Southwark Pub Walk: a potted history

As luck would have it, quite a few key sites in the story of ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ happen to be clustered together in the Southwark area of London, making for a perfect history walk with added boozing.

UPDATE 20/09/2014: It had­n’t occured to us back in Decem­ber last year, but under­tak­ing this crawl while read­ing Brew Bri­tan­nia would be a good way to spend an after­noon. We’ve added notes on which chap­ters in the book ref­er­ence which pubs.

The walk­ing route we have sug­gest­ed below will take you past the fol­low­ing loca­tions:

1. Ye Olde Watling – City of Lon­don head­quar­ters of the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood, now a cosy Nichol­son’s chain pub. (Chap­ter 1)

2. The Rake – the first real­ly notable ‘craft beer’ bar in Lon­don, and still a great place to find good, or at least inter­est­ing, beer. (Chap­ter 12)

Read the rest of this entry and see the map after the jump →

The George Inn, Southwark, 1895

Illustration of the George Inn, Southwark, from Our Rambles in London, 1895.

The latest addition to our collection of dusty old walking guides is Our Rambles in London by E.S. Machell Smith, from 1895.

It’s a fair­ly bland book alto­geth­er, and nor are its illus­tra­tions (as you can see from the above) espe­cial­ly excit­ing. It does, how­ev­er, con­tain an account of a vis­it to the George Inn which acts an inter­est­ing foot­note to Chap­ter Twelve of Pete Brown’s Shake­speare’s Local, con­cern­ing Mrs Amelia Mur­ray, her daugh­ter Agnes, and Joey the par­rot:

[We] turned in under an arch­way over which was writ­ten The George Inn, where we were great­ly cheered by the sight of a dou­ble tier of bed­room gal­leries, with old wood­en balustrades orna­ment­ed by flower-pots.

After con­sult­ing a police­man stand­ing at the entrance as to whether he thought it was a place ladies could lunch at, and receiv­ing an answer in the affir­ma­tive, we walked in, and were met by a fair slim woman, who, in reply to our request for refresh­ment, said ‘she was afraid she could do noth­ing for us just then, as all her gen­tle­men were lunch­ing, but if we cared to walk upstairs and look round we were hearti­ly wel­come.’

Glad­ly avail­ing our­selves of this per­mis­sion, we went up some low wood­en steps and found our­selves on the first bal­cony, on to which all the rooms open, their occu­pants’ only mode of exit and entrance being by this way.

More stairs brought us to the next floor; we peeped into some of the rooms, whose win­dows and doors also opened on to a pic­turesque wood­en gallery, which, like the first, over­looked the yard below, and must, there­fore, have been very con­ve­nient for watch­ing the plays that used to be act­ed in the yards of the old Bor­ough hostel­ries. The bed­rooms, though dark, were far from uncom­fort­able, and con­tained some nice pieces of old fur­ni­ture.

It was alto­geth­er very fas­ci­nat­ing, and we imag­ined our­selves stay­ing there, and won­dered if any one would ever think of search­ing for us in such a retreat.

As we came down­stairs and were about to thank our host­ess, she came for­ward and said that, if we did­n’t mind wait­ing in her room (where she was dis­pens­ing cig­ars and sodas to some of her gen­tle­men friends), she would have a lunch laid for us in her own back par­lour. Accord­ing­ly we seat­ed our­selves, keep­ing our eyes dis­creet­ly fixed upon our guide-books, in which, on all occa­sions and in all places, we find quite as much pro­tec­tion as Unda ever did in her lion.

Mean­while our fair friend held her lit­tle court, and it was charm­ing to see the def­er­ence and respect with which she was treat­ed, as she gra­cious­ly inquired after the health of this one, how the oth­er was get­ting on with his work, where So-and-so thought of going for Christ­mas, &c., &c.

Soon and elder­ly lady (pre­sum­ably the land­la­dy) announced that our repast was ready, and were con­duct­ed into a tiny lit­tle sanc­tum, rather dark, but very snug and warm, with a fat retriev­er asleep under the table, and a green par­rot close to the fire.

And a foot­note to a foot­note: we think E.S. Machell Smith (or Machell-Smith…) was Christo­pher Ish­er­wood’s grand­moth­er, Emi­ly, and this pas­sage was prob­a­bly writ­ten by his moth­er, Kath­leen.

Beer Books: Shakespeare’s Local

The George Inn, Southwark.
Illus­tra­tion from Walks In Lon­don Vol. 1, c.1896.

Talking to publishers about beer books, you quickly learn that there’s one writer they think has really nailed it in commercial terms: Pete Brown. They like his ‘high concept’, ‘pitchable’ approach; they like his titles; and most of all, they love the fact that his books appeal to ‘normals’ as much as they do to beer geeks.

Shake­speare’s Local is yet anoth­er step towards the main­stream­ing of both Brown and beer, though, in fact, beer is hard­ly men­tioned at all and even the pub of the title isn’t always cen­tre-stage so much as it’s used as a lens through which to view Lon­don at var­i­ous peri­ods in its his­to­ry.

It tells the sto­ry of the George Inn, South­wark – these days a tourist attrac­tion, tourist trap, after work City hang­out and chain pub, but long asso­ci­at­ed with Olde Lon­don, Shake­speare and Dick­ens.

The open­ing is rem­i­nis­cent of – bear with us – a ‘his­to­ry episode’ of Hart­nell-era Doc­tor Who; a Pow­ell and Press­burg­er film; one of those nos­tal­gic shorts from Roll Out the Bar­rel; and a nine­teen-eight­ies text adven­ture we real­ly want to play: “April the nine­teenth in the Year of Our Lord 1737… You quick­ly scan the front page news of ship­ping list on its way to the colonies and else­where…”

> TAKE TANKARD
> DRINK BEER
> GO EAST

The por­tray­al of the rela­tion­ship between South­wark and the City of Lon­don is excel­lent and, through­out, there’s a sense of vir­tu­al real­i­ty – of being there, in the time and place described with care­ful­ly cho­sen details in 3D, sur­round-sound, smell-o-vision. We came away with a list of places to vis­it, things to see and things to look out for.

It made us laugh out loud here and there, too – a qual­i­ty not to be under­val­ued.

It’s not per­fect. With our mor­tar­boards and schol­ar­ly gowns on, we regret the lack of foot­notes, and would­n’t cite it as a source in a Phd paper; but, on the oth­er hand, in hol­i­day read­ing mode, we found a few pas­sages where Brown has, in pub­lish­ing par­lance, ‘been too gen­er­ous to his research’, and so caught our­selves skim­ming. (Yes, that’s right – he can’t win.)

On the whole, though, it is a great read and (with a few shop­ping days to go…) the per­fect gift for any­one in your fam­i­ly with a pass­ing inter­est in Lon­don, his­to­ry, pubs, archi­tec­ture, the her­itage indus­try, high­way­men, pub­lic trans­port or lewd poet­ry.

The sin­gle pub micro-his­to­ry could become an inter­est­ing sub-genre: here’s a nice piece on a pub in Croy­don by Kake.

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.