A Block in St. John’s Wood…

… vs. Kicks in Sydney

The British pub during 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 for example this article by Neville Thomson, a staff writer for the Daily Telegraph in 1944. The locale: the Abbey Pub, St. John’s Wood, London. Thomson was on assignment in Australia, working for the affiliated Sydney paper.

There had been publicity locally about reforming the 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, hence the inelegant term.

Thomson portrayed, in contrast, 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 of 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 (or deficiencies in same), 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 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? I think it 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 its closing hours to prevent the recurrence 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 in England and was favourably impressed. He mentioned a family Sunday gathering at The George, in Colchester, as an example of socializing in a civil way, with no harm to anyone.

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 India Pale Ales. Maybe this was an implied rebuke to the standardized lager taking over in Australia even in the 1940s. (I think it already had).

Flowers Brewery in Stratford-on-Avon made an I.P.A. in the Forties, as I discussed in another piece.

Australian soldiers wrote uncommonly well, of 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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