Thursday 30 May 2024

A double helping of brewery history, plus a 50-year old mystery is finally solved

Those of you who thought we'd seen the last of Salisbury are going to be disappointed, although some of you might relish a final look at the city. But before returning one last time to the second largest settlement in Wiltshire I first want to tell you about a real gem of a pub I discovered, when I arrived back in London.  On the train back from Salisbury, I had been flicking through What Pub, the comprehensive, CAMRA hosted guide to every pub and bar in the United Kingdom. I was looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary that wasn’t too far away from where my train home would depart from, and this is where What Pub came to the rescue.

Tucked away, down a quiet side street, just a short hop from Waterloo mainline station, lies the White Hart, an attractive looking 19th century pub situated on a corner of terraced, yellow-brick cottages. Although some might think it rather trivial, the thing that really appealed to me about the White Hart was the lettering around the periphery of the pub, advertising Wenlock Ales & Stout. Wine & Spirits also get a mention, but it's the beer that we're particularly interested in here, because Wenlock is a long-lost London brewery of some repute, which ceased production in 1962.

The brewery was located in Wenlock Road in the Hoxton district of the London Borough of Hackney. For the brewery history buffs amongst us Wenlock Brewery was acquired in 1953 by Worthington & Co, who were already a subsidiary of Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton. At the time of the takeover, Wenlock operated 164 pubs, most of which were situated in the capital, although there were six outside the Greater London area.

Marcuswenlock, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>,
There isn’t that much information out there about the company, and even on the Brewery History Society’s website there is little more than a couple of paragraphs, plus a selection of old bottle labels.  Some memorabilia, or evidence of past ownership still exists, such as signs or etched windows, and the best example is the Wenlock Arms, the renowned and award winning, cask ale pub just off the City Road on the fringe of London’s East End, which formed the brewery tap for Wenlock Ales.

That's the history part over, but what about the White Hart itself?  Well, on a hot and rather sticky Friday evening it was bustling with people congregating there for an after-work pint or three. Many were standing outside on the pavement, enjoying a beer and a chat with their friends or work colleagues. Internally the pub appears to have been hollowed out, with little trace of former separate drinking areas or partitions. So far as the beer was concerned the range was Timothy Taylor's Landlord, St. Austell Proper Job, plus a “coming soon” beer.  To come across such a pleasant pub tucked away, down a quiet residential backstreet, proved there are still good pubs to be found all over London, provided you know where to look.

Right back to Salisbury, and the first place I want to mention is this photo, displaying the name Gibbs Mew & Co’s Sarum Ales.  Sarum was the old name for Salisbury, and Gibbs Mew were one of approximately 100 family breweries that were still around at the time CAMRA’s foundation. The company didn’t exactly tick all the right boxes, so far as CAMRA were concerned, in fact the campaign’s first national Good Beer Guide, published in 1974 dismisses the brewery and it's beers as “a disaster.” Brewery descriptions were brief and to the point back then, and the reason Gibbs received the thumbs down was because during the 1960’s, the company had converted all its production to keg beer, with not a drop of cask in sight.

Founded in 1750, at Haslemere, in Surrey, as Bridger Gibbs & Son, the company moved to the Anchor Brewery, in Salisbury in 1858, before merging with the neighbouring brewery of Herbet Mew, in 1898, to form Gibbs Mew & Co. In June 1960, they bought the Lancashire Clubs Federation Brewery Ltd to produce keg beer for Northern clubs, and this is probably the origination of their flirtation with keg beer. Three rather indifferent keg bitters, Special PA, Blue Keg, Anchor Keg, plus Super Mild, an old school dark mild, that was also keg, were produced. Then, in 1976, following a complete reversal of policy, a strong and rather sweet barley wine, called Bishops Tipple was introduced into some of their pubs. The following year a range of not very exciting bitters was introduced, which were probably the keg beers in cask form.  

In 1994, Gibbs purchased pub company, Centric Inns, which added an additional 197 pubs to their 121 tied estate, a move that was followed three years later, by the closure of the Salisbury brewery. This seemed a strange move coming, as it did, just a year before their 100th anniversary.  Gibbs Mew became a pub company, and their beers were initially brewed by Ushers of Trowbridge. In 2011, the company with its 310 tied houses was sold to Enterprise Inns.

I initially thought that the building depicted in my photo, was the original frontage of the brewery, especially as the double doors in the middle, leading to the upmarket apartments at the rear, are signed as “The Old Brewery”.  However, after digging a little deeper I discovered this white painted building was the Old Coach House, a Gibbs Mew pub which was also a Berni Inn.  Hands up if you’re old enough to remember Berni Inns, but if you are not, click on the link and all will be revealed.

My research also revealed that Gibbs Anchor Brewery was situated in nearby Gigant Street, but with most of the brewery buildings now demolished, very little remains now of this once thriving enterprise. The company’s beers aren’t exactly missed by today's’ discerning drinkers, but if there ever was a brewery that lost not just its way, but its whole rationale for existing, then Gibbs Mew was it.

Anyway, I trust you enjoyed that little look back in time, but it’s surprising what you can find just be walking through the streets of an unfamiliar town, and we’re not quite finished yet. In my Salisbury re-visited post, I mentioned stopping off for a pint in the city as a 17-year-old schoolboy, whilst on my way by coach, to Cornwall, for a geology field studies course. I said that I had no idea as to the pub my friends and I called in at, but as someone who enjoys a challenge, I think I have found which one it was.

The logical approach was to look for the location of the main coach park in Salisbury, and then look on Google Streetview for the nearest pub. My pals and I wouldn’t have walked too far into the city, for fear of getting lost, so after a bit more searching, I have come up with the George & Dragon, in Castle Street. This 16th Century pub has a garden backing onto the river, low beamed-ceilings, and the right sort of feel one might expect from a historic, period, city-centre public house. It is also just a short walk from Salisbury’s Central Coach Park, at Millstream.

I can’t be 100 percent certain, but the George ticks all the right boxes, and I still have a vague picture, in my mind’s eye, of me, plus a couple of mates, standing at the bar and knocking back a pint of some bitter or other. An old photo found online, shows the pub painted out in Usher’s livery, and as we found out earlier, Ushers took over the brewing of Gibbs Mew beers for a while, following closure of the brewery. So, could the G&D have been a Gibbs’ house, half a century ago? and was it beer from that company that my companions and I were knocking back?



Dave said...

Great series, Paul. Really enjoyed it.

Stafford Paul said...

Waterloo railway station is where my paternal grandparents met with them both working there during the First World War.
I expect that you've used the nearby Hole in the Wall many times. I often did with meetings to attend in York Road.
I well remember Gibbs Mew taking over Centric as that had me drinking their Salisbury Bitter nearly thirty years ago in Stafford's Coach and Horses which is now a Craft Union pub that's lost its cask beer.
One fifty year old mystery solved but what about that Leek pub where you stopped for a leak ? !

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Dave, I'm glad you enjoyed my mini-series on Salisbury. Have you managed a visit yet, as part of your extensive travels within the UK?

Salisbury perhaps, doesn't quite have the pedigree that places like York, Oxford and Bath have, to name just a few, and doesn't have the beery attractions of cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol, but is still well worth visiting. It's proximity to Stonehenge is another reason to visit, especially if you're interested in prehistoric structures.

Paul Bailey said...

Paul, I walked past the Hole in the Wall, the other Friday, on my way to the White Hart. It's a pub with fond memories for me, as well as being a pioneering outlet for cask ales, that weren't usually available in the capital. I enjoyed my first pints of Brakspears (Bitter and Special) at the pub, and probably one or two others - Eldridge Pope, spring to mind.

The identity of the "leak" pub, in Leek is going to be a tougher nut to crack, and might even require a visit to the town, in order to jog my memory!

Dave said...

Paul, I've been to Salisbury twice. Once when I was in my twenties and once when I was family. I really like the city. Dave

Paul Bailey said...

Dave, it turns out that one of my colleagues is a regular visitor to Salisbury, as her in-laws live in the city.

She's a fan of Badger Ales, so is familiar with the New Inn, the pub I originally planned to eat at.