The Victorias Are Vanishing



In the Ealing comedy ‘Passport To Pimlico’ a treasure chest is uncovered and finances a London borough as it enters its own Brexit negotiations with the capital. The treasurers meet in their local pub to examine their dug-up wealth. One points out that they now have ducats and ewers, sparking this exchange.

‘What’s ewers?’

‘Mine’s a pint!’ (General laughter)

The pub in the photo is just off Oxford Street, and is probably only notable because it still exists. In the Bryant & May mystery ‘The Victoria Vanishes’, I investigated the murky world of London pubs because they’re an essential part of London. They’re also being killed off. Each year sees the closure of around 1,400 traditional English pubs, and the closures are now accelerating because of rising prices, competition from bars and home drinking. There has lately been a new wrinkle in the story; if a pub can be proven to be essential to the community, it may be able to save off the demolition team.

Sadly, this hasn’t helped the Newman Arms in Fitzrovia, which I passed yesterday to find boarded up. The film is famously preserved in Michael Powell’s film ‘Peeping Tom’, and occupied one of the few surviving untouched corners of the capital, in a street once known for its photo libraries and ‘upstairs ladies’.

I wanted to preserve some of the quirkiest pubs in a novel; after all, at the time of writing there was still one with a tree growing through its bar, one split in two halves, one filled with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, one that was counted as being in Cambridge even though it’s in the centre of London. Each housed a story. London pubs act as places where opposites can meet and confront each other without prejudice, on neutral territory. It’s why the landlord is referred to as the host, and why rooms in pubs were used to hold local inquests, so that the deceased could be sure of a fair and impartial verdict on his death.

Walking into a pub alone is still for many young English people their first act of real independence. Pubs have had a profound effect on English society, acting as every kind of salon and meeting place, from ‘coffee house’ to gin palace. We get newspapers from pubs, where gossip was first written down and circulated. And pubs still reinvent themselves. Once, where political rebellions were planned, there are now karaoke and quiz evenings, dinners, book readings and meeting rooms for societies.

Pubs are willfully eccentric, and every one has a complex set of social codes. Some celebrate their history with rituals or commemorative events where the patrons dress up. You never tip, but you can buy the host a pint when you order another round by saying ‘Have one for yourself’. If you feel your beer glass is not full enough, you can ask for a top-up.

There are theatre pubs, traditional pubs, readers’, writers’ and artists’ pubs, sports pubs and a thousand places where odd societies or different professions meet. Pubs are in our language; drinkers used to share the same mug, in which the level of ale was marked with a wooden peg, hence the expression ‘to take someone down a peg’. The masons who built our churches were housed at inns, hence the Masonic connections of certain pubs, and the Knights Templar had their own inns. Back when the water of London was polluted, everyone drank at alehouses. Pub names provide markers for all the historical events of England. Red Lion, White Hart, Crown & Anchor, Victory, Royal Oak, Coach & Horses, each has its own meaning, often quite convoluted. We met our future partners in pubs and still find our way around by their location.

In the late Victorian era there was a pub for every 100 people in the country. We talk about inner city schools where pupils speak dozens of languages, but the greatest melting pots for all races and classes exist on almost every street corner – or at least, they did. Property is paramount in London and pubs take up a huge sites, often offering five corner floors – perfect to turn into flats. Much of England’s traditional cookery survives in pubs, not the fish and chips sold to tourists, but places like The Crown in North London which sells potted pork, oysters and a dozen types of homemade cheese. English food gained a bad reputation after the war because there were few restaurants left, but many failing pubs have reinvented themselves as centres of gastronomy, and have long waiting lists for tables.

I took a journalist on a traditional pub crawl across London, starting in a lawyers’ pub and ending in a doctors’ pub. They are convivial, boisterous places where families often drink together, because they’re less about the consumption of alcohol than the enjoyment of good company. In the back of ‘The Victoria Vanishes’ there’s a list of all the pubs featured, each of which I visited. Sadly, since writing the book quite a few of these have themselves vanished. Some were hundreds of years old. Use them and you experience part of the nation’s history. You can visit or for more information.

11 comments on “The Victorias Are Vanishing”

  1. Steveb says:

    The pub in the picture was my local work pub, over 30 years ago 🙂

  2. Bill says:

    Such destruction is often called progress. If it is progress, I hate it.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    It’s a shame that so many are going, but many have not helped themselves by playing “music” so loud that convivial
    conversation is out of the question, unless you go to one of the anodyne and Wetherspoons.

    Willaston, a village in the Wirral near my parents, had 2 pubs, but when we last went to them very early on a Sat night they were both empty and were playing music so load is was unbearable. We went home and opened a bottle of wine, or 3. I rest my case.

  4. Jan says:

    The loss of pubs is by no means a city only issue. So many small towns and villages have lost pubs sometimes being really vital “shared space” that can be used as temporary Post Offices, shops and advice centres it’s really worrying.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    I’ve always loved pubs. As a kid I used to be sent to the ‘off door’, a separate door with access to a few feet of the main bar – it sold pop and crisps when every other shop was closed – and on Sundays too; the sound of laughter, the yellow light through stained glass widows and the smell of smoke and ale, the barmaid in a clinging top, permed hair, snapping gum and sharing a joke with some bar-joker were the most seductive things I’d ever experienced; “Hello pet, whadder ye want?” was Proust on Absinthe to a 12 year- old.

    Pub observation 1 – Between the 1920’s and the 1960’s the level of poverty for most of the country was impossible for us to understand. The photos of Bill Brandt and Jimmy Forsyth show the north east at its normal level. People used pubs for weddings, funerals, family gatherings because they didn’t have the ability to do it at home: they had 2 or 3 chairs and a table and probably no gas or coal so they couldn’t entertain. The ‘local’ was where everything social was done.

    Pub observation 2 – Pubs are the only place where everyone is equal and treated as such. Unless you are a total wanker you can get into conversation with anyone and meet people well outside of your normal experience. I’ve sat with local politicians, M.P.’s, writers, musicians, businessmen, jobbing builders and long term unemployed, all around the same table and they all got along fine. They don’t need to do difficult ‘social skills’ stuff because they are involved in a discussion or enjoying themselves.
    The internet, Facebook and all sorts of media can’t come anywhere near a true ‘local’ for real people getting together.

    The loss of pubs is a loss of community that many people under 25 can’t really understand.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Peter, going to the pictures had a similar use to the pub-it was cheaper than heating the house, and often more comfortable and certainly more palatial. It was the only time a lot of people walked on carpet. With continuous performance you could sit there all day.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    A lot of pubs are going in the suburbs even more so than in the cities, sad really. Some of the lovely old coaching inns that lie outside the cities, are being destroyed, it’s shame to see go. How long some of the housing projects will last is a moot point.

    There are some smaller bars opening in odd places to take their place. I hope to see in the future the little pubs that were all but destroyed in the 70’s as part of regeneration. These small bars are spouting up in especially in towns & cities. Not sure what is happening in countryside.

    Plus the loss of tied pubs has been a double edged sword.


  8. Peter Tromans says:

    ‘The Swag and Tails’ in Knightsbridge is a classic example. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was an old fashioned side street pub. Ten years ago, it had become a food oriented pub/restaurant. Even then, the tenant could not manage the rent. The last that I heard, it was awaiting re-development. With London as it is, imagine how much ‘The Bricklayer’s Arms’ and the like are worth as blocks of luxury flats.

  9. Ian Mason says:

    The Bricklayer’s (featured above, in Gresse Street), the Black Horse (just around the corner in Rathbone Place, now no longer a pub but part of an upmarket burger chain) and the Wheatsheaf (in Rathbone Place in the other direction) all have upstairs rooms, that could be had for free for a private meeting as long you you were going to drink enough beer. All have been home, at various times, to regular events that wouldn’t have happened if someone had had to pay ‘London rates’ to hire a room.

    Thanks to them, and their like, I’ve been to events of all sorts; including lectures on subjects ranging from the Roman Mithraeum (temple to Mithras) that’s under an office building by Walbrook in the City to a virtual biographic pub crawl of Alistair Crowley’s favourite London watering holes. Moreover, I’ve met all sorts of strange and interesting people, including my partner for the best part of the last 20 years. Now I just have to work out, before she reads this, whether I should classify her under ‘strange’ or ‘interesting’.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    The whole concept of the pub as local meeting and recreational place is hard for north Americans to understand. We are beginning to create something similar with our coffee shops, but many of them don’t stay open in the evening so they’re not useful for meetings. Others just serve little snacks so not too useful for gatherings around the supper hour. Our BookCrossing group has moved several times around two main bus routes. One place we loved sold meals as well as snacks (home made and delicious) had a bar licence and made great coffee. The two women who ran it encouraged groups to meet and had Sunday sharing days where you could offer (whatever the theme was) for others to take away and find something for yourself. There were author nights, music nights, game nights and everyone felt safe there. We cried when it disappeared even though the building was so porous it was impossible to keep its public health status clean.
    Neighbourhoods need something like this because it’s what helps maintain neighbourhoods. We don’t lounge outside in the pouring rain much but can spend lots of time over coffee in a comfortable friendly space.
    I can and will talk to anyone anywhere but in a place that is obviously a “public house”, a place for everyone, I will go all out. Those two women, by the way, were prime examples of the “host”. When I was angered by the pot banging of a protest group meeting next to us and I said too much it was the host I apologized to.

  11. Tom Callaghan says:

    Newman Passage was of course the site of the famous leaning lamp post where Arthur and Terry from ‘Minder’ were spotted: needless to say, the lamp post has now been replaced…

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