Thursday 29 December 2011

Pubs around Merseyside - end of an era

The cover shows the Albany in Old Swan
where I sometimes went for quiz nights
around the time of this guide.
Looking through a box of old books, I came across a copy of The Best Pubs Around Merseyside, which was published by six local CAMRA branches:  Merseyside, Southport, Wirral, Chester and South Clwyd, Central and North Cheshire and South East Lancs; the names of the branches involved indicate what a large area the guide covers, far beyond the bounds of the county of Merseyside.  There’s no date in the guide, but a “stop press” item about Boddington selling its breweries to Whitbread dates it to 1990.

It’s interesting how much the pub and brewery scene has changed since those days, certainly a lot more than it had in the preceding 21 years.  North West breweries mentioned in the guide that have vanished include:  Boddingtons, Matthew Brown, Greenall Whitley, Higsons, Hartleys, Peter Walker and Tetley Walker.  Guinness seems an odd entry nowadays, but it was listed because it was still producing bottle conditioned Extra Stout, a practice discontinued few years later.

The guide gloomily states that “all indications are that Higsons, Liverpool's only brewery, will close in the very near future with the consequential loss of jobs and the loss of the last Mild and Bitter beers brewed in Liverpool.  So-called Higsons beers brewed elsewhere, particularly by Whitbread, will not be the same.”  Right on all counts, although the conviction that many of us had at the time that this would be the end of brewing in Liverpool has proved to be wrong, I'm glad to say.  Oak Brewery of Ellesmere Port is mentioned, but with the comment that the stranglehold of the big brewers prevents Oak from expanding in its own area, and that as most of its output goes to Yorkshire, Stoke and Manchester, “it is possible that this year will see the brewery move closer to the areas it supplies.”  That proved right too, and Oak is now the successful Phoenix of Heywood in Greater Manchester, and its beers are now quite frequently available on Merseyside.

John Smiths is commended for reintroducing real ale in 1984 with cask Bitter and Magnet, and for removing keg versions when cask was restored to a pub (“other brewers please note!”), while Samuel Smiths gets a ticking off for serving “keg beer through hand pulls and the purchase of John Smith’s stock of cask breathers.”

The preamble to the guide includes an instruction to “use this guide wisely, there are a few – only a few – independent regional brewers left in the area – value them.”  Not the advice I would expect in any modern counterpart, as it seems to me it’s fashionable nowadays to slag off the regionals.

As for the pubs, the guide is charmingly eccentric.  All music, except for live music, is bad:  “no noisy canned music”, “no juke box ‘music’”, “pleasantly free of music”, “no recorded music”, “loud music”, “usually no ‘noisy muzak’” and “no noisy music” are just some of the comments that suggest to me that the compilers would nowadays be seeking out the quiet sessions at beer festivals, although I did find “good juke box” and “music of NON top 20 variety on tape”, but these are exceptions.  It’s not afraid to be judgmental:  “now a mainly young persons (upwardly mobile?) posing place”, “if it sold Oak beer it would be excellent”, “the most chic pub in town if that suits the readers taste”, “pity about the standard beers ‘wot no Oak?’” and the former St Helens Greenalls brewery apparently used to produce “flavoursome beers unlike Warrington”.  The Roscoe Street Grapes’s only real ale was Boddingtons and we’re told that its inclusion “shows CAMRA to be fair, we have included it even though totally opposed to only the Manchester beer being on sale.”  Not blowing your own trumpet then!  In fact, real Boddingtons was an improvement for the Grapes, as it had previously sold only keg Higsons through electric pumps concealed behind handpumps.

A lot of the narrative descriptions are very terse, such as “two room roadside pub with a separate public bar” and “two room street corner local on busy shopping road” but certain pubs get fuller descriptions – for instance, the Philharmonic’s runs to 13 lines and the Roscoe Head’s to seven, including the unsurprising comment “no ‘noise’”.  No mention in the latter’s entry to its residency in every Good Beer Guide, but that achievement probably wasn’t uncommon in 1990.  The Everyman Bistro, which closed just recently, is described in terms that customers 21 years later would recognise:  “Large three roomed basement bistro.  Main room is the bar, with fresh flowers and wall ad’s for past goods.  Second room has food servery which is open all day serving a wide range of food – including vegetarian – at very reasonable prices.  Good beer, good food, good atmosphere.  Families welcome and no recorded music.”  Well, of course not.

The Carnarvon Castle, which sold Higsons and Boddingtons Bitters, was “famous for its toasties … [and] no extraneous noise”.  It’s still famous for its toasties; I had one there not long ago.  A lot of familiar Liverpool alehouses are present, such as the Baltic Fleet, the Globe, the Poste House, the Railway and the Lion.  The Swan in Wood Street was very unusual in selling six real ales (one a guest) and a real cider, but this effort is not enough for the compilers:  “Bring back Oak!” they demand.

It’s interesting which pubs aren’t mentioned, such as the Ship and Mitre, Rigby’s, the Vernon, or the Dispensary (which had a different name then), and although there is a Dr Duncans, it’s not the one you may be thinking of:  this one was a Tetley house in Seel Street, which later changed its name to Pogue Mahone.  The current Dr Duncans in St Johns Lane was at this time still an insurance office.

The biggest changes are in the beers.  Most pubs sell only one or two beers, usually a mild and a bitter from the owning company.  Where there is a different beer, it has usually come from another brewery that the company owns.  True guest beers are very rare.  One of the few exceptions was the Philharmonic, which sold Jennings Bitter as well as Tetley’s Mild and Bitter.  Beer strengths are all given in original gravities rather than percentages; for example, the strength of Higsons is given as 1038, instead of 3.7 or 3.8% that would probably be the equivalent.

This guide describes the local pub and brewery business right at the end of an era: the infamous Beer Orders, which subsequently forced the sale of vast pub estates*, had been published but not yet implemented, but strangely there is no mention of them in the guide.  Within a couple of years of its publication, pub companies were established to hoover up the breweries’ estates, financed by mortgaging the pubs that the breweries had usually owned outright.  Thus was the present situation created, but this guide tells us how it was at the very end of the old order.

A couple of odd omissions:  it encourages readers to join CAMRA, but doesn’t have an application form, and it doesn’t include a map of the large area covered by the guide.  However, at £1.75 (perhaps £3.50 now), it was good value and helped spread the real ale message in the best way – by telling people where to buy it.  I’ve found it very interesting to browse through.

I'll examine the Southport changes in a future post.

* Please see comment below by John Clarke concerning this point. 


  1. I've got a copy of this somewhere - not a lot to add, really. I would imagine it shows real ale pubs to be much thicker on the ground in Liverpool outside the city centre than they now are.

    Also interesting that it was sponsored by Higsons - and, to my recollection, shines a favourable spotlight on quite a few of their pubs.

  2. Yes, you're right on both counts. Whole swathes of Liverpool outside the centre are now beer deserts.

  3. One little hobby horse of mine - the Beer Orders did not in fact force anyone to sell anything. This fiction seems to get everywhere (even Barrie Pepper in the Oxford Companion to Beer trots this one out and he should know better). While the Beer Orders as proposed would have forced a sell-off, as enacted they did something rather different. No ceiling was placed on ownership at all. However brewers with more than 2,000 pubs were only allowed to tie half the excess over that total.

    Sorry to lapse into pedantry here but this "Beer Orders forced sell-off" nonsense seems to becoming accepted fact when in fact it's complete ballcocks.

  4. I think the intention behind the Beer Orders was that the Big Six breweries would split themselvs into smaller companies, which in reality was never going to happen. It was a classic example of not thinking through the likely consequences properly.

  5. John: thanks for the correction - it's important not to let misconceptions become accepted as facts. Perhaps "forced the sale" should read "resulted in the sale".

    Curmudgeon: "unintended consequences" is a phrase that crops up frequently in a pub and alcohol context, but what can you expect when careful policy planning is replaced by dogma and political expediency?

    My main point about things changing very fundamentally shortly after this book was published is still valid.

  6. As someone who has only lived in Liverpool for 14yrs, I found this article very intresting. The Swan is one of my favourite pubs. Just wished there was still lots of mild around. Thank you for sharing.

  7. The Hob - thanks. I've been drinking in Liverpool for 40 years, but I found the book, which I'd completely forgotten about, interesting too, and a reminder of how much our local brewery, pub and beer scene has completely changed.


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