london pubs

Central London pubs that still feel like locals

London is a bogglingly vast, complex world city. It’s also the kind of place where, if you’re in the know, you can find a ‘proper’ pub not too far from Trafalgar Square or St Paul’s Cathedral.

We’re specifically talking about places that are fairly central – let’s say in, or on the edges of, Zone 1.

If you read our monthly newsletter you might recall that we started thinking about this after a conversation with @CarsmileSteve in a bar in Brussels.

Steve mentioned The King & Queen on the corner of Foley Street and Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia as a prime example.

“It’s been run by the same family since the 1960s,” he said. “The same lads are always behind the bar and have been forever – for at least 15 years.”

When we visited back in the early days of this blog we observed that it felt like a relic of the 1980s and clearly hadn’t been redecorated in some time.

Another pub Steve mentioned was The Sutton Arms, Great Sutton Street, EC1. (Not the one about five minutes’ walk away on Carthusian Street.) That was seconded by reader Nathan in a response to our call for suggestions last month:

“It’s a little better known in the craft beer bubble but is all things to all people. Family-run for donkeys’ years.”

We don’t think we’ve ever been, somehow. It does look good:

  • carpet ✅
  • beer mats ✅
  • mostly brown ✅
  • a sense of individual ownership ✅

Or, to put that another way, not generic pubco, big brewery, “Would you like to upgrade to sweet potato fries?” managed greyness.

When Lisa Grimm wanted suggestions for somewhere to drink near Marble Arch we suggested The Carpenter’s Arms, Seymour Place, W1, which we’ve visited a few times. Again, it has the same family-run feel and characterful decor. In her write-up she said

The Carpenter’s Arms was spot on for great cask ale – which makes sense, as it’s the HQ for CAMRA’s London branch. Alas, there was no food on, so I had to have a ‘meal’ of (fortunately) low-ABV ales and very expensive gourmet crisps, though that’s no complaint. I enjoyed an always-reliable/always-welcome Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but the new-to-me standout was Wantsum Brewery’s 1381, a session IPA.

Other suggestions received by Tweet and email include:

  • The Red Lion, Crown Passage, SW1, off Pall Mall (Nathan)
  • The Golden Eagle, Marylebone Lane, W1 – “has a long-serving landlady, regular customers and good beer… [and] a weekly piano singalong!” (Dermot)
  • Star and Garter, Poland Street, W1 – “Also long-serving licensees and a proper boozer in the heart of Soho.” (Dermot)
  • King Charles I, Northdown Street, N1 – “A magic little backstreet boozer.” (Ollie)

For our contributions, we’re going to suggest:

We’re going to aim to visit or revisit as many of these pubs as we can in the next few months.

In the meantime, are there any glaring omissions?

Beer history london

What on earth is a ‘public wharfinger’?

We know London has numerous reminders of the paternalistic empire building of its breweries, from suburban sports grounds to social housing, but it had never occurred to us that they might also have their own wharves.

“The above title may occasion some surprise to many in the employ of the Company. They may have heard of a Wharf somewhere on the riverside where some of our beer was shipped or malt landed. But “Public Wharfingers” ??? As a matter of fact the Company have been members of The Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London for many years, and have carried on a considerable business as such, for a very long period.”

Truman’s Black Eagle No 2, July 1930, pp.27-29

We recently obtained some editions of The Black Eagle Magazine, the annual publication of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., which consisted of an eclectic mix of sporting reports; reminisces from various Chairmen about their holidays; jokes, mottos and wise words; and occasionally a nice picture and profile of an improved pub.

In amongst the filler, there are also some genuinely interesting insights into the many avenues and alleyways explored by the Truman enterprise.

In the July 1930 edition there is a piece on Trumans as “Public Wharfingers” – that is, as members of the Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London.

The piece itself is more colourful than informative, being somewhat vague about when this area of the business started or what exactly was traded on a day-to-day basis.

There is a picture of the wharf in Wapping and another of a boat called The Ben Truman loaded with barrels, but no significant information to go with it.

Towards the end we find out that…

“Besides performing useful services for the Brewery, for which of course it primarily exists, many thousands of tons are landed annually for storage and distribution, and in some years rubber to the value of not less than two-and-a-half millions sterling has passed over the wharf and been shipped into craft en route to New York and other places abroad… There are other Breweries who own or use waterside premises in the course of their business, but Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. are alone, so far as the writer is aware, in carrying on also the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT OF LONDON.”

This sent us down a bit of a rabbithole looking for evidence of other breweries setting up as wharfingers – a word we didn’t even know until we read this article.

To be clear, this isn’t just a case of using vessels for transport – this is a separate business landing and storing a whole range of goods.

Just two years later, there was another article on the same subject in The Black Eagle.

This gave a purchase date for the wharf – 1841 – and provides a little more detail:

About 1889 HOYS began to make their appearance. These were usually sailing barges, and they undertook to sail regularly from an advertised Receiving Wharf in London, and deliver a general cargo to places round about the mouth of the Thames – as far as Dover on the one hand and Aldeburgh on the other”. 

Truman’s Black Eagle No 4, July 1932

The piece then goes on to talk about competition from the railways and motor transport, and the winding up of the wharf:

“About 1923, however, motor transport began to make itself felt, and by the end of 1924 it had become such a severe competitor that one by one the Hoys had to give up for want of support, and none are now in existence.”

Unfortunately motor transport not only killed the old Hoys, it very soon began to threaten The Ben Truman also.

Soon after the war, doubts began to exist as to the wisdom of continuing to send our beer to Chatham by water. Would not motors do the work quicker, and – with so much less handling – cheaper? Opinions as to this differed for a time.

There was a very natural disinclination to break the intimate link nearly a century old-between Brick Lane and Old Father Thames; but ultimately, as it was bound to do sooner or later, sentiment had to give way to modern methods, and the change from Chatham to Gravesend put an end finally to any doubts which may have still existed. It was by now quite apparent that the wharf had outlived its usefulness, at any rate so far as the Company’s business was concerned, and by the time this is in print, to the very great regret of all those who have been associated with for so many years, Black Eagle Wharf will have passed into other hands, and TRUMAN, HANBURY, BUXTON & Co., Ltd., will no longer be carrying on the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT of LONDON.”

We found it interesting that there was no mention in 1930 of any doubts about its viability.

Perhaps even the management didn’t even have this part of the business on their radar.

There were clearly plenty of Brewery Wharves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each of which now seems to be the site of a “stunning collections of 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments”.

But we haven’t yet found much information about how those wharfing operations, including Truman’s, actually worked.

If anyone knows anything further about this interesting chapter of Truman’s history, or indeed anything similar at other breweries, we’d love to hear it.

And can anyone work out if any of the buildings in the pic above are still there on Wapping High Street? It’s not immediately obvious to us from Google Street View.

20th Century Pub london pubs

V.S. Pritchett on the changing London pub, 1962

The writer and critic V.S. Pritchett was born in 1900 and saw the pub evolve over the course of the 20th century. In 1962, he wrote about it, in his book London Perceived.

“I am old enough to have known three distinctive periods of London life”, he writes. “I have ridden in a horse tram. I have been run over by a hansom cab…”

He gets on to pubs fairly promptly in the first chapter of the book. The  introductory observation in this passage is that…

the influences of mass life are changing us, so that even the London public house is becoming public.

What does he mean by that? It’s a hint, we think, of the beginning of ‘chainification’ – of pubs centrally managed, in line with central policy.

It’s also a literal reference to the more open layout of post-war pubs, as the following paragraph makes clear:

But most pubs are still divided into bars, screened and provided with quiet mahogany corners where the like-minded can protect themselves against those of different mind.

Later on, in the final chapter, he returns to the theme:

Many of the new ‘democratic’ pubs where the separate bars have been abolished are dolled up with arty iron and glass work, coloured glasses, artificial flowers, fake Toby jugs, plushy wall-papers, and chains of coloured lights. Thank heaven there are plenty of simple places, in the old varnish and mahogany, some with the beautifully etched Victorian glass and lettering, where one meets the old mild pomposities, where one can be reassured by an aspidistra and a stout barmaid who calls you “love” or “dear” and overfeeds her dog.

There’s a sense here of a crossing point – of the slow passage from one era into another, but with the old clinging onto existence.

We wonder if the specific pub he had in mind when talking about “dolled up” ironwork might be The Nags Head in Covent Garden, arguably the first theme pub, overhauled by Whitbread in the 1950s. But it could be any number of others.

Pritchett also observed changes in how pubs reflected class hierarchies:

Clearly, between the saloon bar and the public bar there is, or was, a class division; nowadays, the public bar is where men play darts. In the public bar, there being the thirsty tradition of manual work, you drink your beer by the pint; in the saloon, in the private, you drink it in half-pints; occasionally there is a ladies’ bar, and there ladies – always in need of fortifying, for they have been on their “poor feet” – commonly order stout or “take” a little gin in a refined medicinal way.

We’ve never heard the phrase “ladies’ bar” before but guess he’s referring to the pub lounge.

Jumping back to this theme in the final chapter, he notes the then new tendency for well-to-do young people to frequent pubs instead of gentlemen’s clubs, “being careful to put on their pullovers”.

Of the atmosphere of the pub, along with his observation about “mild pomposities”, Pritchett seems to find it pleasingly bleak:

The London publican cultivates a note of moneyed despondency and the art of avoiding “argument” by discussing the weather… There are pubs where the same people always meet, where they tell the same stories, where they glance up at the changing London sky and sink into mournful happiness or fatten and redden with natural bawdy – I do not mean dirty-stories but with licence of their own invention. One is reminded that this is the city of the riper passages of Shakespeare and the sexy London papers… There is a touch of ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’ in all of them…

Where Pritchett sounds most Edwardian is when he talks about Empire and immigration. There are numerous passages that no doubt sounded fairly liberal-minded when published but which, to a modern reader, exhibit a distinct colonialist attitude.

That overlaps with his commentary on pubs when he touches on London’s large and historic Irish community:

The pubs catering for the Irish are rather different; the Irish like to swarm in public melancholy, their ideal being, I suppose, a tiled bar resembling a public lavatory and a mile long, and with barmen who, as they draw your draught stout, keep an eye on you, show their muscles, and tacitly offer to throw you out by collar and coat-tail. This is not the London English fashion, which is livelier, yet more judicious, sentimental, and moralizing.

Rude though those cultural generalisations might be, this remains an evocative description of a particular type of London pub.

We’d recommend reading the snippets above in context, along with many other interesting observations about London. Pritchett’s London Perceived is available as a paperback from Daunt Publishing at £10.99. Our copy was £2.50 from a branch of Oxfam Books.

Beer history london

Cask ale in the 1930s: bugs, smellers and Baltic oak

“Casks are a great source of spoiling well-brewed beer…” That’s the judgement of J.A. Pryor, Chairman of the London brewery Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, writing in The Black Eagle in July 1930.

It’s interesting to see casks presented, first and foremost, as a problem to be solved.

At the same time, the brewery went to a lot of trouble to make sure its casks were as good as could be.

First, there’s the matter of material:

[No] expense or care is spared by T. H. B. & Co., to ensure first of all the purchase of the very best timber, which it may surprise some of you to know comes entirely from the Baltic. This is the only suitable wood in the world for making our casks. English oak is, alas, unsuitable, and only during the War years, when it was impossible to get Russian oak, did we have to use American and a small proportion of Austrian oak. Very unsuitable materials both, and I am glad to say we have none in use to-day.

Ron Pattinson has written about the use of Russian vs. American oak in British and Irish brewing as has Gary Gillman: “The disliked American taste was, evidently, the bright vanillin and coconut flavours familiar to anyone who knows bourbon whiskey or Chardonnay wine.”

Next, Mr Pryor talks about the cleaning of casks – going into some surprisingly squicky detail:

The cleaning of casks is vastly important, and each one as it comes into our London Cooperage is first of all “run in,” i.e., filled with boiling water, and allowed to stand for as long as possible. This is to soften any yeasty deposit there may be, and makes the subsequent washing easier.

Then he introduces an interesting bit of technology:

[The casks] are then taken to the “Goliath” machines, where they are subjected to eight separate processes of either raw steam or boiling liquor under pressure, and the outsides also scrubbed in water and brushed… By the way, it is well worth your while, if you can find time, to go and look at these machines in operation as they are uncannily human. We have a fine battery of them in London, and also at Burton.

Goliath cask-washing machine, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

It’s easy to think of the past – even ten years ago – as a kind of barbarous dark age. This article is a helpful reminder that even in the 1930s Truman’s was brewing scientifically:

After the casks leave the machine they are each placed on drying and cooling nozzles, and pure filtered air is driven into them under pressure. Great care is exercised over the Pure Air Filter, and the two plates following show air before and after filtration.

Unfiltered air and air after filtration, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

Except at the end of the process, of course, things suddenly get very ‘craft’, with the human nose coming into play:

Each cask is then “smelt” and “pricked,” i.e., any remaining pieces of broken shive, etc., are removed from the interior, before they are passed as fit to go into the cellar.

“Cask smeller” was a real, very skilled job and we can actually see cask smellers in action at another London brewery, Whitbread, in this film from 1959:

Pryor concludes with what might be read as a shot across the bows, or as encouragement to do the right thing, depending on your point of view:

This last work is of very real importance, and is entrusted to some of you, who make it a pride not to pass a suspicious cask. If you should by chance miss one you are pretty certain to hear of it, as each cask is again examined in the cellar before filling.

london pubs

The pleasing perpetuity of the Porterhouse

The Porterhouse used to be good. The other side of a UK ‘craft beer revolution’, and of a pandemic, does it still have what it takes?

Last week I was in London for work and wound up in Covent Garden with a couple of colleagues looking for somewhere to have a drink.

The Porterhouse leapt to mind, mostly because at the moment it’s really difficult to guess where will be busy and where won’t, and The Porterhouse is, if nothing else, enormous.

We also haven’t been for a very long time, and I couldn’t resist the urge to check in and see if this relic from our early beer ticking days was still doing its thing.

It’s interesting to compare my notes with what we wrote almost 15 years ago. Even then, we were describing it with warm nostalgia.

We first drank there in the early noughties, no doubt also for some work do or other, and kept going back.

It was one of the few places in central London you could get German and Belgian beer and we were trying pretty hard to tick Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers.

It was ways worth fighting through stags, hens and lads to get to the bar. As we wrote:

…it’s a beer-centred venue which could survive perfectly well if it didn’t bother dishing up any decent beer at all.

And now? Well, it really is much the same – a party pub with a beer list that’s better than it ought to be.

A photo of the paper menu
The beer list at The Porterhouse in January 2022

It’s been updated to reflect current tastes. There are a lot more British IPAs, for example. 

There are now two lager options, Temple Lager and Hammer Pilsner, both of which are more characterful than Chiller ever was. More importantly, they’re also branded to look like they might have been made by a medium-large British craft brewery from about four or five years ago. If you like Camden Hells, you might also like…

I only had limited time, so I skipped the various pale ales and went for continuity. Plain Porter (4.2%) is a really great example of this style – a slightly smoky, easy drinking, toasty beer with a hint of bitterness for a finishing flourish.

Oyster Stout (4.6%) is a little mellower, with a subtle sweetness that suggests richness rather than being cloying.

It takes a lot of work to make a central London business stick – it changes constantly, and always has. But now The Porterhouse has made it past 21 years, perhaps it’ll be there as long as its neighbour, which was founded in 1798.