London pubs in the 1960s

The cover of the New London Spy (1966)
The cover of the New London Spy (1966)

Beatles biographer Hunter DaviesNew London Spy was published in 1966. It’s a travel guide aimed at cool people, and an excellent window onto the city at the height of its hipness.

In his lengthy section on pubs, Davies makes some interesting observations:

Pubs are what other countries don’t have. In England, country pubs are perhaps nicest of all. After that come the London ones.

Pubs change character as you tipple down from the top of Britain. In the dry areas of Skye you have none at all. In Glasgow they are just drinking shops. In Carlisle they are cheerless and state controlled.

But in London, there are pubs for all men and for all seasons.

He then goes on to classify London’s pubs into six categories:

  • rough pubs
  • posh pubs
  • arty pubs
  • pubs for unaccompanied men (“not queers”)
  • pubs for unaccompanied women
  • pubs associated with crime.

His descriptions of various posh pubs and of some of the pubs he recommends for women suggest that gastro-pubs had their genesis in this era — “serves very decent food, far better than the average pub meal (though naturally priced accordingly)”; “both setting and clientele are almost exaggeratedly decorous”.

A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett for the New London Spy
A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett

It is the so-called rough pubs that sound most intriguing, though. Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street had dead cats, cobwebs and sawdust for decor. Charlie Brown’s (the Railway Tavern) on West India Dock Road housed a “collection of Curiosa” from all around the world (sadly sold off in the late 60s). And of the Steps (the Custom House Hotel) on Victoria Dock Road, Davies says: “It is not unusual to see somebody almost kicked to death outside.”

The illustrations in the book are by world-famous knitting pattern designer Kaffe Fassett. You can pick up a copy of the New London Spy for next to nothing at abebooks.co.uk if you want to read more.

The Three Mariners, West India Quay

The Three Mariners pub
The Three Mariners pub in the docklands gloom

The Three Mariner’s pub sits in a maze of dark cobbled alleyways not far from the Thames. The smell of fish, tar and sea-water is powerful, and you can hear the shouts of Thames boatmen, the clattering of masts and the clatter of cargo being unloaded on the dockside.

The pub looks inviting, candlelit and cosy, promising shelter from the gloomy and rather intimidating wharfside rat runs.

It’s small — there’s only one table and two chairs — but there’s plenty of leaning space at the bar.

Behind the bar, there are tankards and stone mugs, and four unlabelled hand pumps. There are crates filled with bottles of porter stacked against the back wall.

It’s like the pubs Sherlock Holmes visits in the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s and the atmosphere is terrific.

Sadly, you can’t actually have a pint at the Mariner’s Arms. It’s part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum in Docklands, near Canary Wharf, and represents a typical 19th century sailors’ pub. It’s worth a visit if you’re interested in the history of London, especially as they’ve got an exhibition on Jack the Ripper until November. It’s not as creepy as it sounds — it’s really an exhibition of East End life and policing in the 1880s. We especially liked the map of London’s pubs produced by the Temperance Society in the 1880s. It’s entitled simply “The Modern Plague of London”. There’s an extract of it available here.

Bailey

Book review — Tales of Old Inns

The cover of the 1951 edition of <em>Tales of Old Inns</em> by Richard Keverne
The cover of the 1951 edition of Tales of Old Inns by Richard Keverne

Richard Keverne’s guide to England’s historic inns was first published in 1939. Hammond Innes revised the book in 1947. In his introduction, Innes makes the rather poignant observation that a new edition was needed not only to help returning servicemen reacquaint themselves with the country they’d fought to defend, but also to edit out mention of pubs which were destroyed by bombing during the war.

There’s further poignancy in reading about pubs which have great histories; which, in 1951, were still charming; but which are now plasticky chain pubs selling microwaved food (The Ferry Boat Inn, Tottenham, for example).

For all this book has about it the whiff of conservatism (there are lots of wistful comments about the simplicity of life in the ‘old days’) the author is surprisingly sympathetic to the motives of generations of innkeepers who destroyed the historic interiors of their pubs for commercial reasons.

Of particular interest to beer geeks are the rare passages which actually touch on beer. The Bell at Orford Hill in Norfolk, for example, was apparently a pioneering outlet for porter in the 1750s:

Sam Barker [the landlord]… also appreciated the use of advertisement. He advertised the then comparitively new malt liquor, porter. “A truly British liquor,” he called it, of which he had “a large quantity always bottled and fit to drink.” He offered it at five shillings a dozen (thirteen bottles to the dozen) or three shillings if you returned the bottles.

Keverne also tells us that the Sun Hotel in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, was typical in having its own brewery in the 18th century:

You should not leave the Sun without wandering through its big gardens, and seeing how the old malt and brew houses, alas! no longer in use, reminders of the days when the inn brewed its own beer. Then you will realise how vast were the resources of the big coaching house.

On the whole, it’s just a long list of pubs connected by vague anecdotes, usually unsourced, about Regency dandies and pub landlords. It’s not much use as a travel guide unless you are particularly interested in pub architecture. Nonetheless, it does give a great sense of just how much of a part of Britain’s infrastructure pubs (but specifically inns) really were, and reading about one village pub after another is almost as relaxing as spending an afternoon in one.

Bailey

You can get copies of this book from around 80p at abebooks.co.uk. We bought our copy in an Oxfam book shop.

My great grandma and the temperance movement

Boak (the baby...) and her great granny, a few years back.
Boak (the baby) with grandma and great-grandma

My great-grandma was born in Stepney in 1901. Sadly, I didn’t really get to know her before she died, so this anecdote comes via my mum.

Like other children of that time and place*, my great-grandma was often dispatched to the pub to get some beer for family members, in this case her grandma. However, when she was around 10 or 12 (before the First World War, at least) she took ‘The Pledge’ and joined the temperance movement. Thereafter, she refused to get any beer ever again.

I don’t know why this story tickles me — possibly the fact that something so “Dickensian” as kids fetching alcohol was actually in living memory until recently, or possibly it’s the idea of pre-teens swearing to abstain from alcohol. Or maybe it’s just the evidence of a contrary stubborn streak that persists down the female line to this day…

I’d raise a glass to her, but she’d probably turn in her grave.

Boak

*OK, I don’t have evidence that this was common practice, but Zythophile mentions a similar family story here, and here Ron has collected extracts from Charles Booth’s interviews in the 1890s with London publicans and brewers — which is an absolutely fascinating read — which mentions this on a number of occasions.

Brewing in the 1960s

As happens every now and then, someone has come across an old post and left a fascinating comment which we wanted to bring everyone’s attention to.

Tony used to work for Starkey, Knight and Ford, the West Country brewers, in the 1960s, working in the keg shop and later delivering beer. He says:

As a student I worked for Starkey`s each summer betwen 1965 and 1967. The first two years at the Fore St. site in Tiverton and the last at the new site. Bridgwater had closed by then and Tiverton was the only brewery still in action but under the aegis of Whitbread. I used to start off in the keg shop before fiddling my way out onto the lorries. In my last year our route covered from Ivybridge to Rooksbridge and from Seaton to Barnstaple the lorry was DPF 473B and still had the Bridgewater address on the side. As I remember Starkey`s had depots in Barnstaple and Plymouth, a firm called Norman and Pring were involved. When I was in the keg plant we mostly dealt with Tankard with occasional runs of mild. Each artic trailer held 187 10 gallon kegs and the 6 wheel Dennis 150 (I had to load these on my own!) I also remember during their independent days Starkey`s brewed a keg beer called “Tantivy.” Some years before I delivered papers to Tom Ford the Chairman. He drove an old Ford(!) V8 which used to misfire every so often.

Fascinating stuff — thanks Tony!

We’re imagining Tony’s experiences to have played out to a soundtrack of Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs, although we might be confusing reality with an episode of Heartbeat.