If photographer Don Tonge hadn’t snapped the shot above, we’d probably have no record of Dial-a-Pint, Bolton 31922.
We came across it last week in a Twitter thread, without credit. In fact, worse, someone had gone to the trouble of carelessly snipping Mr Tonge’s credit off the picture, leaving just a few scraps of letters in the bottom left corner.
A brief digression: nostalgic photo accounts that do this kind of thing are awful. They often know who took a photo or, with reverse image search and the like, could easily find out. They choose not to credit because (a) they might get told to take it down and (b) they want to keep shares and likes for themselves rather than the original creator.
So, if you’ve ever @-ed us into a Tweet with a cool picture and wondered why we weren’t more enthusiastic, it’s probably because of this.
Anyway, back to Dial-a-pint: we asked Mr Tonge if he could remember when and where it was taken. He said: “I can only imagine it was someone doing homebrewing and trying to be entrepreneurial. Bolton mid 1970s.”
So, nothing precise.
What additional information can we glean from the photo? We know that the van was registered in 1972.
And as our pal @teninchwheels pointed out, the gawking man is wearing a Starsky cardigan; Starsky & Hutch was first broadcast in the UK in 1976 so we can probably assume this picture dates from around 1977. (Could we even guess that his mum knitted it for him from this Sirdar pattern for Christmas 1976?)
1977 would also tie in with the height of the real ale craze when all sorts of people were setting up beer-related businesses.
That phone number ought to tell us something, right? Bolton 31992. Well, so far, it hasn’t. We can’t find any current Bolton numbers with those digits, or any historic classified ads in local papers.
Ah, yes… Searching newspapers let us down on this occasion. You can usually rely on finding a smirking story about anything beer related but we couldn’t dig up anything searching dial-a-pint, beer delivery, or related terms.
There is always one last goldmine to explore, though: Facebook local history chat. This photo has been shared quite a few times, including by Mr Tonge himself, and Jan Taylor asks an interesting question in one comment: “Is this the back of Kingholm Gardens?”. And do you know what, it could well be. Someone else suggests Cramond Walk. Consensus seems to be that it’s Halliwell, anyway.
So, for now, we have no way to be sure what was going on here. Our guess is that it was someone delivering cask ale to drink at home, probably a spin-off from an off-licence.
If you were knocking about Bolton in 1970s, or have access to local sources we don’t, and can provide more information, please comment below.
In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.
First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.
In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.
You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.
With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.
The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.
They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.
They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.
It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:
[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.
This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.
If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.
As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.
In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.
The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.
This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:
His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)
Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.
Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.
Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.
Not everyone welcomed this new development.
“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.
The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:
A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.
And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)
In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.
Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.
For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.
SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.
We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:
The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.
Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.
In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)
Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)
In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”
With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.
So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.
The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.
What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.
But that’s pop culture for you.
This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.
The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.
We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.
We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.
In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.
We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.
The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.
The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.
Here’s his concluding argument:
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.
Part of the reason for keeping up a blog and presence on social media is that the ongoing conversation draws new information out of the woodwork, such as the late Nigel Graves’ note on the 1979 Great British Beer Festival.
Nigel Graves was born in 1955 and died in 2004, at the age of 49. In 2014, his friend, Tim Sedgwick-Jell, edited an anthology of his writing as something by which friends and family might remember him.
As it happens, Tim reads our blog (or, at least, subscribes to the newsletter) and recently got in touch to ask if we’d like a copy of Far Be It From Me to be Hyperbolic because pubs, beer and beer festivals were frequent topics for Nigel’s writing. (If he’d lived a little longer, might he have started a beer blog?)
The bulk of his notes on beer and pubs are in one chapter – snippets, diary entries, letters and so on.
There’s a fiery letter to Wetherspoon corporate HQ, for example, sent in July 2000 after he was told he couldn’t bring his children into the Temeraire in Saffron Walden:
I believe your company was originally established to provide a type of pub modelled on that in George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ and I know that several of your early pubs were given this name… Perhaps you would like to consider the following passage from this essay:
“The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden… Up at one end of the garden there are swings a chute for the children…”
For balance, in another piece he acknowledges that the general relaxation of the rules on kids in pubs then underway was great when you were with the kids, but less so when you wanted a session with “the lads”.
The extract that really grabbed our attention, though, was a diary entry written when Nigel was around 24 years old, giving an account of the 1979 CAMRA Great British Festival:
I actually went to the CAMRA organised Great London Beer Festival a few weeks ago. The usual unfriendly interior of the Alexandra Palace was as unalluring as ever, but had the added drawback of being cram-packed full of drunken wallies behaving as if they’d never tasted beer before in their lives, and demonstrating just about every [unattractive] male characteristic imaginable. Because of the tube-train conditions, it was impossible to sample any interesting new brews, or real cider, so I spent the evening drinking Ansells (wow, thrill!), avoiding steaming pools of puke an dodging spotty adolescents reeling around in search of the Gents. Great – I might as well have spent an evening in The Carpenters, or almost any other pub for that matter.
We like this because, as with the original CAMRA national festival in 1975, the official PR (necessary to gain a licence, of course) had it that the festival would consist of well-behaved connoisseurs gathering to sample beers in moderation. Pools of puke was not part of the image.
How many more valuable first-hand, contemporary accounts of key moments in British beer history are locked away in diaries, letters and company newsletters?
Or, worse, how many such accounts were taken to the tip or burned a week after the funeral?
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.
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.