A smile and a few words of welcome go a long way when you’re a stranger in a strange pub.
On a mission to tick a pub for #EveryPubInBristol the other day we were made to feel at home in a pub that otherwise didn’t much appeal to us.
It wasn’t over the top. It was just that when we reached the bar we got: “Hello! With you in just a second.”
Then when they did get to us, in just a second, the first thing they asked us was how our days had been.
Not a grumble about how their day had been, or a curt WhatCanIGetcha, but a simple question that suggested they recognised as fellow human beings.
Finally, as they handed over our drinks, they said: “We’ve got a singer on at eight, fifties, sixties, classic rock…”
But what they meant, we suppose, was: “We hope you’ll stay for the evening. We’re happy you’re here.”
We instantly felt accepted, like locals, despite the fact it was our first visit.
We didn’t stay, though, because (a) we had another nearby pub to visit nearby; (b) as a pair of mutterers we didn’t want to try to talk over live music; and (c) there was nothing much for us to get excited about drinking.
Still, so touched were we by the welcome that we were seriously tempted to stay for another, and it felt almost rude to leave, despite all the good reasons to do so listed above.
A good welcome is a hook. It makes you feel seen and forms a connection. And signals to the regulars that they’d better behave, too: these people are our guests.
The goodbye wasn’t bad, either. As we dropped our glasses on the bar and snuck away through the crowd, there was a wave and, over the hubbub: “Bye! Enjoy your evening! See you again!”
When I started work in a pub many, many years ago the first thing the Boss said, was always say “Hello” and “Goodbye” or equivalent… He reasoned that the hello made people feel welcome and the goodbye made people feel appreciated. It is enduring logic and complete business sense.
In a small booklet called Offbeat in London, published in 1966, writer and illustrator Geoffrey Fletcher provided a list of his favourite London pubs.
Fletcher’s list is unusual and interesting for various reasons.
He knew a lot about architecture but wasn’t an architectural critic in the formal sense.
Nor was he a beer geek. In fact, he rarely mentions drink at all.
What really mattered to him was the vibe. In particular, he loved anything that felt like a relic of times past.
His books often focus on ghost signs, buildings that had dodged demolition and elderly people who remembered Queen Victoria.
Pubs, many of which were built in the high Victorian period, were one more aspect of this.
The pub list in Offbeat in London comes after a description of Henekey’s, “the sole representative of the vanished gin palace of Victorian London”. (It’s now a Sam Smith’s pub called The Citties of Yorke.) After notes on its fixtures and fittings, such as “the famous Waterloo stove”, Fletcher writes:
Having made a digression in the direction of refreshment, I take the opportunity to introduce a short list of my favourite London pubs, recommended for architecture and atmosphere, as well as for food and drink.
Here’s his list, with a brief quote from the more extensive notes in the book for each entry.
The Salisbury | St Martin’s Lane, WC2 | “You go through the doors and find yourself at once in the London of Beardsley and Wilde.” | still trading
The Red Lion | Duke of York Street, SW1 | “a perfect hall of mirrors, quite untouched since the Victorian age” | still trading
The Albert | Victoria Street, SW1 | “a curiously American-like exterior with superb balconies” | still trading
The Jolly Butchers | Stoke Newington | “fantastic Gothic ironwork” | still trading
The Crown | Aberdeen Place, NW8 | “The interior has a strong flavour of the Diamond Jubilee about it…” | now a Lebanese restaurant but well preserved
The Black Friar | Queen Victoria Street EC4 | “the most remarkable Arts and Crafts period pub in London” | still trading
Mooney’s Irish House | Strand, EC4 | “Upright drinking, talk, stout, Irish whiskeys and crab sandwiches…” | now The Tipperary, temporarily closed was at 395 Strand, now closed (see correction in comments)
The Nell Gwynn(e) | Bull Yard, WC2 | “Porter on draught… was sold here until only a few years ago.” | still trading
The Final | William IV Street, WC2 | “a pile of turned mahogany, gold lettered mirrors and stained glass” | gone, we think
The Paxton’s Head | Knightsbridge, SW1 | “the name is derived… from the designer of the Crystal Palace” | still trading
It’s interesting how many of these are still trading and retain some or all of the features that made Fletcher love them.
The Final, on the edge of Covent Garden, is the only one that seems to have completely disappeared. It’s not listed in any of the other ‘great London pubs’ books on our shelves, either.
So, with that in mind, let’s have a slightly extended quote:
The saloon has a mosaic floor Street to cool your feet, and a brass rail to rest them on when you are called to the bar… Best of all, perhaps, is the Schweppes advert for Soda Water and Dry Ginger Ale, with an Edwardian nymph, an Albert Moore-like figure, at a spring. Watching her from the opposite wall is a group of natty, whiskery gents in titfers, with the day’s shoot at their feet.
It turns out, however, that Fletcher wrote about The Final in a couple of other places. We don’t have a copy of London by Night but we do have Geoffrey Fletcher’s London from 1968 in which he recycles a chunk of the note above, adding that he rates it “almost as highly as Mooney’s”.
How interesting, and how sad, that a beautiful Victorian pub can completely disappear, not only physically, but also from the collective memory.
Thank goodness for Big Geoff F. and his eye for nostalgic detail.
The Star of the East is a 19th century pub which not only exists, and trades, but continues to take up more than its fair share of space in the world.
We noticed it one morning last week while walking from digs to our respective temporary offices in the City of London.
When we say ‘noticed’ we mean that it stopped us in our tracks from a couple of hundred metres away.
Gin palaces were designed to stand out, dazzle and entice. This one, with its carved marble frontage and three great iron lamps embedded in the pavement, still does so.
Passing it again after dark, from aboard a bus, it looked even more spectacular. Those three lamps still work, and the pub’s great glass windows still glow.
Short on time, we didn’t make it into the pub for a drink this time, but certainly will at some point soon.
In the meantime, we turned to the usual reference books – Mark Girouard, Ben Davis, Brian Spiller and so on.
The only mention of this particular pub we could find, however, was in Licensed to Sell by Brandwood et al, which touches on it in two places:
A reference to its unusual Gothic style in a section on Victorian pubs.
Noting the persistence of its mid-pavement lamps.
That latter says:
“Light fittings were important in creating the presence and character of a pub. Large gas lamps illuminated the exterior of the grander establishments and some even had standard lamps rising from the pavement, such as still survive in front of the Star of the East, Limehouse, London… In darkly lit streets, or often ones that were not lit at all, such lamps must have made the pub look all the more inviting.”
The main point is, though, that this wasn’t really a gin palace after all.
It dates from the 1860s, not the 1830s.
In that later period, many pubs were built borrowing features from the earlier gin palaces but with no particular emphasis on gin, and much more on beer.
In fact, in a couple of newspaper stories about trouble at the pub, it’s called a ‘beershop’ and ‘beerhouse’:
“John Day and John Copeland were charged, the former with assaulting two girls named Regan and Donovan in the ‘Star of the East’ beershop, Limehouse, and the latter with attempting to rescue Day from custody.”
East London Observer, 10 March 1877
“EAST END RUFFIANISM.– Thomas Barrett and William Shannon, two rough-looking fellows, were charged with violently assaulting Hicks… Both prisoners have been convicted of violence, and a short time ago Barrett was charged with being concerned with others in assaulting and intimidating a fellow workman. On Friday night they entered the ‘Star of the East’ beerhouse, Commercial-road, Limehouse, in a state of intoxication, and because their demand to be served with liquor was refused, owing to their condition, they created a disturbance, and refused to quit. Hicks was called to eject them, and on getting them outside they both attacked him. They threw him twice violently to the ground, and Shannon kicked him brutally in the side, from the effects of which he still suffered. Another constable came to his assistance, and after a deal of trouble they got the prisoners to the station.”
Illustrated Police News, 16 April 1881
The newspaper archives also turn up numerous references to inquests being held at The Star of the East, suggesting that it was a notable local building with enough space to serve this kind of public function.
The best story about this pub, though, has a whiff of the Gothic about it, or of a Sherlock Holmes story:
“There is now to be seen at the Star of the East,’ opposite Limehouse church, a very curious mummy, a female, stated by medical men to be about 18 years of age, hair, teeth, and nails perfect, and – what seems most unique – the hair plaited in folds, over two thousand years ago. Mr. H.W. Baxter, proprietor of the Star of the East, who has purchased it for a considerable sum, affords every facility to visitors, already numbering some thousands and daily increasing. It was first landed Bullhead-wharf, and visited many in Essex, who will be glad to know its whereabouts.”
Chelmsford Chronicle, 10 May 1878
Sadly, another notable pub nearby that we had hoped to visit, The Festival Inn, is now tinned up.
In 1965, fourteen Manchester licensees, all in roughly the same area of the town, were fined a total of £557 (the highest fine £37) for this very offence. It is interesting to note that these prosecutions were successfully brought as the result of a tip-off from a mystery man, whose identity has never been revealed and who never explained how he came to his conclusions, though the accuracy of his findings suggests that he had some special knowledge or know-how (some say he was an employee of a rival brewery).
This Mr X seems to have gone round his locals, sampled their beer and sent in a report on twelve of them to the police. The Customs and Excise boys immediately went into action and swooped down on about twenty pubs in the area including those mentioned by their anonymous informant. To their astonishment, they discovered that in ten cases out of twelve Mr X was proved right, though in only one case did the landlord actually admit to watering his beer.
Having done our usual checks in the archive, we can’t find any reference to such an event in 1965.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that his dates are wrong – only that if it did, and his dates are right, then either:
it didn’t get a write-up in the papers
or those papers haven’t been digitised yet
What we did find, however, was a remarkably similar story, from the same part of the world, from 1960.
Here’s how it was reported in the Birmingham Daily Post for 14 April that year:
Twenty-five Oldham and district publicans appeared at Oldham yesterday as a result, it was stated, of a sampling drive carried out by officers of the Customs and Excise Department. All pleaded guilty to being in possession of beer that had been diluted with water, three admitting that they had diluted the beer. A fine of £15 plus 1 guinea costs was imposed on each summons. Mr. W. S. Hill, for the Customs and Excise, said that in 22 cases they could not prove that a deliberate fraud had been committed by the licensees.
The excuses given by publicans for why there was water in their beer are funny, a little embarrassing, but also illuminating:
Mrs. Emma Lees of the Old Post Office Public House, Manchester Road, Oldham, Clifford Pybus of the Wagon and Horses, Manchester Road, Oldham, and Donald Jinks of the Church Inn, Middleton Road, Royton, admitted having diluted the beer.
Mr. Hill said that Jinks had written stating that he had accidentally knocked over a bucket of beer, and had added some water to the beer.
We’re not sure we quite follow this one. Why was the beer was in a bucket? Possibly because it was about to be returned to the cask from… wherever it had been before that. Then he trips over it, or whatever, spills some, and tops it up? This sounds exactly like an excuse made up on the fly.
Mr. J. Lord, for Mrs. Lees, said that she had been under the impression that when beer was muddy on being pumped she was entitled to add some lemonade to it. This she had done. The lemonade cost more than the mild beer.
That she thought this was legal, or claims as much, suggests that it was a reasonably common practice, doesn’t it? We might quite like to try (unmuddy) mild with a lemonade top.
Mr. Harold Riches, for Pybul, said there had not been a deliberate attempt to defraud the customers. but Pybus had carried out injudicious piece of manipulation. He had put a quantity of bitter beer that was rather clouded into the mild beer. Other explanations were that water must have got into the beer while the pumps were being cleaned.
This practice of dumping bad bitter into mild, where it wouldn’t be noticed, has come up before. Maybe that would interfere with gravity readings.
But it does feel more likely, despite all this wriggling, that he put a bit of water into the cask to stretch it further. Especially as we know (same link as above) that this was standard practice:
It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”… Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?
If you know anything about Tony White’s 1965 Manchester Excise swoop, do let us know, especially if you have clippings or the like.
Main picture: The Cranberry, which happened to be the only 1960s Oldham pub of which we had a handy photo.
It’s only when you find yourself trying to organise a wake that you realise the extent to which pub function rooms have all but disappeared.
Growing up in Walthamstow, East London, I think pretty much every pub had a function room – and that’s where we ended up after a lot of funerals, weddings, or christenings.
Pubs in Walthamstow tend to be pretty large, as is typical for suburbs, and, until recently, were invariably undersubscribed. You’d rattle about The Bell or The Duke’s Head.
Now, a lot of the pubs I knew as a kid have either disappeared (farewell, The Plough) or ceased trading (The Lord Brooke).
Many of those that remain have changed substantially, catering to the kind of people who can afford to buy houses or flats in the area.
Those big, empty back-rooms have become dining spaces, or permanent, busy extensions to the main bar.
Although the loss of what were effectively community facilities is bad news for people like me, right now, for pubs, I guess it’s good news. It means they’re too busy to justify a blank space.
And I know from a previous job that offering space for wakes is a really tricky business.
You’re dealing with customers who are struggling emotionally and can’t or don’t want to have boring conversations about logistics. Undertakers are trained to deal with this; publicans not so much.
And they can’t be sure about how many people are going to turn up – “No, we’re surprised too, we didn’t think he had any friends!” – and so fixing a price that works for both parties is a challenge.
Because of a general trend towards hosting weddings in posher places (country hotels, stately homes, the Maldives) it’s also harder to justify holding a room that only does any business when someone dies.
And of course this isn’t specific to pubs. Where real estate is at a premium, it’s hardly surprising that fewer and fewer businesses are prepared to maintain, clean and heat a dead space.
In a different context, the West Country council estate where Ray grew up, the function rooms have also gone. That’s because both The Pig & Whistle and The Withycutter have been demolished, leaving the estate publess. There’s a community centre but that’s one degree more utilitarian again.
One final point, though, to undercut the general “Fings ain’t wot they used to be in my old manor” tone: useful as pubs were, my parents and grandparents hardly ever visited them between big family events.
Researching 20th Century Pub, I asked my practically teetotal late grandfather if he remembered anything about The Lord Raglan in its prefab phase after World War II. Despite having lived around the corner for most of his life, he barely knew which pub I was talking about.
Nowadays, though, my family, and families like it, are more more likely to choose a pub as the venue for a casual social get-together. We use them all year round, not just when we need somewhere to set up a trestle table covered in sausage rolls.
Main image: The Chequers in 2016. I think it might be one of the few remaining pubs that does have a function room.