DRINKING IN THE LAST CHANCE SALON
As a Christmas present I got the widely praised Family Britain by David Kynaston a chronicle of Britain between 1951 and 1957. I was reading the section about the role that the pub played in British life during that time although in truth the pub was in the long slow decline from its late Victorian peak. In 1904 there were over 99,000 licensed pubs a figure that had fallen to 75,000 by 1950. That figure is around 40,000 although it also includes clubs, etc.
Kynaston chronicles the position of the pub in 1950s Britain. A study of Liverpool pubs in the early 50s describes pubs as a ” popular rallying point in the neighbourhood where one can be sure of warmth and fellowship” and there is a moving description of a South Wales pub on a December night in 1952 ” people congregate closely together around the fire which seems to make them open their hearts and make them talk personally”.
He concludes the section by saying that ” pubs acted as a central reinforcement of working class certainties in an era where the certainties – above all of place and gender still unquestionably applied”¦. Underpinning a strong, cohesive sense of identity, they were certainties of exclusion as well as inclusion”.
I was thinking of this earlier this week as I looked at the former Rose and Crown in Etruria. While I was down at the Festival Park. I don’t how long it ceased to be a pub- it’s now housing. But at one time in the 70s and early 80s when I used the pub regularly it was a popular and used by workers from Shelton Bar as well as the communities of Shelton and Etruria.
This piece is an elegy on pubs of the area and beyond as 2009 as hastened the demise of many locals. I write from Leek a town that had the reputation of having 52 pubs- one for every week in a year. Over the recent years these numbers have declined rapidly. The imposing Talbot with its clock tower dated 1878, White Lion, Sea Lion, Bulls Head, the Park and others have all had time called. The news looks bad for the Earl Grey. The Roebuck in Derby St in the centre of the town closed and then reopened. The Swan the oldest pub in town established in 1504 is under threat. There were only 14 drinkers in that pub on Boxing Night on the other hand the Cock and the Wilkes Head seem to be doing well. Other places in North Staffordshire are facing the same phenomena. I have been told that Longton has now only one pub.
You see I have a long term interest in the pubs of North Staffordshire. I owe my existence to a beer shortage in my fathers favourite pub in 1948 which led him to meeting my mother in the pub she frequented with her parents- the Glass Barrel in Copeland Street( long gone). All the pubs that my grandfather was a regular such as the Globe, Rose and the Phoenix in Liverpool Road in Stoke no longer exist. As a child I remember going into the Red Lion in Glebe Street to collect a programme for the Stoke v Real Madrid centenarian friendly in 1963. The Red Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the Tram Museum at Crich.
As I grew older I used the Albion in Hanley when it had revolving doors and Edwardian fittings and pubs in Abbey Hulton. Its perhaps a reflection on the demise of the estate pub that of the 4 pubs on the estate only 1 still exists. The Priory, Carmount with the garish paintings of monks on the walls and the Abbey have all vanished. There was also the Sea Lion in Hanley which had an excellent Folk Club on a Sunday night although awful beer. The Sea Lion disappeared when the Potteries Shopping Centre was built.
Many pubs went following road building programmes in the 70s including the intriguing Bridge in the Etruria close to the Wedgwood factory and right by the canal a little forethought and it would have made an excellent tourism venture.
By the late 70s I was at York University and using the Wellington in Fulford in a terraced street close to the River Ouse. Sandy the landlord was an ancient then. On the wall was a photograph of him on a charabanc trip in 1947 still looking as aged as he did in 1977.
It was in the Wellington that I recall having a conversation with a middle aged ex boxer whose party piece was to push his nose flat against his nose having lost all the cartilage in many fights
I was a real ale enthusiast and took University friends on tours of Stoke pubs that made it into the CAMRA guide book. The Black Lion in Broad St, Hanley was run at the time by an eccentric landlady who seemed to have innumerable small dogs and a camp son who sang tunelessly on a wheezy harmonium. I hid my giggles behind a copy of the “War Cry”.
On my return from University the world of politics and pubs elided. Politicos used the Jolly Potters in Hartshill or the Beehive in Penkhull. The former being presided over by the ever elegant Clive with his handle bar moustache. The Potters is another pub that has now been in difficulties.
Burslem Labour Party members used the “Foaming Quart” another establishment that has now ceased to foam.
The best establishment in the early 80s was the “Smithfield” in Hanley run by the inestimable Maurice the saxophone playing landlord. The pub was at the centre of the community and was used by punks many refugees from the demolished “Vine”, older members of the community, Labour Party members, Sikhs it represented even in Thatcher’s Britain “a strong, cohesive sense of identity” identified in Kynaston’s book.
The most memorable incident in the “Smithfield” occurred one Christmas Eve in the 80s when the then Lord Mayor called in dressed in civic finery visiting all the pubs in his ward. A fight developed which spread along the bar and soon involved the Lord Mayor fists swinging and mayoral chain bouncing off his chest. Funnily enough his mayoral theme that year was “peace”.
Above all I have had some wonderful conversations in pubs. There was one in the “Golden Cup” in Hanley with a man whose brother was on the mighty HMS Hood which blew up in 1941. In Oxford a conversation with a Texan Senator about the state of English education . And the most human conversation I ever had with a MP in the “Black Lion” in Hanley when the Bradford North MP Pat Wall spoke to local Militants. I sidled up to him and perhaps tiring of politics he spoke very movingly of his love for Jazz, of Liverpool in the 50s and his unquestionable support for Everton Football Club. In pubs I have had conversations about books, football, history, politics, art, music everything that goes into making us part of the human race.
Now pubs face a battle for their existence a combination of alternative social activities, cheapness of alcohol from supermarkets,smoking ban, high rents and the recession have reduced their numbers greatly.
In the 80s there was a character that haunted pubs in the centre of Hanley. Ron could be heard from some distance away, a whistled favourite being the music of “Laurel and Hardy”. He was bald, and a very red faced man with a bulbous nose. Ron would be one for gnomic comment. “Hanley, he would say in one of his favourite haunts the “Unicorn”, ” nothing doing” As far as the traditional pub is concerned Ron’s utterance seems more prophetic than we thought of at the time.