Memories of Billericay Pubs in the 1960's
A personal story
It was 1963 when David came to live in Billericay, and brought with him a scruffy mongrel rescued from the East End streets. Every evening after dinner that old dog would present himself, with a whimper or two, an appealing look and a vibrantly oscillating caudal appendage. That was the signal for David and dog to walk the streets for half an hour or more for it is an unfortunate necessity that dogs need to be emptied on a daily basis, resulting in a rather tedious and repetitive walk for their owners.
At first David relieved the monotony of those walks by stopping to read the advertising cards in newsagents’ and estate agents’ windows. One such card in the newsagents offered for sale a “wooden collapsible child’s playpen.” David wondered what happened when the wooden collapsible child grew–up. An estate agent offered a “spacious gentleman’s detached residence” David thought to knock and see how spacious the gentleman was but eventually thought better of it. He soon tired of shop windows and so it came about that he investigated the town’s pubs.
There were seven pubs within dog walking distance in those days: one for every day of the week. So for the next decade the one man and his dog visited six of them on a rota system. One, the Rising Sun, they visited only once; for some reason, which David could not pinpoint, he did not feel comfortable with the ambience. So for some ten years David and dog would visit a pub every night but it should not be construed that he was a booze artist. Money was tight so he was very careful not to involve himself with company and enjoy hospitality which he could not repay. He would sit quietly for twenty minutes or so, enjoying his light ale whilst sharing his crisps with the dog, observing much but speaking only to those attracted by the dog.
The pubs then were, in many ways very different to those of today. Billericay was a country town and several of the pubs still epitomized the country pub. The Chequers had three distinct areas; a saloon bar on the North end, a public and darts bar on the other and a small snug bar with a bay window between. That snug on certain nights tended towards a club room for a few regulars; one with a small dog which regularly lay on the windowsill, ears pricked and eyes ever alert to the bustle of the High Street outside. On at least one occasion, possibly more, that old dog got loose and went to the pub on his own! David used the saloon, which was furnished simply, and with an old pine cased white dialed grandfather clock. Just as a country pub should be.
The Red Lion further along the street was laid out similarly to The Chequers with a small snug bar separating the other two. That snug too hosted an impromptu club of regulars who always seemed to be there whenever David visited. Evidently they were very good high spending customers. David habituated the quieter saloon with its permanently damp patch on the wall adjacent to the chemist’s shop next door. Here too the furnishings were in keeping with the ambience of a country pub. A huge oak coffer and a brass dialed, oak cased long case clock occupied the far wall of the room. There was the usual assortment of small tables and old country-wood chairs. At one table, on certain evenings a loan club operated. The members paid-in small sums regularly or perhaps borrowed the price of an extra round. That would be paid back with interest before the Christmas distribution.
Across the road The White Hart was unique in one way. The saloon bar, to the right of the door resembled a pre-war home. A chenille covered dining table occupied the centre of the room and a between the wars sideboard stood against a wall. There were easy chairs and two clocks. One of the clocks was a domed topped tall clock and the other a large wall-clock of the type known as a Tavern or Act of Parliament clock. The latter, having withstood close on two hundred years of sooty coal fires and countless coatings of nicotine from generations of smokers, was so black all over that the hands were chalked over in white to aid visibility. It had probably hung on the wall since the day it was made in the 1780s by local clockmaker Dan Cornwell, who may have lived there. The name Cornell is recorded as a resident at the time. Was it a misspelling or did Cornwell pronounce his name with a silent W akin to the silent P in bath? The other clock with silvered dial was probably a domestic regulator clock designed for exceptional accuracy, and from which all of the other clocks in the house would be set. The White Hart was then literally a public house.
Of course there were changes over that decade. Pubs are sold and re-sold, some times by the hundred by conglomerates, property speculators and brewery takeovers, resulting in landlord changes and extensive interior alterations. The homely old fashioned furnishings go with their erstwhile publicans to be replaced by interior designers’ ideas of chic. The Red Lion’s three bars were brutally knocked into one large open space, a signal for the free spenders in the old snug bar to depart. The Chequers was similarly altered but not so drastically.
The Railway and the Crown stood sentry like at the Northern entrance to the High Street, one either side and adjacent to the railway bridge. Those two pubs had a different feel about them when compared to the other High Street pubs, which is not to say they were any better or worse, just different. They both had their typical Victorian/ Edwardian mahogany bartops and sundry tables and chairs but somehow lacked the more homely touches. They were, I suppose, typical of railway station pubs everywhere.
So those five High Street pubs, The Chequers, The Red Lion, The White Hart the Crown and The Railway together with The Coach and Horses in Chapel Street were visited, one each evening for some ten years, until such time as the old mongrel went on ahead. Those same pubs have all survived and are active today, in an age when pubs are fast disappearing.
Sometime during that decade David abandoned his visits to The Crown on account of the mongrel’s hang-ups about the landlord’s Great Danes. The rota was maintained because about then another pub within dog walking distance appeared in Jackson ’s Lane. That was the architecturally exciting Dovecot. David’s patronage was short lived as very soon, unlike the older pubs, it attracted teenagers who, just then were beginning to take over the world. They caused much noise and other nuisances to the nearby housing. It all came to an end when the place went up in flames and consequently closed. Whether it was teenage arson or the management’s attempt to balance the books, David never heard. The Dovecot was repaired but then it was no longer architecturally exciting. In an attempt to jettison its old image it was renamed The Mayflower.
For various reasons the ambience in those Billericay pubs during the sixties was vastly different to that of today. They are still the same buildings but the experience of a visit then was vastly different from one of today. It was an age when working people did not have cars so the clientele were, for the most part, Billericay people. There was not a motoring trade as it is called today. Another notable difference is that young, ever changing “bar-staff” did not exist as such. One was served by mature people, usually the landlord or his wife who would recognize the customer and enquire about his ailments or family. Mine Host was truly that. The Chequers did have a barmaid with a deep décolletage adorned by a garden rose in season- a sort of poor -mans cabaret.
Food was not generally served: the gastronomic delights extending only so far as crisps, arrowroot biscuits, a pickled onion or perhaps a pickled egg. The exception was old Mrs. Jennings at The White Hart who would provide a sandwich or a good plate of bread and cheese upon request. After a few years things improved marginally when The Coach and Horses acquired a heated bar-top cabinet of chrome and glass which dispensed warm sausages. David’s old mongrel despatched many of those, not because there was anything wrong with them, but due to the generosity of the pub’s customers when confronted with an appealing dog.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference when comparing pubs fifty years ago with those of today is the clientele. There were very few youngsters doubtless because the old style landlords did not cater for them and would never have tolerated noise and bad behaviour . The youngsters then (unimaginable now) would congregate in milk-bars although David cannot recall any in Billericay. Noticeable by their absence were women. The pub half a century back was a totally male environment. Women were never seen in the bars unless they had something personal to sell. Even if they entered purely for a drink, perhaps egged on by the many rabid feminist journalists of that period, they would still be eyed with suspicion and the menfolk would feel uncomfortable. Over the decade from David’ first arrival and the time of the old dog’s demise, David was propositioned only once. That was in the Railway. David then offered the services of the dog, which caused much amusement! A couple of girls operating from a bungalow in Crown Road were soon exposed by the local press and quickly moved on. That womanless scene was emphasized one evening by an incident which David would never forget. Walking home from The Railway he was stopped outside The Chequers by a young woman from one of the newly erected houses on The Cloisters estate, which would date the period to 1969. “Would I mind”, she asked, “going in to The Chequers and purchasing twenty Senior Service cigarettes.” She would not dream of doing so herself, even though craving for a smoke. David took the proffered brown ten shilling note and obliged.
In 1973 David, by then dogless, moved from the town centre to the outskirts of the town and his locals became The Burstead Plough, which he only ever visited once, and The Duke of York , about which perhaps more anon. By that time things were changing. Carpets began to replace bare boards: behind the bar “The Duke” had a large ham or turkey which was carved for superb, sandwiches. Women started to appear- wives and daughters accompanying their menfolk, but still, at that time, never alone. Such were the humble beginnings of today’s gastro-pubs.