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