QUOTE: Light Ale & Lager, 1965

You may like to serve only beer at your party. It is very good with hot cheese savouries, or with hot dogs. Choose your beer carefully if you have only one sort. Some of the light ales chill excellently and have better flavour than many lagers. Ladies seldom like the dark varieties, so have an alternative drink for them. You may like to buy a cask of beer, in which case ask for a Pin which hold 4½ gallons. Beer consumption is the most difficult to calculate, but 1¾ pints per head would be an average to base your guess  upon. You know your friends best.”

From Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book, 1965, reprint­ed as a Pen­guin paper­back in 1967.

QUOTE: Pub Perfume

Before opening time there is a Q, virgin aroma of freshness, an inimitable pub-perfume mixture of hops and malt, spirits and polish with perhaps a faint touch of violet-scented air-freshener. This is my boyhood nostalgia. Spilt ale, dried and sugar-sticky.”

Adri­an Bai­ley in an essay for Len Deighton’s Lon­don Dossier, 1967.

Pubs are one thing, beer another

Detail from the cover of Len Deighton's London Dossier, 1967.

Books about pubs from the pre-CAM­RA era rarely give beer more than a pass­ing men­tion.

Richard Kev­erne’s Tales of Old Inns (1939; rev. 1951) is real­ly about archi­tec­ture, and inns are not nec­es­sar­i­ly pubs, but, still, it seems odd that not once (as far as we have been able to see) is beer men­tioned in its 160 pages.

Hunter Davies The New Lon­don Spy (1966) cov­ers pubs at length, but with an empha­sis on atmos­phere, decor and food. It includes only one com­ment on beer:

The amaz­ing thing about the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the French [the York Min­ster, Dean Street], is its bad­ness as a pub qua pub. There are no pint glass­es, for instance, and your unsus­pect­ing cus­tomer ask­ing for a pint is sim­ply served with a half, with­out expla­na­tion, and you can only get Wat­ney’s Red Bar­rel in the way of beer.

The chap­ter on ‘Drink’ by Adri­an Bai­ley in Len Deighton’s Lon­don Dossier (1967) offers a lengthy pas­sage on the won­ders of bit­ter and beer ‘from the wood’ but, when it comes to rec­om­mend­ing pubs, beer does­n’t seem to be a par­tic­u­lar draw. The Olde Wine Shades is list­ed because of its ‘Rich ruby port and thin, pale sher­ry, bur­gundies and clarets’; the Admi­ral Codring­ton in Mossop Street, Chelsea, ‘keeps more than a hun­dred dif­fer­ent whiskies’; while the Chelsea Pot­ter in the King’s Road has ‘the largest vari­ety of aper­i­tifs and spir­its in Lon­don’. The great­est devel­op­ment of recent times, the author explains, is the avail­abil­i­ty in pubs of wine by the glass, in defi­ance of brew­ers who would ‘rather have them sell beer’.

Mar­tin Green and Tony White, in their Guide to Lon­don Pubs (1968) men­tion beer but their list­ings for pubs (from the few we’ve been able to see here – still hunt­ing a copy of our own) sug­gest that music, atmos­phere and nov­el­ty val­ue (Go Go cages!) are far more impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions.

We sus­pect it is only with the arrival on the scene of CAM­RA’s Good Beer Guide in the 1970s that we began to see the pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of the idea that a pub can only real­ly be great  if it has great beer.

This is yet more think­ing aloud from us. Feel free to dis­agree as you would in a pub debate, while sip­ping your aper­i­tif, glass of wine or whisky.

Becky’s Dive Bar: the First ‘Beer Exhibition’?

Becky's Dive Bar in the early 1970s.

In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, you took good beer where you could get it, and if that meant descending a rickety staircase into a dingy basement with pungent-smelling toilets, so be it.

We were tipped off to the exis­tence of Beck­y’s Dive Bar by beer writer Des de Moor who thought it might be a can­di­date for one of the first ‘real ale pubs’ or ‘beer exhi­bi­tions’ – some­where whose main sell­ing point was the avail­abil­i­ty of var­ied cask ales from far-flung, out-of-town brew­eries. In his 1976 book Beer and Skit­tles, Richard Boston sup­ports that view, argu­ing that Becky “made it [the Dive] a liv­ing gallery of beer from all over Eng­land, more than 10 years before any­one else did any­thing sim­i­lar”. (If you think oth­er­wise, com­ment below.)

Becky’ was born Rebec­ca Mary Dunne in 1907, pos­si­bly in Dublin, though she claimed to be from “a fam­i­ly of Man­ches­ter coop­ers” (Green/White, 1968). She mar­ried William Wil­leter, a six­ty-five year old wid­ow­er, vet­er­an of World War I, and expe­ri­enced pub land­lord, in Sur­rey in 1943. William’s grand­son, Robert, told us some­thing of the fam­i­ly dra­ma that accom­pa­nied her arrival: his grand­fa­ther and father, also Robert Charles Wil­leter, had been run­ning the Gold­en Lion pub in Cater­ham, Sur­rey, but when Becky arrived she ‘took over’, divid­ing the father and son team. Read­ing between the lines, the fam­i­ly saw her as some­thing of a gold-dig­ger.

Ear­ly in 1954, with­out Robert, they moved to 24 South­wark Street, Lon­don SE1, in the base­ment of the Hop Exchange. The Exchange is a vast, grand­ly Vic­to­ri­an build­ing occu­py­ing an entire block, and one which any pass­ing beer geek will cer­tain­ly have noticed: it is dec­o­rat­ed all over with hops and hop bines. It was opened in 1867, oper­at­ing, as the name sug­gests, as a mar­ket­place for deal­ers in Ken­tish hops, but its builders over-esti­mat­ed demand for a cen­tral hop-deal­ing cen­tre, and it was nev­er as busy as they’d hoped. Over the next eighty years or so, it was dam­aged by fires and bombs, part­ly demol­ished, and even­tu­al­ly, all but aban­doned by the hop trade, its spaces were rent­ed out as offices and shops.

Accord­ing to Richard Boston, the base­ment premis­es was a sand­wich shop when the Wil­leters took it over, though The Dive is an odd name for such a busi­ness, and it had been called that since at least 1949. Mar­tin Green and Tony White describe it as “orig­i­nal­ly a kind of pri­vate licensed can­teen for the hop mer­chants”, which might make sense.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, short­ly after they moved, in April 1954, William died. There­after, the wid­owed Becky appears for the first time under her own name in the Lon­don phone book as R.M. Wil­leter, pro­pri­etress of The Dive, with the apt phone num­ber HOP 2335.

By the 1960s, the Dive was known as a pub spe­cial­is­ing in serv­ing hard-to-find out-of-town ales from casks mount­ed on the bar and had some­how acquired a rep­u­ta­tion as “the old­est Free House in Lon­don” (Len Deighton’s Lon­don Dossier, 1967) – non­sense, sure­ly, but a telling mis­take, sug­gest­ing that the place quick­ly came to feel like an insti­tu­tion. It was prob­a­bly Becky who pro­mot­ed this sto­ry, and she cer­tain­ly put on a show for Bri­an Schwartz who vis­it­ed in 1974 pri­or to writ­ing an arti­cle for Off Duty, a mag­a­zine for US ser­vice­men in Europe, rat­tling a set of man­a­cles she claimed to have found in the base­ment, and telling sto­ries of the Dive’s var­i­ous ghosts.

Rud­dles, a brand now owned by Greene King, was a par­tic­u­lar draw, as the ‘Rut­land Lives’ graf­fi­to in the pic­ture above attests, but Becky was proud to say she could offer 250 dif­fer­ent beers, includ­ing Euro­pean imports from, amongst oth­er coun­tries, Czecho­slo­va­kia (Skit­tles and Beer). Was she also the first pub­li­can to sell Urquell or Bud­var in the UK? The pub also offered beer from Thwait­es, Adnams, Dut­tons and Shep­herd Neame at a time when those were as rare in Lon­don as today are prod­ucts from, say, Mikkel­er. The beer was not always good, though, at least accord­ing to CAM­RA-founder Michael Hard­man: “It was bloody awful, like por­ridge.”

Rec­ol­lec­tions of Becky her­self sug­gest a woman who, hav­ing reached her prime in the nine­teen-thir­ties and for­ties, resolved to remain there. Her hair was dyed black, she wore lip­stick “half an inch round her mouth”, and tend­ed to wear clothes recall­ing fash­ions of decades before, with a bee­hive hair­do – “the last in Lon­don“CP. Max­imus Biben­dus recalls her hav­ing the nick­name ‘Cal­i­for­nia Becky’, but no-one seems to know why.

The bar had a 78rpm gramo­phone record play­er which she would use to blast out songs by George Form­by, Flana­gan and Allen, and even the speech­es of Win­ston Churchill, evok­ing the Blitz spir­it in what you might call her under­ground shel­ter, when there was­n’t some­one play­ing the piano or Ham­mond Organ (Green/White, 1968) in the cor­ner.

Those who fre­quent­ed the Dive recall that she drank con­stant­ly and heav­i­ly, rarely mak­ing much sense by the end of the night, though her author­i­ty was nev­er ques­tioned. She was accom­pa­nied by a drunk­en pianist called Nor­man; var­i­ous eccen­tric, heavy-drink­ing reg­u­lars; and a bar­man called Har­ry whose beer bel­ly was leg­endary.

This blog post by Andrew Keogh – one of the few men­tions of Beck­y’s any­where online – recalls the atmos­phere and lay­out of the Dive Bar in the mid-sev­en­ties. It paints a pic­ture of a dirty, scruffy, smelly pit with bare­ly func­tion­al toi­lets. That view is sup­port­ed by the rec­ol­lec­tions of oth­ers:

The fur­ni­ture was most­ly beat­en up sofas which had prob­a­bly been found on a rub­bish dump. A vis­it to the toi­lets was extreme­ly haz­ardous as it was down the cel­lar steps which were very steep and had no handrails. From mem­o­ry one could have a piss and look at the casks at the same time.LD

It was car­pet­ed, too, with left­overs, scraps and “ends of rolls”. It stank of urine and stale beer. Michael Hard­man recalls his wife being served a gin and ton­ic with a fly swim­ming in it. When he com­plained, Becky speared the fly with a cock­tail stick and hand­ed the drink back.

But the Dive’s foul­ness, decrepi­tude and air of eccen­tric­i­ty, along with the ‘exot­ic’ beer, seem to have con­tributed to a cer­tain cult appeal (“…the place rocked”) and an air of naugh­ti­ness.

In the ear­ly sev­en­ties, I was court­ing a girl who worked in the same build­ing as me in Fins­bury Square. We used to trot over Lon­don Bridge reg­u­lar­ly to Becky’s… as it was a place we were con­fi­dent none of our respec­tive work col­leagues would find us… The attrac­tion for us oth­er than pri­va­cy was it sold my favourite beer of the time, Rud­dles Coun­ty, and my girl­friend just loved the bot­tled Rud­dles Bar­ley Wine.LD

Fri­day and Sat­ur­day nights, accord­ing to Andrew Keogh, were par­tic­u­lar­ly hec­tic and excit­ing, and things only got busier after 1974 when the Dive was a final­ist in the Evening Stan­dard pub of the year award. When anoth­er small South­wark drink­ing estab­lish­ment with cult appeal, the Rake, was named Time Out pub of the year in 2007, it was all but over­whelmed by new vis­i­tors for some months after­wards, and the effectof the Stan­dard cov­er­age on the Dive must have been sim­i­lar.

Two young men stand at the bar while Becky serves them.
Robert Runge, ‘an intre­pid Yank search­ing for old Lon­don’ (right), with a friend at Beck­y’s in 1974. (Pho­to © Robert Runge, used with per­mis­sion.)

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as the Dive went main­stream, its bor­der­line-dan­ger­ous archi­tec­tur­al fea­tures and unsan­i­tary facil­i­ties came to the atten­tion of the author­i­ties. Becky cooked sausages and made sand­wich­es which “must have caused most of the cus­tom at Guy’s A&E on Sat­ur­day nights” in a filthy kitchen coat­ed in grease, and it was prob­a­bly this which tipped the bal­ance. In 1975, it was forcibly closed down, and Becky, it seems, retired.

After 1975, the phone books show an R.M. Wil­leter mov­ing from one place to anoth­er in Lon­don and its sub­urbs before even­tu­al­ly leav­ing the city behind and, via a long stint in Southend-on-Sea in Essex, end­ing up in Suf­folk, where she died in 1997. That’s right – she reached nine­ty years old after work­ing for twen­ty years in a dan­ger­ous, unsan­i­tary base­ment, with a drink con­stant­ly in her hand. Make of that what you will.

Pend­ing fur­ther research, we can’t be 100 per cent sure what hap­pened to the Dive next, but, by 1985, accord­ing to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1986, it was trad­ing under the name Bark­er’s Dive Bar, ‘Orig­i­nal floor and char­ac­ter all its own’. Nick Boley recalls drink­ing there up until pos­si­bly as late as 1982 and, though Becky was gone, says the bar was still known by her name. We’re not even cer­tain which par­tic­u­lar cel­lar it occu­pied, as both Katzen­jam­mers and the ‘new’ Wheat­sheaf share a postal address and have sim­i­lar-look­ing entrance­ways. The cel­lar which is now the relo­cat­ed Wheat­sheaf was, from the ear­ly nineties, a wine bar called the Hop Cel­lars. If that’s the one, then we’ve got a sto­ry of the UK pub trade in micro­cosm: from free house to wine bar to chain pub, in the course of thir­ty years.

The good news for British beer drinkers was that, even as Beck­y’s was on its last legs in the mid-sev­en­ties, real ale was mak­ing a slow come­back else­where and oth­er pubs soon appeared to fill the gap in the mar­ket left by the Dive – on the beer front, at least, if not in terms of the roman­tic, under­ground dingi­ness and con­stant par­ty­ing that gave it such cult appeal.

Ref­er­ences

  • CP – Chris Par­tridge who we emailed after see­ing his com­ment on Car­o­line’s Mis­cel­lany.
  • LD – an anony­mous Lon­don drinker with whom we exchanged emails.
  • Beer and Skit­tles by Richard Boston (1976), p.96–98.
  • Food” by Adri­an Bai­ley, in Lon­don Dossier, ed. Len Deighton (1967), p44.
  • Out of the Hay and Into the Hops: Hop Cul­ti­va­tion in Wealden Kent and Hop Mar­ket­ing in South­wark, Celia Cor­dle (2011), p123.
  • Guide to Lon­don Pubs” by Mar­tin Green & Tony White (1968), p131.
  • Con­ver­sa­tion with Michael Hard­man, Novem­ber 2012.
  • Emails from Robert Wil­leter, Octo­ber 2012.
  • …and here’s where to get it’, Bri­an Schwartz, Off Duty, Novem­ber 1975.

Notes

When we know more, we’ll update this post. In par­tic­u­lar, we want to con­firm we’ve got the cor­rect R.M. Wil­leter in the records and try to find details of when the Dive became licensed to sell beer. And what’s the Mitchel­l’s and But­ler’s con­nec­tion that led to their slo­gan being paint­ed on the shut­ters in the pic­ture above? Any fur­ther rec­ol­lec­tions, facts or pho­tos very wel­come, either by email or in com­ments below.

Thanks to Des for the tip-off; Steve ‘the Beer Jus­tice’ Williams for help in var­i­ous ways; to Tan­dle­man for check­ing his 1980s Good Beer Guides for men­tions of the Dive; and to Andrew Keogh for his orig­i­nal blog post and some very help­ful back-and-forth by email.

A note on the pho­tos: Bri­an Schwartz pro­vid­ed these, though he did­n’t take them. He wrote an arti­cle on the Dive for a small mag­a­zine aimed at US ser­vice­men in Britain and the pho­tos were tak­en to accom­pa­ny it. He’s giv­en us pro­vi­sion­al per­mis­sion to use them while he tracks down the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and also hopes to share his orig­i­nal arti­cle with us if he can dig it out.

Updates
  • 25/07/2012 Added infor­ma­tion from Guide to Lon­don Pubs by Mar­tin Green & Tony White (1968), via Vagrant­punk’s scans at Flickr; also an addi­tion­al line of infor­ma­tion based on com­ments from Nick Boley who drank at the Dive in the ear­ly 1980s.
  • 09/08/2012 The pho­tog­ra­ph­er was Grant W. Cor­by, who we are now try­ing to track down.
  • 02/12/2012 Revised based on research from the last few months.
  • 06/10/2013 Bark­er’s Dive Bar incar­na­tion con­firmed.
  • 02/05/2016 Added a pho­to from 1974 cour­tesy of Robert Runge.