A totally modern pub, unapologetically of the 1930s, designed to look like an Art Deco racing aeroplane? No wonder it keeps going viral.
We first encountered The Comet, a big inter-war hotel on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, when we began researching 20th Century Pub. Basil Oliver mentions it in his essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House and we found further information in this 2015 post by retro-vintage blogger Mark Amies.
Although we only had space for an overview of the ‘improved public house’ movement of the inter-war years, and a brief mention for The Comet, we actually gathered a fairly substantial amount of research material, and have collected more since.
Here, for example, is the opening of an article from the journal of the Royal Institue of British Architects (RIBA) from January 1937, about a month after The Comet opened:
This new hotel is of interest for the following principal reasons:
1. It represents a new type of hotel, namely, one that caters for the best class of traveller, yet is situated not in a large centre of population, but on an arterial road in rural surroundings. There is, however, an aerodrome, an aircraft factory and some house property nearby, the occupants of which will provide some local trade. Mainly, however, it will depend on visitors from London and travellers on the Great North Road.
2. The architect was given complete freedom not only in the general plan and design in all details. Such items as the lettered notices, the menu cards, most of the furniture and many of the textiles were designed by the architect. The ensemble, which is remarkably well carried out, has therefore unusual unity.
3. The plan is both simple and efficient. Its main element is the grouping of the public rooms round the service and kitchen. Yet so well is this done that the feeling of segregation of different classes of trade, commonly experienced in inns and public-houses having this plan, is absent. Each public room is a separate unit.
4. The general exterior form is novel, yet expresses the structure and plan exactly.
The Fellowship Inn at Bellingham, south east London, was the first pub to be built on a council estate and as such was a focal point of our research for 20th Century Pub, not least because it was a rare example of a pub of this vintage still trading – just barely hanging on – when we were writing the book.
To briefly summarise the story, which is told in more detail in the book, prior to and immediately after World War I, pubs were still seen as part of a disreputable legacy of the slums that new home-builders were keen to leave behind.
When traditional neighbourhoods were cleared and populations rehoused, they were dispatched to estates that were free of licensed premises.
Unsurprisingly, the more enterprising breweries started to think about how they could clean up their offer to make it acceptable to local councils with a barely-contained prohibitionist streak.
London brewers Barclay Perkins were pioneers in this regard, having been working with the Trust Houses since 1916 and with Alexander Part, legendary licensee and sometime spy, in particular. This meant that it was easier for them to demonstrate that they had been operating on ‘improved’ public house principles for some time and so get a foot in the door at Bellingham.
The London County Council minutes record the plan as follows:
“The building is designed to contain a large refreshment room, smoke room and lounge with ample seating accommodation as well as a spacious dining hall which could also be used as a recreation room and for social events and other meetings. There would also be a roof garden. No drinking bars would be provided…”
It was designed in glorious mock-Tudor style by Barclay Perkins’ in-house architect F.G.Newnham. On the opening day in 1924, Barclay Perkins reported that over a thousand meals were served. Again, check 20th Century Pub for more contemporary accounts of the life and colour of this and other big interwar estate pubs.
When we visited in 2016, a small part of the pub was still trading, though most of it was empty and and terrible disrepair. We were shown round by a representative of Phoenix Housing who led us through the abandoned ballroom and derelict upper floor workers’ quarters while she explained their plans for the future.
Its decline had in some ways been its saviour – much like the Ivy House in Nunhead, lots of original features remained because entire rooms had simply been closed off and ignored during the worst of the refurbishment era. In 20th Century Pub, we wrote:
“It is hard to say whether Bellingham’s locals will take to a cinema-cafe-microbrewery-pub but it can scarcely be any less popular than the current offer – a dingy bar used regularly by only a handful of residents. It certainly seems likely that it will draw in the ever-increasing middle-class population of south London’s suburbs with baby strollers and a taste for craft beer with their Sunday roast. Either way, the building, and its remarkable architecture and history, will be preserved.”
It actually reopened three years on from our visit, in June 2019, operated by the Electric Star Group, and thus renamed The Fellowship & Star. The planned microbrewery, a relic of when Laine’s were slated to take it on, didn’t make the cut, but the cinema and everything else did.
We visited shortly after opening on a Sunday when it was fairly quiet but with a good number of reservations for lunch later in the afternoon. They had had a busy night before, too, as suggested by the dry pumps and confirmed by the staff behind the bar: “Well, we did have Don Letts here last night.”
We were really impressed with the transformation, or rather the comparative lack of it. While it definitely clean and contemporary the original wooden panelling was visible throughout, barely even retouched or varnished in some places.
What was formerly the central office, a fascinating feature of these sort of pubs where the manager could hide behind the counter, had been partly absorbed into the bar, but was still distinctly visible.
There was still a clear sense of different rooms – partitions and visual obstacles which give a sense that there’s always something else going on round the corner – a characteristic which can make an even fairly sparsely populated pub feel buzzy.
There was a great balance of illumination and shadow, too, thanks mostly to the natural light fighting its way through tall, thin original windows.
We had a bit of a nose around the other parts of the building that were accessible and noted that other original features were still in place there, too.
Is it gentrified? Five Points Pale Ale was £4.20 a pint, which is at the lower end of prices in London, these days but rather underlines the point that almost any pub trading in London these days is by definition something of a luxury venue.
The staff were professional and down to earth rather than aloof or cool, though, and it looked like Guinness got as much action as the craft taps.
Children are welcome, as long as carefully written ground rules are followed, and football was being shown in a couple of parts of the pub – surely a signal of sorts.
In some ways, it’s sad to see the old pub, and the culture it represented, disappear. On the other hand, the pub was originally designed to serve people of different classes, drinkers and non-drinkers, eaters and boozers, children and families… So it’s really just returned to its true purpose.
Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs from the past week that struck as interesting, thought-provoking or otherwise noteworthy, from The Crumpled Horn to craft beer.
First, some bits of news.
> It used to be that if you wanted to buy Westvleteren beer you had to visit the monastery at prescribed times and purchase a limited amount under strict rules. (Or go into almost any beer shop, it seems, and pay over the odds.) Then, a few years ago, a telephone ordering line was introduced. Now, though, you can order it online. (But you still have to pick up your order in person.)
> When we visited the Fellowship at Bellingham, South London, during research on 20th Century Pub it was a near-wreck with only one decrepit room still operating as a pub. Now, finally, its reinvention as a ‘community pub’ is complete. We look forward to visiting.
Fourpure’s beers are broadly similar in style and quality to Beavertown’s, and are available about as widely. Yet somehow, Fourpure’s 100% acquisition was not greeted with anything like the outrage prompted by Beavertown’s minority sale. The rules of acceptable behaviour among craft brewers, it seems, are flexible, depending on who we’re talking about.
With more than 35 breweries offering their wares, it was difficult to pace yourself too much with so much to try. We managed to get round the majority, even if it was just for tasters from some. Locals Wiper and True and Wild Beer Co were there, among other national and international names in beer such as The Kernel, To Øl, Mikkeller, Verdant, Lervig, Left Handed Giant, Lost and Grounded and Northern Monk to name a few… Some of the sours on offer were among our absolute best beers of the day – Gipsy Hill’s People Like Us fruited sour, Wiper and True’s Barrel Ageing Cardinal Sour and the Pomelo Paloma by Commonwealth Brewing Company stay in our minds.
With the opening of Southgate Tube station on 13 March 1933, as part of the Piccadilly line extension to Cockfosters, and the completion of the nearby North Circular Road, the surrounding area was heavily developed during the 1930s and so Southgate became one of many new suburbs in London where Watney’s required larger, more suitable premises… The North London building was designed by the group’s Chief Architect, A. W. Blomfield, F.R.I.B.A., (Alfred William Blomfield, 1879-1949), who also oversaw the design of “The Giraffe” in Kennington, S.E.17. Both buildings would likely now be described as Neo-Georgian in their external appearance.
I think drinkers owe it to themselves to understand the risks inherent in overconsumption, and to savor and appreciate responsible drinking all the more so. Perhaps those sentiments can coexist, and perhaps an awareness of the duality makes the subject of alcohol even more fascinating to cover.
Finally, we’re finishing with one of our own Tweets:
A hundred pages in, it’s a fascinating, rather sour view of a land of cheap raincoats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impossible to write about England without at least acknowledging pubs, and the 1930s were an especially interesting time.
We’ve taken the liberty of inserting some extra paragraph breaks for reading on a screen:
Half-shaved, disillusioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coventry and Birmingham… We trundled along at no great pace down pleasant roads, decorated here and there by the presence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked feature of this Midlands landscape.
Some of them are admirably designed and built; others have been inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But whether comely or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of money, proving that the brewers… still have great confidence in their products.
At every place, however, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usual attractions of the beer-house; some had bowling greens, some advertised their food, others their music. No doubt even more ambitious plans for amusement would have been put into force if there had been no opposition from the teetotallers, those people who say they object to public-houses because you can do nothing in them but drink, but at the same time strenuously oppose the publicans who offer to give their customers anything but drink.
The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should compel teetotallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pamphlets complaining of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.
For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowling greens and tearooms, see chapter 2 of our 20th Century Pub.
The English Public House As It Is, a book by social observer Ernest Selley, was published in 1927. Re-reading it in search of a reference, we spotted a passage that hadn’t previously grabbed our attention.
In it, Selley reports on his visit to The Fellowship Inn, Bellingham, South London (pictured above when we visited in August), where he met someone who was unimpressed with the new style of ‘improved public house’:
Evidently this man is a member of what I once heard described as ‘The Flea and Sawdust School’; one of the type which prefers the stuffy ‘coziness’ of the dirty, ill-ventilated taproom to any of the ‘new fangled’ ideas.
Some ancestor of The Pub Curmudgeon, perhaps? (That’s not us having a go: we suspect he’ll quite like the comparison.)
It’s interesting to us that this lobby, which we associate with a certain wing within CAMRA today, was sufficiently well-developed by the mid-1920s for Selley to say he had ‘met several of these critics’, and for it to deserve a nickname. It was clearly, as they say, ‘a thing’.
Also of note, in the section that immediately follows, is an account of early beer snobbery: Selley records a meeting with a bloke who won’t drink at the local improved pub because ‘the beer is rotten’. Selley says he tried it and found it anything but ‘rotten’. In his view the man was prejudiced because he resented the posher, more expensive pub, even though Selley was sure he would have enjoyed the very same beer served at the more down-to-earth ‘Pig and Whistle’. We can’t say for sure what was really going on — Selley was prejudiced too in his own way, in favour of improved pubs — but this kind of debate about value, quality, and the qualities of a ‘proper pub’ is certainly still going on 90 years later.