Monday, 27 June 2011

Arthur Berry on the Lost Pubs of Burslem Part 1 Listener 1979

I sat down and wept when I remembered the lost pubs of Burslem- the demolished Star that stood when the Moonglow Ballroom stands now, on the corner of the street of the Preacher and the Tote office. It was a gaunt dark building, nicknamed the Star of Bethlehem; a grimy stuccoed Star the colour of years of wet smoke. From the outside it looked forbidding and empty lit only be one or two naked light bulbs. Its doors were difficult to find. Its main door, on the corner of the square had been screwed down for some reason on the inside covered with a sheet of painted plywood. Only the side doors would let you in and these were narrow and difficult to open. One was in Queen Street and the other down William Clowes Street, opposite the Dolphin. Behind the blocked up main door was the weighing machine, which didn’t work, that stood in a passage leading to a closed smoke room.

For all its dreary appearances the Star was the highest drinking temple in the town. Nothing has been the same since it was knocked down. No pub has more lamented. It was a place filled with snugs. And in these snugs were little stoves each with a bucket of coal and a shovel. The snugs were the haunt of Guinness drinking old women who sat night after night, squat as toads, drinking and watching, eating and taking it all in.
There was one I remember Mrs Potts. God rest her soul! Who never stopped eating pork sandwiches all the days of her life, and the great chops must have chommelled herds of pigs down. I do not think her stomach had been empty for half a century before. She sat there, night after night, filling her face with roast pork and Guinness. I heard one man say that she would have eaten a bat in a straw or a raw monkey if it had stood still. But she knew what her pleasures were and what they were and she attended to them every night in the snug of the Star.

The snugs were often called pairing pens. Gossip had it that certain publicans for a consideration would lock one and turn the other way while the lascivious occupants attended to their carnal pleasures. I did not see this myself, but I was an innocent at the time and would not understand it if I had.

Behind these small cubicles was the big main taproom, a wooden floored L shaped bar, with cane bottom seats round the wall and a few little heavy iron-legged tables. These tables had been wiped with damp cloths that they were stripped bare of varnish. And the main bar was the same. Raw, wet wood covered with damp beer mats. There were spittoons around the bar on the floor and an old rose wood piano in the corner; and once there had been a big stove pot, but even in these days they had been ripped out and replaced by a pitiful but convenient heating arrangement.

How terrible has been the loss of these stove pots- the magnificent dark stoves that were once the heart of every taproom- elegant dark shapes that stood there with such dignity, such presence like a totem. To sit against one of these on a winter night and feel the rich heat and watch the clear amber beer was a benediction. Men would come early doors to get a seat on one of the wooden forms against it. And how the stovepipes were fitted at all angles to get to the ceiling. To watch a publican’s dog lying asleep in front of one of them was to watch luxury.

The loss of these stoves was a great blow. I always like to see the way the world works- where the heat comes from. Men have watched fire for millions of years. To give a form like a stove to hold a fire was the perfect blending between nature and art; to watch the publican lift the top and put on a shovel of coke was to watch a high priest attending to a ritual of life.

To go in say the Sea Lion in Waterloo Road and to get into the place when it was fresh mopped and the new beer mats were laid out on the tables and the ash trays were clean and the stove was cracking with fresh coke and the red quarries were gleaming red and the bar pumps were shining and the dominoes and the cards were waiting and the publican had a clean collar and tie on and all the world was ship shape- this was happiness or at least as nears to it as I will ever come.

What could be nicer, fresher than the smell of newly whitewashed gentlemen’s? I have patronised public houses because the gentlemen’s smelled so fresh But then, I have patronised pubs for very strange reasons. I used to go to the Black Lion because it had two brasses across the doors. This pub was flush with Queen Street and I used to press forward as though it was bulging out on to the narrow pavement. I remember the pleasure of having a couple of halves on a Saturday dinnertime, before going to watch the Vale play at the Old Recreation Ground.

Burslem was filled with pubs in those days, one every few yards- The Rose, The Shamrock and the Thistle, the Waterloo Stores, Norris Wine Vaults, The New Vaults, the Albion, The Mason’s Arms, the Durham Ox, The Hole in the Wall, the Jig Post. Gone, gone, gone every one!