Geoffrey Fletcher on Victorian Pubs, 1962

Geoffrey Fletcher (1923-2004) wrote and illustrated a lot of books – observations of the unglamorous end of London life, from pie shops to street markets.

His most famous book is The London Nobody Knows, published in 1962 and the basis of a cult documentary from 1969.

We’d previously only read it in libraries but finally got our own copy last weekend – a 1965 Penguin edition that cost £2.50.

Though most of Fletcher’s books mention pubs in passing – we quoted a couple in 20th Century Pub – it’s in chapter eight of The London Nobody Knows that he really sets out his manifesto:

One of the striking characteristics of London pubs is the way in which different pubs have an appeal to different kinds of patrons.

To underline his point he goes on to list various types of pub, from legal pubs to “homosexuals’ pubs… where queers meet queers”.

Like Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, Roddy Gradidge and other contemporaries, Fletcher believed that Victorian pubs were the pinnacle of the form:

London pubs are rich in the trappings of the Victorian age, which knew exactly how a town pub should appear. A fine one is illustrated here – the King and Queen in the Harrow Road. This is nineteenth-century Baroque at its most florid. Grey marble columns riser from a mosaic floor, raised a step above the pavement. There is splendid ironwork – iron letters and wrought iron – over the door. The words ‘Saloon Bar’ have a bucolic abandon… The architects of the late Victorian pubs and music-halls knew exactly what the situation demanded – extravagance, exuberance, and plenty of decoration for its own sake.

The King and Queen
The King and Queen, Harrow Road, as drawn by Geoffrey Fletcher.

Other pubs Fletcher mentions by name as good examples include the Lamb in Leadenhall market (still worth stopping to look at today), the Black Friar at Blackfriars, and the Crown on Cunningham Place, St John’s Wood/Maida Vale. The latter is still there, apparently with a nicely preserved interior, but as a gastropub/bistro called, for some reason, ‘Crocker’s Folly’. Fletcher also provides drawings of The Lamb and The Black Friar.

Beyond fixtures and fittings, Fletcher has views on pub culture, too:

Although… the East End is losing some of its strongly focal character, the old life of the pubs in those parts of London still persists. A weekend pub crawl in such places as Shoreditch, Stepney, and Hackney is the way to see it at first hand. Here the East End ‘ma’ continues to flourish, the large sized, perhaps even pneumatic specimen who was no stranger to Phil May and Albert Chevalier, joins in the chorus, supported at the bar by a buttoned horsehair seat and at the front by a large Guinness. Such period characters must disappear sometime – that is where the funeral parlour comes in; if so, however, they are at once replaced by replicas, presumably on a system known only to the East End.

That’s yet more evidence of the link between women and stout, by the way, which we’ll file away for future reference.

You can find copies of The London Nobody Knows knocking around in second-hand book shops or online, or there’s a fairly recent reprint and eBook edition from the History Press, with a foreword by Dan Cruikshank.