Pubs: A glass divide

Downton Abbey might have been all about the Victorian class system but it’s the local where Britain’s obsession with one’s social standing was defined.

London’s hostelries once had multiple spaces, which sometimes were extremely small, each one denoted by the price you would pay for a drink and the status of customer with whom you might be rubbing shoulders.

[U]ntil the 1950s when the ‘Big Six’ brewers started to subsume local pubs into their brand, customers would pay a price that reflected the plushness of the room and expect to be shielded by etched or frosted windows from the glaze of passers-by or fellow drinkers which were in a different social class. The idea of financial, social and sexual segregation was an entrenched feature of pubs until well after the Second World War.

A variety of names were given to reflect the class of customer, or cost that patrons might expect to pay in these rooms. At the bottom is the public bar, often referred to as simply ‘bar’ with a more utilitarian feel, serving cheaper priced tipples and predominantly a male preserve, with easy access to a gents toilet, while for the ladies it would often entail a journey to another area of the public house. While, just occasionally vestiges of a ‘ladies only’ bar survive as in The Glass and Mitre, Bayswater.

Further up the pricing range of beverages or drinking rooms available was the saloon; lounge; smoke (or smoking room); the ‘select’ room was, as the name implies, a cut above with its own counter to the servery; a sitting room, where one might relax and summon a waiter by means of a bell, the only authentically bell-pushes in London can be found in The Forester, Ealing; private bar; vault (often a public bar); snug (small and cosy); commercial room (for commercial travellers); porter room; music room; and tap room (often curiously far removed from the place where ale was drawn).

But, uniquely in London, these different rooms with their own functions often evolved in to public houses with extraordinarily tiny drinking compartments. One survivor is The Barley Mow in Dorset Street [below], which retains two boxes giving the impression of Georgian box pews in church.


Other remarkable survivors of screened compartments are The Argyll Arms, Argyll Street and The Prince Albert, Formosa Street a sole example of screened compartments ranged around a peninsular servery.

Unlike today, when drinking habits are on display with customers spilling onto the pavement, while the public house has to employ security guards to shepherd the drinkers within the allotted area, Victorians were reluctant to be seen partaking of alcohol. Etched, and later frosted glass would be employed to form a screen between the world of the pub and passersby, a fine example is The Albert in Victoria Street [featured image above].

Snob screens were a feature of upmarket Victorian pubs giving privacy to their ‘better’ customers, creating a sense of physical and visual separation from the serving staff. These glass ‘windows’ could be revolved giving access to the bar staff to order one’s drink. A sole survivor of this, the clearest demarcation between the have’s and the ‘have not’s, is The Prince Albert, Maida Vale [below].


As drinking habits have changed to a more rowdy and less intimate space to enjoy a tipple the demarcation between social classes of drinkers have been swept away and many of the glass divides lost.

In 1991 a National Inventory of historic pub interiors was begun. It was expected that 500 examples worth retaining would be found from the 60,000 pubs in Britain at that time. In the event only 200 were identified, just 0.5 per cent of the nation’s pub stock.

With public houses closing on a weekly basis, the recent fire above The Old Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the earliest example of a 17th century interior, was of some concern, for in London the published inventory of historic pub interiors of 2004 identified only 133 pubs worthily of inclusion.

These surviving interiors which would indeed have been the norm, now their rarity makes them very special survivals of a lost age.

Photos: Interior of Argyll Arms Michael Flynn (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Featured image: Interior The Albert Brian Micklethwait

MegaBooth Taxi

This started as the occasional post about conversions of retired cabs that have been deemed as unfit for purpose by Transport for London.

But I am discovering so many
ingenious ways that have turned redundant vehicles into a useful asset that in all probability this will feature as a regularly monthly post.

[M]egabooth, the longest serving and most recognised photo booth company in the country know a thing about attracting customers. For 10 years they have been introducing innovative photo booth experiences for corporate events, weddings, private parties and retail outlets, creating photo booth installations inside cars: a retro Union Jack Mini Cooper; 1960s flower power Beetle; and the iconic London Taxi.

Megabooth have transformed the traditional indoor photo booth into a social media selfie experience attracting the likes of MTV, News International, River Island, Topshop, Primark, Tesco and Waitrose.

Their ‘Classic Black Taxi Photo Booth’ converted from the iconic London Fairway Black Cab is instantly recognisable. Its interior is rather different from what you might hail on London’s streets. Inside the taxi is retro décor with a chandelier, vintage upholstered seats and a grass-covered interior, with a range powerful SLR’s to take professional quality pictures.

The classically styled black Taxi photo booth can be transformed into a branded taxi for sponsorship or corporate events, having working closely with the likes of Time Out magazine and Ray Ban sunglasses customising their events with their signature black taxi.

If you want something more to brighten up your event they have covered two taxis head to toe in graffiti, which they claim will leave many street graffiti artists red faced as it passes them by.

The London Grill: Michael McNay

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Mike McNay

[M]ichael McNay is the author of Hidden Treasures of London (published by Random House Books). Michael worked for the Guardian for some thirty-seven years, during which time he wrote and edited features, was the paper’s first arts editor and wrote frequently on fine art and cinema. He was closely involved in the paper’s root and branch redesign of the late 1980s, and, to see it through, moved on to laying out and editing the front page for several years. He is now a freelance writer. His other books include Hidden Treasures of England and a study of the St Ives painter Patrick Heron.

What’s your secret London tip?
Set out at dawn.

What’s your secret London place?
Southside House, Wimbledon: a mixture of genuine 17th century with witty fakery and containing genuine old master paintings (and some that aren’t genuine).

Hidden-Treasures-of-LondonWhat’s your biggest gripe about London?
When you want to hail a taxi . . .

What’s your favourite building?
Richard Rogers’s knockout Lloyds.

What’s your most hated building?
Renzo Piano’s Shard. It would be great in Dubai.

What’s the best view in London?
From Tate Modern, fourth floor and above, across to the City from St Bride’s to London Bridge with the wonderful visual cacophony of Wren churches and the new towering citadels of capitalism, like a rock ‘n’ roll rendering of Oranges and Lemons.

What’s your personal London landmark?
St Paul’s Cathedral.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Non-fiction: Out of print, out of date, but a great read: David Piper’s The Companion Guide to London. Fiction: Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, a comedy of London in the blitz. Film: Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950)

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
The City Pride in Farringdon Lane: the last pub where I got comprehensively hammered, on my retirement many years ago.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Not drinking at the City Pride. Probably exploring the hidden depths of the V&A: always astonishing discoveries to be made.

Hidden Treasures of London

In the preface author Michael McNay describes his London as ‘dirty, noisy, generally tiresome and good to get away from in the evenings’. As arts editor of the Guardian, the paper he worked on for 37 years, his fascination with London and the minutia which has grabbed his attention must have been gained by osmosis. This huge tome covers in detail an eclectic collection that have attracted him for closer inspection.

[U]nusually nowadays its nearly 600 pages have been printed on high quality stock presumably to do justice to Stephanie Wolff’s fine photographs which illustrate McNay’s observations. Written in plain English, the author doesn’t presume his reader has knowledge of the subject which makes for an easily digestible read.

His attention to detail goes from questioning why Lubetkin’s modernist Highgate flats are called Highpoint while the architect, whose attention to detail was legendary, has the two words High Point positioned above the caryatids on the entrance canopy. To pointing out to the reader that the caryatids on St. Pancras New Church facing the unending traffic jam on the Euston Road have four sisters unnoticed on the south flank wall.

He does not restrict himself to making observations about historical buildings and artefacts. Writing with detail of the Leban Dance Centre built a mere 10 years ago and covered with ’lucent polycarbonate panels’ opaque plastic to you and me, he then enthuses about Sekhmet daughter of the sun god Ra whose 3,300 year old effigy can be found, of all places, above the entrance to Sotheby’s

McNay damns with faint praise a cabbie colleague ( for his assertion that the statue in Trinity Church Square might not, as asserted, be the oldest in London. He has found that it might not even be King Alfred pointing out that Coade Stone from the 19th century has been employed in touching up the statue’s imperfections and much of the regal regalia are missing.


And talking of cabbies, one omission, from this otherwise comprehensive guide is the frankly anachronistic green cab shelters, but as this is a personal view of London he also omits treasures from the British Museum, the National Gallery and, mercifully Madam Tussauds.

So if you are looking for a guide to London’s most famous artefacts that every tourist just has to see, this book isn’t for you. If as Johnson was reputed to remark “Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists”, then Michael McNay certainly has done just that.

Hidden Treasures of London is split geographically with each section having a useful map giving the location for each of his observations or anecdotes. While on the subject of the off-quoted Samuel Johnson who would have known his black manservant Francis Barber has a cul-de-sac named after him in Brixton?

I think the publishers, Random House, could have missed a trick with this huge tome. Too big to carry around London its comprehensive detail should be put on an app for ease of reference when traversing the capital.


CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The publication reviewed has been kindly donated by the author or publisher. CabbieBlog has not received payment for writing this review and opinions are solely his own. All links here conform with guidelines set out in Write a Post.

The Plagiarised Play

Currently running at the Duchess Theatre is a play in which the protagonists attempt to stage a play in which everything goes wrong. Lauded with praise The Play That Goes Wrong was the 2015 Olivier Award Winner for Best New Comedy and called a ‘gut-busting hit’ by the New York Times. It is only included here as it was plagiarised from the far more impressive, Intimate Review which on 11th March 1930 opened and closed at the Duchess Theatre on the same night.

[T]he curtain rose on the Intimate Review revealing a stage so cluttered with props there was hardly room for the actors. Pickford’s should have been employed for scene changes as each one took 20 minutes. The audience were soon enjoying the unintended comedy as every time the curtain parted squads of scene-shifters would stare out at the audience, frozen with fear like rabbits caught in a car’s headlights.

Miss Florence McHugh’s romantic set piece ‘Hawaiian Idyll’ sung while pacing a sandy beach with a blue backdrop representing a Pacific sky was slightly marred by the sight of two scene-shifters arguing behind the transparent backcloth.

The narrative was taking so long to unfold the producers decided to edit the penultimate scenes and move on to the grand finale. Greek nymphs entered stage left each wearing a large cumbersome headdress, two of which then proceeded to become entangled and while Miss McHugh valiantly sung the closing song as the remaining nymphs tried in vain to disentangle their two hapless companions.

According to the Manchester Guardian’s critic who having enjoyed the unintended comedy immensely wrote:

Spectators returned to their seats to be in at the death, to laugh with the conquered, not at them, and give a sporting cheer. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Who cares? Our good humour is restored. The show takes its final breath and, with a death rattle, expires. Enough!

Everyone involved agreed and issued a brief statement apologising for the debacle:

Everyone concerned was so much in agreement with the criticism of last night’s performance that its closure was decided upon promptly. In regard to the accommodation on stage there was certainly an appearance of overcrowding.

They promised to re-open later in the year, but it would be another 84 years before another hapless production was shown at this theatre to a West End audience.

As a footnote: The accolade of the world’s shortest review which was staged at the Duchess Theatre, was the show A Good Time receiving the one-word critique: “No”.