A Block in St. John’s Wood…

… vs. Kicks in Sydney

The British pub in wartime provides 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 libraries, newspaper and official archives, and private papers.

Take this example, from Neville Thomson, a staff writer for the Daily Telegraph in London. The year was 1944. The locale: the Abbey Pub, St. John’s Wood, London.

Thomson was on assignment in Australia, working for an affiliated Sydney paper, when the account appeared. 

There had been publicity locally about reforming Australia’s infamous “six o’clock swill”. A 6:00 p.m. weekday closing hour had long been mandated for hotels. Over-drinking often resulted, to beat the closing hour.

Thomson portrayed an idyllic London pub in part to encourage reform of these regulations, although they endured in some areas until the 1970s.

Before television, before Instagram and other social media, the written word counted for a lot to inform public. A good journalist could do this in a few lines, as Thomson’s piece shows deftly.

In calm, well-paced prose 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.

The account, short as it is, is almost cinematograph in effect. He focuses on the patrons, not on the beer or food (or deficiencies in same), not on the landlord. He describes each by name and occupation, and the entertainments of the pub, provided by the customers themselves.

The Abbey was in the Whitbread Brewery stable, and long remained so, but finally was converted into a private residence. Near the end it appeared as below:



The Abbey was near Lord’s cricket grounds. Originally it was a thatched house but was re-built with the development of St. John’s Wood. I am not certain when that occurred, probably later 1800s.

You can see the original structure in its bucolic splendour in a Getty image.

Reading Thomson’s sketch, George Orwell’s famous essay (1946) The Moon Under Water came to mind, on the ideal pub. Might Orwell have seen Thomson’s piece before penning his own? It is possible, I think.

Thomson’s article resulted in a few letters-to-the-editor. At least one complained that Thomson exaggerated the harmlessness of the British pub. It argued Australia should keep its closing laws as they were to prevent the recurrence of generalized intemperance.

A number sided with Thomson, though. This letter is a good example, written by a lieutenant of the 18th Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. The officer had visited pubs when stationed in England. He cited a family’s Sunday gathering at The George in Colchester as an example of civilized socializing in the pub.

Unlike Thomson, the lieutenant remarked on the variety of beer available in the pub. There was mild, there was bitter, and lo, “I.P.A.” – not the tropical fruit-tasting beer of our time, but descended from the first India Pale Ales. This may have been an implied rebuke to what was becoming the standardized lager of Australia.

Flowers Brewery of Stratford-on-Avon made an I.P.A. at the time, as illustrated in another piece of ours.

Australian soldiers wrote uncommonly well, all ranks. For another example, see our discussion here.

Note re image: the image above was 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.






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.


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