In December 1955 Whitbread opened an espresso bar in a pub in Paddington, London. We wrote about this in a post last year but now we’ve found more details, and photos.
The Venetian Coffee Bar got an entire feature in Whitbread’s in-house magazine, The House of Whitbread, in spring 1956.
The article gives us a few details that weren’t in the newspaper reports, including the specific date of the launch party – 6 December 1955.
The photos of the launch party are slightly more interesting than usual, too. They show the famously hammy British horror actor Tod Slaughter in attendance, dressed in fine Victorian style, shortly before his death in February 1956.
The article tells us that Whitbread only acquired the pub in February 1955, having supplied it for years.
It goes on to fill in some details of the artists and architects involved in the renovation:
Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates were commissioned to carry out the interior decoration in accordance with the company’s policy of establishing distinctive houses with an individual atmosphere. The murals were painted by Mr Peter Stebbing.
If you’ve followed us for a while, or read 20th Century Pub, you’ll know that we’re a bit obsessed with theme pubs but it hadn’t occurred to us that this might count as one.
Lonsdale-Hands was involved in several high-profile projects for Whitbread including interior design for its flagship post-war project in Leicester Square, The Samuel Whitbread. He also put together a collection of cricketing memorabilia for The Yorker on Piccadilly, which also opened in 1955.
Stebbing is an interesting character, too, from what little concrete information we can find. He was well-known in his day and his wedding was reported in Tatler.
His particular area of expertise was painting trompe l’oeil murals – a useful trick in theme pubs when you need to add scale and ‘production value’ without additional construction.
His involvement also says something, we think, about:
the amount of money Whitbread was throwing at these projects
the meeting of art and commerce in the ‘new Elizabethan age’
Another pleasing detail in the article is an explanation of why Paddington was chosen as the location for this particular experiment:
In a neighbourhood where many Continentals live who enjoy a coffee and liqueur, and were born boulevardiers, The Venetian meets an evident need. It should have a particular appeal to the ‘under twenties’.
And, of course, Paddington does have those lovely canals. Little Venice, in fact, they call it.
Distant Voices, Still Lives from 1988 is Terence Davies’ attempt to capture working class Liverpool life of the 1940s and 50s on film. His evocation of pub life is particularly powerful.
Perhaps a fifth or a quarter of the whole film takes place in or outside the pub.
Cosmetically, most of the details are right. We see etched glass bearing the name of Higson’s, bottles of Mackeson Stout, ten-sided pint glasses, and bell pushes on the benches where the ladies sit.
It’s run-down and plain, this pub, but that doesn’t matter because the people bring it to life.
It is where families and friends get together, crowding every space.
In a repeated shot, from the lounge or saloon into the public bar, we see men ordering rounds of drinks:
“Nora! Hey, Nora! Can I have two ‘alves of shandy, a Mackies, a Double Diamond, a pale ale and lime, a black-and-tan, a pint of mix, a rum and pep, a rum and blackcurrant, and a Guinness?”
“Rum and pep” is rum with peppermint cordial; “mix”, also known as half-and-half, is 50/50 mild and bitter.
Another reason this pub feels so vibrant is the constant singing.
Singing is how the women in the film express their feelings, from sadness to joy.
Taking it in turns to perform, or harmonising together, they sway with their glasses:
“When that old gang of mine get together… On the corner of my home town… We were friends in the past… And our friendship will last… ’Til the curtain of dreams comes down!”
Would people put up with it these days? You’d probably end up in a snarky video on social media.
There’s also a strong implication that men who don’t like the pub – who don’t go, or complain about having to go – are the most likely to be unhappy:
“Come on, Les, just one drink.”
“Alright, just one, to wet the baby’s head, but we’re not staying here all fucking night.”
They simply don’t have what it takes to rub along with other people.
There are plenty of pubs on film but this portrayal seems, somehow, more real than most. Perhaps its because it isn’t treated as special – just part of everyday life, like the back yard or the kitchen.
We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.
We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.
Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.
Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.
However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. TheCambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.
The first significant post-war pub was more than a pub – it was a prototype, an exhibit and, perhaps surprisingly, built to last.
We first noticed The Festival Inn on the corner of Chrisp Street Market in Poplar, East London, more than a decade ago. On one of our long walks through the infinitely fascinating neighbourhoods between Walthamstow, where we lived, and the City of London, we spotted its fading 1970s Truman’s livery and paused to take some pictures.
Only years later, having developed an interest in architecture and town planning, and gearing up to write 20th Century Pub, did we realise its true significance.
In the late 1940s, Britain was still recovering from the Blitz. Rationing was still in place for many consumer items and the supply of building materials was severely restricted. The supply of men to use them was short, too, with many still serving in the armed forces. The only new pubs being opened were prefabs – and even those were sometimes controversial.
Then along came the Festival of Britain. Scheduled for 1951, it was designed to offer a vision of a post-austerity Britain, to lift the national mood and to put a definitive full stop on World War II.
For the Festival, all kinds of exceptions were made to the rules and regulations around construction and the organisers were given dibs on material and manpower. As well as the main Festival site on the South Bank of the Thames – the one you’ll generally see in old newsreel footage – there were other exhibitions across London and around the UK.
Among the most ambitious, and most practical, was the ‘Live Exhibition of Architecture’ at Poplar which saw the construction of the largest part of an entire new housing estate, from scratch. In fact, the LCC had been planning to build a new estate there anyway, to be known as Lansbury; the Festival just sped things up and ensured the involvement of Top Men.
The architectural exhibition was conceived by architect Frederick Gibberd, who also designed the shopping centre at Chrisp Street around which the estate centred.
Gibberd played an important role in designing post-war Britain, from the distinctive BISF council house – a pragmatic response to the housing shortage – to the utopian vision of Harlow new town.
Gibberd’s design for Chrisp Street included two pubs, one at either corner of the shopping centre. Only one would be open in time to form part of the architectural exhibition, however – the appropriately named Festival Inn.
If Lansbury was a dry run for Harlow, Crawley and Stevenage, The Festival Inn was the prototype for their pubs. It was to be owned and operated by East End brewers Truman’s and took on the licence of The Grundy Arms, a Victorian pub that survived the Blitz but was demolished as part of the clearance of the Chrisp Street area.
The exterior of The Festival Inn was designed by Gibberd because it was integrated into a block that housed a shopping arcade. The interior was the work of Truman’s own in-house designer R.W. Stoddart. It took the form of a traditional pub with multiple bars but with the clean, straight-edged, minimal look typical of post-war buildings.
The interior of the pub, as described in The Brewing Trade Review for January 1951:
The house has a large public bar with recess for dart playing. The walls will be panelled to dado height with oak panelling. The fireplace will be of brick and stone with a large mural above it depicting a scene from the nearby docks. At the rear end of the bar a small glass dome is formed to give additional light to the bar. The service counter will have an oak-panelled front with a plastic top. Above the counter there will be cold cathode lighting to give a warm honey-coloured light… There are two saloon bars linked by an opening next to the fireplaces.
There was also a mirror featuring Abram Games’ famous Festival of Britain logo.
The pub sign, situated a little way from the entrance, was to depict children dancing round the famous space age Skylon as if it were a maypole – a fantastic representation of the collision of national tradition and futurism represented by the Festival as a whole.
That theme continued in the publicity surrounding the pub’s construction and when its first chimney was completed in December 1950, a ceremony was held. Beer was delivered by horse-drawn dray and ‘ale wives’ in traditional costume hoisted a garland and served beer to the chimney by way of a blessing. Covering this event, The Sphere for 30 December 1950 described The Festival Inn as ‘an example of modern planning on traditional lines’.
In 1951, The Festival really was a sign of hope. Pubs destroyed in the Blitz would be replaced; communities would be rebuilt. It was open and trading as a pub from 2 May that year, serving both Festival visitors and market traders.
The similarly named Festive Briton, on the opposite side of the market square, didn’t open until 1952 and, anyway, lacked the razzle-dazzle that made The Festival a headline grabber.
Just as Lansbury would inspire the look and layout of new towns around the UK, The Festival Inn would produce its own offspring.
Over the years, Lansbury weathered down and got worn in, and The Festival became part of the furniture. The sign disappeared at some point and the delicate new-Elizabethan lettering on the outer wall was replaced with Truman’s livery that was somehow both more up-to-date and more old-fashioned.
Amazingly, 70 years on, The Festival Inn is still there and still trading, albeit on pause for COVID-19. It’s also remarkably well preserved inside and features in CAMRA’s official listing of historic pub interiors. It’s also now Grade II listed by Historic England, too, so is protected, at least structurally, whatever else might happen to the Chrisp Street Market area in years to come.
Could Britain’s first modern post-war estate pub also end up being its last? It’s entirely possible.
In the post-war period, up until the 1960s, around 4,000 brand new pubs were built. Among them was The Deerstalker on Nottingham’s Bestwood Park Estate.
The name is a clue to the brewery which built it – Mitchells & Butlers, whose trademark was the ‘Deers Leap’.
We came across the pictures below in the January-February 1957 edition of the M&B in-house magazine, also called The Deerstalker:
“The Deerstalker is one of a number of new houses that the company are opening on new housing estates all over the Midlands. It may not be the largest or most magnificent of our houses, but, as you will see from our illustrations, its snappy contemporary decor will provide a cheery local for those inhabitants of the Bestwood Park Estate who are sufficiently enlightened to appreciate the fact that they will be better off with an M&B.”
The Deerstalker, January-February 1957, pp.10-11
This pub was a long time in gestation, a licence being first applied for in 1950. That application was withdrawn when it became clear that post-war building restrictions would make construction impossible for some years to come. (Nottingham Evening Post, 31 March 1950; Nottingham Journal, 1 April 1950.) It seems to have been opened in around 1956.
Let’s have a look at that “snappy decor”.
Apart from the general sense of pristine mid-century modernity, there are a few things that catch the eye.
The clocks with their brushed metal faces. Those, we guess, formica-topped tables. And that absolutely fantastic wallpaper in the saloon. Here’s a sample, perspective corrected and tinted a vaguely appropriate colour for the period.
It looks as if was designed specifically with pubs and bars in mind, perhaps even commissioned by M&B for their own houses.
“My husband Adrian and myself were the landlord and landlady at this pub in the early 80’s. There was entertainment 7 nights per week and we reduced it to 6 nights. Singers, comedians and discos all performed there. It was very busy and we made some good friends. We had a very loyal staff who remained with us throughout our tenure. There were also some very frightening occasions when the customers rioted and smashed tables & chairs and all the optics and bottles on the back of the bar, all the staff had to squeeze into the tiny office for safety until the police arrived to calm things down.”
It was renamed The Sportsman in 1993 and ceased trading as a pub at some point. It is now a convenience store but still recognisable.