If you take a walk around Portsmouth and Southsea you can’t help noticing the number of spectacular pubs. Some have tall corner towers, some are richly tiled and others have prominent signs promoting long gone breweries. Portsmouth historians Riley & Eley claim that the public house is
….arguably the most distinctive feature of Portsmouth’s late Victorian working class housing areasR.C Riley & Philip Eley, Public houses and beerhouses in nineteenth century Portsmouth, p19
And Chris Witt, argues that in Portsmouth and Gosport:
….architecture and embellishment are brought together in a truly stunning series of pubs which taken together have no equivalent anywhere elseGeoff Brandwood (ed), Real heritage pubs of the South East, p30
So how did Portsmouth come to have so many exceptional public houses? A few things gave rise to the “Golden Age” of pub building in the 1890s, but in Portsmouth the competition between local breweries (and the architects they employed) was probably the most important. As in most large towns and cities, breweries in Portsmouth had been gradually building up their tied estate from the 1870 onwards. The need to have guaranteed outlets for their beer was their response to a temperance campaign which had successfully reduced the number of pubs. The campaigners though, not only wanted to reduce the number of pubs, they wanted to improve the quality and size of the existing ones.
Portsmouth leads the way
Portsmouth was one of the first cities where the brewers came to an arrangement with the licensing magistrates. They offered to close two or more beerhouses in return for permission to build a larger, fully licensed public house. This meant that pub building in the city got off to an early start, well before the national rush to build took hold in 1895.
In 1886 Brickwoods Brewery built the Fawcett in Southsea, followed the following year by the Mother Shipton in Stamshaw. Both pubs were designed by architect A.H. Bone and were imposing buildings, much different to the modest style of existing pubs and beerhouses. The Mother Shipton has prominent gables, a colourful carving of the eponymous soothsayer, and probably the first permanent version of Brickwood’s ‘Brilliant Ales’ slogan. It cost £2,000, an unheard of sum for new pubs in this period. The Fawcett is equally substantial and is the first pub to have the Mock Tudor upper floor and a ‘witch’s hat’ corner tower. These would both become distinctive features of Portsmouth pubs. Mock Tudor became very popular with pub architects in the 1930s but with the Fawcett, A.H Bone led the way more than 50 years earlier.
Brickwoods biggest brewing competitor was Pike Spicer but it was smaller rivals, Lush, Peters and Gibb who were quicker to respond, with three architect designed pubs in the late 1880s. The architect for all three was A.E. Cogswell who along with A.H. Bone was to become one of Portsmouths most prolific and influential pub designers.
Building continued at a steady pace with Brickwoods adding the Nell Gwynne, and Pike Spicer the Bedford Hotel, both in 1892. The Bedford closed in 1937 but the Nell Gwynne, designed by A.H. Bone, still stands in splendour today dominating the surrounding terraced houses. Bone at this point was leading the way with witch’s hat towers, and this one is tall, slender and rounded.
The boom accelerates
The race picked up speed after 1895 after the election of the brewer-friendly Tories. The bigger Portsmouth brewers were building two or three new pubs a year until 1900 and rebuilding others. In this period Pike Spicer built the Fountain, the Northcote, the Rutland and the Mermaid. All of these were designed by A.E. Cogswell and all are still in operation today. Brickwoods also made use of Cogswell, with the Talbot, the Hearts of Oak and the Black Dog added between 1895 and 1900.
The Fountain, built in 1895 on the main London Road, is quite a showpiece, with dual gables, a glazed brick and tiled ground floor with arches divided by iron columns, and stained glass above the doors. Inside, the original bar back survives but other fittings and screens were removed in 1992. The Northcote, finished the following year, is less elaborate but also has prominent gables, tiled signs advertising stout and porter and carved signs promoting Pike Spicer.
Mock Tudor and Witch’s Hats
In the same year as the Northcote, Cogswell really pushed the boat out with the Talbot. This was possibly the first manifestation of what was to become his trademark style: half timbered upper floors, a tiled ground floor and a prominent witch’s hat corner tower. Cogswell must have owed a debt of gratitude to A.H. Bone, who had pioneered the design eight years earlier at the Fawcett, as he was to use it right up to the 1920s. The Talbot is still standing, with its original exterior, but has been converted into flats. Other architects clearly liked the style and copied it quite closely. The Mystery, a Brickwoods pub, was a striking example as it stood alone after the terraced housing it served in Somerstown was demolished in the 1970s. When a new estate was built around it its individuality was even more apparent. Sadly it was demolished in 2005 after an arson attack. The Seagull was designed by Charles Vernon Inkpen in 1910, also for Brickwoods, and it too copies the Cogswell style. It closed as a pub in the 1990s and became an estate agent but it has now become a restaurant, also called the Seagull.
Tiling takes off
Other local breweries like Lush, Gibb, Long and Peters were also active, mainly with rebuilds. Longs of Southsea fought back in the style wars by refronting some of their pubs with lavish tiling. The Auckland Arms near the seafront, and the Fox, across the river in Gosport, are good examples that are still open today. Brewers from out of town realised that they had to up their game to compete in Portsmouth. In 1899 Eldridge Pope from Dorset commissioned A.E. Guy, one of the less celebrated Victorian pub architects of Portsmouth to build the Eldon Arms, also with a showy tiled facade. A tiled frontage displaying the brewery name became the house style for many of the smaller breweries of Portsmouth and Gosport.
A major Portsmouth brewer who missed out on the most prolific years of the pub building boom was Portsmouth United Breweries. They were only formed in 1896, from a merger of three breweries, but they quickly became a major player on the Portsmouth brewing scene. They chose the same tiled-frontage house style as the smaller brewers and began to refurbish their pubs. By 1906 just as the pub building boom was slowing down, they acquired the newly-built and splendid Eastfield, designed by Cogswell. The whole frontage is tiled, with a ceramic United Pale Ales frieze and a fabulous pediment at roof level. The pub still has two rooms, originally the saloon and public bar, some Edwardian fittings, and an elegant bar counter dating from the 1950s.
The magistrates fight back
The period following the “Golden Age” of pub building was essentially one of a substantial decline in pub numbers. Between 1900 and 1914 in Portsmouth, only nine new pubs were built compared to 100 being closed. The licensing magistrates again had the upper hand and were insisting on the closure of three or more pubs or beer houses before a new one could be built. A large number of pubs were simply closed with no replacement, though by 1904 landlords were entitled to some compensation.
But while there were few new pubs, the brewers continued to refurbish existing pubs and Cogswell alone was responsible for rebuilding or altering over 30 pubs between the turn of the century and the start of the First World War. Portsmouth United Breweries were among his clients and in 1911 he designed for them a new pub, the Tangier. This is notable for tiled paintings motivated by the brewer’s holiday in Morroco, but Riley & Eley note that the green ground floor tiling inspired the style that was to be widely used by United from then on. The Tangier remained as a pub until 2013, and soon after was converted to a Spar store. Remarkably all the exterior tiling is still there.
The United style is in evidence at at the Leopold in Southsea and the Egremont in Landport. The elegant ceramic facade of the Leopold was clearly added after they merged with Rock Brewery to form Portsmouth & Brighton United Brewery in 1928. The Egremont closed in the 1980s and is now a nursery but its glimmering green tiles are still there.
Portsmouth won’t go plain
By the mid 1920s pubs the number of new pubs and rebuilds was rising again. Pressure was still on the breweries from the anti drink lobby and nationally this led to the “Improved Pub” or “Reformed Pub” movement. Essentially this was about building larger, better quality pubs that appealed to families. The design of pubs changed too, becoming plainer in a reaction to what was seen as the vulgarity of Victorian excess. This trend took a while to get going in Portsmouth and A.E. Cogswell was sticking to his favoured styles. The George & Dragon was built in 1923 with a Mock Tudor upper floor, a tiled ground floor and a Brickwood’s mosaic-tiled frieze. The Florist, built in the same year, was in the same style and even added a witch’s hat tower, 27 years after Cogswell built his first. Slightly ironically perhaps, Mock Tudor or “Brewer’s Tudor” was to become a popular style for “Improved Pubs” across the country in the 1930s.
The newer styles began to take hold in Portsmouth and even Cosgwell went part of the way with his (slightly) plainer Trafalgar Arms in Fratton and Barley Mow in Southsea, both still open today. He couldn’t be fully kept down though and as late as 1931 Cogswell designed the Coach and Horses, a striking pub in Scottish Baronial style with a castellated tower and pediment, and elaborate tiled paintings on the facade. This turned out to be the final fling in Portsmouth & Southsea’s extraordinary period of extravagant pub building.
Imposing corner locals
Thankfully many of these pubs are still standing today, but what is perhaps surprising is that so many of the these impressive buildings are essentially back street corner locals. There are a few examples elsewhere, like some of Joseph Holt’s grander buildings on the terraced streets of Manchester, but the number and concentration of such houses in Portsmouth has to be unique. Very few serve meals and most have a real community feel with quizzes, pool, darts and that stalwart of the working class boozer, a weekly meat raffle.
Lavish but not listed
Possibly a bit less surprising is the fact that so few of these pubs are listed buildings, despite their impressive architectural features. Of those mentioned above only the Fountain, the Eastfield and the (now closed) Tangier have a Grade II listing. Although the two open pubs have some original internal features, it is their architecture and external features that seems to have won them the listing. All have fine exteriors, and while I confess that my expertise in this field is limited, there do seem to be at least four or five other equally fine pubs that could be assessed favourably for listing.
While it would be good to get some official protection for these buildings, it’s worth noting that the original exteriors of many closed pubs are still in place. The Talbot, the Seagull, The Tangier (this is listed) and the Egremont, all mentioned above, and the Air Balloon, below, still look much as they did when they were pubs. The original interiors of course have gone but it seems that the City Council are insisting on preserving exteriors when granting planning permission. And this means that the heritage of Portsmouth’s exceptional pubs is being preserved. While that’s good, it would be much better if they were still pubs, and let’s hope that all those still open remain that way.
Brandwood, Geoff (ed). Real heritage pubs of the South East, Camra Books, 2020
Eley, Philip. Portsmouth breweries since 1847, Portsmouth City Council, 1994
Eley, Philip & R.C Riley, The demise of demon drink? Portsmouth pubs 1900-1950, Portsmouth City Council, 1991
Girouard, Mark. Victorian pubs, Yale University Press, 1984
Riley, R.C & Philip Eley. Public houses and beerhouses in nineteenth century Portsmouth, Portsmouth City Council, 1983
Wallis, Steve. Portsmouth pubs, Amberley Publishing, 2017