bristol pubs

The Bulldog: full of clowns?

The Bulldog is the last of three inter-war pubs surviving on Filton Avenue and it’s under new management. So, finally, after more than five years in Bristol, we visited for a pint.

When we lived in Horfield we did a pretty good job of popping into all the local pubs, from The Foresters to The Beehive. But we never quite found the right moment for The Bulldog.

Let’s be completely honest: it had bad vibes.

For one thing, if your pub has an actual bulldog on a sign above the door, it’s a bit on the nose.

Signs and icons have meanings.

They’re designed to send signals. (Or dog whistles, if you like.)

And publicans can’t benefit from the signal being sent – a welcome message to a particular subset of customers – while also expecting everyone else to overlook it.

Beyond that, when we’d pass on bus or on foot, there wasn’t much to entice us in. It looked run down and the windows were frosted and blank.

When it was busy, on weekend evenings, the people in the crowd spilling around the entrance often looked as if they partied way harder than us.

When we asked around, locals tended to say that they’d either never dream of drinking there, or that they’d tried and been made to feel unwelcome. Not threatened, as such, but frozen out.

Then there were online reviews which painted a pretty bleak picture, including our favourite pub review of all time:

Paul Connellly, 1 star review: "Shite hole, full of clowns!"
SOURCE: Google My Business.

An interesting pub

Pubs exist in four dimensions and The Bulldog has been with us for a long time.

When it opened in 1938, it was one of three pubs on Filton Avenue, the others being:

  • The Fellowship, George’s, 1929, now a branch of Tesco
  • The George VI, Bristol United Breweries, 1938, now a DIY store

All were built to serve expanding out-of-town communities built around the growing aerospace industry.

A painting of the pub with well-to-do punters wandering about the open space outside.
The Bristol Bulldog as the brewery hoped it would look when built, from One Hundred and FIfty of Years of Brewing, Georges & Co Ltd., 1938.

The Bulldog was originally called The Bristol Bulldog, after a fighter aeroplane built nearby, and its opening was newsworthy:

The Bristol Bulldog, Filton Avenue, Horfield, the latest and most modern house of the Bristol Brewery, Georges and Co., Ltd., was formally opened, yesterday, in the presence of a distinguished company of citizens… Features of this latest Georges enterprise are:—

Lounge and smoking room panelled in solid oak, public bar laid with rubber flooring, off-sales’ department with separate entrance, spacious club room on first floor, also with separate entrance; skittles alley with regulation camber, ample accommodation for car parking, central heating, and pressure system of supply to ensure beers being in the best possible condition. The house was designed by Mr W. T. Cockram, head surveyor to the company, and built by Messrs C. A. Hayes and Son, of St. Thomas Street.

The landlord was a former police superintendent, J.A. Price – a choice perhaps made to reassure licensing magistrates that this would be an orderly house.

Then there was the war, of course, and this kind of huge, multi-room pub went out of fashion. The Bulldog seems to have trolled along for decades, serving the local community.

But perhaps an incident in 1959 when three brothers stomped a 17-stone police constable into the pavement outside the pub gives a flavour of what the neighbourhood might have been like, utopian dreams aside.

A new regime

We made pretty poor progress on our plan to visit #EveryPubInBristol during 2022 and have decided to pick up the pace in 2023. And it was bothering us that we hadn’t ‘done’ The Bulldog.

So, we decided to make a day of it, with the promise of The Drapers Arms for afters.

Since moving out of the area, we’d heard some encouraging things from friends. Well, mildly encouraging: “It’s fine, actually. We’ve been a couple of times recently. It’s fine.”

Checking in on those online reviews, we noticed a definite positive trend:

  • “Nice open fire friendly locals managers really trying to make the pub work… Best of luck!”
  • “The pub has always had a bad reputation and never wanted to come here but today I thought I would give it a go and I must say everyone made me feel welcome, staff and the new management, Aaron and Donna!! Would highly recommend giving it a go. Will definitely come back!! Thanks all.”

And took special notices of this response from the owner…

  • “[We] are working hard to change the reputation we had in the past & can say getting there. New Manager Aaron & Donna are doing their best to attract good crowd & make The BullDog a customer friendly Pub. Looking forward to your visit again, Many Thanks.”

It’s amazing what a difference this kind of public statement can make.

It acknowledges that the pub might have been unwelcoming before; promises that steps have been taken; and tells us who is responsible for fixing it.

The interior of The Bulldog with light grey walls, pool table and fruit machine.
Inside The Bulldog.

Like a lot of pubs with a reputation for being “rough”, The Bulldog’s main problem today would seem to be the very structure of the place.

Over the decades, walls have been removed, interior decoration stripped back, leaving the new management very little to work with when it comes to creating atmosphere.

It was, however, clean and bright, and the welcome we got at the bar was cheerful.

All the best seats in the house, around the bar, were taken by locals and regulars, most of whom were either watching the football on huge TVs or chatting quietly.

We drank Guinness in a corner, trying to spot any remaining scraps of George’s original design – some wood panels around the outer walls, perhaps? – and listening to the sound of pool balls snicking into each other.

It’s exactly this kind of old fashioned working class pub that is in the greatest danger. It’s never likely to be hugely profitable; and it’s had its problems. Why not turn it into a supermarket, or flats?

But it’s also offering something you can’t get for miles around – reasonably priced beer without frills, in an atmosphere that for many people is the very definition of comfortable. Where they can really feel at home.

We hope the (slight) reinvention of the pub works. We hope it can find new regulars and a way to thrive. We hope it sticks around.

20th Century Pub bristol pubs

20th Century pubs in 21st Century Bristol

We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.

We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.

Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.

The excellent Historic England publication The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Public House in Bristol by Rebecca Preston and Fiona Fisher, from 2015, provides a helpful summary of how things played out here:

Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.

A Victorian-Edwardian pub.
The Cambridge Arms, Redland, by Edward Gabriel, 1900.

However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. The Cambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.

20th Century Pub pubs

The mystery of the Middlesex magistrates

One of the most frustrating parts of writing a book is having a theory but being unable to prove it. For example, we reckon Edwardian West London got improved pubs early because of the attitudes of the local licensing magistrates.

When we were researching 20th Century Pub we sought to trace the roots of the improved and enlarged inter-war suburban pub through a variety of movements and schemes – the Trust Houses, the Carlisle experiment, coffee shops and temperance houses. 

However, we also noticed that there were examples of pubs being built in similarly modest, up-to-date styles by private companies in the early twentieth century, particularly in West London, which were ostensibly nothing to do with these movements.

Pubs such as The Forester in Ealing (1909) and the Three Horseshoes in Southall (1916), both by Nowell Parr, showed a yearning for a rural, historic ideal.

Our general impression was that there seem to have been a lot of new pubs built in West London at this time, bucking the general trend for reducing the number of licences and the number of pubs.

We didn’t quite have the numbers to state this confidently in the book, though, although we did spend a fair bit of time looking at Middlesex Licensing sessions in the London Metropolitan Archive.

What we really wanted, but never found, was evidence that Middlesex magistrates looked favourably upon the right type of pub application from the right type of brewery. Fuller’s and The Royal Brentford Brewery seemed to have been particularly successful, for example. Meanwhile, Watney’s, Charrington and other big London brewers are notably underrepresented in the Edwardian period.

Or even, perhaps, we might have found that the magistrates helped influence the design of pubs in this area: “Do it this way, lads, and we’ll sign it off.”

Perhaps, though, it was less complicated than that. Maybe Middlesex magistrates, covering a huge area, were doing exactly the kind of thing that happened in Birmingham and other cities: refusing licences in slum districts but allowing them in well-behaved, leafy suburbs. But we don’t think so. In Birmingham, this kind of switch was often made explicit and we didn’t notice any such statements in the London records.

One day, when we’re allowed back in libraries, we’ll have another go at this. Somewhere in the paperwork – perhaps in the Fuller’s archive that we almost but not quite got into in 2016 – there must be notes on each of these individual licencing decisions.

In the meantime, we’ll think fondly of wandering around suburban streets with more than their fair share of unusually wonderful, remarkably beautiful pubs.


Up the junction: how the Cook’s Ferry Inn became a roundabout

“The Cook’s Ferry Inn? Why do I know The Cook’s Ferry Inn? Oh, yeah – because there’s a roundabout named after it.”

Variations on this statement are fairly common. Baker’s Arms, Green Man, Charlie Brown’s Roundabout – they’re all over London, certainly.

We came across the mention of The Cook’s Ferry Inn in The House of Whitbread magazine for April 1928, a new acquisition for our little library.

It has an eleven-and-a-half page photo feature on the launch of an ‘improved’ incarnation of this old pub at Edmonton, North London, on the way to Chingford. That’s the source of the images in this post.

An old print of the inn.

“The Cook’s Ferry, Edmonton, reproduced from an old print of uncertain date.”

The old pub seems to have been built in the 18th century as a waterside pub and was a local landmark throughout the 19th century. It was also popular with anglers.

In the inter-war years, it was decided to build a great north circular road to connect newly populous outer London neighbourhoods, open up space for industry and provide jobs. In 1927, the stretch between Angel Road, Edmonton, and Billet Road, Chingford was opened.

The old pub with the raised roadway.

“The old Cook’s Ferry… showing its position as the new arterial road was being constructed.” Photo by E.A. Beckett of Loughton.

The rebuilding of the Cook’s Ferry Inn was made necessary by the fact that the new road was higher than the narrow old lane it replaced.

In 1928, this was a grand, well-appointed pub – part of Whitbread’s commitment to make pubs bigger, smarter and more respectable.

Roadside pub.

“A view of the Cook’s Ferry showing the new arterial road looking towards Walthamstow.” Photo by Larkin Bros.

A modern bar.

Saloon Bar. Photo by Larkin Bros.

A basic bar.

Public bar. Photo by E.A. Beckett.


Dining room. Photo by Larkin Bros.


The kitchen, with Whitbread branded rubbish bin. We’re not sure we’ve seen a photo of an inter-war pub kitchen before. Photo by E.A. Beckett.

After World War II, like many of these hard-to-fill inter-war pubs, it had become ‘scruffy’ and morphed into a music venue.

First, it was a jazz club, founded by musician Freddy Randall and his brother Harry in the 1940s.

Then, in the 1960s, it became associated with ‘beat music’, mods and pop music, with performances by bands such as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and The Who.

Finally, in the 1970s, the North Circular was widened and the pub was demolished. Now, the spot where it stood is all concrete flyover and brambles.

Even the channel of water it once stood beside has gone.

Still, the name lives on, just about, on bus stops, road signs and maps.

20th Century Pub featuredposts pubs

The Comet, Hatfield, 1936: streamline total design

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 Comet – full exterior view.
SOURCE: The Renaissance of the English Public House, Basil Oliver, 1947