Shades, dives and other varieties of British bar

The public bar, for working men only

When I lived in Hertfordshire, I was puzzled to discover that around the time Edward VII ended his long wait to become king, there was a pub in the small market town of Baldock called the Pretty Shades. It seemed highly unlikely this was some sort of pre-First World War Tiffany lamp theme pub. So what was the origin of the name?

Years later I discovered that a “shades” was originally the name given in the South of England to a basement bar. According to Words, facts, and phrases; a dictionary of curious, quaint, and out-of-the-way matters by Eliezer Edwards, published in 1882

The name originated at Brighton. In 1816 a Mr Savage, who had acquired the premises in Steine Lane formerly occupied by the Old Bank, converted them into a drinking and smoking shop. Mrs Fitzherbert [the Prince of Wales's mistress] at that time lived exactly opposite, and Savage was fearful of annoying her by placing any inscription in front of his house designating its new character. It struck him, however, that as Mrs Fitzherbert’s house, which was south of his, was so tall as to prevent the sun from shining on his premises, he would adopt the word “Shades”, which he accordingly placed over the door where the word Bank had before appeared. The name took, and a large business was secured. Numbers of other publicans in London and elsewhere adopted the name Shades, which is now fully established in the language as a synonym for wine vaults.

I’m not sure I believe that, but the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that “the Shades” was “originally, a name for wine and beer vaults with a drinking-bar, either underground or sheltered from the sun by an arcade. Hence subsequently used, both in England and in the US, as a name for a retail liquor shop, or a drinking-bar attached to a hotel.”

John Badcock’s Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit …, published 1823, revealed two establishments called The Shades in London. One was at London Bridge under Fishmongers’ Hall (“Sound wine out of the wood reasonable and tolerably good are characteristics of this establishment”), while The Shades at Spring Gardens [presumably the Old Shades, Whitehall] “is a subterranean ale shop.”

By 1949 Maurice Gorham could write, in Back to the Local, that “Shades” was “originally a generic term for cellars, now the name of one famous pub at Charing Cross [the Old Shades again] and of various London bars. When used for one bar in an ordinary pub, roughly equivalent to Dive”. So that explained half of the mystery. I’m still looking for a reason for the “Pretty” part.

The saloon bar, for the white-collar worker and his wife

The “shades” was just one of more than a dozen different types of bar that could be found in British pubs, besides the common public bar and saloon bar, many with careful, strict social gradations from one to the other, with a system of purdah and caste strict Hindus would appreciate: no woman would ever be found in the tap room, for example, nor any man coming straight from manual labour in the lounge or the public parlour, while only the landlord’s intimates or regular customers would be served in the snug.

Maurice Gorham stated perfectly the situation as it still stood just after the Second World War:

“One of the most fascinating things about the pubs is the way they are carved up by interior partitions into the most unexpected and fantastic shapes. It is often quite startling to look up at the ceiling and realise that all these compartments, varying so widely in their geography and in their social significance, are merely sketched on the ground plan of a simple rectangular space. Pull down the partitions, and instead of a complicated series of bars you would just have a medium-sized room.”

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The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise

If a 21st century time tripper stepped through the door into the public bar of a London pub in 1900, what would be the biggest surprise? Probably not the sawdust on the floor, or the lack of seating: most likely, I’d guess, the draught ginger beer on handpump.

The existence – and importance – of draught ginger beer in London pubs in the past is one of those uncountable little details of social history that slip past generally unrecorded because they seem so everyday and ordinary to contemporary observers, nobody bothers writing about them. Today’s equivalent would be the bar gun – ubiquitous, observed by everybody who has ever stood at a bar to be served, and mentioned, I’ll bet, in no account of the modern pub, anywhere.

Fortunately, back in the summer of Queen Victoria’s last full year on the throne, one anonymous worker in the brewing industry spotted a reference in the Daily Express to “half-and-half” as a beer mixture, a term not then used for several decades (it referred, in the early years of Victoria’s reign and before, to ale-and-porter), seized the nearest available umbrage at this anachronistic solecism and ran with it for 1,300 words of invaluable exposition on the drinks available from the pumps in a public bar in London, and how they were mixed together, which the Express printed for the education of future generations on page seven of its issue of Thursday August 2, 1900. And hurrah, digitisation and the web means that for a small subscription, 111 years later we can read about what beer mixtures our great-grandfathers drank without having to travel out to the British Newspaper Library in deepest Colindale and whirr through miles of microfilm.

It’s an absolutely fascinating piece, studded with gems – who knew (not me), for example, that in a London “boiled beef house” (a restaurant specialising in serving “a most delicious ‘portion’ of stewed beef done up in a sticky, coagulated, glutinous gravy of surpassing richness”, Google reveals), the accompanying drink of choice was porter? Slow-stewed beef and porter: I’m channelling Harry Champion just thinking about it. Please contact me if you’re now planning this as a FABPOW, I’ll be over to try it out.

It also confirms information from other sources, such as the availability of draught lager in at least some outlets in Victorian Britain, the identification of “ale” and “mild” as the same drink, and the higher status given to bitter, compared to ale and porter.

Below is the article in its entirety, with asides and footnotes in square brackets by me. The picture above is of the public bar of the Dover Castle, 172 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, taken the year after it was rebuilt in 1895, and just the sort of bar being talked about: note the sawdust, the brass footrail (seats were found only in the saloon bar) the ten handpumps (the saloon bar only had one), and the rows of casks on the back bar filled with spirits from Old Tom (sweet gin) to brandy. No pumpclips: these never started appearing until the 1950s. I believe this pub was destroyed in the Second World War, since the site is now occupied by a building of typical late-1940s neo-Georgian style, though it’s still a bar, called the Walrus. Continue reading

Pub passion personified

Nick Sharpe of the St John's Tavern, pub enthusiast

It’s an ill wind that doesn’t have a silver lining – or something like that. Anyway, I’m delighted to be able to give you a chance to see and hear Nick Sharpe of the St John’s Tavern, Archway, North London, give one of the most passionate expositions on the British pub, its present and its future, that I’ve heard. What I particularly enjoy about Nick’s views on pubs is that they are clearly rooted in a love of pubs’ past, without being fetishistic about it: he’s running a 21st century business at the St John’s Tavern, he delights in being able, thanks to help from English Heritage and his local council, to reflect some of the pub’s 19th century origins in the renovations that have been carried out, but he’s not about to turn it back into the multi-bar warren it would have been when it opened, because we no longer live in a society where Public Bar Man never mixes with Saloon Bar Man.

Click on the video you’ll find here, ignore (sorry) the first two minutes 45 second of the video – Jack Adams is a nice guy, but he’s a better interviewer and video maker than presenter, go and make a cup of tea, take the top off a bottle of beer or something until he’s finished – and then come back and listen to Nick talk with feeling and depth about pubs, about why he did what he did with the St John’s Tavern, and what he would like to do with it if his pubco would just let him.

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Taylor Walker, the brewery name that just won’t die

Huge guffaws from me at the news that Punch Taverns is to bring back to life for a third time the name Taylor Walker, a former London porter brewer that had strong links with the earliest days of brewing in Philadelphia. Clearly, to be a marketing man you have to have every irony-containing cell filleted from your body. This really does smell of desperately reinventing the past to paint over a tawdry present.

Although Taylor Walker’s substantial brewery in the East End closed exactly half a century ago, the name will still be familiar to many drinkers in their late 20s and upwards. This is because in November 1979, what was then the giant brewing/pub owning corporation Allied Lyons decided to revive the name Taylor Walker for its London pub operations, as part of a plan, apparently, to pretend that it wasn’t a giant brewing/pub owning corporation. (This also involved reviving other vanished brewery names, such as Benskin’s of Hertfordshire and Friary Meux of Surrey.) Suddenly hundreds of London pubs had the Taylor Walker name painted on to their fascias (even though many had never belonged to Taylor Walker), while their innsigns sported a “cannon” trademark that had, in fact, belonged to one of the many concerns Taylor Walker had taken over, the Cannon Brewery of St John Street, Clerkenwell.

Twenty years later, in 1999, Allied (by now Allied Domecq) sold all its pubs to Punch, and the Taylor Walker name disappeared again. Now, 11 years on, Punch has decided that it wants to dig this twice-dead corpse up once more and slap the words “Taylor Walker” on the front of about a hundred or so of the more “iconic” (for which read “old-looking and marginally upmarket”) outlets run by its managed pub arm, Punch Pub Company.

If you think this is copying the rival pub company Mitchell & Butlers (itself operating under the name of a long-vanished brewery) and its up-market Nicholsons pub chain, tsk – you’re as cynical as me. Clive Briscoe, Punch Pub Co’s marketing director, insists: “This is not a rebranding exercise but an opportunity to badge together a whole range of iconic London pubs.” But among the basketful of ironies in this is that one of the pubs that will bear the revived Taylor Walker name is the Anchor at Bankside, Southwark, which was once the brewery tap of Taylor Walker’s great porter-brewing rival, Barclay Perkins. (Another irony is that Punch, even though it owns many former Taylor Walker pubs, has had to licence the Taylor Walker name off Carlsberg, which acquired Allied’s brewing business, and all its beer brands, in the 1990s.)

Naturally, Punch’s PR company has screwed up the history, claiming in the announcement of the revival that “the Taylor Walker name dates back to 1730″. No it doesn’t: the concern never became Taylor Walker until 1816. But the history of Taylor Walker as recorded pretty much everywhere is full of errors: you’ll see it stated, for example, that the brewery “moved to Fore Street, Limehouse” and then “moved to Church Row, Limehouse”, when in fact it stayed exactly where it was, expanding from a small 18th century brewhouse to eventually cover more than seven acres, which abutted Fore Street (now part of Narrow Street) on one side and Church Row (now Newell Street) on another.

Let’s take a history of Taylor Walker you might cobble together in 10 minutes from various internet sources and see how much is actually true:

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The Jerusalem Tavern, Clerkenwell: a short history

The Jerusalem Tavern in its third incarnation, around 1860

The Jerusalem Tavern at 55 Britton Street, Clerkenwell, EC1, many people’s favourite London pub, is like one of those old knives that have had two new handles and three new blades. From one direction it is one of London’s ancient hostelries: its roots lie back in the Crusades, and the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, which dominated Clerkenwell until the time of Elizabeth I. Looked at from another direction, however, the pub is younger than any of its customers.

The Jerusalem Tavern’s interior, with its worn green-painted settles, dark oak floorboards, old tiles set in the walls and ceilings the colour of well-smoked kippers, certainly looks as if Samuel Johnson might pop in any moment from his job as a freelance writer round the corner at the Gentlemen’s Magazine to meet the poet Oliver Goldsmith for a refreshing quart of porter. However, it has only been licensed premises since 1996: this pub can barely remember anything but a Labour government.

The building is authentically early Georgian, though, and Johnson might well have passed by on his way to work. It was built in 1719/20 as one of a group of townhouses on a piece of open ground that had originally belonged to the Priory of St John. The new street was then, and for the next couple of hundred years, called Red Lion Street, after a tavern at the top of the road, on Clerkenwell Green. The developer was a lawyer called Simon Michell, MP for Boston, whose father was from Somerset, and the Red Lion Street homes were reckoned to be “the best class of houses erected in his time in Clerkenwell”.

Around 1810 a shop front was inserted into the façade of Number 55, and the premises became a watchmaker’s: Clerkenwell was a centre of watchmaking from around or before the start of the 18th century, and there were several watchmakers in the street. Over the years Number 55 has had a variety of occupants: from 1952 it was the headquarters of a book publishing company, Burke & Co, and in the 1980s it was used as an architect’s offices.

At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, apparently, it became a coffee shop, before the premises were brought in 1996 by John Murphy, the founder of the branding consultancy Interbrand (which gave the world the Hob-nob, inter alia). Murphy wanted a London outlet for his newly opened brewery, St Peter’s, near Bungay in Suffolk. He chose as the name for his pub one long associated with the area: three other Jerusalem Taverns have operated within three hundred yards of the present premises, though the most recent predecessor closed almost a century ago.

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The check is on the post

Time to give another popular pub name myth a thrashing. There are more than 150 pubs around Britain called the Chequers, which puts it into the top 30 pub names, and yet the explanation given in most pub name books for the origin of the sign is complete cobblers.

The likeliest source of the problem seems to be Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which declares that “the arms of FitzWarren [that is, blue and gold checks], the head of which had the privilege of licensing ale-houses in the reign of Edward IV, probably helped to popularise this sign.”

Almost every writer has repeated this story without making any checks (pun intended). Brewer’s itself looks to have nicked the claim from the Gentleman’s Magazine, which printed the story of the FitzWarrens, their chequered arms, and alehouse licensing as the origin of the pub sign in September 1794. However, every claim in the tale is nonsense. For a start the Warenne (not FitzWarren) family, Earls of Surrey, whose arms were indeed “chequy azure and or”, died out in the direct line in 1347, during the reign of Edward III, more than a century before Edward IV.

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The inn-significance of the Red Lion

Karl Pearson, whose sesquicentenary was celebrated earlier this year, is an excellent example of how extremely intelligent people can hold deeply stupid beliefs. Pearson was a huge and important figure in the development of mathematical statistics, he founded the Department of Applied Statistics at the University of London, and his writings on science influenced Einstein’s thoughts about light and time. He was also a eugenicist and Aryan supremist with irredeemably racist views about “lower tribes” that would rightly get him dismissed from any university today. On the credit side, he turned down a knighthood from George V, and he delivered an excellent motto for those of us sometimes accused of trivial pursuits: “Not one subject in the universe is unworthy of study.”

Many would regard the study of pub names as an insignificant field of enquiry, but I like to paddle in its shallows – I’ve a dozen books on the subject, including an “original” Larwood and Hotten (all right, 12th edition, 1908). Sometimes I feel I ought to join the Inn Sign Society. However, I cure myself of this urge by logging on to the society’s website, and the unthought-out nonsense that is peddled there on the origins of common pub names makes me want to slap someone.

Here’s what the ISS says about the Red Lion, often claimed to be the commonest pub name in Britain (though at around 650 examples it is probably just beaten by the Crown):

… most Red Lions originate from the reign of James I. Already James VI of Scotland when he ascended to the English throne in 1603, on arrival in London the new king ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of public importance – including taverns, of course.

Let’s just forensically dissect this claim. First, is there any evidence at all that James VI/I made such an order?

No.

Second, would there be a sensible motive for him to make such an order?

No, quite the opposite. James had been the heir presumptive to Queen Elizabeth since the death of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587, but it had never been certain he would be offered the crown, and while he arrived in London with a fair degree of goodwill from the bulk of the English population he would not have pushed the fact that they were now ruled by a king from another country in their faces by insisting that Scottish red lions be put up everywhere.

Third, if such an order had been made, is it likely it would have affected pub and inn names?

No – if all the “buildings of public importance” bore red lions on them (and incidentally, the ISS’s statement begs the question that a tavern would be seen as a “building of public importance” anyway, a highly questionable assumption), then how could you tell, if someone said “I’ll meet you at the Red Lion”, which “Red Lion” was which?

So, to sum up on the ISS’s statement that the Red Lion pub name comes from a decree by James 1 in 1603: there’s no evidence for it, it doesn’t make sense historically and it’s nonsense from a practical direction as well.

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The Dove, Hammersmith – a tiny mystery

The Dove in Upper Mall, Hammersmith is one of London’s favourite riverside pubs, famous for good beer, for a fine view of the Boat Race and for what is supposed to be the tiniest public bar in Britain, at just four feet two inches wide and seven feet ten inches long. This is the story of that tiny bar, a tale of deceit and mystery.

The pub’s popularity means a raft of mentions in guidebooks, with most of the “facts” printed about it being demonstrably wrong. At least two current guides to riverside pubs claim Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn used to visit the Dove, which would have been difficult without a time machine, as it wasn’t built until around 60 years or more after Charles II died.

Even the 2008 Good Beer Guide entry on the Dove contains four historical errors in 70 or so words. It says the pub was “licensed in 1740 as the Dove’s [sic] coffee house” (it wasn’t), and James “Thompson” (sic – it was Thomson) composed Rule Britannia in an upstairs room (he didn’t – in fact he didn’t “compose” it at all, Thomas Arne composed the tune and Thomson wrote the words, most probably at his home in Kew).

How the Dove came to have such a tiny bar was explained by George Izzard, the pub’s landlord from 1931 to 1965. He wrote one of the best “landlord’s memoirs”, One for the Road, and he made the Dove a magnet for celebrities from Ernest Hemingway to Alec Guinness (who drank Guinness) to Dylan Thomas (whose usual order was mild-and-bitter, according to Izzard).

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The potboy in history, literature and art

I was born, in what Carl Jung would have insisted was no coincidence, on the site of an old pub, the Upper Flask in Hampstead, near the Heath. The pub closed in the second half of the 18th century, and the building that housed it was replaced in the early years of the 20th by Queen Mary’s Maternity Home. Today it’s nursing accommodation for the Royal Free Hospital, but over the decades tens of thousands of babies must have been born there. I wonder if we all like beer.

If you walk down Heath Street from the site of the Upper Flask towards Hampstead Tube Station you come to the side-road called The Mount. In 1852 the painter Ford Madox Brown, who was lodging in Heath Street, spotted a gang of workmen digging up the road here to lay drains and decided what a marvellous picture these heroes of labour would make. It took him 11 years to complete the painting, which he called, simply, “Work”. But it is an allegorical masterpiece typical of the pre-Raphaelite period (though Madox Brown was not, strictly, a member of the pre-Raphaelites), where every character of the more than two dozen portrayed, from the gentleman earning £15,000 a year to the effeminate flower seller, has a back-story. It’s also still recognisably the same scene today, 155 years later, as you will see if you stand by the high brick wall on the left of the painting and look north: except the upper middle classes now go past in BMW X5s rather than on horseback.

Madox Brown wanted his painting to illustrate the nobility of honest toil, but labour needs sustenance and refreshment, and one of the navvies is draining a pewter pot of something uplifting and alcoholic – porter, probably, given the era. In front of the drinker, and shouting “beer ho!”, according to Madox Brown, who wrote notes about all the people in the painting, is the fellow who brought the navvy the beer, the potman from one of the nearby pubs. He is fancily dressed in bowtie and waistcoat, and wearing the apron of his calling, and in his left hand he carries the potboy’s beer tray or pot-board, rather like a carpenter’s wooden toolbox, which bore eight or ten beer pots and, on the top, clay pipes for those who wanted a smoke with their beer.

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