‘A Parson Running a Pub’ (Part III)

In Part I and Part II of this series I discussed the social work of Rev. Father Basil Jellicoe (1899-1936), an Anglo-Catholic cleric. For most of his later career he ministered in the deprived district of Somers Town, London, as part of the Magdalen Mission. He is a landmark figure in interwar urban regeneration, mostly for his unique vision to refashion the mean street pub.

Instead of promoting temperance, albeit a non-drinker himself, he believed the urban pub could serve alcohol yet be a force for good. He promoted model pubs, of which the Anchor Pub on Chalton Street is best remembered. He managed these, under special arrangement with the owner Whitbread Brewery, as social centres offering companionship without pressure to drink, food at good prices, comfortable surroundings, and a non-violent atmosphere.

Jellicoe also promoted a “College for Publicans” that would train publicans how to do their work in a socially responsible way. [Note added April 5, 2020: while not realized with his participation, by 1948 a scheme was operating in London, at least, to offer pub training much along the lines Jellicoe envisioned. See here].

Queen Mary (Mary of Teck) was the most senior Royal figure to bestow recognition on his efforts by visiting the Anchor with him. This is an index of the sizeable support he had among the Great and the Good in Britain at the time.

My Part II includes a link to a striking 1930 Movietone sound reel that shows Jellicoe advocating his case – from behind the bar! Customers are seen, and heard, drinking and jesting in a way that suggests not much has changed in the British pub, clothing styles apart (and probably not for hundreds of years before the reel was made).

What happened to Jellicoe’s heroic venture, the Anchor pub?

Alistair Mutch is Professor of Information and Learning at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University. In 2007 he authored a paper on interwar pub improvement as advanced by Sydney Nevile, a longtime director of Whitbread Brewery in London.*

Using in particular the private papers of Nevile and a 1936 biography of Jellicoe, Basil Jellicoe, by the Anglo-Catholic theologian Kenneth IngramMutch describes the genesis and fate of pub reform in the hands of Jellicoe-Nevile.

He shows that the three pubs made subject to the plan were not a commercial success. The Anchor had been rebuilt and refitted at a cost of 11,000 pounds and while it turned an acceptable annual profit the rebuilding cost was not recouped (or evidently not in the time period felt acceptable).

Further, as the three pubs together were realizing a loss by 1934, they were returned to normal management methods. One of them, the Tavistock, was transferred to a body formed in the 1920s to favour public houses that served meals, the Restaurant Public Houses Association, but Mutch explains that it thereby lost the special character Jellicoe sought to confer.

Sydney Nevile felt that many pubs were too small to be refitted in the way Jellicoe wanted, to create seating areas where meals could be served versus the cramped, stand up bars still common then in London. But we think as well, or reading between the lines, that Nevile realized commercial goals and social activism of the type Jellicoe wanted did not synchronize.

Mutch makes the point that old-line families controlling Whitbread’s and other brewers that supported pub improvement were animated as much if not more by British social solidarity and the Anglican spirit as by the secular Progressivism then fashionable.

The many improvements to licensed pubs in Britain and North America since the 1930s – to public drinking spaces in general – can be seen as both fulfillment and vindication of Jellicoe’s vision. The ideas of social responsibility and fraternity (communion, if you will) that spurred the model pub were picked up in the secular sphere. Pubs are just one example, of course, but in a previous time social reform was mostly the province of private groups. The churches were signal leaders.

We need only think in Ontario today of “smart-serve” policies – the requirement that servers be trained not to over-serve and otherwise deal responsibly with customers – as a partial College of Publicans, it is the same order of ideas. In a way, too, the various private certification (education) programs that train servers on the qualities and characteristics of beer, wine, whisky, etc. are an example.** I think Jellicoe would have approved all these initiatives.

Speaking of Ontario, Jellicoe visited Toronto in the early 1930s. Materials currently available to me on his visit are slight, but they do show he was offended by the presence of homelessness and poor housing in the city. If our civic and church officials expected a decorous visit from an Establishment clergyman, it was not quite of that order.

As a further example of Jellicoe being avant la lettre, he also advocated a “children’s pub” where children could sip milk while their parents had a drop of ale in the next room. The idea was reported by The Indianapolis Times in 1930, see here. One need only think of play sections at modern beer festivals, or how children routinely accompany parents at the modern pub-restaurant, to see the prophecy of his vision.

For rectitude-bound Americans still approving of National Prohibition – and even for many not approving – reading this with the morning coffee must have caused a sputtering or two. There were many in Britain and the Dominions who likewise disapproved of pub reform à la Jellicoe. A disgruntled Temperance campaigner even showed up at one of his pubs with a loaded revolver!

The incident (it ended peaceably) was recalled by Jellicoe himself in a compelling piece from 1933 in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail, see here. Indeed the article serves as a comprehensive but compact expression of Jellicoe’s philosophy. Ever the provocateur, he even argues to set up a nightclub based on his principles!

It may seem that Jellicoe is being overly credited with a far-reaching reformist legacy, but due in part to his charisma and talent for publicity his model public house was internationally publicized in the English-speaking world. Indeed a 2008 article assessing his influence as a housing reformer (by Roland Jeffery, see the asterisked note in our Part I) credits him with a special influence on modern urban renewal.

Taking the broadest view of what Father Jellicoe tried to achieve, a letter in 1930 to another Australian newspaper, Adelaide’s Advertiser, is instructive. It was written by Maud Liston, an Australian novelist. She argued that Jellicoe’s reimagined inner city pub was in many ways a return to the old village pub. In her words:

… the Anchor Inn venture is more in the line of experience than of experiment. If it is new to the slums, it is quite in the tradition of the old English village inn, which has centuries of useful life behind it, for the inn, in common with the other activities of the place, sheltered under the village church and shared in its peaceful and hallowing influence. Father Jellicoe’s venture is a return to the old English way of hallowing the common things of life …

This theme of a Progressive or model public house dovetailing with the image of a benign if not venerated village pub was probably over-romantic – indeed we shall write anon of this viewpoint – yet Liston’s formulation has an essential truth, we think.

Finally, just as Jellicoe was unorthodox in his advocacy of the public house albeit a sanely-run one, it strikes us that Nevile was unusual in his efforts to combine social responsibility with the bottom line. Long-lived Sydney Nevile was country-born (Scarborough, Yorkshire), from a grandee family. Yet his education differed from many of his background in that he was apprenticed in a brewery from age 14. He had evidently a wide knowledge of the conditions of all the company’s pubs and the peoples who staffed and patronized them.

We hasard that he understood something similar to what Maud Liston expressed, and this played a role in his alliance with the Father, together with the other factors noted.

The point is, both men were animated by something more than just expedience. They didn’t just go with the flow, with the usual modus operandi of life.

This obituary, from the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, will interest those who wish to know more of Sydney Nevile (1873-1969). Further information, including viz. Jellicoe, can be gleaned from Nevile’s memoir, Seventy Rolling Years.


*The title is “Improving the Public House in Britain, 1920-1940: Sir Sydney Nevile and ‘social work'”. A version appeared under that title in the journal Business History in 2010. The scholar David Gutzke has also studied extensively the subject of pub improvement in the 20th century and the stance and motives of different brewers. See especially his Pubs and Progressives: Reinventing the Public House in Britain 1896-1960 (2007).

**The RPHA, which continued at least into the war years, did engage in training barmen. This aspect can, therefore, be viewed as an early attempt to implement a “College for Publicans”. Jellicoe stated numerous times that publicans came to the field without prior training due to economic pressure, for example holding a naval pension that was inadequate to live on. Hence, such publicans encouraged over-drinking and disregarded other aspects of hospitality. Jellicoe’s vision of the model pub had broader social goals, indeed Christian social goals, that nonetheless contemplated a living wage for the manager and decent return for the owning brewery.

Note re image: The above illustration (1884), entitled “An Ale-House Room”, is by the American artist Edwin Abbey, and was sourced from the online Yale Art Gallery, here. Expressed to be in the public domain. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.