We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.
We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.
Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.
Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.
However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. TheCambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.
The Rhubarb Tavern in Barton Hill, Bristol, would be our local if it was open, and we’d love to see someone take it on.
We visited a couple of years back and if you Google the Rhubarb, we’re usually near or at the top of the search results, alongside Burston Cook who are trying to sell the leasehold.
Though we thought we had written something pretty positive, and other people tell us they liked the piece, it occurs to us now that it might make the pub and location sound a little less appealing than is necessarily fair.
With our lofty Google position in mind, we’re writing this post to see if we can encourage potential buyers to give it some thought.
It was originally a farmhouse and some of that structure remains, with a later frontage. There are also some fixtures from a demolished 17th century manor house that once stood nearby.
There’s no doubt it’s in a pretty bad state and will need a lot of work – but it’s also got a lot of potential. For a start, there are currently no other pubs in Barton Hill. That’s a lot of households that aren’t currently being served. Including ours.
A short walk into St Philips, though, and there are taprooms galore and the Cider Box has also recently opened 100 metres down the road. So the Rhubarb could fit quite well into a weekend crawl as well as being the only place to drink on a wet Wednesday night.
The area immediately to the west has been designated a conservation area, in view of the large amount of surviving Victorian industrial architecture. This means that there is a stated intent to keep development of this area in harmony with what’s already there; in practice this could mean more taprooms and breweries. The Rhubarb could find itself on the end of Bristol’s Beer Boomerang™.
The property itself has a lot going for it.
It’s big enough, and has enough distinct sections, to support, say, showing the football in one part while leaving another free for quiet drinking.
There is a beer garden.
There appear to be quite substantial living quarters above.
And that exterior – what a beauty!
It’s the kind of pub you can imagine people saying in a few year’s time: “Can you believe this used to be a bit of a wreck and that nobody used to come here?” Think of the Marble Arch in Manchester by way of comparison.
We’re certainly not the only people with an interest in seeing it do well. There is also a campaign underway set up to save the pub by getting it listed and local CAMRA are all over it.
Baltic porter, Schwarzbier, Helles, Kellerpils, Dunkel, Altbier, Saison, Tripel – Lost & Grounded’s embrace and mastery of Continental beer styles continues to delight us.
For our third round of drinking out since things sort-of reopened on 12 April we went, again, to their taproom about ten minutes from our house. It’s peaceful, well managed and, of course, convenient. That we are developing a crush on the beer doesn’t hurt either.
Long Story, a table beer at 3.2% with pronounced Belgian yeast character, was less successful, with a stale, papery note haunting its tail. But Ray was less bothered by that than Jess; perhaps you’ll love it.
We then moved on to the Schwarzbier, Amplify Your Sound, at 5.2% and £5.50 a pint. Billed simply as ‘dark lager’, you might expect a Dunkel, but this is definitely a degree beyond that – vinyl black, with a coffee-cream head. There is perhaps a passing note of grassy hops but, in the main, this is about the treacly bass notes. Mild without the mud; more well-polished Porsche than Morris Minor.
How often do you see a Baltic porter on offer? We reckon that, for us, it’s been maybe five times in our entire 14-years of beer blogging. So, even if you’re already feeling a bit giddy and 6.8% seems scary, even if it’s £6.50 a pint, you’re obliged by law to order at least a half.
Fortunately, with Running With Spectres (a play on the name of their regular beer Running With Sceptres) Lost & Grounded have nailed it. Rich without being sickly, figgy pudding fruity, it feels like a dignified rebuke to the marshmallow sundae imperial stout merchants. You could also label it ‘double stout’, we reckon – another style that barely exists but which tends to be more warming than intimidating.
Between L&G and Zero Degrees, we’re a little spoiled in Bristol for serious attempts to brew in European styles. But we’d still welcome perhaps one or two more – especially someone who might fancy cloning Jever.
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
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
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.
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.
Matthews’ New History of Bristol or Complete Guide and Bristol Directory, 1793, via ancestry.co.uk
‘The Lives of Two Pioneering Medical-Chemists in Bristol’, Brian Vincent, The West of England Medical Journal, Vol. 116 No. 4, 2016.
Western Daily Press, 15 February 1868.
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.
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.
The Bristol Post has produced a rundown of local food and hospitality businesses “that didn’t survive a year of lockdowns” – but is that a fair way to describe what’s going on?
For starters, there are several businesses on the list that haven’t actually ceased trading, as the article itself acknowledges.
The excellent Gopal’s Curry Shack, for example, has closed its retail unit, but is still operating as a delivery business, and will be attending markets and events when those start up again later this year.
Of course what particularly interests us is the fate of bars and pubs, and there are a few on the list. Again, though, we’re going to quibble – not least because lazily blaming lockdown means ignoring the long-term causes of pub closures:
Economics – you need a reasonable amount of disposable income to go to the pub regularly, and fewer people have this.
Demographics and shifting trends – where are those that do have money going? Are new generations of pub goers coming through?
The ongoing persistence of the leasehold model for pub ownership, which makes it hard for publicans to make a living.
The value of pubs and the land on which they sit to developers.
The Windmill in Bedminster was actually put up for sale by its owners in the spring of 2019 and when we visited for our #EveryPubInBristol project in the autumn of that year was already the subject of a sadly unsuccessful local preservation campaign.
Another pub on the Post’s list is The Swan, not far from where we now live in Barton Hill, which closed for good in May 2020 and has now been bought for conversion by the community group next door. We never got to visit or, rather, chickened out of visiting because as we approached the door a very drunk bloke blocked it and made it clear we weren’t welcome. Now, perhaps we’re reading this incorrectly, but it looked like a pub on its last legs every time we walked past and even if lockdown was the final trigger, it’s hard to imagine it would have lasted much longer under any other circumstances.
The Three Blackbirds, one of the last pubs we visited before lockdown kicked in, is also on the list of supposed lockdown victims listed by the Post. But even their piece includes a statement from the landlady suggesting that the pub was in trouble before lockdown – and that’s certainly how it felt when we dropped in, and whenever we passed.
To be clear, we don’t doubt that there will be casualties from the last year once government support dries up completely – along with publicans’ savings and credit lines.
The Downend Tavern, also on the Post’s list, is perhaps one example. Famous as a pub rock venue and home of the Bristol Blues Club it always struck us as a lively local and seemed in passable health before 2020 came along. But that’s hard to package as a takeaway experience, especially if your clientele skews older and has less disposable income.
One pub not mentioned by the Post is another Barton Hill local, The Rhubarb, which may or may not reopen and is currently without tenants.
We’re still optimistic that people will be so hungry to go to pubs post-lockdown that there might be something of a renaissance. Closed pubs might reopen. Pubs that were limping along and scraping by under an old business model and veteran publicans might come alive with a new approach and new owners.
But the point is, really, that it’s too soon to tell how COVID-19 will affect the overall number of pubs. Let’s just wait and see – and, in the meantime, do what we can to support the pubs we love, either by ordering beer for delivery or donating to crowdfunders.