london pubs

Samuel Smith pubs are not cheap

It takes a long time for the reputation of a pub to turn around, and that can work both ways. For example, many people still believe Sam Smith pubs are good places for cheap beer in London.

We’ve been aware of their prices creeping up for years.

As we recall, the posh bottles went first. Oatmeal Stout and Taddy Porter were the choice of those in the know, and always cost a bit more.

But when they went up to £6, £7, £8 per bottle, it was clear things were changing.

The bottles eventually shrank, too, changing from famously fat full pints to 330ml tiddlers.

Then, on a recent trip, we paid around £7 for a pint of Pure Brewed Lager, and almost £6 for a pint of Old Brewery Bitter.

Again, we know, that’s sort of what beer costs in London in 2023. Fair enough.

When people on Trip Advisor are still advising tourists to go to Samuel Smith pubs for good value food and beer, however, there’s clearly a mismatch between reality and reputation.

We might also be more relaxed about these prices if we felt they were covering the costs of a good pub experience but…

Dirty glassware. Glum service. Grim atmosphere.

Evidence of a death spiral, perhaps?

We enjoyed one of our several recent visits to Samuel Smith pubs despite all of the above, because the building and location were somewhat magical.

It felt, though, as if the management were doing everything possible to test our goodwill.

At least the beer was good, though, right? Right? 

Well, no, not really, even allowing for the fact that it’s always had a mixed reputation.

We used to like Pure Brewed Lager. Now, it seems sweet and (ironically) cheap.

And though we’ve never been huge fans of Old Brewery, its limited charms are even harder to discern without the befuddling glamour of a bargain price.

There are, in theory, cheaper beers available, such as Taddy Lager, but they often seem to be unavailable in practice.

Go to the pubs if you like. Enjoy them, and the beer, if you like. But don’t tell anyone they’re great value in 2023.

Because these days, they’re more like Angus Steak Houses than Merry Olde Inns of England.

20th Century Pub london pubs

Henekey’s Long Bar and the birth of the pub chain

Henekey’s was one of Londons most famous pubs and kickstarted a pub chain more than 50 years before Wetherspoon ever existed.

In 1831 a London wine merchant called George Henekey, born in 1784 and in the trade since at least the 1810s, opened a new wine and spirit bar:

“THE PUBLIC are respectfully informed that business commenced in the Wholesale Department of this Establishment on the 26th of September, on an entirely New System by which the consumer will be convinced that every article purchased must be free from Adulteration… For Draught Wines, the advantages proposed the Public are these – there will no Secreting in the recesses of Vaults and Cellars of any one thing offered or intended for Sale; nothing will be hid from the Public; every article cleared from the Docks will warehoused in view the consumer, and there will be always on Draught from 40 to 50 pipes of different Wines, the purchaser may make his selection, and, if he thinks fit, may have it measured off in his presence, and sent at once to his residence.”

The bar was at number 23 High Holborn, at Gray’s Inn Gate, an entrance to one of London’s four inns of court.

An engraving of a cellar with huge barrels and a vaulted stone roof.
A view of the vaults at The Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment from an 1830s advertisement.

The building was probably built in the 17th century, although a plaque on the site claims there was a pub there from 1430. It was originally called The Queen’s Head Tavern or, in later years, The Queen’s Head Coffeehouse (“Frequented by professional gentlemen”).

Under Henekey it came to be known as The Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment.

After Henekey died in 1838, at the age of 55, the wine importing business carried on under his name. There were, however, no Henekeys involved in its running and his son, George Henekey Jr, actually set up a rival business right across the road.

During the 19th century, the firm changed hands multiple times, becoming Henekey Kislingbury & Co, then Henekey Barker & Co, then Henekeys Abbott & Co, then Henekey Rogers & Co., and eventually just Henekey & Co.

Enter the Callinghams

At some point around the turn of the century the Callingham family took control of Henekey’s and oversaw a serious expansion of the pub estate.

In a company report from 1934 the chairman, L.F. Callingham, said the firm was doing well and the increase in expenditure was down to acquiring or building new pubs. At that point, a site in Brighton had just been acquired and construction was underway.

In 1935 Henekey’s was advertising 17 branches:

  • The head office at High Holborn (now The Cittie of Yorke)
  • Churton Street, London SW1 (AKA The Constitution)
  • Lupus Street, London SW1 (gone)
  • High Street, Guildford (AKA The Vintner’s Arms, closed)
  • Strand, London WC2 (now The Lyceum)
  • King Street, Hammersmith (AKA The Lord Raglan, gone)
  • George Street, Richmond (AKA The Artichoke Inn, closed)
  • Camberwell New Road, Camberwell (AKA The Athenaeum, closed)
  • Freemans Court, London EC2
  • King Street, Twickenham (The George)
  • Rye Lane, Peckham (AKA The Hope, closed)
  • Kingly Street, London W1 (AKA The Red Lion)
  • Robertson Street, Hastings (AKA French’s)
  • High Street, Hounslow (Gio’s Bar is now on this site)
  • High Street, Bromley (gone)
  • The Town, Enfield (AKA The Beaconsfield Arms, closed)
  • Ship Street, Brighton (AKA The Ship, now Hotel du Vin)

The original pub, the old Queen’s Head Tavern or Gray’s Inn Wine Establishment, was demolished in 1920 and rebuilt in 1923-24.

The new building was a typical interwar architectural fantasy – a sort of medieval theme pub in what Historic England calls ‘neo Tudor’.

Perhaps this historical tendency explains some of the odd claims they made about the firm’s history. Advertising from the 1930s started referring to the firm as dating back to 1695.

And they’d even claim that the Callingham’s had been involved since around then, too.

Maybe both of these statements are true but we can’t find evidence to support them.

A pub with a faux-medieval interior, including galleries and sherry casks.
A branch opened in Ramsgate, Kent, in 1939, following the house architectural style. SOURCE: Bill Finch via

In one of his contributions to the 1950 survey of trends in pub design Inside the Pub Maurice Gorham wrote approvingly of the Henekey’s house style:

From the [beginning of the evolution of the pub]… we find the other type of house which set out to provide something grander than the patron normally had at home. This might be either the tavern or the inn. Professor Richardson’s reconstruction of the Mermaid Tavern in Cornhill in 1420, soon after Chaucer’s time, shows us a big lofty room under an open-timbered roof with screen and gallery, with a log fire blazing on the stone hearth, and oaken tables scattered here and there, at which the patrons sat drinking the blackjacks of strong ale, Rhenish wine in silver mazers, and bottles of Bordeaux, brought to them by the drawers from cellars where they were carefully counted out by the cellarers using their tally-sticks. Making due allowances for the changes of five centuries, this seems to me not at all unlike the big bar at Henekey’s in High Holborn, where the medieval style has been reproduced with more than usual success. Take away the long bar-counter down one side, strew the floor with well- trodden rushes amongst which dogs and rats snuffle for bones, and you might well be going into a fifteenth-century tavern when you penetrate into that long high-raftered hall; all the more so if they would only borrow those heavy oaken doors, iron-studded, swinging on strap hinges, from Henekey’s in the Strand.

In The Local, published in 1939, he described some other branches:

[Henekey’s] specialize in a style of antique decoration that is much more pleasing to the eye than antique styles usually are in pubs. The big Henekey’s in the Strand, near Wellington Street, is a good example of the sort of thing-heavy doors swinging on straps, panelling that looks dark with age, a step down into the bar, and so on. Henekey’s in High Holborn is even more old-world, since it has a row of cubicles each containing a table and chairs, which give a comfortable illusion of privacy. There is another big Henekey’s in Kingly Street, behind Regent Street, which is a gay scene on Christmas Eve, when the girls from the big dress shops make up parties and buy each other drinks. And there is a smaller Henekey’s in Marylebone High Street, which is interesting as showing how the style looks when it is quite new. Only a year or two ago this was the Angel; then Henekey’s took it, rebuilt it, and made a very nice job of it, clean and bright in spite of being conscientiously antique.

Enter Lady Docker

Clement Callingham (1892-1945) became chairman of the firm in 1938 and his playboy tendencies would put Henekey’s in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

He met Norah Docker (1906-1983) at London’s Café de Paris where she worked as a ‘dance hostess’. They had an affair and she moved into his house before his divorce was settled. They married in 1938 and were together until his death in 1945.

The cover of Norah: the autobiography of Lady Docker showing her dancing in a sailor's hat while an approving crowd watches.
Lady Docker’s tell-all autobiography published in 1969.

When Clement died he left Norah with a son, a big wedge of cash, and a substantial share in Henekey’s.

What made her famous in later years was her knack for marrying rich men like Clement. In 1946 she married Sir William Collins, head of Fortnum & Mason. And after he died in 1948 she married Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) and became Lady Docker.

Through Lady Docker’s influence, Sir Bernard became chairman of Henekey’s in 1954 and stayed in the job until 1967. During his time, the chain had more than 40 pubs across the UK.

Pubs with a cult reputation

Almost every post-ear guide book to London, pubs, or London pubs, mentions Henekey’s in glowing terms.

In his amusing book London Pubs (Batsford, 1963) Alan Reeve-Jones says:

“The Henekey houses, of which there are fourteen in London, have a perfect right to consider themselves a cut above the rest if they feel like it, because every one of them looks like that romantic ideal of an English pub usually existing only in the mind of a Christmas Card designer.”

In his entertaining architectural guide Nairn’s London (Penguin, 1966) Ian Nairn says this of the High Holborn branch of Henekey’s:

“Any long bar implies serious drinking, but this has a sense of dedication that is far beyond mere commerce. Perhaps because of this it is often cram-full: it is more of an experience to be un- comfortable here than to relax amongst a farrago of clichés. It does not depend on Victorian ornament either. The effect is due to the long, tall proportions, the dark woodwork and especially to the scale of the huge oval barrels behind the bar, as concise as an airliner’s skin. A walkway high up connects rooms tucked under the roof and you expect to see acolytes coming out on it to perform some liturgy of alcohol. Cabins all round the walls, as a souvenir of Belfast or Dublin; but this place needs no stage props. They sell spiced buns.”

He also calls the pub The Long Bar – the name by which it’s most often remembered these days.

Oddly, the earliest reference we’ve come across to this name is from 1951, but didn’t turn up until 2014. It’s in a note attached to a lost poem by Dylan Thomas, discovered among his wife’s papers: “This little song was written in Henneky’s Long Bar High Holborn by Dylan Thomas in 1951.”

In their Guide to London Pubs (Sphere, 1968) Martin Green and Tony White call it ‘Henekey’s Long Bar’. It’s also referred to this way in a 1966 article in Tatler. So, clearly, this name had taken by the mid-1960s.

And it does, to be fair, have a very long bar. Is it, as is often claimed, the longest bar in Europe? We’ll let someone else investigate that question.

In his 1964 novel Funeral in Berlin Len Deighton’s nameless spy (Harry Palmer in the films) has a few words to say about the Portobello Road branch:

“Henekey‘’’s is a great barn of a place, bare enough not to be spoiled by the odd half-glass of best bitter being spilled across the floor; cashmere, suede, straw, leather and imitation leather jostle, jabber and posture with careful narcissism.”

Might this be the earliest instance of a chain pub being described as ‘barn-like’?

The medievalish exterior of The Cittie of Yorke.
Adapted from ‘Cittie of Yorke pub, London’ by the Wub, via Wikimedia Commons, under a licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Goodbye Henekey, hello Samuel Smith

As the 20th century wound to a close, many old brewing and pub businesses found themselves in trouble. Henekey’s was no different.

When Sir Bernard Docker stepped down in 1967 he sold his shares to a mystery buyer. After much speculation it was revealed to be catering and hospitality magnate Sir Charles Forte. By the 1970s, the Henekey’s chain was part of the Trusthouse Forte empire.

Then, towards the end of the 1970s, Trusthouse Forte began selling off pubs. Samuel Smith of Tadcaster snapped up some of the best in around 1979.

Henekey’s on the Strand, for example, became what we now know as The Lyceum.

Henekey’s Long Bar was also renamed. As a grand Yorkshire embassy in the capital it became The Cittie of Yorke – the name by which it still goes today. (Ye Olde English Pube?)

The 1970s logo for Henekey Inns.

Whitbread bought what remained of Henekey’s (or Henekey Inns, as it had become) in 1984, amounting to 22 ‘steakhouses’.

This was around the same time it also took a share in Pizza Hut, being keen to move into the growing market for pub grub.

They extended the brand to some of their existing pubs including their former London flagship The Samuel Whitbread – now Burger King on Leicester Square.

Because the closure of chains is rarely announced – they just tend to peter out with a pasted notice on the window – it’s hard to say how long the Henekey’s name lingered on.

There are few references to it in the 1990s and most of those are nostalgic, or refer to pubs losing their Henekey branding.

One interesting story, though, is from 1996, when the Morning Advertiser published a collection of publicans’ ghost stories.

The former landlady of the Henekey’s in Ramsgate, which burned down in the 1960s, claimed to have once seen a beer barrel move across the cellar floor.

She reckoned she knew the identity of the poltergeist: “old Henekey outraged at the pub’s refit”.


American beers News pubs

News, Nuggets and Longreads 23 March 2019: Choice, Cycles, Cask 2019

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that struck us as noteworthy in the past week, from AB-InBev to Samuel Smith.

Hollie at Globe Hops, a UK beer blog that’s new to us, recently went back to Nottingham where she studied and noticed that many of her favourite pubs had tons more choice in their beer ranges, but somehow less character:

My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

(Via Peter McKerry | @PeterMcKerry.)

bottled beer

Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

“I was drinking a bottle of Proper Job yesterday and thinking about how I only started buying it after reading your blog. Later, I drank some Beavertown Gamma Ray and Magic Rock Cannonball and wondered if, by drinking fancy craft beers usually modelled on American style, I was missing something. Can you recommend any perennial British beers, the kind of thing you perhaps take for granted but that might have been overlooked by people who’ve only come to love beer since craft really took off?”* — Brendan, Leeds

That’s an interesting question and, let’s face it, exactly the kind of thing we semi-professional beer bores dream of being asked.

To prevent ourselves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a limit of five beers, and stick to those available in bottles, although we’ll mention where there’s a cask version and if it’s better. We’re also going to avoid the temptation to list historically significant beers that we don’t actually like all that much — those listed below are beers we buy regularly and actually enjoy drinking.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Stout is a big, intimidatingly flavoursome, heavy metal tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendier interpretations look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a historically inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it — it was too intense for us, and some people reckon it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a benchmark: if your experimental £22 a bottle limited edition imperial stout doesn’t taste madder and/or better than this, why are you wasting our time? It’s available from Harvey’s own web store.


News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 Jan 2016

These are the beer-related blog posts and articles that caught our attention in the last seven days, from low-alcohol beer to the eccentricity of Samuel Smith’s.

→ There have been lots of articles questioning the UK Government’s new alcohol consumption guidelines most of which, frankly, we’ve ignored as seeming shrill and defensive. This critical take-down from Adam ‘The Stats Guy’ Jacob, however, seems pretty well balanced and, crucially, offers a textbook example of how to disclose potential biases. (Via @PhilMellows.)

→ Those of you unable to drink for medical reasons, during pregnancy, because you’re the designated driver, or just because you fancy giving your innards a break, will be interested in Tony Naylor’s round-up of the best alcohol free beers for the Guardian. Conventional wisdom is ‘Don’t bother!’ but Mr Naylor found a couple of decent contenders:

The lemony, herbal saaz hop flavours that distinguish Czech pilsners shine through remarkably well. OK, it tastes cardboardy at the back, but this has more character than many alcoholic big-brand lagers. Shockingly good.