20th Century Pub pubs

Watered-down beer in Oldham, 1960

In 1960, a mysterious man slid into pubs in and around Oldham and secretly tested the strength of the beer. What he found was criminal.

We first came across a version of this story back in 2016 when we filleted a 1969 book called How To Run a Pub by Tony White.

His version goes like this:

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.

20th Century Pub london pubs

V.S. Pritchett on the changing London pub, 1962

The writer and critic V.S. Pritchett was born in 1900 and saw the pub evolve over the course of the 20th century. In 1962, he wrote about it, in his book London Perceived.

“I am old enough to have known three distinctive periods of London life”, he writes. “I have ridden in a horse tram. I have been run over by a hansom cab…”

He gets on to pubs fairly promptly in the first chapter of the book. The  introductory observation in this passage is that…

the influences of mass life are changing us, so that even the London public house is becoming public.

What does he mean by that? It’s a hint, we think, of the beginning of ‘chainification’ – of pubs centrally managed, in line with central policy.

It’s also a literal reference to the more open layout of post-war pubs, as the following paragraph makes clear:

But most pubs are still divided into bars, screened and provided with quiet mahogany corners where the like-minded can protect themselves against those of different mind.

Later on, in the final chapter, he returns to the theme:

Many of the new ‘democratic’ pubs where the separate bars have been abolished are dolled up with arty iron and glass work, coloured glasses, artificial flowers, fake Toby jugs, plushy wall-papers, and chains of coloured lights. Thank heaven there are plenty of simple places, in the old varnish and mahogany, some with the beautifully etched Victorian glass and lettering, where one meets the old mild pomposities, where one can be reassured by an aspidistra and a stout barmaid who calls you “love” or “dear” and overfeeds her dog.

There’s a sense here of a crossing point – of the slow passage from one era into another, but with the old clinging onto existence.

We wonder if the specific pub he had in mind when talking about “dolled up” ironwork might be The Nags Head in Covent Garden, arguably the first theme pub, overhauled by Whitbread in the 1950s. But it could be any number of others.

Pritchett also observed changes in how pubs reflected class hierarchies:

Clearly, between the saloon bar and the public bar there is, or was, a class division; nowadays, the public bar is where men play darts. In the public bar, there being the thirsty tradition of manual work, you drink your beer by the pint; in the saloon, in the private, you drink it in half-pints; occasionally there is a ladies’ bar, and there ladies – always in need of fortifying, for they have been on their “poor feet” – commonly order stout or “take” a little gin in a refined medicinal way.

We’ve never heard the phrase “ladies’ bar” before but guess he’s referring to the pub lounge.

Jumping back to this theme in the final chapter, he notes the then new tendency for well-to-do young people to frequent pubs instead of gentlemen’s clubs, “being careful to put on their pullovers”.

Of the atmosphere of the pub, along with his observation about “mild pomposities”, Pritchett seems to find it pleasingly bleak:

The London publican cultivates a note of moneyed despondency and the art of avoiding “argument” by discussing the weather… There are pubs where the same people always meet, where they tell the same stories, where they glance up at the changing London sky and sink into mournful happiness or fatten and redden with natural bawdy – I do not mean dirty-stories but with licence of their own invention. One is reminded that this is the city of the riper passages of Shakespeare and the sexy London papers… There is a touch of ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’ in all of them…

Where Pritchett sounds most Edwardian is when he talks about Empire and immigration. There are numerous passages that no doubt sounded fairly liberal-minded when published but which, to a modern reader, exhibit a distinct colonialist attitude.

That overlaps with his commentary on pubs when he touches on London’s large and historic Irish community:

The pubs catering for the Irish are rather different; the Irish like to swarm in public melancholy, their ideal being, I suppose, a tiled bar resembling a public lavatory and a mile long, and with barmen who, as they draw your draught stout, keep an eye on you, show their muscles, and tacitly offer to throw you out by collar and coat-tail. This is not the London English fashion, which is livelier, yet more judicious, sentimental, and moralizing.

Rude though those cultural generalisations might be, this remains an evocative description of a particular type of London pub.

We’d recommend reading the snippets above in context, along with many other interesting observations about London. Pritchett’s London Perceived is available as a paperback from Daunt Publishing at £10.99. Our copy was £2.50 from a branch of Oxfam Books.

20th Century Pub pubs

The Chelsea Drugstore – the pub of the future?

In the 1960s, British brewers sometimes behaved as if they didn’t believe the traditional English pub had a future and scrambled to find ways to reinvent the pub for the late 20th century. For Bass Charrington the solution was a glass and metal wonderland in West London, on the King’s Road – The Chelsea Drugstore.

The symbolism feels a bit on the nose, really, but The Chelsea Drugstore replaced a Victorian pub called The White Hart – though a pub of that name was trading on the site at least as early as 1805.

The White Hart c.1900. SOURCE: WorldsEnder/AngloSardo.

The new pub took eight months to put together at a cost of about £180,000 (equivalent to around £3.3 million in 2022), involving a serious roster of swinging sixties talent.

The architects were Patrick Garnett and Anthony Cloughley, who had experience building amusement parks, and Erik Blakemore, who had worked on film sets. Their firm GCB had previously designed kitsch Tiki bars for Butlin’s seaside holiday camps.

Graphic design was handled by Martin Stringer and Tony Guy (AKA Stringer & Guy) and Push Pin Studios of New York City, founded by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.

Interior design was by Baron Alessandro Albrizzi who had a trendy furniture shop at 182 Kings Road.

It didn’t stop there – even the staff uniforms had a name designer, Tom Gilbey, who had earlier tailored the capes the Beatles wore on the cover of their 1965 album Help! In particular, he designed minidresses for the barmaids which were to be a major selling point.

CHELSEA DRUGSTORE London's most exciting spectacular' requires a deluge of dollies to cope with the crush in our nosh area restaurant, snack bar and pubs. Please! If you can wait with wit and cope with 'celebrities' (even on a part time basis we don't expect EVERYONE to be brave for ever) then dolly on over and see George Firmage at CHELSEA DRUGSTORE. 49 KING'S ROAD If you don't swing, don't ring.
A job ad from June 1968. SOURCE: The Stage, 27 June 1968, via The British Newspaper Archive.

Despite all that revolutionary talent, the new building wasn’t actually new at all. It was built around the existing pub and even retained the shape of its arched windows, behind a shiny glass and aluminium ground-floor frontage.

The restaurant at The Chelsea Drugstore in 1968. SOURCE: RIBA

What was the Chelsea Drugstore like?

A contemporary description of the impression it made can be found in the Brewing Trade Review for August 1968:

To capture in words the mirror dazzling effect of the place, quite astonishing when first encountered, is not easy. Some floors are of marble, others have specially designed carpeting in aubergine, gold and grey. Counters in the gift shop, the tobacconist’s and so on, are of stainless steel and glass with polished brass and glass panel fronts. The bar and restaurant counter tops are of stainless steel. All the ceilings are of polished aluminium and practically all the lighting spills from floor level, where fixtures have been set within the brass and tinted glass panels. The result is that the movement of people past these fixtures breaks the light beams and causes reflections in the surrounding polished surfaces, so creating a constantly changing light pattern. One cannot be alone, or certainly get the impression of being alone in the Chelsea Drugstore. 

The inspiration for the name of the new pub was said to be Le Drugstore, a shop-bar-cafe in Paris which was, in turn, inspired by late-night venues in New York City.

It’s hard to imagine that someone, somewhere in the Bass Charrington organisation wasn’t also, rather bravely, thinking that the word ‘drugstore’ was a loud, clear signal to London youth about what might be on offer.

Alan Walker of Bass Charrington (right) at the opening of The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968. SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, August 1968.

In advance of the Drugstore’s opening on 8 July 1968, Bass Charrington’s marketing machine set about building hype, as reported in the Brewing Trade Review:

From the start it was obvious that the Chelsea Drugstore was going to be different. The invitation took the form of a label wrapped round a non-returnable bottle of beer (full). On it, in mauve lettering on a silver background, one read that “Mr. H. Alan Walker, Chairman, Bass Charrington Ltd., takes pleasure in inviting you to the opening of the Chelsea Drugstore, 49 Kings Road, Chelsea, S.W.3.” One’s admission ticket for this Sunday morning occasion? The mauve and silver decorated bottle top.

The hype, and the signalling, worked.

“The day they opened, we were all so damn high we ran around putting handprints all over it until owners had to set up a roadblock to keep stoners off,” Beverley ‘Firdsi’ Gerrish is quoted as saying in a biography of Syd Barrett.

Apart from the visual aspect of the design, the business model was new, too. Bass Charrington needed to recoup its investment and intended to sweat the premises for every penny.

So, as well as selling its beer in two bars, they also sold breakfast, lunch and dinner; records; tobacco; soda; delicatessen products; and, of course, drugs, in a late night pharmacy.

As Jack Amos wrote in the Financial Times for 6 July 1968, in an article called ‘The Changing Face of the English Pub’:

By keeping the shops open when a view the bars are closed the brewery hopes (with good reason) for a better return than could be expected from a normal pub with restricted hours. In addition, the shops will stay open as late as possible within the confines of a 16-hour trading day…

Was the Chelsea Drugstore the future of the pub?

Business was good at first. It sold its first week’s supply of beer in 48 hours, along with twelve designer shirts at six guineas a pop (about £120 each).

It continued to do good business for a year or two and Bass Charrington made noises about expanding the concept.

Other brewers were inspired by The Chelsea Drugstore, too, launching their own youth-focused discotheque pubs, such as the Watney’s Birds Nests.

But the locals didn’t like The Chelsea Drugstore at all. “I think it sounds frightful,” said Miss Iris Medlicott of the Royal Avenue Residents’ Association before it even opened (Chelsea News, 21/06/1968). Once it began trading, there were constant complaints, as summarised in the same newspaper on 5 September 1969:

To anyone who has known and loved the old village for up to almost half a century… this corner rendezvous which has caused so much high blood pressure will never fit in with our King’s Road… without or without its controversial lights, which as someone has wittily put it, “accentuate that our gin palace is a tin palace”.

Others complained that the beer was expensive and the setup gimmicky. The kind of place, in short, that you went once and didn’t bother coming back to.

It’s sometimes described as having become a tourist attraction – or maybe a tourist trap. In 1970, the Lord Mayor of London hosted a lunch there for British teenagers to thank them for their part in attracting visitors to the city. (Kensington Post 10/04/1970.)

Later the same year, it played the part of a teenage hangout of the future in a film, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971.

Alex visits a record shop (The Chelsea Drugstore) in A Clockwork Orange, 1971.

Then Bass Charrington quietly redesigned the pub and relaunched it in September that year. This time, their aim was not to reinvent the traditional pub but to reintroduce it.

This new version of the Drugstore had one modern bar and one kitted out in traditional fashion. At the opening, a mini-skirted model sat on the lap of a Chelsea Pensioner, to signify this union of old and new. (Kensington Post 24/09/1971.)

A compromise.

Always a good sign.

Decline and decay

The problem with any design built around shiny, brand new hipness is that it is doomed to (a) go out of fashion and (b) get tatty.

The typical old-fashioned pub, on the other hand, has the advantage that generally the more worn-in it gets, the better.

Martin Green and Tony White, authors of the wonderful time capsule The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs, were not impressed at all by what The Chelsea Drugstore had become by 1973:

In transforming what was a decent Victorian pub, the White Hart, into a sterile complex of shops, boutiques, cafes and bars, Bass Charrington demonstrated that when brewers start anticipating what they imagine to be exciting surroundings for people to drink in they can be very wrong. The Chelsea Drugstore has now hived off all the activities extraneous to that of selling food and drink, but it is still probably not taking much more nowadays than the White Hart did of old. In the old days you could sit outside and watch the birds go by or admire the frontage of Thomas Crapper’s shop across the road; now, alas, all is stygian gloom and red plush.

The Chelsea Drugstore lost its mojo altogether within a decade and in a famous photo from 1976 looks as if it might be more at home on the seafront at Blackpool.

A tatty looking Chelsea Drugstore.
The Chelsea Drugstore in 1976. SOURCE: Klaus Hiltscher/Flickr.

By 1984 it was being described as “that awful rambling sixties relic on the King’s Road” (The Stage, 26/07) and in a 1991 song, ‘Did Ya’, The Kinks sang “Now the Chelsea Drugstore needs a fix, it’s in a state of ill repair”.

Today it is a branch of McDonald’s – certainly somewhere you can hang out and get served at all hours of the day, as long as you don’t want a pint of Bass with your Egg & Cheese McMuffin®.

Main image adapted from a photo at The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea photographic archive. To read more about how pubs changed in the 1960s and 70s check out our 2017 book 20th Century Pub.


Stolen stingo and slops in the mild: memories of Mortlake

Back in 2019 we wrote about Watney’s Red Barrel. Finding that post, Colin Prower has written to us with some of his memories of the brewery.

In the very early 1960s I did school and college holiday jobs in various departments of Watney’s Mortlake brewery, including on the Red Barrel production line.

Workers were given a freebie of a pin of Mild in the mess room but preferred to cause casks of Red Barrel to ‘fall off the line’ and drink it in vast quantities throughout shifts.

It didn’t strike me as too bad either! I gather the earlier recipe was better than later.

I also worked in the department to which pub-returned barrels were emptied into a tank for incorporation into Watney’s Mild only. No wonder the workers rejected that!

Most of the beer range at the time was produced by traditional methods. I particularly remember the maturing cellar for hogsheads of Stingo being positively Dickensian – and staffed by characters from his books.

Security there was tight but with a knowing knock at the door, men with bottles down their trouser legs and lengths of rubber tubing would be admitted and allowed to syphon off Stingo.

Happy days!

The above was lightly edited for clarity and consistency. The photo shows security staff at Mortlake and comes from The Red Barrel magazine for August 1961.

20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv london pubs

Lose Bunny Lake, find a pub

The 1965 psychological thriller Bunny Lake is Missing was set in London and, of course, features a scene set in a pub – The Warrington Hotel, Maida Vale.

Bunny Lake was a flop on its original release, and an obscurity for decades. Now, like many lesser-known films of the period, it’s been beautifully restored and released on Blu-ray.

That gives us an opportunity not only to see the pub as it looked almost 60 years ago but also to freeze the frame, zoom and enhance, to see what details we can pick up.

First, a disclaimer: this is a real pub, not a studio set – there are enough clues to be sure of that. But, of course, it is filled with studio extras, not real drinkers, or so we assume.

That means some of what we see is sort of real, and some sort of isn’t – although the film is intended to feel real rather than presenting that romantic fantasy version of London so often seen in American productions.

In fact, Laurence Olivier, as Superintendent Newhouse, makes that point very well, in dialogue written by novelists Penelope Mortimer and John Mortimer:

“Ever been in a pub before? Here it is, the heart of Merrie Olde England. Complete with dirty glasses, watery beer, draughts under the doors, and a 23-inch television.”

Oh, yes – the television. A novelty in pubs in the 1950s, by 1965, it’s a fixture – almost the centrepiece, in fact, front and centre above the bar. It shows the news first, then a performance by The Zombies. Middle-aged and elderly drinkers seem transfixed by it.

A pub television.

Never mind the TV, you’re probably thinking – what about those bottles beneath it.

In this shot, and others, we’ve got:

  • Babycham
  • Courage Brown Ale
  • Worthington Pale Ale
  • Guinness
  • and some others we don’t recognise, but you might

There’s also some very prominent point-of-sale material for SKOL lager.

Bottled beers

What about draught beer? There’s a very obvious Courage Tavern Keg Bitter font in several shots, a draught Guinness font, and a single lonely cask ale pump-clip advertising Flowers.

Tavern Keg Bitter

That last one is a bit confusing because Flowers was a Whitbread brand by 1961 and this pub was definitely a Barclays (Courage) pub. Perhaps this is a bit of set dressing by a production designer who – can you believe it? – didn’t especially care about brewery ownership.

There’s also some background detail for students of pub grub to enjoy. Jars of pickles. Boiled eggs. Pies. Miserable sandwiches. And a full but unconvincing steak, seafood and oyster menu.

Full dining menu

What’s also clear is that this was a handsome building. Green and White’s The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs from 1973 says:

A dominant building at the north end of Warrington Crescent… the Warrington is a glowing example of faded splendour, possibly due to the fact that it has never really been taken up by the Maida Vale elite. It has one of the most imposing pub entrances in London, with its own ornate lamp-standards and a coy lady holding a torch in a niche on your right as you go in. Fascinating interior with some art nouveau stained glass, only slightly marred by some more recent murals, a salmon-pink ceiling hung with chandeliers, and a crescent-shaped bar with a brass footrail. Probably the best example of an Edwardian pub in London.

The exterior of the Warrington
Painted sign on the door: LOUNGE
Art Nouveau windows

Apparently, it’s still worth a visit. Next time we’re in London, plagues and regulations permitting, we’ll try to pop in for a sad sandwich and a bottle of brown ale.