The “we ran a pub” category of published biographical reminiscence is small, but still includes several classics: John Fothergill’s An Innkeeper’s Diary, for example, arch and snobby, with dropped names covering every page like drifts of autumn leaves – “Ernest Thesiger turned up for the first time … the D’Oyley Cartes came with their usual big party” – and George Izzard’s One for the Road, about the Dove at Hammersmith, which is less snobbish but almost equally rammed with famous customers (“Alec Guinness came in and ordered the drink most appropriate to his name … Dylan Thomas never drank heavily at the Dove. His usual order was a pint of mild and bitter.”)
Now another behind-the-bar tell-all has arrived, doubly unique because it’s about a female mine host, rather than the usual landlord’s tale, and it has been written by the grand-daughter of the main character, not the person whose name was on the licence. But The Last Landlady, by Laura Thompson, deserves your attention for more than its celebration of women running pubs: it is both a paean to a particular successful and charismatic female publican, and an elegy that, ultimately, commemorates and mourns what Thompson clearly feels is a fading, vanishing, dying version of pub life, where landlord/landlady and customers were willing actors in a daily drama, each knowing their parts and performing them for the satisfaction of themselves, their audience and the others in the cast. Thompson’s grandmother Violet Ellis was, it is clear, one of the great bar owners, barely known outside her small section of rural England, but queen of all that lay under the shadow of her innsign and at the same time – if I may mix myself a metaphor – ringmaster of the circus that performed twice daily between 11am and 2pm, and 6pm and 10.30.
But the book is called “The Last Landlady” because, Thompson clearly believes, the sort of landlady Violet was, the sort of pub that Violet ran, no longer exist, can no longer exist, when fewer people visit their local regularly – fewer people even have a local – and the opportunities for women like Violet to be the stars in their own long-running show, an attraction in the daily theatre of the pub deserving of higher billing even than the drink and the craic, have vanished in an era where the idea of the pub as a club that anybody can be a member of, that having the price of a pint in your pocket empowers you to lift the latch of the public or saloon bar door and enter a separate world where everyone is, or should be, on their best and brightest behaviour, has itself vanished, and the pub is simply a place to get cheap food and watch top sporting action on a screen probably only a little larger than the one in your own living room.
Thompson does not name the pub that her grandmother ran, saying only that it was “in the rural Home Counties”, but there are enough clues in the book to identify it as the Cross Keys, in the village of Totternhoe, close by Dunstable Downs, and some six miles to the west of Luton. She does not name the pub that her grandmother’s father, John (or Jack) Solomon, had run, either, called in the book “the old pub”, which her grandmother had expected to take over when her father died. But again there are enough clues given to identify it as the Richard III in Castle Street, Luton.
The Richard III, Luton, after its rebuilding in the 1930s, when Violet Solomon would have been working behind the bar
John Solomon has a terrific back-story: he was born in Sidney, Australia, and – or rather, because – his great-grandfather was Isaac “Ikey” Solomon, one of the most notorious criminals and fences in early 19th century England, and the man that Charles Dickens based the character of Fagin on. Ikey Solomon had escaped from custody in London in 1827 and fled to America, but his wife Ann had been found guilty of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, where she arrived together with several of their children. Ikey learnt of this and travelled to Tasmania himself to be with his family but was eventually arrested by the colonial authorities and shipped back to England for trial. The punishment the court in London imposed, somewhat ironically, was transportation back to Tasmania. Ikey Solomon’s third son, David, who was only nine when his mother was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, settled in Tasmania, and married. One of his sons, Alfred, moved to Melbourne, and then Sydney, before emigrating back to London around 1877, living in Paddington with his family, including the young John, who was aged two. None of that is in The Last Landlady – probably because it doesn’t really fit the narrative, rather than because it’s embarrassing to say “I’m descended from the man who inspired Fagin.” But I’m a journalist, and I love a story that will make readers go “Wow!”, whether it integrates smoothly into the plot or not.
John Solomon is supposed, according to one source, to have “played for Queens Park Rangers in the first year they turned pro,” which would have been 1889, when he was only 14 – no record can be found to substantiate this, though he was living in the right part of London, Paddington, to be a QPR supporter – and to have “spent a number of years as head foreman to a London brewery.” He does, at least, appear to have worked at a brewery, since his occupation is described in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as “beer cellarman” and the industry he worked in as “beer bottling”. He was still living in Paddington in 1914, when Violet was born, the first girl after five boys to John and his wife Alice, who came from Bristol. In October 1916, however, John had the licence of the Richard III in Luton transferred into his name, the existing licensee, Ambrose Holland, telling licensing magistrates that he was now a soldier and his wife was unable to carry on the pub.
The Richard III (still open today, under the name O’Sheas) was originally a row of cottages, converted to a public house in 1846, and was rebuilt by its brewery owner, JW Green’s of Luton, in the 1930s in a very neo-Georgian style, with a red brick frontage extending up above the bottom edge of the roof. By 1939, aged 25, Violet was a manageress there, along with her husband, Charles Ellis, and their five-year-old daughter Josephine, while John Solomon, then 64, was the licence holder. Alice Solomon died in 1943, and with her husband apparently called up into the armed forces and her father now in his late 60s, Violet was effectively, as Thompson calls her, the châtelaine of the Richard III, running the pub on her own. Ellis seems to have disappeared out of the door (he and Violet were divorced in 1944 – Thompson says the divorce took place “just after the war”, but reveals that it was granted on the same day that the actress Jessie Matthews was divorced, which allows it to be dated to the month after D-Day). When her father died in 1952, aged 77, Violet must have had the expectation that the brewery would allow the licence of the Richard III to be transferred into her name. She had, after all, lived at the pub for all but two of her 38 years, and been involved in running it for a fair slice of that time, much of it with only an elderly father to help.
The Cross Keys, Totternhoe no later than 1938, when it was being supplied by Benjamin Bennett’s brewery in Dunstable
However, the brewery would not let her have the licence: according to Thompson, it was because she was a daughter, and not a wife – or a son. It was a knock-back, but strings, apparently, were pulled for Violet by influential friends, and Whitbread’s brewery in London eventually offered her the licence of the Cross Keys, which it had acquired from the owner four years earlier. The pub had literally just been designated a Grade II listed building, on the grounds that it dated from at least the 16th century (claims have been made that it is even older, first appearing in the 1420s), but it was run-down, with no proper bar, no bathroom, no real upstairs floor – the pub sitting room stretched up to the height of the thatched roof – an outside privy and a customer base of ruddy-faced local farmers and dominoes enthusiasts. Whitbread sent the builders in, the sitting room was given a real ceiling, with a bathroom installed above, a bar was built, the “cellar” (actually an outside shed) revamped and thatched to matych the main building, and Violet, “black-haired, bejewelled, bohemian”, installed herself behind the bar, where she would graciously accept whiskies from admirers, surreptitiously tipping them out onto the floor by her stool.
According to Thompson, Violet was “the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own right, that is to say, as neither a wife nor a widow.” As it happens, the history of the Cross Keys itself destroys this claim. The name of the pub, incidentally, is both easy and difficult to explain. Totternhoe was home for hundreds of years to quarries that dug out the soft local clunch, or chalk, easily worked, which make great building stone for the interiors of churches. Henry I founded the Priory of St Peter, Dunstable, in or just before 1124, and endowed it with, among other riches, the quarry at Totternhoe. The badge of St Peter is, of course, crossed keys. The pub’s sign thus strongly suggests a link with the Augustinian foundation of St Peter in Dunstable, through the priory’s ownership of the nearby quarry. But the priory was dissolved by another King Henry in 1540, and whatever the age of the building it occupies, the pub is first named as such only in 1808, in an advertisement in the Northampton Mercury. Is it credible that folk memory kept the link between Totternhoe and St Peter’s Priory alive for more than 250 years, to give the Cross Keys its name? Anyway, returning to the main tale: by 1824 the landlord was John Clements, who was born around 1799. He ran the Cross Keys for more than 40 years, but by 1871 he was dead, and his eldest daughter Mary, then aged around 37, was listed as the licensee at the Cross Keys. Mary, known as “Miss Clements”, was still in charge in 1890, but by 1902 her younger sister Hannah, then 61, was the licensee. Hannah died “in harness” at the Cross Keys in February 1909, aged 68. So the Cross Keys had female licensees who weren’t wives or widows, but daughters. for a stretch of at least 37 years, almost half a century before Violet.
The Cross Keys, Totternhoe circa 1902-09, when, the sign above the pub door shows, Hannah Clements was the landlady
This is not the only story in the book to make the fact checkers twitch. Thompson says Violet would speak of another pub a few streets away from her father’s:
“The daughter of this pub’s landlord was a few years older than my grandmother, equally attractive although in pure English style. In youth she too served behind the bar, and received the adoration owing to the dauphine; this, however, was not enough for her. She went to London, became a C.B. Cochran chorus girl, married one of the biggest film stars of the day and ended up the wife of an earl.”
This would be Sylvia Hawkes, and the real story is even more spectacular than Thompson’s version. Sylvia was step-daughter (rather than daughter) of the landlord of the Painter’s Arms in High Town Road, Luton from at least 1925, Frank Swainson, and one of the most successful serial brides of the 20th century, married to not one but two of the biggest film stars of the day, as well as a baron, a prince, and, not actually an earl, but the eldest son of an earl.
Sylvia was born, like Violet, in Paddington, in 1904, and worked as a lingerie model in the early 20s, before becoming a dancer in the productions put on by the theatre impresario CB Cochran, starting with the Midnight Follies, and swiftly, beginning in 1924, moving into acting. Despite claims, it is not clear if she ever did appear behind the bar at the Painter’s Arms: one source reckons she “ran away from home at the age of 15”. In 1927 Sylvia made her first marriage, to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Lord Ashley, eldest son and heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury: it was one of the year’s great scandals, as the Earl and Countess fought to dissuade their son from marrying the actress, threatening to disinherit him and cut off his allowance. The day before the wedding, the Earl was denying that it would take place, while Lord Ashley’s sister was declaring: “Such an alliance is unthinkable. An Ashley-Cooper can never marry a Follies girl.” When a telegram arrived at the Shaftesbury’s 17th century ancestral pile in Wimborne St Giles, Dorset announcing that the wedding would be happening that morning, the earl and countess threw themselves into a limousine and ordered their chauffeur to break all speed limits to get to the church in Knightsbridge, 120 miles away, to try to stop the ceremony. They arrived only in time to see the newly weds leaving the church, to the cheers of a huge crowd, with women, it was reported, fighting to see the bride.
It was also reported that Lord Ashley had been in such haste to organise the marriage that he had not bought a wedding ring large enough to fit his bride, and “was obliged to hold it at the end of her hand, looking rather foolish. This detail does not affect the legality of the ceremony, but superstitious people say it brings bad luck.” So it proved. Less than 18 months after the wedding, Sylvia and Lord Ashley had parted, the actress apparently unhappy with life on a farm in Worcestershire. She moved to Hollywood, as “Lady Sylvia Ashley”, though if she ever made any films there they appear to be desperately obscure. However, she became a big hit with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of Hollywood’s superstars, starting an affair with him that led to his separation from his fellow Hollywood star Mary Pickford, in 1933, and Sylvia’s divorce from Lord Ashley the following year. Sylvia and Fairbanks married in 1936, but he died of a heart attack only three years later. The widow Fairbanks then returned to England, where in 1944 she became the second wife of Edward John Stanley, 6th Baron Sheffield, 6th Baron Stanley of Alderley and 5th Baron Eddisbury. That marriage lasted just four years, and Sylvia was back in Hollywood, where in 1949 she married her second movie superstar, Clark Gable: it has been said that she reminded him of his previous wife, Carole Lombard, who had died in a plane crash in 1942. Within three years Sylvia and Gable had also divorced: undaunted, in 1954, Sylvia picked up her fifth wedding ring, marrying Prince Dimitri Djorjadze, a Georgian nobleman, racing car driver, racehorse owner and hotel executive. This time the now Princess Sylvia Djorjadze stayed married until her death in 1977, though she was apparently separated from her new husband within less than a year. She died in Hollywood, and is buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. It was a tremendous career for a former Luton publican’s stepdaughter.
Man walks into a pub – or is it a bar? Is there a difference? Can you walk into any outlet for the retail of alcoholic refreshment on the premises and declare immediately, without discussion, disagreement or deviation: “This is a pub, not a bar!” or, conversely and contrariwise, “This is a bar, not a pub!” Is it possible to draw a line and say: “Everything this side is a pub, and everything that side is a bar“?
If you think this is a meaningless distinction, let me ask you this: does the idea of a list of Britain’s ten best pubs suggest something rather different from a list of Britain’s ten best bars? Would you expect those two lists to be identical? I don’t believe you would.
Note that little of what follows is relevant to anywhere outside Britain, and even in Scotland the line between a pub and a bar will be drawn rather differently, I suspect, than in England and Wales.
All the same, in Britain, I propose, pubs are different to bars, even if, on a Venn diagram, we might see considerable overlap. But how are they different, exactly? We’re not helped much if we try to drag the dictionaries into this argument. The OED defines “pub” as “a building whose principal business is the sale of alcoholic drinks to be consumed on the premises”, and “bar” (in the sense larger than merely “counter”) as “an establishment where alcohol and sometimes other refreshments are served.” There’s a small clue as to possible differences between pubs and bars in those almost identical definitions: a pub is “a building”, a bar “an establishment”, hinting that a bar as a separate business need not be occupying the whole of the building in which it is found. But Merriam-Webster, giving an admittedly transatlantic take on the meanings of the two words, refuses to be quite so nice: a “pub”, it says, is “an establishment where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed”, a “bar” is “a room or establishment where alcoholic drinks and sometimes food are served”. OK, it looks as if the heirs of Noah Webster think a pub can’t be just a room, though a bar can be: but they seem to allow that a pub does not have to be a separate building. Apart from that, little difference.
The Teddington Arms, Teddington: only a pub since 2003, it was previously restaurant and, before that, a tyre depot. Its serving bar is at right angles to the road, but it has a pubby name: is it a bar or a pub?
To me, however, there is one simple test that will tell you probably 90 per cent of the time whether you are in a pub or a bar as soon as you walk through the door: where is the counter at which you stand to be served? If it’s in front of you, against the far wall, you’re in a pub. If it’s to the left or right of the entrance, at right-angles to the front of the building, you’re probably in a bar. This basic difference springs from the different origins of pubs and bars. Pubs come from the “dwelling house” tradition, where the building, often originally someone’s home, is likely to be shallower in depth than it is wide, and the longest orientation is parallel with the road or street. Thus to maximise the length of the serving area, the bar-counter runs across the back. Bars come from the “shop” tradition, where the building is more often deeper than it is wide, to maximise the number of frontages along the street. Thus the greatest length of bar-counter is achieved by running it down one of the side walls.
The former Red Lion in Twickenham, an example of how a pub can become a shop
Of course, there are very many occasions when you’ll know without having to think very hard whether you’re drinking in a pub or a bar: if it’s a stand-alone building that looks as if, without much alteration, it could be turned into a home, it’s a pub. If it’s in a shopping parade, it has huge plate-class windows and it could easily be turned into a Starbucks or Costa, it’s a bar. But the rise of the micropub movement means it’s now less easy to declare definitively: “Pubs are descended from houses, bars are descended from shops.” Many micropubs have been converted from disused shops. Should we call them “microbars” instead? And come to that, many disused pubs, most of them stand-alone, have been converted into shops.
Interior of an Alehouse, oil painting by James Ward, 1769-1859: a converted home
Not that it’s entirely true to say without elaboration that “pubs are descended from homes”. The pub as we know it today is essentially of 19th century origins, born of a four-way mating between the alehouse (strictly for locals and regulars; mostly working class; mostly rural/semi-rural, or backstreet urban; most likely to have started as somebody’s private home), the gin palace (strictly urban; showy; for both locals and strangers, working class and middle class; most likely to have been deliberately built as an outlet for drinking by a developer or entrepreneur), the tavern (High Street urban; middle class; food-oriented; original uses varying from drinking outlets attached to religious establishments to cookshops to wine retailers) and the inn (rural or urban; on a main road; mostly for travellers and occasional visitors; food important; origins in farmhouses, if rural, and private homes, if urban).
Interior of an inn circa 1800: note the bar constructed in what was obviously roriginally a farmhouse kitchen
Pubs developed to cater for a broad swath of society but still, until the 1970s, kept a strict class divide between different parts of the same building, with different rooms for different social groups, so that the working class, those who had earlier gone to the alehouse would now frequent the public bar, while middle-class drinkers, those who would once have drunk in the tavern, had taken up seats or stools in the saloon bar. But with this amalgam of different traditions, the pub architect Ben Davis said in 1961, arrived what he called “pubness”. Three of the elements of “pubness”, Davis suggested, came from the inn: a home-like character; a personal sense of welcome; a sense of permanence and continuity. Two, Davis said, came from the tavern: “an accent on good-fellowship”, by which he meant, I think, something folded into the concept the Irish spell “craic”, the idea that taverns (and pubs) are places for conversation and the enjoyment of others’ company; and “a decided affinity with Christian traditions and principles”.
Though I was brought up going to Sunday School, and with hymn singing and prayers every term-time morning before classes for 13 years of primary and secondary education, I’m not entirely sure what Davis was trying to say here: possibly that every man is equal in the eyes of the (land)lord, more likely that in the tavern (and pub) all should strive to follow the Golden Rule (the name of an excellent hostelry in Ambleside, Cumbria), that is, treat others as you would wish to be treated: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” Acknowledge your fellow pub-goer’s right to space, to consideration, and to get served at the bar before you if he was there first.
I’m in with the inn crowd … the Golden Cross inn, Charing Cross, London in 1828
Are there any of those elements of “pubness” you won’t find in a bar? It would be a very poor bar that did not have an atmosphere that included a sense of welcome and “good-fellowship”, and which oozed hostility between drinkers. But while “a sense of permanence and continuity” is not at all essential in a bar, it helps make a pub feel like a “proper” pub: the reason why the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell is so popular is because, although it is only 22 years old, it looks inside and out like a genuine 18th century establishment. (The serving bar at the Jerusalem Tavern, as it happens, is at right-angles to the street, just to show me up.) In the New Town where I grew up, all the estate pubs had been built to look like New Town homes on steroids, following the “pub as a home from home” idea, but their newness stripped them of any of the “sense of permanence and continuity” that all the pubs in the Old Town had dripping from every brick and beam, and they felt like zombie pubs, lifeless and without character. A bar, in contrast, never feels “homey”: indeed, I’d suggest that the slightest pinch, jot or iota of “a home-like character” turns a bar into either a pub or a teashop.
Pubs have regulars; bars only have customers, generally. Bars have owners, or managers; pubs can have managers, but they are often better when they have landlords, publicans or tenants, names that suggest a more proprietorial relationship with the establishment. Bars are run by people called Kenton; pubs are run by people called Sid (although this can change). Pubs have dartboards, meat raffles and piles of coins stacked up on the bar that will be pushed over by a minor celebrity one well-attended evening just before Christmas, to raise money for a local charity: these are part of “pubness” because pubs are rooted in communities in a way bars are not. Bars are places you call in to on your way home from work; pubs are places you go out to after you’ve got home from work.
The collaboration beer, with label designed by Håkon Gullvåg
I wasn’t even mean to be in Brooklyn on the Tuesday. I had originally booked to go round the Brooklyn brewery on the Monday. But after I announced that I was going to be in New York, I was contacted by the American beer journalist and writer John Holl, who asked if I would like to appear on the beer podcast he co-hosts, “Steal This Beer”, which is recorded in a bar in Manhattan on Monday nights (of which more later.) So I switched the trip to Brooklyn to the following day – and on the Tuesday morning an email popped up saying that right after my visit that evening the Brooklyn Brewery was launching a collaboration imperial porter made with the Norwegian brewery EC Dahl’s, in honour of the Norwegian artist Håkon Gullvåg, and would I like to hang around to sample that, and a few other EC Dahl’s beers as well.
Carpe cerevisiam – if chance is going to put an opportunity like that in your path, it’s rude to step aside. Strangely, I had already drunk beers made with EC Dahl’s yeast: the homebrewers of Stjordal, whose brews were among those I sampled last year at the Kornøl festival in Hornindal in Western Norway, get their yeast from the Dahl’s brewery in Trondheim, though they make, and sometimes smoke, their own malt.
I have to own that the Brooklyn Brewery tour is not the best I have been on: it’s a small, cramped, working brewery, about all you get is a quick look at some fermenting vessels and some beer sampling, and most of the beer is produced elsewhere anyway. There’s a good big brewery tap, with a fine range of beers (including “London Black Gose” [sic] from London Fields, which, like EC Dahl’s, is a Brooklyn Brewery/Carlsberg joint venture now) and the brewery shop sells several rare (if expensive) beers, but if it hadn’t been for the EC Dahl’s launch, I might have had a disappointing trip.
That, however, was definitely worth the journey. The collaboration beer, named, simply, Gullvåg, had been matured in casks that had previously been used for Linie aquavit. I’m a big fan of Linie, which is matured by being shipped in ex-sherry casks from Norway to Indonesia and back, the four-month journey, crossing the equator twice, rounding and maturing the spirit, which is made from potatoes and flavoured with, among other herbs and spices, star anise and caraway. It has a flavour that seems to match very well with beer – one of my favourite long summer drinks is a mixture of dark ale, lemonade and a shot of Linie. The Linie influence was definitely noticeable in the Gullvåg imperial porter: liquorish/aniseed underneath the dominant dark roast. If you see it, definitely worth buying.
Garrett Oliver, right, of Brooklyn Brewery and Wolfgang Lindell, centre, brewmaster of EC Dahl’s brewery in Tromsø, discuss their collaboration brew in honour of the artist Håkon Gullvåg, with some of Gullvåg’s paintings on cask ends in the background
And then, while I was enjoying the beer, and admiring the paintings on the taproom walls that Håkon Gullvåg had created on old cask ends (you could still, just, make out the names of the distillers on some of the casks), someone cried: “Martyn!” Stap me, it was Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. I didn’t know he knew me from a hole in the floor, but I worked out later that we must have met on one of the Carlsberg trips regular readers of this blog will remember. “Would you like a beer?” he said, and you don’t turn down a man in his own brewery: nor do you have to wait long to get served, whatever the queue, since the brewery chairman can just walk round behind the bar and help himself, while the servers smile benignly.
The only awkward moments were when Steve asked me if I had spoken to Garrett Oliver yet. I’m still not sure Mr O, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, has forgiven me for my attack seven years ago on the Oxford Companion To Beer, which he edited, because of its very many errors. I always tried to make it as clear as I could that I did not blame Garrett, whom I admire greatly as a brewer and a writer and speaker about beer, for the problems with the OCB. He was badly let down by the publishers, left seriously under-resourced, and also let down by a tiny minority of the 140 or so people who wrote entries for the book that were seriously badly researched. So I had deliberately stayed out of his way –and yes, that IS a wide yellow streak up my backbone. Still, we had a reasonably friendly conversation, I think, about how the Kornøl festival is a must-visit event: watch out for Brooklyn Brewery brewing with kveik some time soon …
About all visitors get to see of the interior of the Brooklyn Brewery
That was the second embarrassing moment on my first trip to New York (yes, shameful: not sure why I had never got there before). John Holl had asked me to bring along two beers to the podcast, since a regular part of the show is John and his fellow presenter, the New Jersey brewer Augie Carton, blind-tasting beers their guest brings along, using the black glasses of the kind breweries use professionally for tasting sessions, so that colour cannot affect opinion. I decided to bring them over two different views of British best bitter: the very traditional Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and one from my local small brewery, Twickenham Fine Ales’ Naked Ladies, which is a “best bitter” with one or two American hops in it, for a more up-to-date take. Unfortunately it was obvious straight away that the Tim Taylor’s was skunked. Ach. Still, Augie and John are pros, and were able to find plenty to say even about skunked Landlord. And they liked the Naked Ladies a lot, though they were dubious about the name, nor were they convinced by my explanation that the Naked Ladies are a much-loved set of statues in a Twickenham park. (You can listen to the podcast here – episode 187.)
Earl’s Beer and Cheese on Park Avenue: they had me at ‘beer and cheese’ Loved the booths you can just see through the doorway …
had asked people for suggestions of bars to visit in New York, but I didn’t get round very many: busy doing other things. Part of the aim for the trip was to look at old newspapers in New York library: while the British Newspaper Library’s holdings can be accessed anywhere, for a lot of early American titles, particularly those before 1776, and even more particularly those from New York before that date, you have to be physically in front of a computer screen in one of the Five Boroughs to get to call them up. Still, it did also give me the opportunity to see the original Winnie the Pooh, who lives with Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Kanga in a glass box in the children’s section in the main New York library building on Fifth Avenue: you have to go to the children’s library to pick up your library card (I have no idea why), so it didn’t look too creepy that an elderly bearded git was hanging around the kids’ books. I had always imagined that Christopher Robin’s toys would be in a big mahogany-and-armoured-glass case in the centre of a huge high-ceilinged room, possibly with a couple of armed guards in black uniforms looking suspiciously at people taking selfies with the Immortal Bear. In fact it’s a comparatively small display, and I’ve seen bigger children’s libraries in provincial English towns than the one in the Schwarzman.
Lots of NEIPA in NY
Something called the “New York craft beer festival” was happening my first two nights in the city, so I thought that would be worth checking to try to see what was trending. Sour beers, no surprise; lots of cloudy IPAs, no surprise; wacky fruit goses and similarly wacky saisons (hibiscus?), no surprise; cider, that WAS a surprise; cucumber beers – utterly, utterly vile; double dry-hopping, very much a trend of the moment, for sure, even if every brewer you might speak to has a different take on what double dry-hopping involves (one bar I did get to was the Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street, and every other beer on tap seemed to be “DDH”); and surprise, no “brut” IPAs, which I had been expecting to see, having read that they were a big trend: I didn’t spot one the whole week. I’m ashamed to say that one of the beers I enjoyed most was Sweet Baby Java, an “espresso bean infused chocolate peanut butter porter” from DuClaw Brewing in Maryland, a coffee’d-up version of the same brewery’s Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter porter. Normally I don’t like “dessert” beers, particularly – PARTICULARLY – with peanut butter, but DuClaw seemed to have matched the sickly with a pleasing dryness: a check on the brewery’s website reveals that the hops here are Fuggles and Goldings, which may explain all. However, that was in the usual US beer festival two-ounce glass: even a third of a pint might have had me considering my verdict.
One minor beerfest hiccup: as I presented my ticket on the first night, the very large security dude at the door insists on seeing my ID. While I fished for my UK driver’s licence, I said something about my false bead being the giveaway, to which he responded with the line I’m sure he was taught was the correct response to all surly old gits cutting up about being asked to prove they genuinely were as old as they looked: “I respect my elders, sir.” I really, really wanted to say: “No you clearly don’t, or you and your employers wouldn’t be putting me through the ludicrous nonsense of having to prove I’m not actually a terribly haggard 20-year-old.” But as Paul Simon sings, “the man was large, a well-dressed six-foot-eight,” and I needed that wristband …
The Tipperary, in Fleet Street, has a fair claim to “oldest pub in London” status. You wouldn’t know this from the information you will find about it on the web, in books and magazines, and even the noticeboard outside the pub, which makes much of its storied past. Unfortunately, almost everything written about the history of the pub – including, shamefully, that noticeboard – is wildly, utterly wrong, a staggeringly inaccurate macedonie of untruths, misunderstandings, shameful made-up nonsense, fake news and pure bollix of inexplicable ancestry. What is particularly tragic is that the pub actually has a fine back-story, which has become entirely submerged by layers of invented nonsense.
Let’s begin by deconstructing the noticeboard that hails customers as they enter this charming, if cramped, old Fleet Street boozer, with its delightful, slightly shabby shamrock-decorated mosaic floor and dark wood-panelled walls. (We’ll ignore, as much as we can, the grammatical infelicities and spelling errors on the board, though they constitute in themselves a grievous insult to the hundreds, or more, of newspaper sub-editors who, in the times of Fleet Street’s glory as more than just a metaphor for Britain’s national press, walked through the Tipp’s front door in search of liquid relief.)
“The pub was built on the side [sic]of a monastery which dated to 1300 where, amongst other duties, the monks brewed ale.” – it was a friary, not a monastery. They were friars, not monks. A house for the Carmelites, more fully the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, was founded by Sir Richard Gray in Fleet Street in or about 1241, not 1300. (The Carmelites, as an aside, originated in the 12th century, and took their name from Mount Carmel in northern Israel, supposedly the home of the prophet Elijah. They were known as the “white friars”, from the white cloaks they wore, in contrast to the black-cloaked Dominicans, the “black friars”, whose main base in London was just across the Fleet river, and whose name is commemorated in a bridge, a railway station and one of the finest art nouveau pubs, inside and out, in the world.)
“This site was an island between the River Thames and the River Fleet which still runs under the pub that is now little more than a stream” – utter steaming garbage. The Tipperary is half-way up the hill that rises from what was once the west bank of the Fleet, which was 250 yards away to the east, not “under” the pub at all. The Fleet ran south along the line of what is now Farringdon Street – indeed, it still does, though now underground and converted into a sewer, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
The Tipperary, 66 Fleet Street, one of London’s three or four oldest surviving pub sites
“‘The Boars Head’ which was built in 1605” – wrong again, though a rare example of a pub claiming to be much younger than it actually is, since “Le boreshede in Parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete” was part of the same grant to the Carmelite friars in 1443 as the Bolt and Tun inn next door. (This means, incidentally, that the Tipperary/Boar’s Head is 575 years old this year: there are only two or three other pubs in London that can reckon to be older.) “It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. This is because the property was of stone and brick whereas the surrounding neighbouring premises were of wood.” More ahistoric nonsense. The fire destroyed all of Fleet Street to a point just past Fetter Lane, some 160 yards west of the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which was one of the 13,000 buildings consumed in the blaze.
“In approx 1700 the S.G. Mooney & Son brewery chain of Dublin purchased ‘The Boars Head’ and it became the first Irish pub outside Ireland … The pub also became the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft.” I cannot fathom how or why anyone would invent this stuff, or have it so totally wrong. There is actually a gorgeous old mirror, probably more than 100 years old, on the wall inside the pub which gives the proper name of the pub chain – not “brewery chain”, whatever one of those is — that formerly owned the Board’s Head/Tipperary, which makes getting the incorrect name outside the pub particularly inexcusable. It was JG Mooney and Co, not “SG Mooney & Son”: the company developed out of the licensed wholesaler and retailer business James G Mooney was running in Dublin from at least 1863. The Tipperary was not only emphatically NOT “the first Irish pub outside Ireland”, it wasn’t even JG Mooney’s first pub outside Ireland. The company acquired its first licensed outlet in London, on the Strand, in 1889, its second on High Holborn in 1892 and a third in Duke Street, on the south side of London Bridge, shortly afterwards. Mooney’s acquired the lease of the Boar’s Head, its fourth London pub, in November 1895. That’s not “approx 1700”, unless you think being nearly two centuries out is “approx”. (Mooney’s was to grow to at least 11 London outlets by 1940, all, or almost all, called “Mooney’s Irish House”: the one in Duke Street was known as “Mooney’s Dublin House”.) Nor, of course, was the Boar’s Head “the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft” (sic, again). Guinness was exporting to Bristol from at least 1825 (and to the West Indies earlier than that), in both cask and bottle.
The lovly mirror inside the Tipperary that gives the lie to the signboard outside
“1918 At the end of the Great War the printers who came back from the war had the pubs [sic] name changed to ‘The Tipperary” from the song ‘It’s a Long Way’ [sic], which name it retains to this day.” But it was being called “Mooney’s Irish House (late Boar’s Head)” in 1895, and Kelly’s directories make it clear that the name of the pub was The Irish House right up to 1967. Only then did it change to The Tipperary. There are no references that I have been able to find to the pub as The Tipperary before this: it was certainly being referred to as “Mooney’s Irish House in Fleet Street” in the 1950s. (Strangely, there is a strong Fleet Street link to the song “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”, but it is nothing to do with returning printers. The song’s popularity with the British Army in France in August 1914 was spotted by a Daily Mail reporter, George Curnock, who cabled back to his news editor, Walter Fish that the soldiers were all singing the song as they marched from Boulogne to the front. According to Fleet Street mythology, “Fish visualised ‘Tipperary’ as a great national stimulative, the possible British counterpart of the ‘Marseillaise’, and to his delight found Lord, Northcliffe [owner of the Mail], with his fine flair for judging the public taste, equally enthusiastic. The words and the music of the pantomime song were secured and prominently displayed in the Mail, and from that day on it was on everybody’s tongue.”)
So: four paragraphs, at least 11 clunking, ludicrous errors, all of which could have been avoided with little effort. It took me two to three hours on the interwebs, and an hour in the Guildhall library looking at microfilms and consulting a couple of books, to put together the corrections above, and uncover a more accurate history of 66 Fleet Street. People, this is really not difficult. Don’t just repeat stuff you read – do your own research, because “stuff you read” is quite likely to be wrong.
A map of Fleet Street at the Reformation, circa 1538-40: the Bolt-in-Tun is shown in orange, the Boar’s Head in dark blue. Double-click to embiggen
The Boar’s Head originally faced onto Whitefriars Street (named, of course, for the Carmelites, and originally, until at least the 1830s, known as Water Lane). To the south was an inn called the Bolt-in-Tun, with both premises having back entrances dog-legging out on to Fleet Street, at what would later be numbers 64 and 66. (To the east, at what would become 67 Fleet Street, was a tavern owned by Royston Priory in Hertfordshire called the Cock and Key) In a licence of alienation to the Friars Carmelite of London of certain premises in the parish of St Dunstan, Fleet Street, in the Patent Roll of 21 Henry VI – that’s 1443 to me and thee – “Hospitium vocatum le Boltenton” is mentioned as a boundary. This would have been a building attached to the friary for accommodating guests. The hospitium, or at least a building on its site, was quite probably at least a century older than this, because the wording of an ordinance of King Edward III in council dated 1353 suggests that the road from the bridge over the Fleet to Temple Bar, where Fleet Street becomes the Strand, was by then already lined with dwellings and well-inhabited.
The inn’s name is a pun on “Bolton”, and its sign was a bolt – a crossbow arrow – sticking though a tun, or cask. How or why it was give that name remains unknown. (At least two sources try to claim that the inn’s name is ” derived … from Prior William Bolton of St. Bartholomew, Smithfield”, which is more nonsense on stilts, because while Prior Bolton certainly used the bolt-in-tun as a badge, he was born around 1450, after the first known mention of le Boltenton. It’s more likely, in fact, that Prior Bolton stole the idea of using a bolt sticking through a tun as his badge from the Carmelites’ inn.)
The Bolt in Tun, 64 Fleet Street in 1859, when it had fallen to become no more than a booking office for the railway companies that had replaced the stage coaches. Note the two ‘tuns’ pierced by bolts, or arrows, just visible on the frontage. Picture nicked shamelessly from the British Museum website.
It looks as if the Carmelites used the premises to brew, because after Henry VIII nationalised their friary in November 1538, the list of buildings surrendered included “a tenement for brewing called ‘le Bolte and Tunne'”, and “a brewhouse called Le Bolt and Tunne in the parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete, which belonged to the late Carmelite Friars there” was leased to one of Henry’s household officials, John Gilman, in 1541. As the only inn on Fleet Street, and thus effectively the first inn on the Great West Road, the Bolt-in-Tun developed into an important base for coaches travelling to Bristol, Plymouth and South Wales. In September 1665 a boy was found dead of the Plague in its hayloft. The Fire of London the following year at least cleansed the city of plague-carrying rats, and by 1704 regular coaches for Windsor were starting from the rebuilt inn. In 1741 services from the inn included “A Handsome Glass Coach and six able Horses” travelling regularly to Bath. Destinations from the Bolt-in-Tun in 1805 ranged from included Cardiff to Hastings, and Newbury to Chichester, and in 1817 26 coaches a day left the inn for towns and cities across the south and south-west.
About 1822 the Water Lane side of the premises was renamed the Sussex Hotel, but the Bolt in Tun continued as the booking office and coach destination in Fleet Street. You could still get a drink there: in 1830, John Richardson, 38, was nabbed by a police officer in the Bolt-in-Tun tap for stealing a horse-blanket worth eight shillings from the Bolt-in-Tun’s stables. (His defence was that “I was very tipsy”: he was fined one shilling and discharged.) The stables still had a hayloft, of course, and in March 1838 a fire broke out in the Bolt-in-Tun which “extended its ravages with great rapidity”, destroying all the hay, while the adjoining house, “occupied by many poor families,” was also “considerably damaged”. The proprietor was Robert Gray, whose partner was Moses Pickwick – a name a young Fleet Street reporter called Dickens found a use for.
The coaching era, however, was nearing its end. From 1838 onwards, London was increasingly connected to the rest of Britain by railways, and in the 1840s the Bolt-in-Tun was described by its proprietor as a “Mail, Coach, and Railway Establishment”. Gradually the railway side took over, and by 1859 the Bolt-in-Tun was purely a booking office and parcel collection point for the railway companies. Eventually, in late 1882 or early 1883, most of the Bolt-in-Tun was demolished, ending a history of more than 440 years.
Timothy Richards and James Stevens Curl, authors of City of London Pubs, published in 1973, thoroughly screwed up the history of the Bolt-in-Tun, completely confusing it with the Tipperary, and claiming that “shortly after 1883 the Irish house of Mooney erected a new pub on the site of the Bolt-in-Tun, and it is this building that now stands.” This is, of course, as egregiously wrong as anything on the Tipperary’s signboard. Mr Curl is an extremely distinguished architectural historian, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects of the City of London. He is a Professor at the School of Architecture and Design, Ulster University, Professor Emeritus at De Montfort University, Leicester, and a former Visiting Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written more than 30 books. Let us say that the entry on the Tipperary in City of London Pubs was not his finest hour.