I paid a flying visit to Tap East the week before last to see my brother. While I was there I tried the Pilsner by Pillars Brewery.
“Do you know it’s made round the corner from where we grew up?” asked my brother.
“Brewed on an industrial estate in Walthamstow – isn’t everything these days?”
And then the two of us took a moment to ponder on how weird that is and how far things have come for beer in Waltham Forest, with several breweries and talk of a rival beer mile.
Pubs that were on the brink of closing have been ‘rescued’ and you certainly don’t go short of a Sunday roast and a hazy pale ale.
And while it’s easy to moan about gentrification, this isn’t a case so much of pushing out existing traditional businesses because there are way more decent places to drink now than there ever were.
When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife.
And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.
Talking this through with Ray, we concluded that Waltham Forest these days is the perfect combination of shed-loads (literally) of bona fide industrial estates, not just converted railway arches; with good transport connections; and an increasingly young, wealthy demographic.
That must make it a great seedbed for new breweries and a good option for established breweries looking to move or expand.
We asked London beer experts Des de Moor and Jezza for their opinions, by way of testing our assumptions.
The latter, editor of the excellent Beer Guide London, confirmed my perception of a recent explosion: “That section has certainly grown remarkably in the last year or two in particular.”
And both Des and Jezza came up with the same overarching explanation. Des happens to have been giving this some thought lately as he’s been working on an imminent new edition of his CAMRA guide to London pubs. Here’s how he expresses the challenge for London brewing businesses and the appeal of Waltham Forest:
Your task is to find an ‘up and coming’ area that already has, or is near to somewhere that has, a bit of hipster buzz, and over the coming years is likely to attract a population who will drink and talk about your beer, but still has relatively affordable industrial space and where you won’t have a problem getting an on-licence… Walthamstow, and particularly the area where all the new breweries are opening up, to the west of the historic centre along Blackhorse Road, is one of the few places that scores highly on all these factors. This is part of the Lea Valley, historically one of London’s largely industrial areas as the risk of flooding from the Lea discouraged housing development.
Jezza and Des also highlighted a point we’d missed which is that the local council has been keen to encourage craft breweries and other businesses, “even to the extent of partnering in a pub that showcases breweries in the borough” as Des put it, referring to the Welcome to the Forest Bar.
What about the Pilsner, though – was it any good? Yes, rather to my surprise, it was absolutely fantastic – really crisp and clean, as if it had been brewed in a Bavarian city somewhere rather than round the back of my old primary school.
Perhaps the next step could be to build a sprawling Munich style beer garden down by the reservoirs…?
George Dodd’s The Food of London is something of an overlooked gem published in 1856. Among many other passages worthy of attention in their own right, there’s a fantastic rundown of the naming of London pubs.
It’s great for three reasons:
Where other writers might have skimmed the surface, Dodd provides a detailed list of London pub names with a count of how many there are of each type.
It highlights some genuinely bizarre names that we’d have thought were made up if we’d encountered them in fiction.
There’s a certain wit and poetry in his writing that makes a list amusing.
First, though, there’s a bit about the sheer volume of pubs in London at this time, in the wake of the 1830 Licensing Act:
In relation to the metropolis only, the number of public-houses is of course enormous — intended, as they are, to supply malt-liquor to two million and a half of drinkers. In London, the licensed victuallers are probably about 4500; while the beer-sellers are somewhat over half this number — very likely 7000 altogether, equal to one in about every 45 houses, or one to 350 inhabitants.
If you’re interested, the full text provides further detail of the numbers of pubs, and pubs per household, for various districts, such as Norton Folgate.
The number of pubs is what drives the variety of names Dodd records – if you’ve only got one pub in the village, The Red Lion will do. If there are ten pubs on the street, you’d better start thinking about a ‘distinctive brand’ that will provide ‘differentiation’.
Because, as we say above, the writing has wit and rhythm, we’ve presented the pub passage presented complete, below, with paragraph breaks and small edits for ease of reading.
Our advice: read it aloud to really catch the poetry of it.
The public-houses of London are as motley an assemblage as can well be imagined — so far as signs are concerned. We find among them about 70 royal dukes – Cambridge, Clarence, Cumberland, Gloucester, Sussex, and York; a few royal duchesses; 60 or 70 Georges and George the Fourths; Victorias and Royal Alberts in great abundance; 80 Crowns and 20 Crown and Anchors; 70 King’s Arms and 90 King’s Heads; 20 Queen’s Arms and 50 Queen’s Hèads.
Next comes a menagerie of extraordinary animals – 30 Green Men, with or without Stills, Bells, and French Horns; 120 Lions – red, white, blue, or black; 25 Black Horses, and 45 White; 70 White Harts; 55 Swans, black or white as the case may be – and so forth.
Then we have a series of couplets – 55 Coach and Horses; 25 Horse and Grooms; 55 Rose and Crowns; and numerous Ships, combined in an extraordinary way with Blue Balls, Blue Coat Boys, Punchbowls,‘Rising Suns, Shears and Shovels.
The system of numeration has been carried out by the licensed victuallers more fully than they themselves, perhaps, are aware; for we shall find One Tun, Two Bells, Three Suns, Four Swans, Five Pipes, Six Cans, Seven Stars, Eight Bells, Nine Elms, Ten Bells, and Twelve Bells: let any enterprising publican hit upon Eleven something – Cricketers, Virgins, or what not – and the duodecimal system will be complete. Some numbers are great favourites, especially number three, which develops itself in all the varieties of Three Brewers and Three Colts; three each of Compasses, Cranes, Cups, Doves, Elms, Foxes, Goats, Hats, Herrings, Horseshoes and Johns; Three Jolly Bakers, Three Jolly Butchers, and Three Jolly Gardeners; Three Kings, Three Loggerheads and Three Lords (three loggerheads between three kings and three lords might appear sarcastic, were not the order of the alphabet alone responsible); three Mariners, Merry Boys, Neats’ Tongues, Nuns, Pigeons, Spies, Sugar-loaves, Stags, Suns, Swedish Crowns and Wheat Sheaves.
A wonderful display of tapsters’ ingenuity occurs in such signs as Blade Bone, Coffee-pot, Essex Serpent, Knave of Clubs, Lilliput Hall, Naked Boy and Woolpack, Old Centurion, Pickled Egg, Prospect of Whitby, Tippling Philosopher, Widow’s Son, Valiant Trooper, Sun in Splendour, Running Footman, Experienced Fowler, Good Man, Kentish Wag and World Turned Upside Down.
Can you believe there was ever really a pub called The Pickled Egg? Or The Three Spies? Or the bloody Blade Bone!?
Well, there was a Blade Bone trading in Bethnal Green as recently as 2000, demolished in 2016, according to WhatPub.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was popular with skinheads in the 1970s.
If you tried to name a pub that now, we suspect the licencing authorities would attempt to discourage it.
But we’d be quite excited to drink at The Tippling Philosopher if anyone fancies reviving that.
The 1858 book The Night Side of London by James Ewing Ritchie offers an overview of places of entertainment in the capital, from music halls to proto-nightclubs. Most were built around pubs and all seem to have been permanently soaked with booze.
Ostensibly, this is a moralising tract: alcohol ruins lives, Ritchie argues, and nobody out at night is on the path to righteousness.
At the same time, like Mondo Cane and other ‘documentary’ films of the 1960s, its disapproving tone is at odds with the titillating nature of the content. In fact, it almost amounts to a guidebook for visitors seeking London’s naughtiest neighbourhoods.
It’s probably also worth saying at this point that in places, it’s an uncomfortable read: Ritchie is blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish people for everything from running sweat-shops to pimping to clip-joints. And just in case there’s any doubt, he even throws in a few references to the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’. This seems to be at the root of his objective to alcohol, in fact – that it is weakening the mighty master race, and so on and so forth. Anyway…
The single most interesting thread is its perfect capturing of the moment when pubs and music halls began to branch apart from their common roots.
It sat in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by railway lines and “monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas… full of ragged children, hideous old woman, and drunken men”. The Canterbury Music Hall, though still boozy, the author reluctantly admits, was relatively more sober than the alternatives:
A well-lighted entrance attached to a public-house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and nine- pence if we do the lobby and ascend into the balcony.We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a very handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding fifteen hundred persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse shoe. At the opposite end to which we enter is the platform, on which is placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage… Let us look round us; evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics, or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts there. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen, who confidentially inform each other that there is “no end of talent here,” and that Miss “is a doosed fine gal;” and here, as elsewhere, we see a few of the class of unfortunates, whose staring eyes would fain extort an admiration which their persons do not justify. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of the ladies has also a beneficial effect…
The book concludes with a detailed portrait of The Eagle Tavern, famous for its pleasure gardens, and another nascent music hall, where people sat “eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer”.
For more on the birth of the music hall, read Lee Jackson’s excellent book Palaces of Pleasure, published earlier this year.
The roughest pubs in London get looked at, too – those on Ratcliffe Highway, which ran out of London through the East End to Limehouse. We are told that this notoriously dangerous stretch of road smelled worse than Cologne, or even Bristol. (Cheeky bastard.) Here, sailors would go wild spending their earnings from the last voyage, lured into clip joints by prostitutes who would drink water while the sailors downed gin.
One victim, James Hall, spent a month staying at a pub on Clive Street run by a Mr Glover, where he burned through £30 by drinking:
20 pints of rum… 20 quarts of beer… 8 glasses of rum… 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale… 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy… 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum… 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer…
…and so on.
Another interesting observation, in a chapter on ‘Discussion clubs’, is that pubs in crowded markets have always resorted to novelty and spectacle to draw in custom:
It is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirees Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief — actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer.
Discussion clubs were one such entertainment:
Now, in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville ; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers’ Hall, and another large room in Shoe Lane. These are [free but] you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals.
It’s hard to imagine live debating being much of a draw these days but back then, before television panel shows and daily news programmes, it might have seemed fun.
Doctor Johnson’s Tavern, which we think is The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, gets a pen portrait, too:
[There] are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present… They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beery. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to “Islin’ton” tonight. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about ‘Lovely Spring’ but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I cannot tell.
That last line is fairly typical of the author: even if a bloke looks to be having fun, he must be inwardly tortured.
As well as music halls, clubs and pubs, there were also boxing pubs…
We enter, we will say, Bang Up’s hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening ; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worthwhile to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up’s bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money… [We] find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits — imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom’s lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then — for the room is a complete Walhalla — we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villainous foreheads, all “vacant of our glorious gains,” heavy eyes, thick bull necks…
…and 600 or so pubs with billiards rooms attached to pubs, as well as standalone billiard rooms with their own bars.
The most interesting bit of the whole book, given our recent pondering on gentrification and the research we did into the rise of the ‘improved public house’ for 20th Century Pub, is a chapter on the ‘Respectable public house’, which is…
…situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier- glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare… Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly’s, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of show is cultivated to an alarming extent. “Let us be genteel or die,” said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropolis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers’ flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.
This, from the 1850s, could almost be a description of a genteel London pub of today – one of those posh Fuller’s joints, maybe. The clientele according to Ritchie’s account was bank directors, railway officials and City boys. This type of pub, he says, was their equivalent of the working class beerhouse or gin shop and, of course, is sure to spell doom for them and their impressive careers in the long run.
The single most effective portrait of an individual pub is of one frequented by costermongers, “in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house”. Costermongers were street traders who wandered around selling cheap food and were famous for their ‘backslang’, such as ‘top of reeb’ for ‘pot of beer’. Here’s the scene:
Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives… The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character… [As] the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten… the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious…
Our edits above remove a lot of judgemental asides. Let’s be clear – the author does not approve of this kind of thing at all. It’s just the truth can’t help shining through: these people had hard lives and found happiness and companionship in the pub.
There are also a few stray beer-related nuggets and facts scattered throughout the text:
London consumed 43,200,000 gallons of porter and ale each year.
In London, “according to Sir R. Mayne”, there were 3,613 beer shops, 5,279 public houses, 13 wine rooms.
People were accompanying oysters with pale ale – not stout.
And, finally, there’s this piece of temperance-flavoured philosophy:
The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun.
In other words, it’s the socialising that makes you merry, not the booze. And, temperance propaganda aside, there might be something in that.
You can find the full text of The Night Side of Londonvia the Hathi Trust and no doubt elsewhere, too.
Is the Dog & Bell in Deptford, South East London, a hold-out against gentrification, a symptom of it, or, somehow, a bit of both?
We’ve known Deptford on and off for twenty years, since the days when it was all concrete creek, boarded-up buildings and pigeon roosts.
So resolutely down-to-earth was it that we sometimes wondered if it might be the one area of London that would never go hip.
How naive we were.
The turn started while we were away living in Cornwall. We noted from afar the arrival of the Antic Pub Group which took over a former Job Centre and turned it into a pub called, with stunning insensitivity, The Job Centre. If you were trying to come up with a symbol of the worst instincts of urban gentrifiers you might think this too ripe.
We were also intrigued when Des de Moor’s excellent guide to London pubs included a place in Deptford. We took note of its name, The Dog & Bell, thinking we might like to visit sometime if we found ourselves down that way.
It took a few years, though, as we kept finding ourselves either distracted by the established pleasures of Greenwich or drawn further out to places like Bellingham, for research purposes.
On our most recent trip, though, we actually stayed in Deptford, and made a visit to the D&B a priority.
Here’s what we were expecting, for some reason, having not double checked the entry in Des’s book: a high street pub with lots of keg beer where we’d feel old and a bit uncool.
In fact, it’s on a back street, on the wrong side of the big A-road that connects Rotherhithe with Greenwich. We wandered through piles of leathery leaves under orange street lights thinking, “Really? This way?” The neighbourhood doesn’t feel gentrified, just… Normal. A touch seedy, perhaps, but not rough. Like lots of suburban London.
Our first sight of the pub all but took our breath away. It looks a bit too perfect – not corporate or contrived, fire engine red, with painted windows casting warm, broken light onto the blank, bland brick of the block opposite.
On this occasion, the temporary mural had a Cornish theme reflecting a recent beer festival and we felt momentary confusion at seeing One And All alongside renderings of cliffside mine workings.
Stepping through the door, glasses fogged and faces dewy, we were surprised to find London and Irish accents dominating among the mostly white-haired clientele.
You know how people want London pubs to be? All earthy chat and laughter, but without any of the challenging content that too often comes with it? Lively, but good-hearted? Well, this seemed to be that dream.
An Irishman in a three-piece tweed suit demonstrated his line dancing moves as a country and western song played. Someone asked the woman behind the bar if she was still a compulsive knitter: “I’ve seen you walking down the street doing it, haven’t I, eh?” There was heated debate about the likely winner of an upcoming pickle-making competition and a jar of something spicy was passed around for testing: “Bloody hell, I can’t breathe!”
Then there’s the beer list. Apart from apparently better-than-usual Guinness, cask ale and boxed cider, there’s also an extensive range of reasonably priced Belgian beers in bottles.
Belgian beer doesn’t feel faddy or trendy in the way a wall of craft beer fridges can. It also felt, somehow, completely appropriate to the setting, perhaps because a characterful brown pub with dark corners in London has a lot in common with a characterful brown cafe with dark corners in Brussels.
If it isn’t obvious, we were rather smitten, and struggled to leave. We can imagine staying in Deptford again purely on the strength of this interesting, authentic, fascinating pub.
Now, Deptford is still Deptford, the odd splash of Farrow & Ball paint aside, so why should that be?
Perhaps because, as with those Up Town pubs, its survival feels so pointed – defiant, defensive, a last grab at something that’s slipping away as commodity flats replace factories and chi-chi coffee shops displace caffs.
The Fellowship Inn at Bellingham, south east London, was the first pub to be built on a council estate and as such was a focal point of our research for 20th Century Pub, not least because it was a rare example of a pub of this vintage still trading – just barely hanging on – when we were writing the book.
To briefly summarise the story, which is told in more detail in the book, prior to and immediately after World War I, pubs were still seen as part of a disreputable legacy of the slums that new home-builders were keen to leave behind.
When traditional neighbourhoods were cleared and populations rehoused, they were dispatched to estates that were free of licensed premises.
Unsurprisingly, the more enterprising breweries started to think about how they could clean up their offer to make it acceptable to local councils with a barely-contained prohibitionist streak.
London brewers Barclay Perkins were pioneers in this regard, having been working with the Trust Houses since 1916 and with Alexander Part, legendary licensee and sometime spy, in particular. This meant that it was easier for them to demonstrate that they had been operating on ‘improved’ public house principles for some time and so get a foot in the door at Bellingham.
The London County Council minutes record the plan as follows:
“The building is designed to contain a large refreshment room, smoke room and lounge with ample seating accommodation as well as a spacious dining hall which could also be used as a recreation room and for social events and other meetings. There would also be a roof garden. No drinking bars would be provided…”
It was designed in glorious mock-Tudor style by Barclay Perkins’ in-house architect F.G.Newnham. On the opening day in 1924, Barclay Perkins reported that over a thousand meals were served. Again, check 20th Century Pub for more contemporary accounts of the life and colour of this and other big interwar estate pubs.
When we visited in 2016, a small part of the pub was still trading, though most of it was empty and and terrible disrepair. We were shown round by a representative of Phoenix Housing who led us through the abandoned ballroom and derelict upper floor workers’ quarters while she explained their plans for the future.
Its decline had in some ways been its saviour – much like the Ivy House in Nunhead, lots of original features remained because entire rooms had simply been closed off and ignored during the worst of the refurbishment era. In 20th Century Pub, we wrote:
“It is hard to say whether Bellingham’s locals will take to a cinema-cafe-microbrewery-pub but it can scarcely be any less popular than the current offer – a dingy bar used regularly by only a handful of residents. It certainly seems likely that it will draw in the ever-increasing middle-class population of south London’s suburbs with baby strollers and a taste for craft beer with their Sunday roast. Either way, the building, and its remarkable architecture and history, will be preserved.”
It actually reopened three years on from our visit, in June 2019, operated by the Electric Star Group, and thus renamed The Fellowship & Star. The planned microbrewery, a relic of when Laine’s were slated to take it on, didn’t make the cut, but the cinema and everything else did.
We visited shortly after opening on a Sunday when it was fairly quiet but with a good number of reservations for lunch later in the afternoon. They had had a busy night before, too, as suggested by the dry pumps and confirmed by the staff behind the bar: “Well, we did have Don Letts here last night.”
We were really impressed with the transformation, or rather the comparative lack of it. While it definitely clean and contemporary the original wooden panelling was visible throughout, barely even retouched or varnished in some places.
What was formerly the central office, a fascinating feature of these sort of pubs where the manager could hide behind the counter, had been partly absorbed into the bar, but was still distinctly visible.
There was still a clear sense of different rooms – partitions and visual obstacles which give a sense that there’s always something else going on round the corner – a characteristic which can make an even fairly sparsely populated pub feel buzzy.
There was a great balance of illumination and shadow, too, thanks mostly to the natural light fighting its way through tall, thin original windows.
We had a bit of a nose around the other parts of the building that were accessible and noted that other original features were still in place there, too.
Is it gentrified? Five Points Pale Ale was £4.20 a pint, which is at the lower end of prices in London, these days but rather underlines the point that almost any pub trading in London these days is by definition something of a luxury venue.
The staff were professional and down to earth rather than aloof or cool, though, and it looked like Guinness got as much action as the craft taps.
Children are welcome, as long as carefully written ground rules are followed, and football was being shown in a couple of parts of the pub – surely a signal of sorts.
In some ways, it’s sad to see the old pub, and the culture it represented, disappear. On the other hand, the pub was originally designed to serve people of different classes, drinkers and non-drinkers, eaters and boozers, children and families… So it’s really just returned to its true purpose.