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, not a little in my pages here. So much remains to be written given resources in libraries, newspaper and official archives, and private papers, online or otherwize.

Take, for example, this article by Neville Thomson, a staff writer for the U.K.-based Daily Telegraph in 1944. His study was the Abbey Pub, St. John’s Wood, London but at the time Thomson was on assignment in Australia, working for the Sydney affiliate.

There had been controversy in Australian media whether to reform the infamous “six o’clock swill”. A 6:00 p.m. weekday closing hour had long been mandated for hotels to regulate the alcohol trade. Over-drinking often resulted to beat the closing hour, hence the inelegant term.

Thomson portrayed in contrast an idyllic London pub, in part to encourage reform of this law, although similar restrictions endured in Australia long after World War II.

Before television, before Instagram and other social media, the written word – newspapers, books, and magazines – counted for a lot. A good journalist could paint a picture with a few deft strokes, as Thomson’s article 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 the beer or food, and not on the landlord. He describes each pub-goer by name and occupation, and entertainment in 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 looked like this:



The Abbey was near 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 exactly that occurred, probably the late 1800s.

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

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

Thomson’s article prompted letters-to-the-editor. At least one complained that Thomson exaggerated the harmlessness of the pub. The writer insisted that Australia maintain the existing closing hours to prevent recurrence of wide-spread intemperance.

Some sided with Thomson. This letter is a good example, written by a lieutenant of the 18th Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. The officer had visited pubs in England and was favourably impressed. He recounted a family Sunday gathering at The George, in Colchester, an example he said of socializing in a civil way, with harm to none.

Unlike Neville Thomson, the lieutenant remarked on the variety of beer available. There was mild, bitter, and lo, “I.P.A.” – not the tropical-scented, fruity I.P.A. beer of our time, but something descended from the first British India Pale Ales, the beers that had gone famously to India to nourish administrator, soldier, and other guardians of Empire.

Maybe this was an implied rebuke to the standardized lager beer that by the 1940s was common writ in Antipodes beer-ways.

While the designation was falling out in Britain, Flowers Brewery in Stratford still made an I.P.A. in the 1940s, as I discussed in another piece.

Of the many conclusions to be drawn from a period piece of Anglosphere journalism, Australian soldiers wrote uncommonly well, of all ranks. For another example, see my 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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