In search of the Froth Blowers

Steve Wilson's personal quest.

Extracts from Steve's journal :


10th June 2007

Bert's house and a few more VATS

Last Monday I found myself a bus ride away from Brixton with a day to spare. I got to Brixton, had a pint and then found an internet cafe to scribble down notes. 10 minutes later I was standing outside 2 Chaucer Road, ( Webmaster note - The Temple Family Home and Bert's birthplace !) and to my astonishment not only is it still there, it hasn't been converted into flats. Then I noticed a car in the driveway and an open window. Summoning up nerve (and hoping my breath didn't reek of Abbot, or whatever I had at the Wetherspoons) I rang the bell.
A very nice lady (who was waiting for a John Lewis delivery) answered, and she got really interested in Bert and his work. She mentioned that the house was built in the 1860s, which makes me think the Temples bought it new, and that her own son was born there - as she put it - "perhaps in the same place"! I promised to send her some info on Bert and the AOFB, which I will do. I didn't ask her name - seems a bit intrusive - but I will download some stuff and print it out.
Right, to Bert's local Vats.
The George IV on Brixton Hill is now the South Side Bar, though the change is very recent and incomplete. Great for the young trendies, I noticed they had coffee on the go but no real ale, so had a half of Guinness and left, but did explain why I was there, to the usual interest the AOFB story always elicits. 
Then to the Elm Park. It wasn't open yet, so I chatted with an old Irish bloke who was sitting nearby about the pub. He'd lived locally for years, but had never been in on account of it being a bit rough. I left him to the remaining 5 of his 6-pack of special brew and went in.
The pub itself has lots of old stuff, none of it looked bought in and I suspect that the outside hasn't been painted since Bert's day, and I had a decent pint of Bass and searched for memorabilia, but no sign. I did, however, get directions to other Vats I hadn't expected to reach. It also has a pub sign that is worth preserving - v quaint.
The Hand-in-Hand is a Young's pub, and I was the only customer. It is modern (plus bought-in old stuff) but at least has a history of the pub - but it finished before the AOFB got there. I searched in vain, as usual, and after downing a Waggledance headed back to central Brixton.
The remains of the Duke of Wellington were visible from the pub across the road. The pub sign is still there, but the rest is boarded up. The staff at the Young's pub opposite explained that it had become really rough, a magnet for drug dealers and then gangs, and the police finally had it closed after a shoot-out. Gulp.
To the Trinity. Another Young's pub with a history on the wall, this is the pub I used to drink in 30 years ago, when in the mid-evening a couple in a flat opposite would have sex standing up behind a thin blind with back lighting, much to our amusement. No sign of the AOFB as usual, but never mind.
The two vats in Bellefields Road are a mystery, no sign of a pub but the buildings look too old, but the Duke of Edinburgh is still there and a very good pub. Finally, I found the modern bar that was the New Queen's Head and then headed home.
I didn't try the "Brixton" vats that aren't in SW2, but a good haul.


21st May 2007 

OK, just for a change I'm going to leave my first "hit" until last, because the rest is pretty typical of the East End.
I decided to hit the West India Dock Road vats - and nearby.
The Blue Posts and Railway Tavern have gone - according to those who know, they were on the redeveloped side of the road, and as for the Mahogany - forget it, the AREA isn't there. Docklands, need I say more.
The White Horse in Poplar High Street is still there, but the pub isn't! There is, in the street a yard away from the housing project where the pub used to be, a big thick post with a big white horse statue on top of it - obviously the old pub sign. A nice reminder, but that's all.
So now, the first pub. This is the Vat listed as the Commercial Brewery Tap, 500 Commercial Road. Well, it's still there, just called the Brewery Tap. I walked in, ordered a Newkie Brown (no real ale) and started looking around. I got interest, and while there is no sign or memory of the AOFB I started getting stories.
High up, on the same shelf as the TV, is an empty pint glass and an empty can of Fosters. This is there, as the sign above it explains, in memory of Michael Gallagher. There is discussion about when this old, educated Irishman died. Was it 18 months ago or 5 years? But it is there. A local who knows the Bow Bells (of previous postings on other sites I hope I can repost here) says "it isn't for a ghost, it's just in case he comes back". A modern people's pub myth in the making?
I love this "job".

20th May 2007 

Brighton 13th-18th MY 2007

To "London-by-the-sea" for the PCS (Civil Service trades union) conference, where I am due to speak proposing a motion from our branch - which has never been heard by PCS before (either the motion or the branch). Logging on to the Pub History and FOFB site at the hotel I find the list of Vats - and realise I have just walked past one. Naturally, on the way to find various reprobates from last year (when I represented my old place's branch) I stop off at The Old Ship Hotel, site of The Brighton Vat and presumably, from the name, Brighton's first - it is the first listed. Outside there is a painted sign which, although obviously repainted over the years, seems to date from the time of the AOFB (Art Deco feel to it) pointing to The Old Ship Hotel Garage, which was clearly massive. Ah! Brighton motor car rallies! Just the sort of thing the AOFB seemed to be into, given their interest in cars evidenced by both the "Bitser" joke in the membership booklet and their use of cars to help waifs and strays go on day trips. The Old Ship Hotel is massive. Downstairs is a huge bar with framed memorabilia relating to the history of motor racing - but all recently bought in, I suspect. There are so many rooms on the first floor that the AOFB could have dined in it is impossible to search them all, but being challenged by a member of hotel staff as to what I am doing I explain, and the next thing I know they are showing me where various other Vats are on a free map of the area - except "Harrison's" and "The Greyhound", which were probably also hotels on the front (as is the Old Ship) - King Street being the seafront road - and may now be a Ramada or the conference centre or whatever. No sign of the AOFB at the Old Ship Hotel, but I later find out that it is now the editorial centre for the Popular Front for the Liberation of the CPSA (which was the larger of the Unions that formed the PCS) who produce comedy newspapers at conference, this being their 30th year, on a now daily basis. Later they get in trouble when some humourless types fail to realise that the views expressed in their "backlash" sections are veiled attacks on the right wing of this nation done by exaggerating their views, so having an imaginary Baptist group complaining about "having to treat Men who have become Women as human beings" was an attack on people with such views, not an endorsement! Anyway, I attempt to find "The Aquarium Vat" but give up. Instead I find that the Scotch House Vat at the Clarendon is now a studenty bar called Varsity, below Clarendon Apartments, or something, so no sign there. The Stafford Vat is listed as being in Boyar Street, but no-one has heard of it and I would like to ask someone with a booklet to see if this is a mis-scan for Boyce Street. Anyway, I find that the Aquarium Vat is a pub. The locals are fascinated with the story of the AOFB but all their old world memorabilia is recently bought-in stuff, the curse of the pub historian. Even worse is The Dorset Arms, which at least is there, but is so modernised it doesn't even have real ale. I search briefly for sign of AOFB and leave quickly. I find some delegates in the pub opposite, share my AOFB obsession with them and a local confirms that he hasn't heard of my missing Vats. I never attempted to find Down's Vat as I couldn't work out where Down's Estate was, and Hove - too far this time round. The Stafford might be there somewhere, and as there is no address, maybe the Greyhound too. But I'll be back if I can. Later, our motion, against all hope, does get heard within the allotted time (someone, perhaps too hung over from the night before, didn't show up to propose their branches' motion to it fell), I speak, get applause, the National Executive Committee backs it, carried unanimously and the third biggest Union in the country - I believe - (after TGWU and UNISON) backs Land Value Taxation (look it up). I propose the motion wearing a Popular Front for the Liberation of the CPSA T Shirt, which might seem odd, but then one delegate the previous day had worn a T Shirt just reading "WASTED", points for honesty, another was wearing a football shirt that only showed the name of the team's sponsor - BRAINS - but my favourite was a woman who spoke to support the NHS wearing a shirt showing the name of heavy metal band MEGADETH, so mine was fairly non-controversial. Helluva good week.

13th November 2006

Two more days to report, the second first. Neither of the two Deptford pubs exist any more, full stop. Now to the first day. I went first to search out three closely related pubs. No sign of the Fountain Vat nor the Admiral Carter. However, the St Paul's Vat was at a pub - a very LONG pub - which has unfortunately been Nicholsoned - it is old, and it looks old, but not for the same reason (it is not a Nicholson pub, in fact it is a Greene King - but you get the idea). Then came a shocker. Stopping off on the way to find the Old Street Vat at a hostelry nearby I mentioned my quest, only to discover that the pub's cleaner's father was in the Frothblowers and he still has "all his stuff". Unfortunately he wasn't there, but I have a phone number and shall be chasing up shortly. The Old Street Vat isn't there any more - it's a nightclub, but heigh ho. Thanks for the "Sapper" story, Dave, I wonder how much else there is in popular novels.

3rd November 2006

On the Trail again. Interesting how the search for the Frothblowers is turning into a kind of social history of London pubs. Take the Red Lion. Noted as being in Cannon Street, yesterday I actually found it in an alley off an alley next to a church – hence the Churchyard Vat. The Red Lion (no longer “Ye” Red Lion”) is old and looks old – though the reason it looks old is that it is a Nicholsons pub now, and was made to look old about ten years ago by all of the usual woodwork effects – clearly machine-tooled. No sigbn of the AOFB. Next I went in search of the Bull’s Head, which a London Pub website says is in Mitre Street rather than St Catherine’s Way, which I cannot find. Unfortunately there is no pub in Mitre Street at all. Further enquiries led me to a pub called the Black Bull, not the Bull’s Head, and from then I went to an unrelated pub, won £13 on the quiz machine and then £30 by winning (with one other) the pub quiz night. Ah, the modern subsidising the ancient!

2nd November 2006 

In search of the Frothblowers 3 Went first to find Ye Red Lion in Cannon Street. It isn’t there – but see below. I then headed to Poplar in search of the Prince Arthur. I discovered in a nearby pub that Brunswick Road is now basically a motorway, and though there is a pub somewhere simply called the Brunswick (and I couldn’t find it) a cab driver assured me there was no pub of that name, so I headed for Canning Town. In a Canning Town pub I learned that the Anchor still exists, but is used as storage space by a local character. Apparently little inside has changed so I might be lucky, but it isn’t open during the evening. However, I also learned that Ye Red Lion is not in fact on Cannon Street itself but in a road off of it, so I’m having another go tonight, as well as doing the Bull’s Head in Tower Hill. More later!

1st November 2006

On the Trail 2 Before anything else, some notes about pubs on the list I haven't visited since getting the list of Vats but which I know. The Three Tuns in Beckenham has been refurbished so many times it hardly seems worth checking out, but I will anyway as it is near my mum. David Bowie used to run his Arts Lab gigs there. Arts OF Bowie, eh? On the other hand The Bulls Head in Dartford is very promising, and for all I know may be the pub my memory insists I once saw a plaque about the AOFB in (where WAS it, or was it something about the Buffaloes?) Anyway, visited the Black Lion in East Ham. I'd call it Plaistow, but I doubt that there are two in the area. East Ham describes a large area after all. (Did you know that West Ham Football Club actually play their home games in East Ham?) The Black Lion is very old and untouched - with pre-Victorian features. I couldn't find any AOFB material but it was a bit full, and I'll try again. The staff are going to look around too. Right, must be off, more to check!

20th October 2006

ON THE TRAIL OF THE FROTHBLOWERS 19TH October 2006 It’s nearly time to leave work, but I’m hot on the trail. I have downloaded the list of Vats from the site, and extracted 146 that were in what is now Greater London. My Mission – to visit all of them with a view to finding any AOFB memorabilia – or perhaps more! My first visit is to a pub called The Devereux in Devereux Court, once the Vat of Blower Salmon at “Devereux Restaurant”. Due to bomb damage this area has been re-modeled a little, and I am assuming that Devereux Restaurant is the once separate 1st floor. No sign on AOFB, but I’ll be back – I drink here regularly anyway. Next I go to the Old Cheshire Cheese, just down the road. There is no sign or memory of the AOFB here, but then the pub is in the wrong street. It looks 1950s in style, and again I assume that the bomb that took out St Clements Dane in WWII was responsible, the Vat address is in Surrey Street, one street along from the new location. More luck at Rules, the address of Maiden Vat. One of the first Vats listed, it turns out that Rules is a restaurant dating back a century or more. Blaster Bell turns out to be Tom Bell, who was the owner during the period the AOFB was active. His name and ownership dates are on a plaque within the restaurant. Gow’s Vat gave an address of 357 Strand, which is now an office block which used to be a Barclay’s Bank. No trace is going to remain. The Garden Vat looks promising, but I arrived at a time on Friday evening when the Nag’s Head is packed and couldn’t talk to staff- looked around the Victorian pub itself and couldn’t see anything though. Finally, assuming that the Griffin Vat was at a pub called the Griffin, or even a restaurant, no trace remains in Villiers Street. So, six down, one hundred and forty to go, though I can also eliminate Maskelyne’s Magician’s Vat, since I know that no trace remains of the once famous “Egyptian Hall”, but I might tootle around there soon anyway, there are loads of other Vats that were in the area.

19th October 2006 2

I've just been checking the list of Vats, and it would appear that one Blower became very famous indeed - J Maskelyne of Magicians Vat must be Jasper Maskelyne, the head of the WWII "Magic Gang" responsible for such feats as "making Alexandria disappear" - when he arranged for Alexandria to be blacked out and a replica of its lights to be placed three miles to the East, fooling German bombers into wasting their bombs on a desert. Google and ye shall find. I'm now beginning what will be a long pub crawl to see if there is any AOFB material left in the (3 pages-worth of) pubs listed in London.

19th October 2006

I have been investigating the AOFB as part of general research for some years. In 2001 an old member contacted the Charity Commission looking for other old members and we started from there, though I had heard of them before. In 2004 in a general discussion on Ancient Orders I posited that the AOFB, rather than the Masons, secretly ran the worls and delighted an audience by reading out the conditions attached to the Frothblowers' Insurance Policy, including the one saying that they do not insure Bitsers: "Bitser Tin Bitser board Nailed together Make a Ford". More seriously, you may be interested to know that there is still land in West Wickham in the London Borough of Bromley that is owned by the AOFB and used by Scouts and Guides. A revival has been mooted in London, it may yet happen.

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