s now some pavement seating and a lot more air and light inside. The bar is, still, slightly bizarrely, an old piano.

We stayed for a second round and considered a third, thus immediately promoting it into the category three. Wanting to complete our plan, however, we headed into town to the Llandoger Trow.

This is a pub that has similarly made the transition for us from ‘once in a blue moon’ to regular haunt.

It’s fascinating because the crowd is the same as before, and the location puts it squarely on the route of stag dos and pub crawls, but the beer offer is probably the best in Bristol right now in terms of range.

Lager is a speciality, in all its forms, including Märzens, Weissbiers and Dunkels.

There’s enough local keg to keep visitors happy but also four real ale taps, usually including at least one northern classic. This time it was Plum Porter. That promise will keep us coming back for a good while yet.

Categories
20th Century Pub bristol pubs

A wake for the pubs of East Bristol

The neighbourhoods of Barton Hill, Lawrence Hill and Redfield in East Bristol are something of a graveyard for pubs, it turns out. On Wednesday 16 March, I attended the wake.

The Barton Hill History Group, itself founded in a pub in 1983, tracks changes, gathers information, and engages the community in the collection of memories.

A talk at a local social club was part of that process of outreach.

In his introduction local historian Andrew Jones explained how, by the 1960s, the number of pubs in Barton Hill had dwindled to a mere eight. Then, with eyes wide, he asked the audience: “How many pubs are there now?”

A collective sigh-groan went up.

“None!”

Mention of the closure of The Rhubarb in 2020, the last pub in the area, was greeted with similar mournful sounds.

Those continued throughout the evening, occasionally mixed with cries of wistful delight.

One thing Mr Jones and his colleague David Cheesley did especially well was to use pubs as anchor points for explaining how the very shape of the streets has changed.

Great Western Road, for example, named for the enormous cotton works, no longer exists.

Once an important arterial road, its line was broken when flats were built in the post-war period.

Now only its tail-end, Great Western Lane, survives.

Of its three pubs – the upper, middle and lower houses, as they were known – only The Lord Nelson can be seen today, in the final stages of conversion to flats.

The Lord Nelson after post-war refurbishment. SOURCE: Barton Hill History Group.

When a picture of The Lord Nelson in its prime appeared on the screen, there was a ripple through the crowd.

Grey and white-haired audience members remembered drinking there relatively recently.

They also recalled their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers visiting – and scrapping in the street outside.

Mr Cheesley’s photographs are remarkably unremarkable.

He took most of them himself between the 1980s and the present and many have that inherently nostalgic quality that comes with images shot on film.

A picture of a Ford Cortina parked outside a tatty looking pub, cast in a warm Kodak glow, feels like a window through time – not to Great Events but to everyday life.

Other pictures, often in black-and-white, he retrieved from the waste bin at the council planning office where he worked for decades.

Taken for valuation purposes, usually shortly before pubs were demolished, they’re less vivid but arguably more valuable.

They capture pubs that disappeared in the 1960s and 70s, including those on streets that were sacrificed for The Roundabout.

Oh, The Roundabout – the villain of the piece, mention of which caused members of the audience to boo and mutter.

Bristol’s post-war redevelopment put cars first. If that meant breaking important roads in two, severing community connections, and demolishing street after street, so be it.

The Lawrence Hill Roundabout is a great crater in the ground surrounded by tower blocks.

It used to be where Lawrence Hill joined the city centre: a major road lined with shops, churches and factories, with terraces and backstreets behind. Now, it’s a void.

Several pubs went too, of course, including what strikes Jess and me as perhaps the most significant loss: The Glass House on Lawrence Hill, knocked down in 1969.

The Glass House. SOURCE: simondsfamily.me.uk
A tower block by a main road.
The approximate site of The Glass House as it looks in 2022.

Whereas many of the other lost pubs were fairly modest, The Glass House was a substantial main road gin-palace-type pub, of which Bristol has relatively few surviving examples.

For the Barton Hill History Group, there’s a particular frustration: how can there be no photos of the interior of such a well-loved, well-remembered, well-photographed pub?

“We had our wedding reception there!” shouted one elderly woman.

“I used to go to the pigeon loft!”

“There used to be a big pair of horns above the bar – the Buffs!”

But nobody said, “I’ve got an album full of pictures.”

Maybe none will ever turn up. Maybe none were ever taken, because who on earth took a camera to an ordinary working class pub in the 1960s?

(This is a general problem for pub historians. If you have photos of pub interiors from before about 1980, do find a way to share them.)

As pints of cider, lager and Old Speckled Hen went down, audience participation became more frequent:

“I used to play bagatelle at The Royal Table.”

“The skittle alley there was bloody terrible – you could throw it right down the middle and it would always go left or bloody right.”

“It was only small but they used to have a dancefloor there anyway.”

The St George’s Hall in 2022.

To my surprise, the pub that got perhaps the strongest reaction of the entire night was The St George’s Hall, a recently-closed Wetherspoon pub on Church Road. 

It wasn’t an attractive pub – not a JDW flagship – nor especially historic.

But as the older pubs closed, one by one, or hippified and gentrified, it’s perhaps understandable that ‘Spoons became an important community hub. It was somewhere everyone could afford to drink.

Towards the end of the night, there was some grumbling about “demographic changes”.

The reason the pubs have gone, the argument goes, is that there are too many people in the area who don’t drink, or don’t drink in pubs.

We don’t really buy that.

But if you do, here’s a thought experiment: if you could click your fingers and fill every flat and house in East Bristol with white working class families, how many pubs could the area support?

Probably no more than it has now. Probably fewer.

Nobody has any money – and the fact is that the days when people spent multiple nights per week at their local have passed.

The front of the social club with a Greene King ale banner.
The Board Mill Social Club in 2021.

In the meantime, the venue for the talk, The Board Mill Social Club, allows something of that ‘traditional’ pub life to go on.

On a Wednesday night in March there was a game of skittles underway, a crowd around the bar, and a buzz in the air. With ale at £3 a pint, and no real alternative, you can forgive a bit of utilitarian clubland decor.

There are also some cautiously optimistic noises in the campaign to save The Rhubarb with multiple credibly parties apparently interested in running it as a pub.

Barton Hill might not be able to support eight pubs but surely there are enough drinkers to keep one alive.

Main image adapted from a postcard from Know Your Place Bristol.