Australian drinking culture in London, 1966-1970

One of the perks of having been blogging for as long as we have is that people find us via Google and send us interesting things without us having to make the slightest effort.

At the beginning of February, Sally Mays emailed us asking for help tracking down information about a pub she remembered visiting years ago, the Surrey, just of the Strand in London:

I went there a number of times with my boyfriend when I was a very young woman, around 1970. We were planning to travel to Australia as Ten Pound Poms and Australia House (where we were interviewed) was just around the corner from the Surrey – well, actually on the other side of the Strand, on a corner opposite Surrey Street.

I’m not sure quite how we became aware of the pub but it was mainly frequented by Aussies and New Zealanders and served mostly (perhaps only) Foster’s beer (or lager, I should say). I think it was the only period of my life where I imbibed the amber nectar.

It didn’t look much like a pub – it was housed in one of the buildings on the right hand side of Surrey Street, as you walk down it towards the Embankment. Its décor was very basic – plain, I seem to remember, with lots of beer spilled onto the floor, and a raucous ambience.

Those were days when it was still possible for [incoming] travellers to park their Combi vans down by the Thames for the purposes of selling [them on to outgoers].

[The pub] was a very male-dominated place – the sort that wore shorts and flip flops no matter what the weather!

Sally also pointed us to one of the few sources she’d been able to find – a 1966 diary by a young Australian traveller in London shared on a blog – but we think it’s now been hidden from public view.

The good news is that the first book we reached out for, Green and White’s 1968 Guide to London Pubs, had a detailed entry on the Surrey that confirmed Sally’s memories:

The Surrey, just off the Strand, is the first visiting-place of the newly arrived Australian; though they don’t actually serve schooners of beer, you can get two home-brewed varieties: Swan’s Lager on draught and Foster’s in the bottle. The present house dates back to the turn of the century and had, until a recent fire, a fine collection of Australiana; this was reduced to a couple of boomerangs and photographs of visiting cricketers. It is the sort of place in which the lone Pommie, towards closing time, feels rather uncomfortable; there is a lot of back-slapping and singing and rather too much noise. Otherwise, it is a perfectly normal pub, serving lunch and snacks all day. The upstairs bar is a trifle small, particularly when it gets crowded at lunch-time, but there is plenty of room downstairs, and even a dartboard. A visiting Canadian professor once refused to buy his publisher a box of matches here, but the staff obligingly accepted a 2d cheque, which must prove something. Being handy for Australia House, the prospective migrant, harried by bad weather, housing and taxes, might well take a drink in the Surrey to see how the natives disport themselves.

Since January, we’ve also managed to find our copy of The New London Spy, edited by Hunter Davies and published in 1966. Its section on ‘Australian London’ mentions the Surrey repeatedly as something of a centre of Australian life in London:

Here, on a Friday night, elbow to elbow, surrounded by boomerangs and familiar accents, London’s Australians sip their Fosters (Melbourne) and Swan (Perth)… and complain about jobs (‘lousy bloody seven quid a week’), food (‘I haven’t had a decent steak since I got here’ and the weather (‘How can you ever get a tan in this place?’).

The pace of drinking is, by British standards, express-like, but even so it is unlikely you will see that well-known Australian sight, rare in Britain, the-face-on-the-bar-room-floor. (You can, by the way, pick out the old Australian from the newly-arrived. The seasoned man drinks iced English beer instead of iced Australian.)

This book, though, also lists other notable Australian pubs: the Zambesi Club and the Ifield, both in Earls Court, then known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because of its supposed population of 50,000 rowdy Aussies.

An article by Rodney Burbeck in Tatler for 7 May 1966, available in full via to subscribers to the British Newspaper Archive, puts this influx down to the opening of the Overseas Visitors Centre (OVS) in Earls Court in 1955. It also has notes on the culture clash between British drinkers and Australians:

Bill Robertson, 28-year- old farmer, strolling along Earls Court Road on his second night in London [said] ‘We went to Wimbledon last night to see how the other half live. Walked into a pub and every head turned round. We were strangers, foreigners. And what’s more they didn’t drink as quickly as Australians.’ In Earls Court you can walk into a pub and be the only Englishman there. Colleague John McLeod, who writes the London Life drinks column, doesn’t like Australians in pubs. He thinks they are rowdy and boorish and drink too much. I have a friend who says you can always tell an Australian in a pub because when he has finished drinking he falls flat on his face… One girl living in Earls Court says ‘The only Australians I have met have only been interested in two things: rugger and beer.’

The 1972 film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie includes a scene set in an Australian pub in London, with Barry disgusted by English beer and demanding ‘a decent chilled Foster’s’. It might be satire but it probably captures to some degree how these pubs really felt. (For now, you can see it here, at 14:46.)

It feels as if there’s a lot more to be explored here. If you’re an Australian who lived in London in the 1960s-70s with memories of pubs and of hunting ‘iced beer’, do drop us a line.

Guinness: a nice, interesting drink for nice, interesting women, 1977-79

In 1977-78, grappling with falling sales and quality problems, Guinness commissioned yet another marketing strategy in the hope of turning things around. One idea was to appeal to young women.

We’ve just finished scanning and cataloguing the collection of Guinness material we wrote about a few times last year. These marketing strategy documents (there are several) are full of fascinating details, not least in the annotations in pencil by (we assumed from context) Alan Coxon, the head brewer at Park Royal to whom these documents belonged.

Here’s what the 1977-78 document says under ‘Strategy & Objectives – Women’:

i) To recruit to more regular drinking the younger female drinker who identifies with the assurance, maturity and independence associated with Guinness for women.

ii) To reduce defection from Guinness by reinforcing the loyalty of existing frequent and less frequent users.

The second group were likely to be ‘older and poorer’, the kind of people who’d traditionally drunk Guinness, but the other group were a new target:

[Younger], socially active and better off. Guinness may already be a part of their drinking repertoire, though remote. These are likely to be C1 C2 women aged 25 to 44.

Here, though, Alan Coxon had some thoughts of his own, neatly marked in the margin:

I just do not believe in the possibility of this. It is not a young woman’s drink, surely. If we get it right it will have the wrong image for young women & surely we cannot expect them to like it!!

The proposed creative approach for appealing to young women was interesting, too, based on ‘the correct blending of four key elements’:

i) The user-image of a self-assured woman who is independent, sociable and healthy; equally at ease in both a man’s and woman’s world.

ii) The product as a unique, attractive, long drink, natural and enjoyable.

iii) The mood as one of relaxed and sociable enjoyment.

iv) The quality and style of the advertising as attractive, credible and contemporary (rather than fashionable or trendy).

The brand position reached as a result of this creative approach should be:

“Guinness is the drink for the self-assured woman.”

Finally, there were suggestions on how to reach women. With television reserved for male-orientated adverts, the idea was to place ads targeting women in magazines – ‘their personal medium’.

How did all this go? Fortunately, we have some handy follow-up information, from the next year’s marketing plan, covering 1978-79. It suggests that double-page spreads did run in women’s magazines (we’d love to track some of these down) and that they were felt to be successful enough to continue with.

An amusing punchline, though, is a restatement of the marketing objective:

The primary task of the advertising is to change attitudes about the kind of woman who drinks Guinness: to oversimplify, ‘Guinness is a nice, interesting drink which is drunk by nice, interesting women.’

UPDATE 08/03/2019: Jon Urch, who works for Guinness, sent us a copy of one of the ads, which we’ve now added as the main image above.

Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Watney Mann, or Watney Combe Reid) was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.

Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.

This, at least, was the accepted narrative for a long time, formed by the propaganda of the Campaign for Real Ale in its early years, and set hard through years of repetition.

But does it stand up to scrutiny? What if, contrary to everything we’ve heard, Red Barrel was actually kind of OK?

This long post was made possible by the kind support of Patreon subscribers like Matthew Turnbull and David Sim, whose encouragement makes us feel less daft about spending half a weekend working on stuff like this. Please consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.

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