20th Century Pub pubs

Does The Vulcan Hotel belong in a museum?

The Vulcan is a Cardiff pub that’s been relocated to a museum. Is this a good way to preserve pubs or just another way of destroying them?

The Vulcan reopened for business at St Fagans National Museum of History about a month ago, after several years of “Coming soon!” updates.

We visited on a busy Saturday expecting a sterile exhibit, based on the photos we’ve seen online. The very act of rebuilding and restoration means the building looks too neat and bright, like something from Poundbury.

In its original location it was covered in soot, urban grot, and layer upon layer of paint. It was surrounded by railings, billboards, street furniture and litter. At St Fagans, it’s all fresh bare brick and fresh country air.

We’re not the only ones with concerns. When Martin Taylor wrote about this project a while ago he said:

The Vulcan was to Cardiff what the Laurieston is to Glasgow (or the Charlie Chaplin was to the Elephant & Castle if I’m honest), that “was” telling you that the pub closed a decade ago and is still being rebuilt brick-by-brick at St Fagans, where pashminas from Cowbridge will ask what wines it sells.

On top of all that, the website suggested booking a table if you wanted to see The Vulcan and, as we approached, it looked overcrowded and oversubscribed.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we walked straight in, got two pints, found a seat, and forgot we weren’t in a ‘real’ pub for an hour or so.

Well, no, that’s not quite true. We were always aware that it wasn’t quite a proper pub. But rather than sterility, its location and status seemed to add to the fun.

A set of wooden doors and screens with a pale varnish. Through them is a corridor with a black jacket hanging on a peg.
The pale wood partitions between the public bar, jug and bottle and, beyond, the corridor to the smoke room.

We’d got the impression that this was going to be something like an ornate Victorian gin palace, perhaps because the exterior is richly decorated with shiny green tiles. But the public bar is actually defined by plain, light-coloured wood, and mostly plain walls decorated with the odd vintage advertisement. There is literally sawdust on the floor, to the delight of every toddler that passed through.

The smoke room at the back feels cosier, with lower light, dark green paint, and dark wood furniture. It’s really not much different from a room in a typical 21st century pub in, say, Sheffield, or Dudley.

It was constantly busy and not only with gawpers. Lots of booze was being bought and drunk and everyone was mildly merry, including us, in a realm where a mild caffeine buzz and a sugar buzz from scones is about as far as it usually goes.

We didn’t see any pashminas but there were plenty of football kits, trackie bottoms, trainers, and tattoos. There were lots of strong local accents, too. Delightfully normal. After all, St Fagans isn’t a particularly snooty museum – entry is free and you can use it like a park, if you like, and hang out all day with a picnic.

From our seat near the door we watched one person after another walk in and beam with delight, say “Wow!”, or both. And it has to be said that dads and granddads in particular seemed to be in their element.

Bar staff in white shirts and blouses manning the cask ale pumps. One is wearing a flat cap. Both men are wearing old-fashioned buttons braces.
Hard working staff at The Vulcan.

There were four bar staff on duty in vaguely historic costume and we wondered whether they were pub people with a bit of museum training, or the other way round.

They were remarkably cheerful and willing to engage in chat, and the conversation around the crowded bar went something like this:

“How long have you been open, then?”

“Four weeks today.”



“I used to drink in this pub when it was in town. I’ve come out special.”

“Aw, that’s lovely. You’re not the first old faithful we’ve had in today.”

“I see you’ve got an electric till – that’s not very authentic, is it, ha ha!”

“Well, we can’t be expected to tot it up in our heads, can we? But we’ve hidden it under the counter.”

“How long have you been open, then?”

“Four weeks today.”

“Pink nail polish – that’s not very authentic, ha ha!”

“It’s not, is it? What can I get you?”

“Do you do a normal lager?”

“We do. Pint?”

“My granny used to drink in The Vulcan years ago.”

“Aw, that’s lovely.”

“Health and safety notices – they’re not very authentic, are they, ha ha!”

“We’ve had to make a few compromises, unfortunately.”

“I wanted to show my son where I used to drink when he was little.”

“Aw, that’s lovely.”

“Where did this pub used to be, then?”

“Adam Street.”

“What’s the strongest thing you’ve got?”

“Well, some of the spirits are 43%, but you probably want the pale ale.”

“Is the ale real, or fizz?”

“This is real ale on the pumps.”

“Lager – that’s not very authentic, ha ha!”

“Well, we do hide it under the counter.”

Looking at the barman in the flatcap Ray growled under his breath: “I bet this will attract Peaky Blinders wankers.”

“To a museum? Nah,” said Jess.

Then, a few minutes later we overheard one of the staff said: “You can hire it out for private events. We’ve got a Peaky Blinders theme thing happening soon…”

The other thing that’s great about the new location is the additional context it brings. Right across the road is the Oakdale Workmen’s Institute, built in 1916 and relocated to St Fagan’s in 1995.

It was intended as an antidote to places like The Vulcan, with libraries, reading rooms, and space for edifying concerts.

If you want to understand the evolution of the pub in the early part of the 20th century, you can do worse than hop between the two.

Will the staff at The Vulcan still be cheerful after a long, hectic summer season, we wonder? And will the pub still be as busy once those curious to see an old haunt in a new location have done so? We’ll have to go back in a year or so to find out.

Seeing how much booze this museum exhibit was selling, and how happy it made people, made us wonder whether more pubs could consider the heritage angle.

We know we’re weird – we know – but we’d certainly be interested in drinking in historic pubs that have been made over to feel historic. Rather, that is, than painted bloody grey.

20th Century Pub marketing pubs

What is the Watney’s font?

Watney’s brewery might have disappeared but its brand lives on in the collective memory and people often ask “What is that font?”

The post-war Watney’s brand identity was created by the Design Research Unit. They were commissioned by Watney’s in 1956 and eventually delivered a pioneering House Identification Manual in around 1960.

This guidance included comprehensive rules on which lettering styles to use, for which purposes, in which contexts.

So, there’s problem number 1: there is no single lettering style but rather a whole set of different, complementary ones.

Problem number 2 is that these weren’t ‘fonts’ in the 21st century sense.

This is a bit boring, and tends to bring out the pedants, but here’s a quick summary of the terminology as we understand it:

  • typeface – related sets of letters and numbers in different sizes and weights, like Gill Sans, which comes in bold, condensed, italic, shadowed, and so on.
  • font – a specific style of a particular typeface, such as 12 point Gill Sans Italic. In the days of traditional printing, this would be a single set of metal letters.
  • lettering style – a design for a set of letters and numbers that might not be used in print at all but cast in metal or plastic, cut from wood, or hand painted.

The meaning of ‘font’ has changed, however, so that, these days, it usually means a digital file you install, such as Roboto_Black.ttf (a TrueType font), which can be automatically resized.

And what most people want to know when they ask about a font is which one they should buy or download for their computer.

With that in mind, throughout this piece, we’ll suggest some digital fonts that will get you close to those used by Watney’s, even if they’re not exactly the same.

The information in this post comes from two Watney Mann in-house technical manuals, House Identification Manual and Basic Elements.

We’ve seen pages from these reproduced in other books and online but were very kindly sent complete scans by Nick Stone, AKA TypeJunky, to whom we owe several pints.

The font in the Watney’s Red Barrel logo

A diagram showing the Watney's red barrel logo on a grid with the word Watneys, no apostrophe, in all capitals.
How to layout the logo, from Basic Elements.

The famous Red Barrel logo has the word WATNEYS written across its centre in a style the manual calls Grotesque No. 9.

This style could also be used for, e.g., signs pointing to the toilets, or the lounge in a pub. But, in practice, that doesn’t often seem to have been done.

It was also allowed to be used for pub signs in specific circumstances – see below.

There are digital versions available.

The brand name font

A full alphabet in all capitals, laid out on a grid to show the correct dimensions and spacing. The letters are chunky and rounded. Text at the side says "Letter form 1: Clarendon Bold Expanded".
The capital letters from Watney’s Clarendon Bold Expanded, from Basic Elements.

The style used to write WATNEYS was described in the brand manual as Clarendon Bold Expanded. But no other font by this name actually looks like Watney’s version, which is sort of curvy and almost cartoonish.

There is, however, a modern digital font called ‘Freehouse’ designed specifically to mimic Watney’s lettering. That’s what we used for the image at the top of this post.

This style was also used to write the names of subsidiary breweries such as Bullard’s, Phipps, Usher’s, Wilson’s, tying together the various companies that were added to the Watney’s family as the 1960s went on.

The fonts used for Watney’s pub signs

A table with the first five letters of the alphabet in 6 different styles, as described in the text below.
A comparison of the permitted lettering styles from Basic Elements.
A selection of pub signs on display. Each has a brewery name, such as Phipps or Tamplin's, in the Clarendon Bold Expanded style, and the pub name in one of the serif or slab-serif fonts described below.
A display of pub names from an exhibition at the Design Centre in London in 1966, from The Red Barrel magazine, August 1966.

A common complaint about Watney’s was that their pubs, and the pubs of breweries they took over, all looked the same. In fact, there were a range of different lettering styles for pub signs, with some loose guidelines for which should be used for which brand, in which parts of the country.

In London, Watney’s own pubs used a style described as English Two-Line Antique, somewhat similar to Egyptian Italic and, to a lesser extent, Festive. It’s a 19th-century-style italic slab-serif that absolutely reeks of post-war Britain.

The closest digital font we can find to this is Antique No 6 Black Italic from Commercial Type but, oof, it’s not cheap.

A full alphabet in all capitals, laid out on a grid to show the correct dimensions and spacing. The letters are chunky and straight-edged, with quirky features. Text at the side says "Letter form 2: English Two-line Antique".
English Two-Line Antique, from Basic Elements.

An alternative was ‘Thorowgood Italic’, another 19th century slab-serif revived at around the time of the Festival of Britain. There’s a digital version of this available at a much more reasonable price.

Two plainer serif styles were also available: Clarendon, of which there are many digital versions, and something called ‘Modern No. 1 Wide’ for which we can’t find an exact match, but it’s in the Modern/Scotch family.

Finally, the red barrel logo font, Grotesque No. 9, was given as an option only for pubs “having narrow fascias” – because its letters are themselves relatively narrow.

Watney’s typography on packaging

A Watney’s beer mat from the 1960s.
A selection of Watney's branded items such as trays, ashtrays, menus, beer bottles, beer cans, and guide books.
A selection of branded items pictured in 1960, from The Practical Idealists by John and Avril Blake, 1969.

We don’t have copies of the manuals for this but grab any Watney Mann beer label or promotional item and you can see the same lettering styles being applied, with similar rules.

Handmade, not digital

If you want to recreate the Watney’s look for your own project – a beer label, say, or a sign for the pub in your shed, consider how you’ll avoid the digital look.

Digital fonts can be a great place to start. But back in the 1960s, signs were painted or cut by hand by craftsmen who painstakingly transferred the letter styles from manuals and pattern books.

This meant they were often subtly wonky or misaligned, with a somewhat organic feel.

And printed labels had ink bleed and other characteristics that gave them texture. There are lots of tutorials on this, like this from Spoon Graphics.


The Square and Compass: a pub on the edge of reality

The Square & Compass at Worth Matravers in Dorset has a reputation as one of the best pubs in the country. And guess what? It is.

We got there the long way round: a bus from Poole to Swanage and then a long walk along the coast path via Durlston Castle and Dancing Ledge.

We’ve been slowly checking off stretches of the South West Coast Path for about a decade. In our experience, it’s the perfect way to approach a pub.

After hours with the sea on one side and woods or open land on the other, you become gently disconnected from reality.

It becomes about putting one foot in front of the other, warding off the sun, warding off the rain, and negotiating never-ending ups that lead into never-ending downs, in never-ending cycles.

This has the effect of making almost any pub you reach at the end seem idyllic, and any beer taste like nectar. In this case, though, the pub really was special.

We approached through a wooded valley, up and across a common striped with lynchets, and finally along a lane covered over with trees.

The pub appeared at the end of this tunnel, on a pedestal, haloed with white sky, and enveloped in bird song.

The garden was busy with parties of walkers and day trippers, and a light seasoning of locals.

The serving area of an old pub with dark orange walls, dark varnished wood, and a doorway with a small bar counter. There are stone flags on the floor.

We passed straight through and into a shady hallway where we found a menu on a chalkboard and two serving hatches.

This arrangement instantly told us we were not quite in the 21st century.

Bar staff popped up in one hatch or another, slipping and winding around each other to pull beer from the bank of casks on the back wall, or to fetch cider.

When it comes to food, it’s pies, pasties or crisps – a defiant gesture for a country pub in well-to-do tourist country. In the space of a few minutes we heard what might amount to the pub’s catchphrase several times: “No, sorry, just the pies and pasties listed on the board there…”

We ordered pints of cask ale from the local Swanage brewery Hattie Brown’s, and a cheese and onion pasty.

The pub has tables inside but not many. It’s a summer place, really, and all the action is in the garden.

The table we found available was, like all the others, a slab of stone balanced on smaller chunks of stone. At the centre was a rock with a fossil – an ornament, or designed to stop crisp packets blowing away in the wind?

A view of a pub garden with stone tables, free standing stones, tree stumps and benches. Beyond is a country lane and fields leading down the sea. There are telegraph poles above.

Looking out from the garden is as magical as looking up at it from the lane. We had a view of the hills sloping down to the sea, fading into haziness beneath a big white sky.

At one point an ancient blue Landini tractor passed by, its upright driver puffing on a pipe, like something from a 1950s British Transport documentary.

In the hedgerows, on the telephone wires, and on freestanding stones, birds gathered and chattered.… Then, unbelievably, they came to visit.

Sparrows and robins flittered around the tables picking up crumbs of crust, staring challengingly into the eyes of drinkers. A blackbird stole a crisp from a packet, after a slow, polite approach.

Then we noticed, dangling from the roof of one of two smoking sheds, and fixed to the walls, paper decorations with occult symbols. Remember what Ray said about real ale and folk horror a few weeks ago? The troubling concept of ‘deep England’ sprang to mind, too.

Five stylised hand symbols printed on paper in a row on a wooden wall. On their palms are symbols including eyes, stars and moons.

After a couple of pints, or a few pints, rather, we hiked up the hill to the bus stop.

We passed the opening to a cold war bunker buried beneath a field – more weirdness – and then found ourselves across the road from a perfect red phone box.

The arrival of the number 40 bus, also known as the ‘Purbeck Breezer’, broke the spell.

Was any of it real? We’ll have to go back again some time to really be sure.


A tale of two Alberts in Manchester

On a recent trip to Manchester we didn’t plan our drinking beforehand and encountered two contrasting Alberts.

First, we were in the city centre visiting a recommended ramen restaurant, and then Googled to see what else was nearby. Albert’s Schloss came up and we recalled that we’d read about it as an outlet for unfiltered Pilsner Urquell.

We’d also heard that it was a bit of a party pub – the kind of place where people go out-out. The website for the chain (Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham) bears this out: “Welcome to the weird, the wild and the wunderment of live performance, musik and kabaret…”

As it was a damp weekday afternoon, however, we figured we’d probably be fairly safe from that crowd, and this was indeed the case.

We entered a huge beer hall that was perhaps around 10% occupied when we arrived and perhaps 60% full when we left a couple of hours later.

It’s a really interesting space. We would say it was pretty convincing as a Bavarian-style beer hall. Which is to say, it doesn’t feel as if you’re actually in Bavaria, but does resemble those Bavarian outposts you get in German cities up north.

There’s been no expense spared in decking the place out with wooden panelling, hefty benches, and fancy light fittings. Though that is all slightly undercut by the (deliberately humorous?) cod-German signs everywhere. “Das Toilets” made us wince.

It’s table service, which you attract by pressing a button marked “Ring for Prosecco”. Being excessively literal, and not in the mood for sparkling wine, we didn’t touch it. Instead, we just waved at a passing waiter.

There’s a choice of mostly German and Austrian beers on tap, such as Paulaner, Hofbräu and Stiegl. And of course, the unfiltered Pilsner Urquell from Czechia, which we drank and drank until we felt distinctly silly.

It’s so strange to think of this extremely characterful, sulphurous beer as the flagship drink for this particular venue, but there you go. We’re not complaining.

We were told by our friends (who had never been in) that it mostly had a reputation for stag and hen dos, but on a Thursday afternoon, the venue really did feel like somewhere in Germany: calm, family-friendly, rustic.

Towards the end, it began to warm up for the evening with a keyboard and vocal due appearing on stage, and a serious-looking sound mixer emerging from a hidden cupboard. As the vibe began to shift, we drifted out into the drizzle.

A pint of cask ale on a wooden table with a bowling green visible through the window behind. The surrounding decor is tasteful with grey walls and pot plants.

Not a million miles away

The friends we were visiting have lived in various locations between Manchester and Stockport and have been keen to take us to the Albert Club in Didsbury for a while. They discovered it because a relative worked behind the bar there.

It’s a combined tennis, bowling and social club founded in 1874 “for the wealthy merchants, industrialists, and professionals of late-Victorian Manchester, especially those based in West Didsbury, Didsbury and Withington”.

Based on the dates we assume that, like Albert’s Schloss, it is named after Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who died in 1861.

Set back from a suburban side street, The Albert Club has a large clubhouse with tennis courts on one side and a bowling green on the other.

Non-members are welcome, or at least not discouraged, though only members get discounted drinks. The door to the pool room does say “Members only”, though – perhaps to prevent rowdy strangers tearing up the precious baize.

The atmosphere was quite different to other social clubs we’ve visited. There were lots of cushions, acres of tasteful grey paint, and plenty of tanned, well-to-do customers with designer labels on their smart casual clothes.

On the bar were standard lagers, several keg craft beers, and four cask ale hand-pumps. We tried something from a local brewery and it was acceptable, mostly because the condition was so good. But the better options were bigger-brewery beers. We stuck on St Austell Proper Job for the rest of the session.

The beer garden was peaceful and leafy – a summer place. The only incident that disturbed the air of comfortable complacency was when a child hoofed a football onto a table covered with empty glasses. Nobody blinked at the sound of breaking glass.

bristol pubs

Graffiti and ale: 3 alternative pubs in East Bristol

I’m a bit of a hippy and I like hippy pubs. There – I’ve said it. It’s just a shame Ray doesn’t.

He posted recently about a session in the pub with his dad, including his commentary about the feel of the pub:

We’re going to take Jess sometime, and play euchre, though I doubt she’ll feel quite as at home as Mum and Dad, or as me. It’s the kind of pub I grew up in, and around, and doesn’t have a hint of London about it… But then there are pubs Jess likes where I don’t feel completely at ease, which I believe she’s going to write about soon.

While Ray was on his session, I was drinking in three pubs which are more to my taste than Ray’s.

The occasion was the CAMRA Bristol and District Ladies (BAD Ladies) pub crawl around St Werburghs.

St Werburghs is a fascinating area of Bristol, cut off geographically from the rest of the city by a combination of cliffs, motorways and allotments. 

It’s been known for many years as a haven for alternative lifestyles and includes a self-built cooperative housing estate and a city farm.

The crawl took us to three of the four pubs in St Werburghs: The Farm, The Miners’s Arms and The Duke of York. All of them have hippy vibes of varying degrees and make me feel nostalgic for my early drinking days – while leaving Ray a little on edge. He’s such a clean boy!

The Farm has an enormous beer garden and several of my drinking companions told me it was more of a family pub than an alternative one these days, especially on Sundays.

Last time Ray and I visited someone was trying to persuade the bar staff to give them the beer slops from the drip trays, allegedly to keep slugs off their plants in their allotment.

On this occasion it was the First Beer Garden Day Of The Year and my heart sank at the apparent chaos in front of the bar. Veteran pub goers and infrequent flyers went two different ways: the veterans crowding every inch of spare bar, the infrequents forming a queue out of the door. 

Which goes to show that looks can be deceiving, as the extremely hard working and friendly staff seemed supernaturally capable of working out which order to serve people in. Bravo.

There were three ale hand pumps, although one was in the process of being changed.

A line up of hand pumps on a pub bar: New Bristol Brewery The Joy of Sesh, New Bristol Brewery Bitter, something else from the same brewery, and Wye Valley Butty Bach.

The Miners’ Arms does not have an enormous beer garden but there is a square of grass round the back which the punters pour onto when the weather is nice.

It’s a typical backstreet corner pub on the outside, and inside it’s no-frills from about table level down, with lots of former pump clips around the walls and bar.

It’s a Dawkins pub and now Dawkins isn’t brewing seems to have gone over to New Bristol Brewing, with NBB on three of the four hand pumps.

We got put off coming here a few years back due to a few too many roaming dogs on long strings. But I didn’t spot any on this occasion and, in fact, there is now a sign saying that dogs and babies are welcome “as long as they behave like civilised adults”.

A skittle alley with red velvet draped on its walls and black and red paint on the walls.

We missed most of The Duke of York the first time we visited. We featured it (and The Farm) in a gallery post on Bristol’s painted pubs, written fairly shortly after moving here.

The high level of decoration continues on the inside with an enormous quantity of arty greebling which could be at home in a Brussels bar.

We noted during our first visit that it was cosy and vaguely hippyish, and didn’t go again –not because it’s bad but because there are lots of similar places in East Bristol and, as previously mentioned, this is not necessarily Ray’s cup of tea.

What we hadn’t noticed on our first visit is that there is a whole separate drinking area round the back.

In fact, it is one of the few pubs in Bristol that still has a working skittle alley – and several different groups actually played skittles during my recent visit.

There’s also a sizeable beer garden and another space upstairs including a pool table and dartboard.

What struck me about the crowd is that there were quite a few younger people who had come in to play games as much as drink.

For those that do like to drink, there were four ales on, all in great condition.

What is the quality of hippyness these pubs share that Ray struggles with?

The pervasive smell of weed, perhaps – which just reminds me of Walthamstow and Leytonstone c.1995. And I’d rather have that than the overwhelming stink of scented candles and bleach.

There’s also the layer of worn-in grot that goes beyond ‘character’. I barely notice it but it makes Ray squirm.

On balance, it’s probably quite nice that there are pubs he likes and I don’t, and vice versa. Because, contrary to what you might have heard, we remain distinct and separate human beings.