The question that’s currently dogging us is this: is it more important to preserve pub buildings, or the spirit of the pub? Or does it have to be both?
The other week, walking through South East London, we came across The Yorkshire Grey, a rather striking example of the “brewers’ improved” style of public house. Red-brick, mansion-like, and taller than the surrounding suburban houses, it was so well-maintained and clean it might have been built yesterday. It was also apparently well-used by the local community.
Except it isn’t a pub any more — it’s a drive-through McDonald’s burger restaurant.
We couldn’t help but feel that, if McDonald’s hadn’t taken it on, it would probably be mostly empty and in poor repair, if not falling down and boarded-up like some pubs we saw on the way into nearby Woolwich. Perhaps this conversion was for the best?
Of course it would be better if there was such huge local demand for a pub that it could have continued trading as such.
In researching Becky’s Dive Bar, we came across mention of another pub, Ye Olde Mitre on St Martin’s Lane, which had a reputation for selling a wide range of beer in the nineteen-fifties. (Note: not the one off Hatton Garden.) Though we’ve had no luck finding out more about the Mitre, we have, as a pleasant side-effect, found a new question to ponder on: when did people start fighting to preserve pubs?
On 6 November 1968, the Covent Garden authority, a government body which had taken on ownership of the historic fruit and vegetable market and surrounding land, announced its grand redevelopment plan. It was to include widespread demolition, and the building of motorways and concrete walkways, turning a ramshackle ‘neighbourhood’ into something from Logan’s Run. (But probably a bit crapper.)
The Architecture Review published several pieces arguing for the preservation not of specific buildings, but of the area as a whole, because Covent Garden’s ‘unique qualities… depend on groups of buildings… [and] historic street patterns’ (22 November 1972). Dan Cruickshank and Colin Amery, in that same piece, provided a watch-list of vulnerable, unprotected properties in Covent Garden, which included many public houses, such as the Nell Gwyn and The Lamb and Flag.
By 1973, preserving the area’s pubs had become a campaign in its own right, which the The Observer described in a piece on 11 February, illustrated with a gallery of pub fronts:
The regular patrons had been preparing for a war of passive resistance — ‘Gandhi with an elbow bent’ as one put it — for the pubs are all within the Covent Garden Development Area and were in danger of being ‘developed’ out of existence.
But the pubs have been saved from the wreckers by Mr Geoffrey Rippon, Minister for the Environment — they have been listed as being of special architectural or historical interest. Not one can be touched now… Londoners and visitors alike will thus be able to go on drinking in the Lamb and Flag, built over the narrowest thoroughfare in London, The Crown Tavern where the idea for ‘Punch’ was thought up, and The Sun, whose forerunner on the site was one of Ben Jonson’s locals.
(Note, once again, the tittering amusement with which journalists write about beer and pubs.)
Pete Brown argues in his Shakespeare’s Local that people began to feel nostalgic about disappearing pubs after World War I, and tells the story of how the George Inn, Southwark, was ‘saved for the nation’ by the National Trust in 1937. It seems to us, though, that it was in the sixties and seventies — when everything got its own banner-wielding march and/or campaign group — that a more general urge to ‘save’ pubs (even those without literary or historic associations, or any particular architectural merit) emerged.
What we need to do next is read up on other post-war development schemes and see how prominently pubs featured in any campaigns against them.
Should pubs be preserved? There are lots, and perhaps not every single one should be considered sacred, but there’s certainly no reason why they should be treated with less respect than any other type of building.