A Block in St. John’s Wood…

… vs. Kicks in Sydney

The English pub in wartime is a near-inexhaustible subject for study. So much has been written on it, not a little in our pages here. So much remains to be written, given the resources in the stacks, news archives, and more.

Take this example, a portrait of a pub in St. John’s Wood, by Neville Thomson, a staff writer for the Daily Telegraph in London. The year was 1944. Thomson was on assignment in Australia with the Sydney Telegraph, in which the account appeared.

There had been publicity locally (Sydney) about reforming the “six o’clock swill”. Liquor regulations had long mandated a 6:00 p.m. weekday closing hour for hotels. This led by many accounts to over-drinking to beat the closing hour. These laws endured into the 1970s.

In support of extended hours and better amenities, Thomson offered a portrait of an idyllic London pub. He chose the Abbey Tavern, in St. John’s Wood, his local when living in London.

In a time before Instagram and other social media, not to mention television, the written word counted for a lot to convey experiences to the public. A good journalist, as Thomson was, could do this in a few deft lines.

In the calm, measured style typical of British journalism then,* he set his purpose as follows:

So the U.L.V.A. [United Licensed Victuallers of Australia] wants to give Australians pubs modelled on the British pattern … with civilised drinking instead of the crazy swilling that goes inevitably with six o’clock closing. And what is the typical British pub like? Here is a profile of my “local” in St. John’s Wood, London. Characters are not fictitious, and any resemblance to real life is intentional. The pub is the Abbey Tavern, in Violet Hill, five minutes’ walk from Lord’s.

His account, short as it is, is almost cinematograph in that one can picture everything being said. Unlike other accounts, he focuses, not on the beer or food (or penury of same), not on the landlord, but on the patrons. He describes them by name and occupation, and the entertainment in the pub which was all self-created. In the old commonplace, it’s like being there.

The Abbey was a Whitbread pub, at least not long before its vocation lapsed and it was turned into a private residence. This is what it looked like near the end:

It was near Lord’s as Thomson stated, the famous cricket grounds. In fact, the Abbey Tavern was once a thatched house on grounds of which Lord’s is now a part, but was re-built with the development of St. John’s Woods. I am not certain when that occurred exactly, probably the later 1800s.

You can see a picture of the original, in bucolic splendour, here.

George Orwell’s famous encomium (1946) on the ideal pub, The Moon Under Water, came to mind when reading Thomson’s account. Might Orwell have seen it before penning his own story? I think it’s possible.

Thomson’s description excited a discussion in the letters-to-the-editor section. At least one person wrote to complain that Thomson exaggerated the innocuous character of Britain’s pubs. He argued that Australia should keep its laws as they were, to prevent a return of generalized intemperance.

A number wrote in to side with Thomson, of which this letter is a good example. Written by a lieutenant of the 18th Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, he had visited pubs when stationed in England. He explained with good sense why the Bluenoses were off-base. He cited inter alia a family’s Sunday gathering at The George in Colchester to bolster Thomson’s account.

The lieutenant, unlike Thomson, noted the types of beer available in the pub. Perhaps (although not clear) the variety was an implied rebuke of Australia’s undifferentiated draft beer of the day. There was mild, there was bitter, and lo “I.P.A.” – not the citrus-tropical extravaganza of our time, but English India Pale Ale, descended from the type first sent to India in the 1700s.

Flowers Brewery of Stratford made one in the same period, as mentioned in another piece of ours on the 1940s English pub.

Australian soldiers wrote uncommonly well, of all ranks, as yet another Beeretseq study shows, see here.

Note re image: sourced from the Closed Pubs site (Lost Pubs Project), here. All intellectual property therein belong solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Journalism today (everywhere) has a different emotional register, more febrile, IMO.





3 thoughts on “A Block in St. John’s Wood…”

  1. I don’t deny, especially under wartime conditions, an element of “rose-coloured” in the article, which nonetheless is important historically and quite possibly influenced Orwell’s essay, or was of a genre that did.

    As a book-end, this post-war look at the same topic offers a more balanced viewed especially viz. the types of beer sold. The journalist, Australian here, noticed a taste in some beer of burned sugar, a malt substitute used in British brewing since the later 1800s.

    It is understandable war-era beer was thin from increased adjunct usage, but the article was written in 1953, eight years after the war ended.

    As always, reality is a multi-faceted thing.



Leave a Comment