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.

There had been publicity locally about reforming the infamous “six o’clock swill”. A 6:00 p.m. weekday closing hour was long 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 article deftly shows.

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. 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 a Whitbread pub and long remained so but finally was converted into a private residence. Towards the end it appeared as below:



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

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

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

Thomson’s article prompted a few letters-to-the-editor. At least one complained that Thomson exaggerated the harmlessness of the British pub. It stated Australia should keep its closing hours intact to prevent the return of wide-spread intemperance.

Some 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 and was impressed by them. He mentions a family’s Sunday gathering at The George, in Colchester, as an example of civilized socializing.

Unlike Neville Thomson the lieutenant remarks on the variety of beer available in the pub. There was mild, bitter, and lo, “I.P.A.” – not the tropical fruit-like beer of our time but descended from the original India Pale Ales. Maybe it was an implied rebuke to the standardized lager emerging in Australia even in the 1940s.

Flowers Brewery of Stratford-on-Avon made an I.P.A. in the period, 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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