Beer history london pubs

The best London pubs of 1850

If your unreliable TARDIS dumped you in London in 1850, where would you go for a pint?

We’ve come across an old guide book that, for once, gives a straight answer.

Peter Cunningham’s Handbook of London was first published in two volumes in 1849, then condensed into a single volume in 1850.

First, it recommends hotels, including:

“…among the old inns, the Golden Cross, at Charing-cross, and Gerard’s Hall Inn, Bread-street, Cheapside.”

The beer and wine vaults at Gerard’s Hall via the Yale Center for British Art.

Gerard’s Hall Inn sounds fascinating – might we, through 21st century eyes, think of it as a pub?

It doesn’t quite feel like it from what we’ve been able to read. But you certainly get a pint there.

What really interested us was a section titled ‘Breweries and Beer in London’.

First, the author first lists great breweries:

  • Barclay Perkins, Southwark 
  • Meux, Tottenham Court Road 
  • Combe Delafield, Long Acre
  • Whitbread, Chiswell Street
  • Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, Brick Lane
  • Goding, Lambeth
  • Reid, Liquorpond Street (!)
  • Calvert, Upper Thames Street
  • Elliot, Pimlico

He adds this suggestion:

“The visitor should exert his influence among his friends to obtain an order of admission to any one of the largest I have named.”

Brewers, how would you feel about a bunch of top-hatted toffs turning up at your premises for a nose around?

Then, finally, we get a list of four pubs.

Two are suggested for the “best London porter and stout in draught”:

  • Cock Tavern, Fleet Street
  • The Rainbow Tavern, opposite

And two more are those which “Judges of ale recommend”:

  • John O’Groats, Rupert Street
  • The Edinburgh Castle, Strand

The latter was famous as the founding place of Punch magazine.

Of the four, only The Cock survives.

You could go there for a pint this weekend if you wanted, although whether you’ll find any draught porter is hard to say.

london pubs

Samuel Smith pubs are not cheap

It takes a long time for the reputation of a pub to turn around, and that can work both ways. For example, many people still believe Sam Smith pubs are good places for cheap beer in London.

We’ve been aware of their prices creeping up for years.

As we recall, the posh bottles went first. Oatmeal Stout and Taddy Porter were the choice of those in the know, and always cost a bit more.

But when they went up to £6, £7, £8 per bottle, it was clear things were changing.

The bottles eventually shrank, too, changing from famously fat full pints to 330ml tiddlers.

Then, on a recent trip, we paid around £7 for a pint of Pure Brewed Lager, and almost £6 for a pint of Old Brewery Bitter.

Again, we know, that’s sort of what beer costs in London in 2023. Fair enough.

When people on Trip Advisor are still advising tourists to go to Samuel Smith pubs for good value food and beer, however, there’s clearly a mismatch between reality and reputation.

We might also be more relaxed about these prices if we felt they were covering the costs of a good pub experience but…

Dirty glassware. Glum service. Grim atmosphere.

Evidence of a death spiral, perhaps?

We enjoyed one of our several recent visits to Samuel Smith pubs despite all of the above, because the building and location were somewhat magical.

It felt, though, as if the management were doing everything possible to test our goodwill.

At least the beer was good, though, right? Right? 

Well, no, not really, even allowing for the fact that it’s always had a mixed reputation.

We used to like Pure Brewed Lager. Now, it seems sweet and (ironically) cheap.

And though we’ve never been huge fans of Old Brewery, its limited charms are even harder to discern without the befuddling glamour of a bargain price.

There are, in theory, cheaper beers available, such as Taddy Lager, but they often seem to be unavailable in practice.

Go to the pubs if you like. Enjoy them, and the beer, if you like. But don’t tell anyone they’re great value in 2023.

Because these days, they’re more like Angus Steak Houses than Merry Olde Inns of England.

london pubs

The shit London pub, 2023 edition

It starts when you walk in: this Victorian building, this beauty that has survived two world wars and the better part of two centuries, has been gutted.

Strip it back to the brick. Install some off-the-peg neon signs advertising cocktails. Paint everything else grey.

Then on the bar, there’s what looks at first glance like incredible choice, until you tot it up:

  • Moretti lager (Heineken)
  • Amstel lager (Heineken)
  • Cruzcampo lager (Heineken)
  • Three Beavertown beers (Heineken)
  • London Pride (Asahi, pumpclip turned round)
  • Lager from a London brewery we’d never heard of

So you decide to try the local lager at about £7 a pint. And, yes, that’s just what things cost now, but it doesn’t even taste good. It leaves a sour taste, literally and figuratively.

You watch other people’s dinner come out and think, how do they even make burgers that small? Didn’t those used to be called ‘sliders’? And what would you call that number of chips? A garnish, perhaps.

As you sit in the corner two dogs yap at each other, intending violence, and you feel a nerve twitch in your temple. The owners don’t do anything. The bar manager doesn’t do anything. It just goes on and on and on and on and on…

So, you leave about £4.50’s-worth of acidic lager in each glass when you depart, in search of something better.

Between us, we’ve been back and forth to London a lot recently and keep ending up in pubs like this.

And perhaps we’re not alone:

Via Patreon, Alex says:

The bane of my life as a Blackfriars office worker is that people insist on, to name names, going to Harrild & Sons (bricks, handsome, soulless, and £7 Neck Oil) rather than walking to somewhere with a bit of character. I would be interested in trends behind it, as well as how far Heineken are hollowing out London.

It’s depressing because, for years, you could say that the beer in London might often be warm and flat, but at least the pubs were often atmospheric and attractive.

That feels less true today than a decade ago – though of course there are plenty of exceptions.

We know it’s probably not the publican’s fault, or at least not entirely.

Everything costs more, everything is hanging from a thread, and it’s still the case that nobody has any money.

And as one Bristol publican explained to us a few years ago, decisions about décor are often made by some far distant ‘head office’ in pursuit of this year’s hot demographic.

“They want to paint ‘Gin house’ on my outside wall,” they said, in total despair, “and I don’t even like gin.”

How can big pubcos and chains think this is sustainable?

If your pubs feel bland, miserable, and poor value, even fewer people will come through the doors.

Perhaps what’s frustrating is that it probably looks and feels like progress to them, just as every other round of blandification has for the past 60-odd years.

The interior of a modern pub with iron girders and leather seats.

On a more positive note, we were somewhat impressed by The Wapping Tavern, a brand new pub in a former industrial building not far from the river.

On paper, it’s got a lot of the same stuff going on, including yet more bare brick.

And yet, even mostly empty, it had something like atmosphere, perhaps because the building itself is old and interesting, and hasn’t been completely trashed.

There were a lot of TVs showing sport – as in, a lot – but they didn’t seem especially intrusive.

And on the beer front, it was doing more than pretending to be a craft beer bar. There was a long list of interesting keg beers and bar staff who were keen to talk about them.

As we sat there drinking Private Universe, an excellent collaboration between Elusive and Hackney Brewery, we felt quite content.

Not ripped off, not disrespected, not stressed.

That’s not a high bar, is it?

20th Century Pub london pubs

Henekey’s Long Bar and the birth of the pub chain

Henekey’s was one of Londons most famous pubs and kickstarted a pub chain more than 50 years before Wetherspoon ever existed.

In 1831 a London wine merchant called George Henekey, born in 1784 and in the trade since at least the 1810s, opened a new wine and spirit bar:

“THE PUBLIC are respectfully informed that business commenced in the Wholesale Department of this Establishment on the 26th of September, on an entirely New System by which the consumer will be convinced that every article purchased must be free from Adulteration… For Draught Wines, the advantages proposed the Public are these – there will no Secreting in the recesses of Vaults and Cellars of any one thing offered or intended for Sale; nothing will be hid from the Public; every article cleared from the Docks will warehoused in view the consumer, and there will be always on Draught from 40 to 50 pipes of different Wines, the purchaser may make his selection, and, if he thinks fit, may have it measured off in his presence, and sent at once to his residence.”

The bar was at number 23 High Holborn, at Gray’s Inn Gate, an entrance to one of London’s four inns of court.

An engraving of a cellar with huge barrels and a vaulted stone roof.
A view of the vaults at The Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment from an 1830s advertisement.

The building was probably built in the 17th century, although a plaque on the site claims there was a pub there from 1430. It was originally called The Queen’s Head Tavern or, in later years, The Queen’s Head Coffeehouse (“Frequented by professional gentlemen”).

Under Henekey it came to be known as The Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment.

After Henekey died in 1838, at the age of 55, the wine importing business carried on under his name. There were, however, no Henekeys involved in its running and his son, George Henekey Jr, actually set up a rival business right across the road.

During the 19th century, the firm changed hands multiple times, becoming Henekey Kislingbury & Co, then Henekey Barker & Co, then Henekeys Abbott & Co, then Henekey Rogers & Co., and eventually just Henekey & Co.

Enter the Callinghams

At some point around the turn of the century the Callingham family took control of Henekey’s and oversaw a serious expansion of the pub estate.

In a company report from 1934 the chairman, L.F. Callingham, said the firm was doing well and the increase in expenditure was down to acquiring or building new pubs. At that point, a site in Brighton had just been acquired and construction was underway.

In 1935 Henekey’s was advertising 17 branches:

  • The head office at High Holborn (now The Cittie of Yorke)
  • Churton Street, London SW1 (AKA The Constitution)
  • Lupus Street, London SW1 (gone)
  • High Street, Guildford (AKA The Vintner’s Arms, closed)
  • Strand, London WC2 (now The Lyceum)
  • King Street, Hammersmith (AKA The Lord Raglan, gone)
  • George Street, Richmond (AKA The Artichoke Inn, closed)
  • Camberwell New Road, Camberwell (AKA The Athenaeum, closed)
  • Freemans Court, London EC2
  • King Street, Twickenham (The George)
  • Rye Lane, Peckham (AKA The Hope, closed)
  • Kingly Street, London W1 (AKA The Red Lion)
  • Robertson Street, Hastings (AKA French’s)
  • High Street, Hounslow (Gio’s Bar is now on this site)
  • High Street, Bromley (gone)
  • The Town, Enfield (AKA The Beaconsfield Arms, closed)
  • Ship Street, Brighton (AKA The Ship, now Hotel du Vin)

The original pub, the old Queen’s Head Tavern or Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment, was demolished in 1920 and rebuilt in 1923-24.

The new building was a typical interwar architectural fantasy – a sort of medieval theme pub in what Historic England calls ‘neo Tudor’.

Perhaps this historical tendency explains some of the odd claims they made about the firm’s history. Advertising from the 1930s started referring to the firm as dating back to 1695.

And they’d even claim that the Callingham’s had been involved since around then, too.

Maybe both of these statements are true but we can’t find evidence to support them.

A pub with a faux-medieval interior, including galleries and sherry casks.
A branch opened in Ramsgate, Kent, in 1939, following the house architectural style. SOURCE: Bill Finch via

In one of his contributions to the 1950 survey of trends in pub design Inside the Pub Maurice Gorham wrote approvingly of the Henekey’s house style:

From the [beginning of the evolution of the pub]… we find the other type of house which set out to provide something grander than the patron normally had at home. This might be either the tavern or the inn. Professor Richardson’s reconstruction of the Mermaid Tavern in Cornhill in 1420, soon after Chaucer’s time, shows us a big lofty room under an open-timbered roof with screen and gallery, with a log fire blazing on the stone hearth, and oaken tables scattered here and there, at which the patrons sat drinking the blackjacks of strong ale, Rhenish wine in silver mazers, and bottles of Bordeaux, brought to them by the drawers from cellars where they were carefully counted out by the cellarers using their tally-sticks. Making due allowances for the changes of five centuries, this seems to me not at all unlike the big bar at Henekey’s in High Holborn, where the medieval style has been reproduced with more than usual success. Take away the long bar-counter down one side, strew the floor with well- trodden rushes amongst which dogs and rats snuffle for bones, and you might well be going into a fifteenth-century tavern when you penetrate into that long high-raftered hall; all the more so if they would only borrow those heavy oaken doors, iron-studded, swinging on strap hinges, from Henekey’s in the Strand.

In The Local, published in 1939, he described some other branches:

[Henekey’s] specialize in a style of antique decoration that is much more pleasing to the eye than antique styles usually are in pubs. The big Henekey’s in the Strand, near Wellington Street, is a good example of the sort of thing-heavy doors swinging on straps, panelling that looks dark with age, a step down into the bar, and so on. Henekey’s in High Holborn is even more old-world, since it has a row of cubicles each containing a table and chairs, which give a comfortable illusion of privacy. There is another big Henekey’s in Kingly Street, behind Regent Street, which is a gay scene on Christmas Eve, when the girls from the big dress shops make up parties and buy each other drinks. And there is a smaller Henekey’s in Marylebone High Street, which is interesting as showing how the style looks when it is quite new. Only a year or two ago this was the Angel; then Henekey’s took it, rebuilt it, and made a very nice job of it, clean and bright in spite of being conscientiously antique.

Enter Lady Docker

Clement Callingham (1892-1945) became chairman of the firm in 1938 and his playboy tendencies would put Henekey’s in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

He met Norah Docker (1906-1983) at London’s Café de Paris where she worked as a ‘dance hostess’. They had an affair and she moved into his house before his divorce was settled. They married in 1938 and were together until his death in 1945.

The cover of Norah: the autobiography of Lady Docker showing her dancing in a sailor's hat while an approving crowd watches.
Lady Docker’s tell-all autobiography published in 1969.

When Clement died he left Norah with a son, a big wedge of cash, and a substantial share in Henekey’s.

What made her famous in later years was her knack for marrying rich men like Clement. In 1946 she married Sir William Collins, head of Fortnum & Mason. And after he died in 1948 she married Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) and became Lady Docker.

Through Lady Docker’s influence, Sir Bernard became chairman of Henekey’s in 1954 and stayed in the job until 1967. During his time, the chain had more than 40 pubs across the UK.

Pubs with a cult reputation

Almost every post-ear guide book to London, pubs, or London pubs, mentions Henekey’s in glowing terms.

In his amusing book London Pubs (Batsford, 1963) Alan Reeve-Jones says:

“The Henekey houses, of which there are fourteen in London, have a perfect right to consider themselves a cut above the rest if they feel like it, because every one of them looks like that romantic ideal of an English pub usually existing only in the mind of a Christmas Card designer.”

In his entertaining architectural guide Nairn’s London (Penguin, 1966) Ian Nairn says this of the High Holborn branch of Henekey’s:

“Any long bar implies serious drinking, but this has a sense of dedication that is far beyond mere commerce. Perhaps because of this it is often cram-full: it is more of an experience to be un- comfortable here than to relax amongst a farrago of clichés. It does not depend on Victorian ornament either. The effect is due to the long, tall proportions, the dark woodwork and especially to the scale of the huge oval barrels behind the bar, as concise as an airliner’s skin. A walkway high up connects rooms tucked under the roof and you expect to see acolytes coming out on it to perform some liturgy of alcohol. Cabins all round the walls, as a souvenir of Belfast or Dublin; but this place needs no stage props. They sell spiced buns.”

He also calls the pub The Long Bar – the name by which it’s most often remembered these days.

Oddly, the earliest reference we’ve come across to this name is from 1951, but didn’t turn up until 2014. It’s in a note attached to a lost poem by Dylan Thomas, discovered among his wife’s papers: “This little song was written in Henneky’s Long Bar High Holborn by Dylan Thomas in 1951.”

In their Guide to London Pubs (Sphere, 1968) Martin Green and Tony White call it ‘Henekey’s Long Bar’. It’s also referred to this way in a 1966 article in Tatler. So, clearly, this name had taken by the mid-1960s.

And it does, to be fair, have a very long bar. Is it, as is often claimed, the longest bar in Europe? We’ll let someone else investigate that question.

In his 1964 novel Funeral in Berlin Len Deighton’s nameless spy (Harry Palmer in the films) has a few words to say about the Portobello Road branch:

“Henekey‘’’s is a great barn of a place, bare enough not to be spoiled by the odd half-glass of best bitter being spilled across the floor; cashmere, suede, straw, leather and imitation leather jostle, jabber and posture with careful narcissism.”

Might this be the earliest instance of a chain pub being described as ‘barn-like’?

The medievalish exterior of The Cittie of Yorke.
Adapted from ‘Cittie of Yorke pub, London’ by the Wub, via Wikimedia Commons, under a licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Goodbye Henekey, hello Samuel Smith

As the 20th century wound to a close, many old brewing and pub businesses found themselves in trouble. Henekey’s was no different.

When Sir Bernard Docker stepped down in 1967 he sold his shares to a mystery buyer. After much speculation it was revealed to be catering and hospitality magnate Sir Charles Forte. By the 1970s, the Henekey’s chain was part of the Trusthouse Forte empire.

Then, towards the end of the 1970s, Trusthouse Forte began selling off pubs. Samuel Smith of Tadcaster snapped up some of the best in around 1979.

Henekey’s on the Strand, for example, became what we now know as The Lyceum.

Henekey’s Long Bar was also renamed. As a grand Yorkshire embassy in the capital it became The Cittie of Yorke – the name by which it still goes today. (Ye Olde English Pube?)

The 1970s logo for Henekey Inns.

Whitbread bought what remained of Henekey’s (or Henekey Inns, as it had become) in 1984, amounting to 22 ‘steakhouses’.

This was around the same time it also took a share in Pizza Hut, being keen to move into the growing market for pub grub.

They extended the brand to some of their existing pubs including their former London flagship The Samuel Whitbread – now Burger King on Leicester Square.

Because the closure of chains is rarely announced – they just tend to peter out with a pasted notice on the window – it’s hard to say how long the Henekey’s name lingered on.

There are few references to it in the 1990s and most of those are nostalgic, or refer to pubs losing their Henekey branding.

One interesting story, though, is from 1996, when the Morning Advertiser published a collection of publicans’ ghost stories.

The former landlady of the Henekey’s in Ramsgate, which burned down in the 1960s, claimed to have once seen a beer barrel move across the cellar floor.

She reckoned she knew the identity of the poltergeist: “old Henekey outraged at the pub’s refit”.


london pubs

The Dodo realises the potential of the micropub model

We only managed one round at The Dodo but it was enough to get a sense of its powerful personality.

The Dodo is a micropub in Hanwell, West London – a suburb beyond Ealing where various of our university contemporaries have ended up living.

People have been telling us to go to the Dodo for ages, every time we pass through West London. The time has never been right, though: either it was closed, or we had somewhere else to be.

On this occasion, we approached the Dodo at the end of a long walk, ready for a pint, just as the light was dying. Its fogged windows glowed an inviting yellow.

We entered and found ourselves at once in a crowd of weary well-to-do parents, their children carpeting the floor.

Squeezing our way to the bar, we had a moment to take in the décor. Pastel colours, bright light, handwritten signs, party balloons. (The Dodo has just turned six.)

Our first instinct was that it felt like a café rather than a pub.

One of the signs warned that children had to be gone by 7pm. Another, we noticed, told us to sit down and await “informal table service”.

Making our way to the back, we found a table reserved from 6pm. Grumbling quietly about the idea of reservations in a micropub, we took a seat.

Lucy Do, the proprietor, appeared moments later. Having followed her on social media for years, it felt like meeting a celebrity.

We watched with admiration as she whizzed up and down the length of the pub, from bar (front) to cellar (back), dodging precocious Archies and Annabelles, while carrying multiple pints, and taking orders for cans and glasses of wine on the way.

Yes, it is like a café, in the French or Belgian sense.

That is, an expression of an owner’s personality, calibrated over hundreds of hours of service to work for this particular crowd, and this particular guv’nor.

Warmly chaotic and sharply efficient at the same time.

This is what micropubs make possible: new ideas about what a pub can be, and which rules of the game it is obliged to follow.

Is the Dodo designed for us? Probably not. We increasingly lean toward trad trappings and dark corners.

But it doesn’t need us, because it’s already found the right people, who book out every table, and are known to each other by name.

And, anyway, the way you get more people to go to the pub is surely to have pubs for a broader range of people – not just pub bores.