Categories
Beer history

Harp: the cool blonde lager born in Ireland

Harp Lager was once a household name in the UK but, never much loved by beer geeks, and outpaced by sexier international brands, has all but disappeared.

It was launched in Ireland in 1960 as Guinness’s attempt to steal a slice of the growing lager market, hitting the UK in 1961. It is still brewed in Dublin and apparently remains popular in Northern Ireland. We can’t recall ever seeing it on sale in England, though – even in the kind of social clubs where you might still find Whitbread Bitter or Bass Mild.

There’s always something fascinating about brands that arrive, dominate, and disappear. Harp Lager in particular is interesting because of the sheer amount of time, money and energy which Guinness sunk into it over the course of decades; because it provided a glimpse into the era of multinational brewing that was just around the corner; and because it tells a story about the early days of the late 20th century UK lager boom.

The tale begins in the post-war era when, for reasons that are much debated, British drinkers began to turn away from cask ale and towards bottled beer, with hints that lager might be the next big thing.

Guinness was then very clearly an Anglo-Irish business, with major brewing operations at both Park Royal in London and at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and managed largely from London.

Categories
Brew Britannia

The evolution of ‘pale’n’hoppy’ ale in the UK

This piece first appeared online at the now defunct All About Beer in 2015. It’s collected in our book Balmy Nectar but, as there’s been some chat lately about when and how the UK got the taste for the perfume and flavour of US hops, we wanted to share it here, too.

Some of the best beers being made in Britain today belong to a style that has no name. They are the colour of pilsner, usually made with only pale malt, but they are not mere ‘golden ales’ – because ‘golden’ is not, after all, a flavour.

They have extravagant, upfront New World hopping suggesting tropical fruits and aromatic flowers but they are not US-style India Pale Ales because their alcoholic strength is likely to be somewhere between 3-5% ABV.

Though this might sound like a description of US session IPA, beers of this type have been around in the UK for more than 20 years. If they are given a name at all, as in Mark Dredge’s 2013 book Craft Beer World, it is usually a variation on the simply descriptive ‘pale’n’hoppy’.

In the mid-20th century there were several British beers noted for their pale colour, Boddington’s Bitter from Manchester being the most notable. That particular beer was also intensely hopped although the hops were English and were used to generate a bitterness that ‘clawed at the back of your throat’ rather than a delicate aroma.

As the 1970s and 80s wore on, strong dark beers such as Theakstons’s Old Peculier and Fuller’s ESB became cult favourites among beer geeks, while pale yellow lagers became fashionable with mainstream drinkers. Boddington’s Bitter darkened in colour and gradually lost its bitter edge.

As a result, when, in the late 1980s, the first golden ales emerged, they seemed positively and refreshingly innovative. Exmoor Gold from the Somerset-Devon border can claim to be the first of this new breed but it was really Hop Back Summer Lightning, first brewed in 1989, that triggered a trend.

Summer Lightning

Conceived by former big-brewery man John Gilbert as a cask-conditioned lager, it instead became an ale that merely looked like lager, which he hoped would lure drinkers back from then highly fashionable brands such as Stella Artois. It won a string of awards and, before long, any brewery hoping to appeal to connoisseurs had to have a golden ale in its range.

That cosmetic trend coincided with another new development: the arrival in Britain of American and New Zealand hop varieties, along with US beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Liberty, which showed those hops off at their best.

Sean Franklin first experimented with American Cascade hops as far back as the early 1980s. Having worked and been trained in the wine industry he was an expert in the characteristics of different grape varieties and believed similar subtlety could also be drawn out of hops. His first brewery didn’t work out, however, and he ended up driving a taxi for five years. When he returned to brewing in 1993, he had, in effect, conceived a new type of beer, as he explained in an interview we conducted in 2013:

I’d had Summer Lightning and that was a great inspiration, a lovely beer. Flavour is about competition, the different components coming up against each other. So, when you use crystal malt and Cascade, you get orange and toffee. When you use Cascade with just pale malt, you don’t get orange – just that floral, citrusy character. The plainer the background, the better. It allows the essential character of the hops to show much more clearly.

The flagship beer of his new brewery, Rooster’s, was Yankee – straw-coloured, hopped with then-obscure Cascade and, though still essentially a golden ale, a touch more aromatic than most UK drinkers were used to at the time.

At a mere 4.3%, however, it also fit comfortably into British pub and beer festival culture, which then, even more so than now, required beers to be drinkable by the pint and, ideally, in multiple pints over the course of several hours. Along with a range of stronger beers brewed by Brendan Dobbin in Manchester at around the same time, it turned many British real ale drinkers into confirmed hop fanatics.

Oakham JHB pump clip.
SOURCE: Oakham website.

A contemporary product developed quite independently was Oakham’s Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, or JHB, also first brewed in 1993.

Despite its name, which suggests something old-fashioned and varnish-brown, it too was inspired by Summer Lightning and has always been golden with extravagantly fruity late-hopping (a combination of Challenger and Mount Hood) suggestive of elderflower and lemon peel.

Hopping levels have been constantly nudged upwards over the last 20 years to accommodate the palates of drinkers spoiled by double IPAs – head brewer John Bryan estimates that there are about two-and-a-half times as many hops now as in 1993 – but it still seems relatively restrained compared to some newer iterations of the style.

Oakham’s own Citra, for example, was the first UK beer to use that hop variety, in 2010, and is even more flamboyantly pungent than its older sibling.

Nigel Wattam, Oakham’s marketing man, says that the majority of Oakham’s range is ‘very light, or really dark, with not much in-between’. On the appeal of ‘pale’n’hoppy’ beers more generally he says, “I think we’ve converted a lot of lager drinkers because it’s the same colour, but it has more flavour.”

Kelham Island brewery

There is a similar logic behind Kelham Island’s Pale Rider, which was first brewed in 1993 in Sheffield, the northern industrial city made famous by the film The Full Monty. The brewery was founded by the late Dave Wickett, an influential figure on the British beer scene with a hand in several other breweries, and whose former employees and associates include many of the current generation of UK craft brewers.

Writer Melissa Cole credits Pale Rider with arousing her interest in beer and in her book, Let Me Tell You About Beer, records that it was initially conceived to appeal to female drinkers, with restrained bitterness and ramped-up aroma.

Popular among northern real ale drinkers for a decade, it became nationally famous in 2004 when it was declared Champion Beer of Britain by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). It is best enjoyed in Sheffield at the brewery tap, the Fat Cat, where its feather-light body and punchy, peachy perfume makes it easy drinking despite its 5.2% ABV. Nonetheless, the brewery has also produced Easy Rider, a similar beer at 4.3%.

A perfect pint of Dark Star Hophead.

Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter, recently voted the best brewer in the UK by the British Guild of Beer Writers for his work at his own brewery, Burning Sky, worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013.

He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets.

These, along with other US hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer.

“Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,” recalls Tranter.

When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% ABV to 3.8%. 

Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.

If the style isn’t officially recognised, how can you spot a pale’n’hoppy on the bar when out drinking in the UK? First, turn to smaller microbreweries.

The larger, older family breweries have not been hugely successful in this territory, perhaps being too conservative to embrace the fundamental lack of balance that  characterises the style. (There are exceptions: Adnams Ghost Ship, for example, has been a notable success both among beer geeks and less studious drinkers.) 

Secondly, look for a conspicuous mention of a specific hop variety on the hand-pump badge, along with names that include ‘Hop’, ‘Gold’ and sometimes (but less often) ‘Blonde’.

Pointed mentions of citrus are another giveaway.

Finally, a very broad generalisation: breweries in the north are particularly adept — we once heard the style jokingly referred to as ‘Pennine Champagne’ after the range of hills and mountains that runs from Derbyshire to the Scottish border.

Salopian Oracle (Shropshire, 4%), Burning Sky Plateau (Sussex, 3.5%), Marble Pint (Manchester, 3.9%) and Redemption Trinity (London, 3%) are among the best examples.

Rooster’s Yankee, Kelham Island Pale Rider, Oakham JHB and Dark Star Hophead are all available in cans or bottles, though they are best tasted fresh and close to source.

From US brewers, the nearest equivalents are among the new breed of session IPAs and pale ales, such as Firestone Walker Easy Jack.

These two distinct traditions – UK pale’n’hoppy is traditional session bitter with a glamorous makeover, whereas American brews are big beers reined in – have ended up in a remarkably similar place.

For all of those who like to wallow in hops over the course of hours, both are good news.

Categories
20th Century Pub london pubs

Notable pubs: The Festival Inn, Poplar, 1951

The first significant post-war pub was more than a pub – it was a prototype, an exhibit and, perhaps surprisingly, built to last.

We first noticed The Festival Inn on the corner of Chrisp Street Market in Poplar, East London, more than a decade ago. On one of our long walks through the infinitely fascinating neighbourhoods between Walthamstow, where we lived, and the City of London, we spotted its fading 1970s Truman’s livery and paused to take some pictures.

Only years later, having developed an interest in architecture and town planning, and gearing up to write 20th Century Pub, did we realise its true significance.

In the late 1940s, Britain was still recovering from the Blitz. Rationing was still in place for many consumer items and the supply of building materials was severely restricted. The supply of men to use them was short, too, with many still serving in the armed forces. The only new pubs being opened were prefabs – and even those were sometimes controversial.

Then along came the Festival of Britain. Scheduled for 1951, it was designed to offer a vision of a post-austerity Britain, to lift the national mood and to put a definitive full stop on World War II.

For the Festival, all kinds of exceptions were made to the rules and regulations around construction and the organisers were given dibs on material and manpower. As well as the main Festival site on the South Bank of the Thames – the one you’ll generally see in old newsreel footage – there were other exhibitions across London and around the UK.

Among the most ambitious, and most practical, was the ‘Live Exhibition of Architecture’ at Poplar which saw the construction of the largest part of an entire new housing estate, from scratch. In fact, the LCC had been planning to build a new estate there anyway, to be known as Lansbury; the Festival just sped things up and ensured the involvement of Top Men.

The architectural exhibition was conceived by architect Frederick Gibberd, who also designed the shopping centre at Chrisp Street around which the estate centred. 

Newsreel footage of the King and Queen visiting the building site at Lansbury.

Gibberd played an important role in designing post-war Britain, from the distinctive BISF council house – a pragmatic response to the housing shortage – to the utopian vision of Harlow new town.

Gibberd’s design for Chrisp Street included two pubs, one at either corner of the shopping centre. Only one would be open in time to form part of the architectural exhibition, however – the appropriately named Festival Inn.

Detail from a plan of the exhibition from the official programme. The Festival Inn is marked 15, at the centre, with the other 15, on the right edge, being The Festive Briton, AKA Callaghan’s.

If Lansbury was a dry run for Harlow, Crawley and Stevenage, The Festival Inn was the prototype for their pubs. It was to be owned and operated by East End brewers Truman’s and took on the licence of The Grundy Arms, a Victorian pub that survived the Blitz but was demolished as part of the clearance of the Chrisp Street area.

The Grundy Arms. SOURCE: London Metropolitan Archive/PubWiki.

The exterior of The Festival Inn was designed by Gibberd because it was integrated into a block that housed a shopping arcade. The interior was the work of Truman’s own in-house designer R.W. Stoddart. It took the form of a traditional pub with multiple bars but with the clean, straight-edged, minimal look typical of post-war buildings.

Kerbey Street elevation of the Festival Inn by Frederick Gibberd. SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, January 1951.

Artist’s impression of the Festival Inn – also by Gibberd? SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, January 1951.

The interior of the pub, as described in The Brewing Trade Review for January 1951:

The house has a large public bar with recess for dart playing. The walls will be panelled to dado height with oak panelling. The fireplace will be of brick and stone with a large mural above it depicting a scene from the nearby docks. At the rear end of the bar a small glass dome is formed to give additional light to the bar. The service counter will have an oak-panelled front with a plastic top. Above the counter there will be cold cathode lighting to give a warm honey-coloured light… There are two saloon bars linked by an opening next to the fireplaces.

There was also a mirror featuring Abram Games’ famous Festival of Britain logo.

The pub sign, situated a little way from the entrance, was to depict children dancing round the famous space age Skylon as if it were a maypole – a fantastic representation of the collision of national tradition and futurism represented by the Festival as a whole.

SOURCE: The Sphere, 2 June 1951, via The British Newspaper Archive.

That theme continued in the publicity surrounding the pub’s construction and when its first chimney was completed in December 1950, a ceremony was held. Beer was delivered by horse-drawn dray and ‘ale wives’ in traditional costume hoisted a garland and served beer to the chimney by way of a blessing. Covering this event, The Sphere for 30 December 1950 described The Festival Inn as ‘an example of modern planning on traditional lines’.

In 1951, The Festival really was a sign of hope. Pubs destroyed in the Blitz would be replaced; communities would be rebuilt. It was open and trading as a pub from 2 May that year, serving both Festival visitors and market traders.

The similarly named Festive Briton, on the opposite side of the market square, didn’t open until 1952 and, anyway, lacked the razzle-dazzle that made The Festival a headline grabber.

Just as Lansbury would inspire the look and layout of new towns around the UK, The Festival Inn would produce its own offspring.

The Crane, Basildon. SOURCE: A Monthly Bulletin, June 1954.

Over the years, Lansbury weathered down and got worn in, and The Festival became part of the furniture. The sign disappeared at some point and the delicate new-Elizabethan lettering on the outer wall was replaced with Truman’s livery that was somehow both more up-to-date and more old-fashioned.

The Festival Inn c.2008.

Amazingly, 70 years on, The Festival Inn is still there and still trading, albeit on pause for COVID-19. It’s also remarkably well preserved inside and features in CAMRA’s official listing of historic pub interiors. It’s also now Grade II listed by Historic England, too, so is protected, at least structurally, whatever else might happen to the Chrisp Street Market area in years to come.

Could Britain’s first modern post-war estate pub also end up being its last? It’s entirely possible.

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history

All hail the hearty goodfellow: the Toby jug

Pick up a pub and shake it and the chances are a Toby jug or two will fall out, along with a porcelain dog advertising whisky, a few dusty bottles of Royal Wedding beer and some foxed and faded Victorian prints.

What is a Toby jug? It’s a colourful pottery vessel, usually depicting a seated man in embroidered coat and tricorn hat holding a mug of beer and a pipe – decorative rather than useful.

More than that, though – Toby jugs are a symbol, a marker, of a Proper Pub. Like other forms of greebling, they add depth, detail and hint at antiquity.

They’re also a sort of summoning totem: this jovial, hollow-legged fellow is exactly the kind of customer we want.

Because Toby jugs are collectible, they’re also well studied. The website tobyjugcollecting.com has a concise history, for example, and there are numerous books.

What most experts seem to agree on is that they emerged in Staffordshire in the West Midlands of England in the 18th century and evolved from earlier character jugs which turned the typical tricorn hat of the period into a handy pouring spout.

The Toby of Toby jug fame is often given the full name Toby Fillpot and this ballad dating from 1757, around the same time as the jugs became popular, would seem to make the connection clear:

Tom this brown jug that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale,)
Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er drank a bottle or fathom’d a bowl.
In boozing about ‘twas his praise to excell.
And among jolly topers he bore off the bell.

It chanc’d as in dog days he sat at his ease.
In his flow’r woven arbour as gay as you please;
With a friend and a pipe puffing sorrow away,
And with honest old stingo was soaking his clay.
His breath-doors of life on a sudden were shut,
And he died full as big as a Dorchester butt.

His body when long in the ground it had lain,
And time into clay had resolv’d it again.
A potter found out in its covert so snug.
And with part of fat Toby he form’d this brown jug;
Now sacred to friendship and mirth and mild ale.
So here’s to my lovely sweet Nan of the vale.
Vale, sweet Nan of the vale.

That’s right: the Toby jug is literally made from decomposed, recomposed flesh of Toby Fillpot himself. How’s that for a macabre magical totem?

That poem was anonymous on first publication but was later claimed by Francis Fawkes, a clergyman from Croydon.

In his 1968 book about the history of Toby jugs, however, John Bedford traces this ballad back to an original 16th century text, originally in Latin, by the Italian Geronimo Amalteo. That piece also talks about a pitcher made from corpse-clay.

It seems likely that Fawkes’s poem, which was much reprinted, inspired the production of Toby jugs in Staffordshire in the 1760s as a kind of cash-in or spin-off. The poem was certainly sufficiently well known that inspired a popular print that first appeared in the 1780s and was reissued several times thereafter.

A corpulent man with a quart of ale.

Toby Fillpot by Carrington Bowles, 1786. SOURCE: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Could it be the other way round – did the jugs inspire the poem?

Well, probably not, as the mug described by Fawkes is plain and brown. The Potteries take on the idea is more literal: the remains of Toby Fillpot’s body used to make a jug in the shape of Toby Fillpot’s body.

Ralph Wood of Staffordshire, AKA Ralph Wood II, was one particularly famous early designer of Toby jugs but there were multiple manufacturers by the end of the 18th century.

A selection of Toby jugs.

Early Toby jugs, including several by Ralph Wood (155-157). SOURCE: The Earle Collection of Early Staffordshire Pottery, 1915.

Toby jugs continued to be produced throughout the 19th century, mass produced in traditional styles as ornaments, and also taking on new forms: characters from Dickens, for example, or John Bull, or Father Christmas.

By the early 20th century, Georgian Toby jugs had become collectible antiques, evoking a romantic vision of the pre-Napoleonic era. Writing in The Queen magazine in 1903 columnist ‘The Collector’ said:

Old English pottery is subject to a good deal of imitation… [especially] Toby jugs. These have been turned out in Staffordshire by the thousand, and the country is flooded with them, the makers having taken the trouble to besmear the coloured ones with matter to produce the semblance of age. Genuine coloured Tobys are very scarce, and for a pair with the tops complete five guineas would be asked, or perhaps more.

During the Boer War, Toby Jugs representing Lord Kitchener emerged; then, during World War I, other military and national leaders got the same treatment – Lloyd George, Admiral Jellicoe, General Joffre. Later on, Winston Churchill got his own Toby model, too.

Mass production, nostalgia and nationalism – the perfect conditions for the infestation of pubs by Toby Jugs.

It’s probably no coincidence that Toby jug collections started to appear in pubs in the post-war period, just when pubs themselves felt at a low ebb – battered by bombs, imperiled by the rise of bottled beer and television. This is how it used to be, they said, and could be again.

If you’ve read 20th Century Pub you’ll know that before the theme pub emerged, it wasn’t unusual for publicans to use their personal collections as a way of giving unique character to their establishments. In the post-war period, many pubs had displays of model ships, ties, horses brasses and, of course, Toby Jugs.

Take George Henderson of the Priory Hotel, Larkfield, Kent, for example, whose Toby Jug collection took more than 30 years to put together and was worth thousands of pounds.

At The Old Mint House at Southam, Warwickshire, landlord Fred Dards had a “museum” of Toby jugs, willow pattern plates and spirit measures above the bar. (Birmingham Weekly Post, 04/05/1956) while The Roebuck Inn at Rugeley had its collection of around 50 Toby Jugs destroyed when a lorry drove through the pub (Rugeley Times, 14/04/1956).

And when the owners of The English Pub in Miami, Florida, wanted to ensure it had the correct flavour, they decked it out with 200 Toby jugs, along with 300 other assorted beer mugs. (Daily Mirror, 08/05/1962.)

Toby jugs also became part of brewery and pub branding. In fact, London brewery Hoare & Co registered a Toby Jug as their new trademark as early as 1907, and had a beer branded Toby Ale.

A Toby jug come to life.

An advertisement for Toby Ale from 1955. SOURCE: British Newspaper Archive.

A massive inter-war pub.

The Toby Jug. SOURCE: The Builder, December 1937.

Charrington took over Hoare in 1934 and adopted the Toby jug logo, as well as continuing to brew Toby Ale. They even built a flagship inter-war ‘improved’ pub called The Toby Jug at Tolworth, Surrey, in 1937.

In 1983, Toby Bitter became one of Bass Charrington’s flagship national brands and the Toby Grill and Toby Carvery chains – a response to the success of Berni Inns, we suppose – were launched in the late 1980s.

It now feels almost unusual to find a pub with any pretension to Properness without at least one Toby jug somewhere on the premises, though they more often come in packs, leering down from high shelves like tipsy homunculi – gloriously grotesque English kitsch.

Categories
20th Century Pub london pubs

Watney’s Birds Nest pubs: go-go girls and truncheons on the dancefloor

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.

The Chelsea Birds Nest.

Source: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries.

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.

It turns out that Watney’s training programme for in-house DJs was somewhat influential, for better or worse, giving James Whale his start in radio and cropping up in accounts of the birth of UK dance music.

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”.

WATNEY MANN have vacancies for Young married couples as MANAGERS or to train for future management of their Birds Nests

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.