A night on the tiles: ceramic pub exteriors

Tiling and ceramics in pubs was a way of making your pub stand out from your competitors. It started to be used in pubs as early as the 1880s and became hugely popular in the great pub building boom of the late 1890s and early 1900s. It was used both inside and outside the pub and although expensive, it had the practical benefits of being both long lasting and easy to clean. Ceramics had another mini boom in the inter war years and was used in both new pubs and as part of pub restorations right up to the 1990s. Because tiling is so permanent and difficult to remove it has defied changes in fashion and it still decorates a considerable number of pubs today.

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Most recent writing on ceramics in pubs has come from Camra’s Pub Heritage Group who have focused mainly on pub interiors. This article takes a closer look at tiled pub exteriors, and examines the importance of the tile manufacturers in the design of pubs. Surprisingly, given their visual impact, tiled facades only started to appear in any numbers at the start of the 1900s, well into the pub building boom.

Tiled facades take off: the Edwardian era

Birmingham led the way with the red brick and terracotta pubs designed by the architects firm of James & Lister Lea. Their first pub in this style in 1896 was the Coach and Horses in Bordesley Green, which has a terracotta-tiled ground floor and red brick upper floor. The style evolved in their later pubs with a mix of terracotta tiles and brick on all floors, often with moulded terracotta around the door and windows. Though their pubs were often quite elaborate, the exteriors are quite restrained visually. Terracotta could be specified in any colour from buff to dark brown but James & Lister Lea preferred to use tiles that matched the red of the bricks. A first glance at the facades of the Anchor and the Woodman, both in Digbeth, make it hard to tell the tiles from the brick.

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The tiles for James & Lister Lea pubs were supplied by the Hathern Station Brick and Terra Cotta Company, a few miles from Loughborough in Leicestershire. The relationship between the two firms reveals the influence the tile companies had on the design of most pubs with ceramic decoration. James & Lister Lea would give building measurements to Hathern Station who would then work up drawings from their existing catalogue. The architect would then make minor changes to the detail to complete the design. It was a joint effort and as Alan Crawford et al say in their book Birmingham Pubs 1880-1939:

We naturally talk of these pubs as ‘by’ James & Lister Lea: we might equally say they were ‘by’ the men from Hathern.

Glazing moves outside

The use of terracotta tiles was mainly confined to Birmingham, and elsewhere pub builders were beginning to use glazed tiles to create eye-catching exteriors. Glazed tiles could be made in any colour or combinations of colours and patterns, and their mass production in factories had been perfected by the Victorians. These tiles had been used to decorate pub interiors for much of the 1890s, and indeed were much used inside Birmingham’s red brick and terracotta pubs. By the turn of the century some Birmingham brewers, possibly with incentives from the tiling companies, were looking to add glazed tiles to the outside as well.

One of the area’s smaller brewers, Holders, made a bid to compete with bigger rivals with the Craven Arms. They commissioned architect Arthur Edward to rebuild the pub in 1906 and he shunned red brick and terracotta in favour of a bold yellow and blue glazed tiled frontage. Most of the brewery’s pubs were in Aston and Nechells and this was probably a prestige project to make their name known in the city centre. The pub is now owned by Black Country Ales and is a real ale specialist.

Even Mitchells and Butlers, who had commissioned many red brick and terracotta pubs, gave brighter tiling a try. The Queens Arms in the Jewellery Quarter was remodelled in 1901 with a striking tiled corner sign.

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Portsmouth brewers, led by Brickwoods, were engaged at this time in a battle to outdo each other with impressive pub buildings, and the smaller brewers fought back with elaborately tiled facades. Longs of Southsea refronted the Auckland Arms near the seafront, and Eldridge Pope from Dorset built the Eldon Arms in Southsea in 1899. These pubs have the brewery name and the products they sold (usually ‘ales’ and ‘stout’) displayed in a tiled frieze across the front of the pub. This idea was picked up by other breweries in the city with Portsmouth United Breweries adding one to the Cogswell-designed Eastfield in 1906. 

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The tilemakers go into battle

We’ve seen how the rivalry between brewers in Birmingham and Portsmouth led to impressive pubs and this was important in many areas during the pub building boom. But as Lynn Pearson argues in her excellent article on ceramics in pubs and breweries, it is likely that the tiling companies were equally competitive. Because of the popularity of decorative tiles in Victorian houses and the increasing demand for sanitary ware, dozens of tiling companies had been formed, and were now competing against each other in a crowded market. Pubs were a great place to display the quality of their products and the brewers and their architects were able to negotiate very favourable terms.

And while local ceramics companies often won the contract, competition was encouraging them to look for work far from their home base. The tiling company used by Portsmouth architects was usually Carters of nearby Poole but the firm was already working on pub interiors in the Midlands and London. Firms like Doulton in London and Craven Dunhill in Jackfield, Shropshire were winning contracts as far away as Scotland and North East England.

On Merseyside, the Stork in Birkenhead shows how far the ceramics companies would go to make their name known. Pearson argues that the Swan Tile Works in Liverpool created the expensive tiled facade and interior of the Stork as a loss leader to promote their bricks and sanitary ware. The pub has an elaborate blue tiled and brown glazed brick facade and a ceramic bar counter inside.

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In Leeds, the Garden Gate was built in 1903 by an individual entrepreneur in partnership with local ceramics firm Burmantofts. This was the celebrated “architectural faience” division of the Leeds Fireclay Company whose tiles were used on many pubs. The fully tiled frontage has a glorious brown ceramic ground floor with decorated columns and entrance, and an upper floor in buff tiles topped by a grape-decorated parapet. Another pub with Burmantofts tiles is the marvellous Peveril of the Peak in central Manchester, which went a step further than the Garden Gate by having not just the frontage, but three external walls fully covered in glazed tiles. This is a wonderful survivor on a traffic island surrounded by modern high rise blocks.

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Staying with fully tiled frontages, one of the most spectacular is at the Fox and Anchor in Farringdon in London with a ceramic facade right up to roof level. The gable displays the date it was built, 1898, and probably the first tiled illustration on the outside of a pub. It was designed by ceramic sculptor William James Neatby, working at that time for Doulton and Co of Lambeth, who manufactured the tiling. There are more tiled images at ground level with the splendid art nouveau Fox & Anchor panels in the entrance lobbies. The pub is now owned by Youngs, and despite the closure of the nearby Smithfield Meat Market, it still opens early morning as it once did to serve the market workers.

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We’ve seen that Carters of Poole were becoming important nationally, and in 1911 they were responsible for one of the most remarkable tiled facades on any pub. The Lord Nelson in Merton in South London has a red and pale yellow tiled ground floor with three tiled paintings, one of Nelson and two of his ship, the Victory. Tiled paintings like this, while not common, are mostly found inside pubs, and these on the Nelson could be the only ones remaining on the exterior of a still-open pub.

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Charrington’s, who built the Nelson, Truman’s, and to a lesser extent Taylor Walker, were three London breweries who added tiled frontages to their pubs in the Edwardian period and many of these are still around today. All had a tiled frieze prominently displaying the brewery name, but for much of the twentieth century and beyond these were covered over. In recent years many have been revealed again by new owners who appreciate the quality of the work.

Improved pubs and corporate branding: the 1920s and 1930s

This was the period of the “improved pub” and some architects and breweries were using tiles on pub frontages in a less flamboyant style. Trumans of London who built many pubs in the inter-war period added green and buff tiles to the ground floor of pubs like the Royal Oak in Bethnal Green and a corner sign displaying the name of the pub and the brewery. At other pubs like the Cock in Hackney they omitted the ground floor tiling but kept the trademark tiled corner sign.

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Tiling found its way into some of the building styles used for “improved pubs”. Some Art Deco pubs like the Swan and Mitre in Liverpool, the Carpenters Arms in London and the Steps Bar in Glasgow have a full or part-tiled facade. Another popular inter-war style was Brewers Tudor, and the George and Dragon in Portsmouth and the Ship in Sheffield have attractive ground floor tiling and a half timbered upper floor. The Ship incidentally, has a rare thing, a tiled painting that acts as the inn sign (below right).

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Breweries had always made sure their name was displayed outside the pubs they owned, but by the 1930s they were beginning to establish a corporate style which gave all their pubs the same branding. On the south coast, Portsmouth United Breweries had merged with Rock Brewery in Brighton to form the Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries. They took the corporate branding idea further than most, and embarked on a mission in the 1930s to re-front their pubs in tiles and glazed brick in shades of green. You’ll find lots of pubs in this style from Gosport in Hampshire right across to Newhaven in East Sussex. In Brighton, an ex-United pub close to the Horse & Groom (below) has been in the news recently because the owner began to hack off the green tiles, causing much local outrage.

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Tiled brewery signs and plaques

While no other brewer went as far as United in ceramic corporate branding, a few did attempt to add a tiled brewery sign or plaque to the outside of all their pubs. Greene King, before it became the national brewery it is today, probably made the bravest attempt. Their plaque was designed in 1933 by Kruger Gray and made by Doultons of Lambeth until 1956 and then by Carters of Poole. The basic design was the same on all of them but the inscription on the bottom differed depending on the pub it was added to. The photo below shows each of the four types and all is explained on a page of the Brewery History Society website. Greene King were continuing to add the plaques to pubs in East Anglia in the early 2000s but but they don’t add them to the hundreds of pubs they now own in the rest of the country.

Another brewery who went to enormous efforts to add a plaque to each of their pubs was West Country Breweries. Their “Best in the West” plaques were made by Doultons and can be found across much of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Bristol and Worcestershire. The plaques began with Cheltenham and Hereford Breweries and a few bearing their name can still be seen. Morland Brewery of Abingdon were also keen on plaques, and theirs shows one of the family, renowned painter George Morland. They were made by Carters and lots of them can be found in Oxfordshire. Youngs of London made a bit of an attempt with their tiled signs showing the Ram logo, but it only found its way onto a few of their pubs. Other breweries like Charringtons, Halls and Lacons had tiled plaques, and I can see that a separate article on just this topic might be needed!

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Brandwood, Geoff. Britain’s best real heritage pubs, Campaign For Real Ale, 2013
Brandwood, Geoff, Andrew Davison & Michael Slaughter. Licensed to sell: the history and heritage of the public house, English Heritage, 2004
Brandwood, Geoff (ed). Real heritage pubs of the South East, Camra Books, 2020
Brewery History website breweryhistory.com/
Crawford, Alan, Michael Dunn & Robert Thorne. Birmingham pubs 1880-1939, Alan Sutton, 1986
Eley, Philip & R.C Riley, The demise of demon drink? Portsmouth pubs 1900-1950, Portsmouth City Council, 1991
Pearson, Lynn. Decorative ceramics in the buildings of the brewing industry, Tile and Architectural Society Journal 8, 2000. Available online. Most of the information on tiling companies comes from this article.
Riley, R.C & Philip Eley. Public houses and beerhouses in nineteenth century Portsmouth, Portsmouth City Council, 1983

4 responses... add one

That’s a whole lot of info about tiled pubs, excellent research. So many pubs I’d love to visit

As someone with professional expertise in architectural ceramics and an almost professional expertise in drinking beer in historic pubs this article is a wonderful find! Thank you for writing it. I’m not sure if I should be proud of the fact that I have visited five of them (one being opposite my office at Arup!). One very glaring omission though – the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast (owned by the National Trust). https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/northern-ireland/the-crown-bar

Many thanks Alexis, and glad to hear that you’ve visited so many of the pubs! I do think the remaining tiled pubs are much under-appreciated. You’re right about the Crown Liquor Saloon of course but I like to have made a recent visit (and use my own photos), but I haven’t been there for many years. Though I guess not much has changed!

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