It’s May 1949 and British Rail was showing off its latest idea to please the public – a travelling pub.

Not a buffet car or restaurant, but a “tavern car” – a full on pub on wheels, in a mock-tudor appearance, with fake brick walls on the outside, and even a pub sign on the door.

Eight sets of two carriages were planned and each was given a traditional pub name — The White Horse, The Salutation, The Jolly Tar, The Dolphin, The Bull, The Green Man, The Crown, and Three Plovers.

Mock tudor isn’t cheap, with the eight trains costing £64,000 out of British Rail’s total restaurant car budget for the year of £281,000.

The decoration inside was based on a traditional pub, so they had rough white washed walls and dark oak beams, and high backed dark wood seats (settles). Even the windows in the train carriage were rather small olde style leaded panes, and the floor was designed to look like country pub floor tiles.

It is believed that the engineer who designed them, Oliver Bulleid based the design on The Chequers Inn at Pulborough, Sussex.

First class was as you might expect, more of a Soho cocktail bar effect, so it came with chrome and glass topped tables, and the chairs were upholstered in… get ready for it… pink and silver brocade. Probably just as well that the press photos are all in black & white.

They were first shown off in London in May 1949, and used on the Southern and Eastern Railway lines.

It seems that reception was rather mixed.

The week after they were shown off, a letter to the Times criticizing their faux heritage appearance was signed by a host of critics and designers.

In June, during a Parliamentary debate, Tom Driberg MP declared “Words fail me to express the full horror which I felt when the announcement was made by B.R. of the cars which they described as being ‘mock Tudor style’. Another politician, Skeffington Lodge MP described the idea as “bogus sentimentality”.

However, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, and future Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan defended the mobile pubs, saying that “the use to which these tavern cars has been put has exceeded the wildest expectations in revenue that the Railway Executive ever hoped to get.”

He curtly chided armchair critics noting that “nobody likes them except the public and the public have flocked to them”, adding that “There has been a lot of heat and exaggerated language used by people who have not been within half a mile of them.”

They seemed to be popular for serving drinks, but less so for drinking the drinks.

The beams were complained of as being too low, the small windows made the carriages seem claustrophobic, and there was a lack of ventilation which made them uncomfortable in the summer.

A report for Lord Inman, chairman of the Hotel Executive within the British Transport Executive said that the tavern car interiors was generally acceptable, but that the fake brick effect on the outside was “incredibly bad”.

Within a year, British Rail had admitted defeat and was looking around for more conventional replacement restaurant cars. The exterior brickwork was seemingly removed in early 1950, and by the middle of 1951 they had been remodeled into a slightly more conventional layout and more windows installed. In 1959, some £22,900 was spent refurbishing them into conventional dining cars.

But for a decade, there were travelling pubs on the railways.

Today, the heritage railways do a roaring trade in real ale tours and excursions. Clearly British Rail was just ahead of its time.

Sources:

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13 comments on “British Rail’s short experiment with travelling pubs
  1. Jon Jones says:

    It might not have been a success but I think they should be applauded for at least trying something different.

  2. Tom J says:

    Needs more horsebrasses

  3. Michael Vince says:

    Strictly speaking, wasn’t it British Railways?

  4. Bob McIntyre says:

    Ah… The days when you could actually get something to drink and eat on a train rather than being crammed in cattle-like so that even if there’s supposed to be a trolley service, it never gets to you.

    I hadn’t realised that they were used outside Southern Region (thanks for that!) and further research suggests one of the services they were tried on was the Liverpool – Manchester – Harwich Boat Train. I can’t imagine them being any more successful than BR’s re-introduction of a restaurant car on the same route in the 1970s.

  5. Melvyn says:

    Given the news of millions of pounds worth of beer unsold in closed pubs perhaps someone could buy up withdrawn carriages and set up mobile off licences in pub car parks to sell the beer that will soon have to be poured away !

  6. Sean says:

    The images didn’t load for me initially and I assumed I’d stumbled on an old April Fools article! Incredible! I’ve never heard about this till now.

  7. David Chorley says:

    The underlying premise of “The Titfield Thunderbolt” is that alcoholic beverages can be served on a train in motion without regard to licensing times….

  8. JP says:

    …and indeed on the water. I might have missed these wonders alas but when I worked nr. Swan Lane pier and the little chugger was swapped for the faux paddle steamer with beer on tap, what a morning commute down the Thames that fortnight proved to be! Nearly lost my job. On a daily basis.

  9. Peter Wright says:

    The fledgeling “Trains Illustrated” reported on the introduction of these “Taverns on Wheels” in Aug/Sept 1949. It reported that the trains to which these pairs of carriages were allocated. Atlantic Coast Express, Master Cutler, South Yorkshireman, White Rose, Norfolkman and the Harwich – Liverpool service. It also carried a cartoon where a ‘Battleaxe’ with rolling pin, awaited for her trilby wearing husband who was peeping from a window.

  10. rocky suttonr says:

    U used to go to school by train, living at New Malden.
    I often saw one of the pubs steaming by but had no idea about the interior until now.
    Well done

  11. Sara Masson says:

    In the late 70s I worked at my first library job at Cannon Street Library opposite the station (and next to The London Stone). The head librarian would head over to the station at 5, ostensibly to pick up a Standard, but actually to have a pint. I was told that he used to take a pub train home and on one occasion, on reaching home, (Horsham, I think) he stepped out of the wrong side of the train – almost breaking his back. (Fortunately he recovered, going on to become the librarian at St Paul’s Cathedral Library (with it’s superb Grinling Gibbons carvings, and John Donne sermons).
    (As a leaving gift, I remember I gave him a Charles and Diana wedding tea -towel, and wrote him the following poem “Well cheerio Frank, you grumpy old sod, let’s hope St Paul’s brings you closer to God”)

  12. Bess says:

    Because moving things could serve drinks throughout the day, Bernard Levin suggested that the Royal Opera House should be put on a revolve. Another great London scheme that never happened.

    Thanks, Ian, for years of very interesting info!

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