Pubs on Wheels (Part I)

“Puffing Pubs”

Bar scene in the Bulleid Tavern car, c 1930s.

Beer and trains go together (except in the engineer’s cabin). The vaults under St. Pancras Rail station sized famously to hold the dimensions of beer barrels shipped down from Burton.

Anheuser-Busch using the rails to ship afar its pasteurized Budweiser, helping to establish a national market.

Beer figuring on club car menus (except during Prohibition) of which I’ve given numerous examples here.

An American railroad, Union Pacific, had between the late 1930s and 1950s a Frontier Shack and a British Pub on its Denver and other runs. See my discussion, here.

The American effort was a careful excursion into the consciously mythic. We were, by this time, in an advanced consumer society. Today the process is called (by critics) commodification if not sometimes cultural appropriation, but these forms are an age-old expression of a commercial society, of free enterprise.

The urban food halls and shiny vintage trucks selling world cuisine bring new experiences to people; how authentic is your call, with the freedom to patronise or not.

In a former time, a faux-Old West saloon in a streamlined steel wonder was the equivalent of our food halls and trucks. The equivalent of “chic-industrial” in the 1980s and 90s. The equivalent of Gay Nineties design in the 1960s. And so it will go forever – once the bars re-open.

Still, for the pub, the one place you wouldn’t expect to see a nostalgic revival of period design was Britain. I mean, they invented the pub, have always cherished it. When necessary, they evolved new forms: the 1930s suburban roadhouse; the 1960s blocky pubs in new tower blocks, and later, the ornate banks-turned-pubs … the cool All Bar One style … the railway arch bars.

A similar but distinct idea was theme pubs in the post-war era, see Boak and Bailey’s 20th Century Pub for a good elucidation. This invested the pub with a motif as a focal point for discussion, maybe some feature of travel, the natural world, sports or entertainment, outer space.

Sometimes a pub was renovated, not to exploit crassly a past vernacular but to restore simply its original look. A good example is the handsome Lamb pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, well-known for its Victorian fittings such as “snob screens”. For some background on the pub, see in “Lottie’s Walk”, an urban geography account. The building predates the 19th century but evidently was rebuilt as “Victorian” then. While not stated in the link, I understand the interior was first restored in the 1950s (and perhaps since).

The original Davy Wine Bars in London were an emulation of the Victorian, City wine bars, yes. The upright barrels strewn seemingly at random, the sawdust, coaching lamps, ranks of empty bottles – all an attempt to get at that. Pretty successfully, too.

For wine, somehow one accepts it, just as 20 and 30 years ago London borrowed the style of French wine bistro. Wine does not have the heritage in Britain of beer, the special status.

Why build a facsimile Georgian pub or Victorian gin-palace when you had the originals – those not splintered by German bombs? At most just a spruce-up was needed, a la Lamb. The nearby (Holborn) Princess Louise forms another example.

So no fake or “olde Englishe” country pubs were built in that era.* Right? Not exactly.

A signal exception was the British Rail creation of “tavern cars”. In the late 1940s a noted railway designer, Oliver Bulleid, created these for express lines going south and east from London. The cars, dubbed “mock-Tudor” in news accounts, were decorated on the outside with painted brick motif and strapwork on cream. Inside they had oak cross beams, a bar area partly enclosed in opaque glass (panes), a patterned floor, and other paraphernalia to resemble a comfy country pub.

There were high narrow leaded windows, apparently to ensure patrons did not loll with their drink enjoying an outside view.

Some have said that Bulleid was inspired by a pub in Pulborough, Sussex, the Chequers Hotel. Others said it was West Country pubs he had in mind. The pubs were given bucolic or traditional names, The Green Man, the Bull, The Three Plovers, the White Horse (pictured above). They even served draft beer, almost certainly the new bright, filtered, “keg” beer. The shaking of the coaches would have demanded no less.

In additional sources listed below you can see images of the cars, outside and in, and read narratives by railway historians explaining this absorbing detail of pub history.

The cars were popular with travellers, and ran for 10 years. Around 1960 they were converted finally to club cars. (The original set up was two cars coupled, one the pub car, one a restaurant car).

So even in the land of pubs, even before the full restoration of the peacetime economy, a commodification if you will of “England’s own” took place. Not that it hadn’t opposition, as the links below explain. Official bodies that hadn’t participated in the design thundered away in the letters columns and the House of Commons.

They regarded the cars as kitsch, an abomination, the “reductio ad absurdum of the mania for the fake antique” (see no. 1 below). A few design changes were made, not many by my study, and life and business went on very merrily for 10 years.

British Rail made the right call. The one the people wanted.

Additional Sources

  1. Article in the Sun, Sydney, June 4, 1949
  2. Wragg, D. The Southern Handbook: the Southern Railway 1923-1947 (2017)
  3. Lovegrove, K. Railway Identity, Design, and Culture (2004)
  4. Bradley, S. The Railways: Nation, Network, and People (2015)
  5. “The Tavern That Travelled On Rails”, Along These Tracks Blogpost (May 27, 2018)

N.B. The caption to the first image above is surely an error or typo from the source; our research, and the photo itself, suggest a c. 1949 date.

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the Science and Society Picture Library, here. The second image is from the archival Australian news report (via Trove Newspapers) linked in no. 1 above. Each is used for research (educational and historical) purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

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*I speak broadly of the period up to the 1980s. I think the position did finally change, under impulse largely from some pub groups or estates. As well, I exclude the subject of the foreign “English pub” or “Irish pub”, i.e., as successfully commoditized and exported around the world.