20th Century Pub pubs

The Chelsea Drugstore – the pub of the future?

In the 1960s, British brewers sometimes behaved as if they didn’t believe the traditional English pub had a future and scrambled to find ways to reinvent the pub for the late 20th century. For Bass Charrington the solution was a glass and metal wonderland in West London, on the King’s Road – The Chelsea Drugstore.

The symbolism feels a bit on the nose, really, but The Chelsea Drugstore replaced a Victorian pub called The White Hart – though a pub of that name was trading on the site at least as early as 1805.

The White Hart c.1900. SOURCE: WorldsEnder/AngloSardo.

The new pub took eight months to put together at a cost of about £180,000 (equivalent to around £3.3 million in 2022), involving a serious roster of swinging sixties talent.

The architects were Patrick Garnett and Anthony Cloughley, who had experience building amusement parks, and Erik Blakemore, who had worked on film sets. Their firm GCB had previously designed kitsch Tiki bars for Butlin’s seaside holiday camps.

Graphic design was handled by Martin Stringer and Tony Guy (AKA Stringer & Guy) and Push Pin Studios of New York City, founded by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.

Interior design was by Baron Alessandro Albrizzi who had a trendy furniture shop at 182 Kings Road.

It didn’t stop there – even the staff uniforms had a name designer, Tom Gilbey, who had earlier tailored the capes the Beatles wore on the cover of their 1965 album Help! In particular, he designed minidresses for the barmaids which were to be a major selling point.

CHELSEA DRUGSTORE London's most exciting spectacular' requires a deluge of dollies to cope with the crush in our nosh area restaurant, snack bar and pubs. Please! If you can wait with wit and cope with 'celebrities' (even on a part time basis we don't expect EVERYONE to be brave for ever) then dolly on over and see George Firmage at CHELSEA DRUGSTORE. 49 KING'S ROAD If you don't swing, don't ring.
A job ad from June 1968. SOURCE: The Stage, 27 June 1968, via The British Newspaper Archive.

Despite all that revolutionary talent, the new building wasn’t actually new at all. It was built around the existing pub and even retained the shape of its arched windows, behind a shiny glass and aluminium ground-floor frontage.

The restaurant at The Chelsea Drugstore in 1968. SOURCE: RIBA

What was the Chelsea Drugstore like?

A contemporary description of the impression it made can be found in the Brewing Trade Review for August 1968:

To capture in words the mirror dazzling effect of the place, quite astonishing when first encountered, is not easy. Some floors are of marble, others have specially designed carpeting in aubergine, gold and grey. Counters in the gift shop, the tobacconist’s and so on, are of stainless steel and glass with polished brass and glass panel fronts. The bar and restaurant counter tops are of stainless steel. All the ceilings are of polished aluminium and practically all the lighting spills from floor level, where fixtures have been set within the brass and tinted glass panels. The result is that the movement of people past these fixtures breaks the light beams and causes reflections in the surrounding polished surfaces, so creating a constantly changing light pattern. One cannot be alone, or certainly get the impression of being alone in the Chelsea Drugstore. 

The inspiration for the name of the new pub was said to be Le Drugstore, a shop-bar-cafe in Paris which was, in turn, inspired by late-night venues in New York City.

It’s hard to imagine that someone, somewhere in the Bass Charrington organisation wasn’t also, rather bravely, thinking that the word ‘drugstore’ was a loud, clear signal to London youth about what might be on offer.

Alan Walker of Bass Charrington (right) at the opening of The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968. SOURCE: Brewing Trade Review, August 1968.

In advance of the Drugstore’s opening on 8 July 1968, Bass Charrington’s marketing machine set about building hype, as reported in the Brewing Trade Review:

From the start it was obvious that the Chelsea Drugstore was going to be different. The invitation took the form of a label wrapped round a non-returnable bottle of beer (full). On it, in mauve lettering on a silver background, one read that “Mr. H. Alan Walker, Chairman, Bass Charrington Ltd., takes pleasure in inviting you to the opening of the Chelsea Drugstore, 49 Kings Road, Chelsea, S.W.3.” One’s admission ticket for this Sunday morning occasion? The mauve and silver decorated bottle top.

The hype, and the signalling, worked.

“The day they opened, we were all so damn high we ran around putting handprints all over it until owners had to set up a roadblock to keep stoners off,” Beverley ‘Firdsi’ Gerrish is quoted as saying in a biography of Syd Barrett.

Apart from the visual aspect of the design, the business model was new, too. Bass Charrington needed to recoup its investment and intended to sweat the premises for every penny.

So, as well as selling its beer in two bars, they also sold breakfast, lunch and dinner; records; tobacco; soda; delicatessen products; and, of course, drugs, in a late night pharmacy.

As Jack Amos wrote in the Financial Times for 6 July 1968, in an article called ‘The Changing Face of the English Pub’:

By keeping the shops open when a view the bars are closed the brewery hopes (with good reason) for a better return than could be expected from a normal pub with restricted hours. In addition, the shops will stay open as late as possible within the confines of a 16-hour trading day…

Was the Chelsea Drugstore the future of the pub?

Business was good at first. It sold its first week’s supply of beer in 48 hours, along with twelve designer shirts at six guineas a pop (about £120 each).

It continued to do good business for a year or two and Bass Charrington made noises about expanding the concept.

Other brewers were inspired by The Chelsea Drugstore, too, launching their own youth-focused discotheque pubs, such as the Watney’s Birds Nests.

But the locals didn’t like The Chelsea Drugstore at all. “I think it sounds frightful,” said Miss Iris Medlicott of the Royal Avenue Residents’ Association before it even opened (Chelsea News, 21/06/1968). Once it began trading, there were constant complaints, as summarised in the same newspaper on 5 September 1969:

To anyone who has known and loved the old village for up to almost half a century… this corner rendezvous which has caused so much high blood pressure will never fit in with our King’s Road… without or without its controversial lights, which as someone has wittily put it, “accentuate that our gin palace is a tin palace”.

Others complained that the beer was expensive and the setup gimmicky. The kind of place, in short, that you went once and didn’t bother coming back to.

It’s sometimes described as having become a tourist attraction – or maybe a tourist trap. In 1970, the Lord Mayor of London hosted a lunch there for British teenagers to thank them for their part in attracting visitors to the city. (Kensington Post 10/04/1970.)

Later the same year, it played the part of a teenage hangout of the future in a film, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971.

Alex visits a record shop (The Chelsea Drugstore) in A Clockwork Orange, 1971.

Then Bass Charrington quietly redesigned the pub and relaunched it in September that year. This time, their aim was not to reinvent the traditional pub but to reintroduce it.

This new version of the Drugstore had one modern bar and one kitted out in traditional fashion. At the opening, a mini-skirted model sat on the lap of a Chelsea Pensioner, to signify this union of old and new. (Kensington Post 24/09/1971.)

A compromise.

Always a good sign.

Decline and decay

The problem with any design built around shiny, brand new hipness is that it is doomed to (a) go out of fashion and (b) get tatty.

The typical old-fashioned pub, on the other hand, has the advantage that generally the more worn-in it gets, the better.

Martin Green and Tony White, authors of the wonderful time capsule The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs, were not impressed at all by what The Chelsea Drugstore had become by 1973:

In transforming what was a decent Victorian pub, the White Hart, into a sterile complex of shops, boutiques, cafes and bars, Bass Charrington demonstrated that when brewers start anticipating what they imagine to be exciting surroundings for people to drink in they can be very wrong. The Chelsea Drugstore has now hived off all the activities extraneous to that of selling food and drink, but it is still probably not taking much more nowadays than the White Hart did of old. In the old days you could sit outside and watch the birds go by or admire the frontage of Thomas Crapper’s shop across the road; now, alas, all is stygian gloom and red plush.

The Chelsea Drugstore lost its mojo altogether within a decade and in a famous photo from 1976 looks as if it might be more at home on the seafront at Blackpool.

A tatty looking Chelsea Drugstore.
The Chelsea Drugstore in 1976. SOURCE: Klaus Hiltscher/Flickr.

By 1984 it was being described as “that awful rambling sixties relic on the King’s Road” (The Stage, 26/07) and in a 1991 song, ‘Did Ya’, The Kinks sang “Now the Chelsea Drugstore needs a fix, it’s in a state of ill repair”.

Today it is a branch of McDonald’s – certainly somewhere you can hang out and get served at all hours of the day, as long as you don’t want a pint of Bass with your Egg & Cheese McMuffin®.

Main image adapted from a photo at The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea photographic archive. To read more about how pubs changed in the 1960s and 70s check out our 2017 book 20th Century Pub.

20th Century Pub pubs

The mystery of the Middlesex magistrates

One of the most frustrating parts of writing a book is having a theory but being unable to prove it. For example, we reckon Edwardian West London got improved pubs early because of the attitudes of the local licensing magistrates.

When we were researching 20th Century Pub we sought to trace the roots of the improved and enlarged inter-war suburban pub through a variety of movements and schemes – the Trust Houses, the Carlisle experiment, coffee shops and temperance houses. 

However, we also noticed that there were examples of pubs being built in similarly modest, up-to-date styles by private companies in the early twentieth century, particularly in West London, which were ostensibly nothing to do with these movements.

Pubs such as The Forester in Ealing (1909) and the Three Horseshoes in Southall (1916), both by Nowell Parr, showed a yearning for a rural, historic ideal.

Our general impression was that there seem to have been a lot of new pubs built in West London at this time, bucking the general trend for reducing the number of licences and the number of pubs.

We didn’t quite have the numbers to state this confidently in the book, though, although we did spend a fair bit of time looking at Middlesex Licensing sessions in the London Metropolitan Archive.

What we really wanted, but never found, was evidence that Middlesex magistrates looked favourably upon the right type of pub application from the right type of brewery. Fuller’s and The Royal Brentford Brewery seemed to have been particularly successful, for example. Meanwhile, Watney’s, Charrington and other big London brewers are notably underrepresented in the Edwardian period.

Or even, perhaps, we might have found that the magistrates helped influence the design of pubs in this area: “Do it this way, lads, and we’ll sign it off.”

Perhaps, though, it was less complicated than that. Maybe Middlesex magistrates, covering a huge area, were doing exactly the kind of thing that happened in Birmingham and other cities: refusing licences in slum districts but allowing them in well-behaved, leafy suburbs. But we don’t think so. In Birmingham, this kind of switch was often made explicit and we didn’t notice any such statements in the London records.

One day, when we’re allowed back in libraries, we’ll have another go at this. Somewhere in the paperwork – perhaps in the Fuller’s archive that we almost but not quite got into in 2016 – there must be notes on each of these individual licencing decisions.

In the meantime, we’ll think fondly of wandering around suburban streets with more than their fair share of unusually wonderful, remarkably beautiful pubs.

20th Century Pub pubs

News Pubs and Old Favourites #1: The Forester, Ealing

We spent the gap between Christmas and New Year in West London, on the hunt for Proper Pubs. Four stood out and we’re going to give each one its own post.

Jess first visited the Forester in Northfields, Ealing, in 2016, during research for 20th Century Pub, and has been trying to get Ray there ever since. It’s of academic interest, being built in 1909 as an early Improved Pub to a design by Nowell-Parr, and retaining a multi-room layout with lots of period details.

It also happens to be a suburban backstreet corner pub – our current favourite thing. As we approached, it peeked into view between the corner shops and terraced houses, like a steampunk cruise ship at berth.

It’s a Fuller’s pub, too, which means touches of the corporate, but not to an oppressive degree. It helps that the light is kept low and (not to everyone’s taste, we know) the music loud, so every table feels like its own warm bubble.

The Forester, Ealing -- interior.

The locals seemed well-to-do without being posh, sinking beer and gin, and throwing out the odd raucous joke: “Bloody hell! When you bent over then, Steve… Either you’re wearing a black thong or you forgot to wipe your arse.”

They ignored parties of outsiders – a group of what we took for professional footballers on tour, all designer shirts and hair product; a trio of twentysomethings, apparently from the middle east, when-in-Rome-ing with pints of Guinness – without apparent malice.

The beer was excellent, too – Fuller’s as Fuller’s should be served, gleaming and brilliant beneath clean arctic foam. The ESB in particular was hard to resist, demanding to be treated like a session beer, which maybe it is at Christmas.

We made time to visit twice during a four-night trip, which should tell you something. You might find it worth a detour next time you’re in London.

Generalisations about beer culture london pubs

Pub History: Field Work in West London

After spending an afternoon reading about pubs in the National Archives at Kew we were keen to actually visit some and so decided on a crawl through the West London heartland of Fuller’s.

We started, as the sun began to set, at The Tap on the Line which is, handily, right on the platform at Kew station. A converted railway buffet bar inspired we guess by the Sheffield Tap, it’s also a bit like a mini version of the Parcel Yard at King’s Cross with which it shares a tendency to vintage tiling and scrubbed wood. There was lots of eating, not much seating, and a row of keg taps on the back wall. The ubiquitous Edison bulbs were also present and correct. It’s easy to admire the good taste with which it’s been put together, and pubs at stations are A Good Thing, but it did feel, frankly, a bit like drinking in the kitchen department of John Lewis.

Window at the Old Pack Horse, Chiswick.

On the tube to Gunnersbury we pondered what we did like in a Fuller’s pub and, rather to our own surprise, found ourselves thinking, wistfully, that we hoped the next one would be one of the mid-2000s refurbs with shiny orange wood and the full range of cask ales. With that in mind, The Old Pack Horse on Chiswick High Road was a sight for sore eyes: a grand, vaguely-art-nouveau exterior from 1905 with frosted windows full of gleaming light, advertising Public and Saloon bars. Though the interior was spacious there seemed to be lots of corners, cubby-holes and screens making it feel quite intimate. An antique metal sign advertising The Empire Bar lurked in the shadows above the bar evoking the period of pomp when the pub was built. The beer offer was cask-led… just — a new craft beer menu (mostly in bottles) was in the process of being rolled out, and was being pushed fairly hard by staff. The Thai restaurant at the back was a genuinely pleasing reminder of a decade ago when every pub in London seemed to have the same.