20th Century Pub Beer history

Comus Elliott’s neverending pub quest in his own words

When we came across the story of compulsive pub ticker Comus Elliott, we wrote it up, with at least a small hope that it might prompt him to get in touch. And it did.

Mr Elliott is still with us and still visiting pubs, plagues permitting, and through his daughter, Caroline, made contact. We emailed a few prompts – where and when was he born and brought up? How did his father, Charles, get into ticking pubs? Which are his favourite pubs? And so on.

In response, he sent some handwritten notes on his life and career which we’ve typed up and present below with some small edits for clarity.

* * *

I was born 1940 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and moved to North London in 1945. Attended Princess Road Junior Mixed School, near Primrose Hill, and then William Ellis Grammar School (Boys) at Parliament Hill till 1958. After 8 O levels and 3 A levels I joined Barclays Bank in September 1958 and was employed in the Trustee Department dealing with estate administration, investment management and taxations where I stayed until 1994.

With Barclays, I moved from North London, West End, City and then to Chelmsford, Essex, Preston, Lancs, and Manchester and Knutsford in the North West.

When the bank reorganised the trustee side, I took (very) early retirement, but continued working in probate with a firm of solicitors in Maidstone, Kent.

All those moves assisted enormously in notching up new pubs!

I have no idea now my father started except for some reason he wanted to visit, and drink in every pub within the London Postal District, then round about 4,400 of them. He actually achieved 4,200 before his death in 2001. He did also keep a record of other pubs in the country but, important as they were, they were not his main aim.

I visited my first, but under age at 16, but was never challenged on age until the eve of my 18th birthday. I had by then decided that I would, too, record pubs visited – not in competition, though.

I kept (still keep) a fairly comprehensive record of those visited, with card index style systems for both names and locations. I also keep a chronological list of London Postal and each individual county, noting name, address, overall number in list of visits, brewery ownership or free house, and date visited.

My father was press and public relations officer for the Gas Council in London and therefore had many contacts in the newspaper world and eventually we were taken on a London pub crawl (six) one evening by the then News of the World who wanted to write a feature article.

That was followed up by several others, including Austin Hatton’s A Monthly Bulletin, so publicity started and continued on and off for some years, including TV appearances on About Anglia in 1968 and Look North West in Manchester, 1981.

Main publicity was attracted when my father and I reached significant milestones on our journey – the 100th, 5,000th, 10,000th, and my father’s 4,000th London Postal District pub. At such events we held parties for drinking companions who knew of our obsession.

Pubs have changed a great deal since my early collecting days, and not always for the better. Nice old drinking dens have either been closed or tarted up, often now food led. There are still nice old pubs if you can bother to seek them out (the Good Pub Guide and Good Beer Guide are invaluable). I much prefer a simple, old-fashioned pub – town or country – with good beer, good atmosphere, no loud games, TV.

Yes, some decent food, but not to the extremes that some so-called ‘gastropubs’ go to.

“Due to Covid, I’ve only done seven new ones in 2020, but my total is just over 16,000 now.”

Comus Elliott

Nice old original features have so often been ripped out in the guise of progress. Certainly the ideal English pub is not dead as some would have it but we should be careful to protect what is left.

In my prime I would try and average one new [pub] per day – not every day, but 365 [new pubs] in [each] year. I usually managed till I retired in 2000, and living in rural Northumberland, it’s difficult to find many new ones – fortunately, those that are within striking distance are well worth visiting time and again. Due to Covid, [I’ve] only done seven new ones in 2020, but my total is just over 16,000 now.

As regards my ‘favourite’ pubs – how about the one that I am in at the time? Different pubs for different reasons – one next to a sports event, after the theatre, to take your wife, to take somebody else’s wife, it’s the closest and nearly closing time, etc. etc…

Individual favourites include my own current local in Seahouses, The Old Ship – brilliant (old, good beer, good situation in the harbour, excellent long-serving staff (been in one family over 100 years).

Then there is The Blue Lion, East Witton, Yorks (food, atmosphere, Black Sheep, and a lovely place to stay).

The Red Lion, Burnsall, Yorks – I first stayed there with my father in 1961, when we were walking in the Pennines. Through a distant family connection I’ve been back a few times in the past three years and it’s as good as ever. Family run, like most good pubs seem to be – you can tell the difference between such, and a managed pub.

Pubs sadly gone include The Crown and The Paxton at Gipsy Hill in South London, and several village pubs in Quainton, Bucks, where my aunt and uncle kept The George & Dragon for some years in the 1950s and 60s.

I joined CAMRA for news of pubs and books, but have never been an active member. I never joined the SPBW.

Generally, friends and relations have looked kindly (perhaps enviously?) upon my hobby and are quite happy to join in, either with transport or advise on new pubs in their area. They also like the celebratory milestone parties!

20th Century Pub pubs

Comus Elliott’s 10,000 pubs

You don’t forget a name like Comus Elliott so when we came across it in an article from 1971, we remembered the story at once: he was arguably post-war Britain’s most famous pub crawler.

From that article, which appeared in brewing industry publication A Monthly Bulletin for May 1971, here’s his own account of how his quest began:

I first set foot inside a pub in August 1954. I have now been inside 4,250 different inns, pubs and hotels, the majority of them since 1957, when I started my hobby of visiting a new and different pub every day… Not long ago I visited once more my first pub, The White Lion at Aston Clinton, in Buckinghamshire. Over my pint, I recalled the midday break when inside a pub for the first time, I self-consciously drank ginger beer, in what, until then, had been forbidden territory… I do not often have time for second visits to pubs on my list so I doubt that a similar incident will occur again, if only because pubs everywhere in the country have changed so drastically during the past few years.

A new pub every single day! This made for a good story and was covered in various American newspapers during 1971.

Jeff Morgan’s ‘Dining with wine’ column in the Oakland Tribune from 6 January that year, for example, included more detail on Elliott’s approach to ticking:

Comus Elliott, a 30-year-old bank clerk who lives in Braintree, England… carries a notebook with him on his pub crawls and carefully notes the name and address of each, and the time of day the pint was consumed.

And it turns out this was a family business. The same article says he inherited this hobby from his father, Charles Elliott, who, in 1971, had visited more than 8,000 pubs. A brief entry in the 1971 edition of the London Spy reveals that Charles Elliott generally confined his pub crawling to London and, as of that year, had visited 4,500 pubs in the city – that is, more or less all of them.

Another American newspaper column from 7 January 1971, mining the same United Press wire, introduces us to yet another member of this pub crawling family:

Life for Rosemary Elliott, 25, has become one long pub crawl since she married Comus Elliott, 30, three years ago. “My husband is determined to drink a pint of beer in each one of Britain’s 70,000 pubs,” she explained. “It’s a fun hobby, you know.” So far Mrs. Elliott has been to 1,657 pubs and gets an autograph from each proprietor. “Comus has passed the 5,000 mark in 14 years,” she reported. “It will take us forever to do them all, but it’s nice to have a lifetime ambition.”

On 22 July 1983, Mr Elliott (or Elliot – we’ve seen it spelled both ways) held a party at the Leather Exchange, a Fuller’s pub in Bermondsey, to celebrate his 10,000th pub visit. (Liverpool Echo, 19.07.83.)

The 1971 article from A Monthly Bulletin that nudged us to look into this story is interesting because it reflects Elliott’s observations of how pubs had changed during the 1960s. In it, he expresses his delight at the emergence of pub grub – well, you would, wouldn’t you, if you’re visiting a new one every day? – and dismay at the loss of local beers in favour of national brands.

This is our favourite bit, which captures the voice of a pub ticking bank clerk perfectly:

To attract and hold the new young trade, brewers have started to offer something more than a pint or a ‘short’ in arid surroundings. To become part of the new swinging scene, many pubs are run almost as mini-music halls where young musical ‘groups’ have ousted ancient pianists. We can now see ‘go-go’ girls dancing, and, if we know where to go, can even see ‘drag’ or strip-tease shows. Some pubs have been restyled as Birds Nests which have, among other things, real life Disc Jockeys, dancing girls, soft lights and numbered tables with telephones so that in the good old Continental fashion you can order your beer, request a song or ‘chat up’ a blonde sitting at a distant table without having to get up… In saying this, one cannot always sound as enthusiastic as one would wish.

Birds Nest pubs are interesting – we’re going to write something about that brief craze another time.

Now, here’s a final interesting point. Until recently, Mr and Mrs Elliot were based in the North East of England and still contributing to the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. So, if anyone happens to be in touch with them, do drop us a line.

Generalisations about beer culture

The tyranny of the ticking bug

We’re not Tickers, although we do understand what drives people to pursue an ultimately doomed, obsessive-compulsive mission to drink a bit of every beer in existence — it’s not like we haven’t spent whole holidays haring from one pub to the next, drinking halves of 10 different beers in each and, at the end of it all, wondering if we’d actually had fun.

On holiday in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, last year, it took us a day or two to realise there was no really exciting beer around and just relax. We enjoyed a few pints of Tribute here and there, picked up a few interesting bottles (once we’d stopped looking) and, y’know, made something other than beer the focus of the holiday.

Similarly, on our recent trip to Haworth, we kept coming back to the Fleece for Timothy Taylor. We could have tried a few more beers we’d not had before but, frankly, didn’t want to waste our time when there was something so good right at hand.

The only problem is, you don’t get much ammo for a blog that way.