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.
The 1955 documentary We Live by the River provides a child’s-eye tour of post-war London including, of course, a stop off at the door of a busy pub – but which one?
You can watch the film here, as part of the excellent archive collection available via BBC iPlayer, or on YouTube if you’re outside the UK. The pub appears at about 21 minutes but it is worth watching the whole thing if you’re interested in the place and/or period.
The brief moment we spend in the pub offers one wonderful image after another – you could easily extract each one as a still photograph.
As we’ve said many times, shots of pub interiors with people drinking are oddly hard to come by so, even if these have the staged quality typical of British documentaries of this time, they’re a bit special.
From the information in the film, we can assume this pub is somewhere in Soho or Fitzrovia, can’t we?
It’s definitely a Barclay Perkins pub; and Barclay’s was subsumed by Courage, so you might have known it in that guise.
In terms of architecture, it’s got a corner door (although those are easily blocked up and moved); the exterior has what looks like marble and stone; the windows are rounded at the top.
Make your suggestions below – ideally with a link to photo evidence.
In the meantime, we can think of worse ways to spend Sunday than looking at every pub in central London on Street View.
Looking through old brewery in-house magazines from the 1950s and 60s, one recurring image is inescapable: a monstrous pile of pennies on a bar, in the process of being toppled by a celebrity.
Investigating this oddity of pub culture has been on our to-do list for some time but John Clarke (@beer4john) raised it with us recently which prompted us to dig into the archives.
First, we started with our own collection of magazines from Whitbread and Watney’s. Between them, they give a clear idea of when this trend took off and explain the mechanics.
How it worked
The House of Whitbread for spring 1955 has the earliest reference with a wonderful photograph of Mr. R. Back, tenant of The Trooper Inn, Froxfield, Wiltshire, and a customer placing a penny.
The Red Barrel for August 1955 has another early reference, with more detail:
Congratulations to Mr and Mrs George Jones of The Sun Tavern, Long Acre, [London] WC2, who, through their efforts and the generosity of their customers collected a tower of coppers, totalling 4,602, and amounting to £19 3s. 5d. The amount netted was given to the Spastics, and the pennies, stuck with beer, nearly reached the ceiling. The ceremony of ‘Pushing the Pennies’, that is tumbling over the tower, aroused considerable interest, including that of Alan Dick of the Daily Herald who reported the event.
The key detail there: the coins were glued together with beer.
It’s also worth pointing out that the National Spastic Society, founded in 1952 to support parents of children with cerebral palsy, and now known as Scope, was a frequent recipient of funds raised from penny towers. We wonder if this was something they suggested to publicans as part of their fundraising activity?
The next entry from the Red Barrel, from October the same year, concerns The Northumberland Arms in Isleworth, West London, offers more info on how these towers were structured and on the fund-raising tactics surrounding them:
The pyramid of pennies shown in the picture was built on a half-pint glass, and so large did it grow that it overtopped the tall figure of Wag Carbine, a regular customer, as he stood on the bar beside it. Carbine craved the favour of pushing over the pyramid of pennies christened ‘Little Willie’. Jack Cannon, the publican, consented, with the proviso that he had £5 to the pennies for the privilege… During the evening of ‘Little Willie’s’ demise shillings were paid for the opportunity to guess the amount collected.
Wag Carbine! What a name.
In total, they raised about £70 which paid for the old folk of the Isleworth Silver Threads to spend a day at the seaside.
When did it start?
Elsewhere, we’ve found reference to this trend having begun in 1954, specifically at The Masons Arms in London’s Fitzrovia district. And here’s evidence that, yes, that pub did have a coin tower at that time:
But it didn’t take long to find earlier examples via the marvellous British Newspaper Archive, such as this from the Birmingham Mail for 10 August 1943:
This is not a Fasces – the symbol of the defunct Fascist regime – but a pillar of British money collected in two months from June 1 to July 31 by patrons of The Corner Cupboard licensed house, Union Street, Birmingham. Including two 10 [shilling] notes and a reinforcement of half-crowns in two layers, the ‘pillar of wealth’ contains about £40 with a pint glass base on which it stands full of silver and octagonal [threepenny] pieces and a V for Victory sign made up of shillings and sixpenny pieces.
There are also earlier references to ‘pyramids of pennies’ outside pubs, at market town carnivals, from the 1930s. As ever, if you know of an earlier example of a tower of coins in a pub, we’d be delighted to hear about it.
For now, though, we’ve got a hazy chronology: it began between the wars, crept into pubs in the 1940s and became a full blown craze in 1954-55.
The celebrity connection
The presence in the film clip above of actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles shows that celebrities were connected with this almost from the beginning.
There are accounts of publicans inviting the Queen to knock down their towers (she didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh sent a cheque) and no shortage of photos like this absolute corker:
But it’s fair to say its heyday was the 1950s to the 1970s and that its popularity began to tail off after that, perhaps as pubs became more corporate and less characterful.
Or maybe it just began to seem a bit naff with fruit machines and jukeboxes competing for that loose change.
There’s also the fact that on at least one occasion, the vast weight of one of these towers caused material damage to the pub, as reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 16 December 1966:
A pile of pennies – £90-worth of them, collected for charity at the Old Mill Inn, Baginton, was so heavy that the stout oak bar counter cracked under the weight. When two members of Coventry City football team ceremoniously pushed the pile over, it was found there were 2,160 pennies, weighing over three hundredweight. The manager of the inn, Mr. Harold Smith, said today: “Towards the end, we noticed a dip in the counter. Then we could see a crack.”
When you think about it, a precarious tower of metal covered in sticky stale beer doesn’t seem entirely safe or hygienic, does it?