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?
[He] didn’t like the Lord Relton very much. It was a fake-Tudor road-house with a huge car park; even its name was rather phoney, an attempt to identify it with the village of Relton to which, geographically at least, it belonged. But, unlike the Frumenty, unlike even the Ten Dancers or the Blue Lion at Silbridge, the Lord Relton belonged nowhere; it would have been just as much at home in any other place in England. It even smelled liked nowhere; it had a smell he’d never encountered anywhere else, undoubtedly clean, and even antiseptic, but also disturbingly sensual, like the flesh of a woman who takes all the deodorants the advertisements recommend.
Pubs in general are presented as a kind of erotic playground, all flirtatious barmaids and “goers” – frustrated wives, lonely war widows and other women no better than they should be. It’s no wonder, then, that the (angry) young men in the book practically live there, talking endlessly about sexual adventures, ambitions and the relative attractions of the women they know.
As for older people, though, Braine also gives notes on the lads’ parents’ drinking habits. Here’s a bit about the protagonist’s family:
[Dick’s] father [preferred] the Liberal Club (one pint of mixed, one large Lamb’s navy rum, every evening at nine-twenty precisely, except Wednesday and Sunday) and his mother rarely touched alcohol at all, much less visited a pub.
(‘Mixed’ is a blend of mild-and-bitter.)
There’s also a surprising amount of drinking at home, given the idea sometimes conveyed in commentary that this is a new and disturbing phenomenon threatening pubs.
Dick and his father share bottles of Family Ale after they’ve done the weekly accounts for the shop, and Mr Coverack, Dick’s best friend Tom’s Dad, is an expert pourer of bottled Tetley’s Bitter:
He opened another bottle of beer and filled his glass with his usual competence; none frothed over and there was exactly the right amount of head on it to make it immediately drinkable. Tom had once commented to Dick with some bitterness on this trait of his father’s. “My Old Man,” he said, “can do any little thing you can mention, from mending a switch to pouring a glass of beer, like a professional. It’s the big things, the important things, he messes up.”
There is even a brief description of a specific beer – quite unusual in fiction generally. It’s in a passage set in a pub which is filling up with the evening crowd, developing a warm atmosphere and buzz:
The sun was setting now; the faces at the far side of the room glimmered palely, the faces nearest the fire were dramatically lit in red and black, the bitter in the tankard of the old man at the table next to Dick’s was changed from straw-yellow to near-amber sown with glittering specks of gold; when the girl, bringing in Tom’s round, switched on the light there was an element of annoyance in the glances directed for a split-second towards her; the transition from an atmosphere as cosy as a Victorian ballad had been too abrupt and the room seemed, during that transition, drab and mean.
Straw-yellow is interesting with the history of northern beer in mind but this passage is also a reminder of the importance of light in both the mood of a pub and the appearance of any given beer.
We won’t go through every pint, bottle and saloon bar in the book, but take our word for it, there are plenty – further evidence that acknowledging the pubs existence of pubs was a key factor in giving post-war British fiction its sense of startling realism.
Every time we think we’ve at least heard of every substantial book about beer or pubs, a new-to-us specimen pops up. This weekend, we came across They’re Open! by Ronald Wilkinson and Roger Frisby, with illustrations by Neville Main, from 1950.
It’s fluff, really – the kind of thing the chaps at the golf club would buy for another chap known to like the odd pint of bitter on the occasion of his birthday. Still, it’s a revealing time capsule, as throwaways often are.
The gimmick, as with T.E.B. Clarke’s What’s Yours? from 12 years earlier, is that the book claims to be a manual for those keen to learn the mysterious ways of the pub:
The student should on no account embark upon the theory of Serious Drinking without first pausing to consider certain fundamental concepts and general principles… It should be clearly understood from the outset that the subject must not be approached in a light or frivolous vein…
Another section from the introduction is probably meant to be a joke but it’s hard to tell from this side of the real ale revolution, when we’re used to this kind of thing being uttered in earnest:
It may strike the sceptic as odd that the word ‘serious’ is applied in this context. However, the word is not chosen at random. It is, in fact, the keystone of the whole arch of Alcohology. For the Serious Drinker drinks not to be sociable; neither does he drink to drown his sorrows, nor for want of anything better to do. Above all, it cannot be too strongly impressed upon the student that drunkenness in any shape or form must never be the aim, nor indeed must it be the concomitant of Serious Drinking. The Serious Drinker drinks on a rational basis. He drinks for no other reason that that he likes drinking. One would never ask a stamp-collector why he is serious about collecting stamps…
This introductory section also sets out the book’s stall on the issue of women and beer:
In all the authors’ experience, they have never encountered a woman who held forth even the remotest promise of successful development into a Serious Drinker. Her very make-up prevents it. Charming, lovable, fascinating as women may seem, all attempts on their parts to become Serious Drinkers have so far been but empty threats.
(That’s me told. – Jess.)
There’s disappointingly little about beer in the book, of course, beyond a warning against foreign beer, where foreign has the broadest possible definition: “For the Serious Drinker is a drinker of beer, and beer is only to be found in England.”
There is a chapter on what to wear in the pub: thick-soled shoes to raise you above the sawdust, with beer-coloured uppers to conceal stains; and drinking trousers with expanding waistline and a deep left-hand pocket for change.
The bit that really grabbed our attention, with 20th Century Pub still ringing in our brains, is an attempt to classify different types of pub:
The Roadhouse… Construction in concrete… Design frequently of the pseudo-Tudor or bogus-rustic…
The American or Cocktail bar… Neon signs… Stools… A plethora of chromium… Preponderance of women… It is difficult to find words adequate to condemn this type of abomination…
The Chain House… This is a large establishment usually of brick which sports a car-park. It is by far the least offensive of the non-serious types of drinking establishments, and at a pinch it is perfectly correct for the Drinker to enter it…
The Pub or Local… The is the ideal locus bibendi for the Serious Drinker. Now, the true pub is not always easy to recognise… it will in all probability be tucked away in some side-street, mews or alley…
There are then pages and pages on the subject of pub doors – the various types, their actions, how to operate their handles – and then a whole lot more on where to sit once you’re inside for optimum efficiency. There’s a section on posture, one on how to grip your glass, and on how to chat up barmaids. All of this is more or less tedious.
Things pick up again with an attempt to categorise types of drinker:
The Serious Drinker…
The Solitary or Introspective Drinker… unshaven… unethical ties…
The Crypto-serious or Miscellaneous Group… This group includes inter alia, the dart-players, the shove-halfpenny boys, the domino kings, the cribbage enthusiasts, the bar-billiards men and the pin-table fiends…
The Celebratory of Extrospective Drinker… a noteworthy hazard to the Serious Drinker…
The Social or Gregarious Drinker…
The Medicinal or Therapeutic Drinker… On no account should he be engaged in conversation, because this inevitably consists of an interminable repetition of his morbid ailments, past and present…
The Casual or Intermittent Drinker… He looks at the clock between gulps and speaks in an anxious tone of voice…
All in all, this is a minor work, perhaps of greatest use to those with an interest in attitudes to women in pubs.
All pictures and text from Guinness Time, Autumn 1959.
“Guinness have, in the past four years, been privileged to take part in a project which has now resulted in the opening of a new public house which, both in its physical layout and in the method of its planning, exhibits several new features.”
“The new pub is called Hilltop , and is in the South End neighbourhood of Hatfield New Town. It is owned and operated by Messrs. McMullens of Hertford, and it came into being after a most unusual piece of co-operation.”
“It began when we found that the Hatfield Development Corporation had no public funds available to provide the meeting place it had planned for the new population of this rapidly growing neighbourhood. The central site which had been reserved for this community centre would remain empty and the only social building would be a small public house which could not be expected to meet all the needs of the locality. We thought this situation offered a wonderful opportunity for an experiment.”
“We approached the Corporation and asked them if they would consider permitting a brewer to provide the amenities they had planned to include in their community centre. They agreed. We asked Messrs. McMullens if they would consider expanding the plans of the public house they were to build in the neighbourhood to provide these amenities, and they readily agreed.”
“Hilltop offers the usual facilities of a pub, three bars and an off-licence where alcoholic refreshment is available during licensing hours. It also has an unlicensed cafe where soft drinks and light meals are served. Then there is a large hall for use as a theatre or for dancing or dinners, and three committee rooms. All these rooms may be attached either to the licensed or unlicensed part of the building… by locking the necessary doors. In additional the Hertfordshire Health Authorities have two rooms allotted to them in which they run a local Health Clinic.”