South London is losing its pubs. It is losing them to fire, property speculation and re-development. Some say these institutions of Old London are being run down on purpose because there are more profitable ways to use the land. With every closure a part of the urban social ecology of the urban environment changes. This has been felt keenly in south Lewisham where many iconic like pubs like The Tiger’s Head, The Saxon and The Farmer’s Gate have disappeared.
In a way the changing fortunes of pubs is an indicator of London’s changing social and cultural fabric. In 2017 the Greater London Authority (GLA) published an audit showing that since 2001 had fallen by a quarter. The opening of the Fellowship and Star in Bellingham helped by £4.2 million of Heritage Lottery Funding bucks this trend and points to a potential shift in how pubs in the 21st century can become new kinds of houses of the public.
Today CUCR launches its evaluation of the Fellowship Inn Project and the full report is now available. The story of the rebirth of the Fellowship Inn led by Phoenix Community Housing, a resident led community gate that manages 6,000 homes in south Lewisham, is documented in the new report by CUCR. The key challenge that the Fellowship and Star faces as it opens its doors is how to re-imagine the original mission of a community public space in a 21st Century context. A context, in which the social, cultural and demographic nature of the local area is also changing rapidly.
From the nineteenth century, ‘public houses’ were often key hubs of social life. Initially, they provided alternative public places predominantly for men in working-class communities. Their names are often iconic reference points that represent a sense of place and local pride. This is particularly true of The Fellowship Inn which was part of London County Council’s Bellingham Estate, built after World War I. It was part of the aspirations to build what David Lloyd George called ‘homes fit for heroes’ and to ease inner city overcrowding by building new garden city developments on the edges of the city with facilities for social activities and gatherings.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though; London County Council was reluctant to allow pubs to be built on its estates due to pressure from the temperance movement. As such, pubs were also seen as potentially threatening to the moral life of the community to the extent that plans for the Fellowship were raised in Parliament during a debate on prohibition. Nonetheless, the plans for the Fellowship Inn prevailed and it was completed in 1924. As a multi-purpose community space which included a dining hall and meeting rooms, it became a thriving music venue and local cinema in the sixties and seventies. By the 1990’s, however, the pub was in decline and disrepair.
The place of pubs within the leisure economy is changing as the GLA 2018 pub audit shows. They point to evidence that people are drinking less and low price is alcohol is being bought in supermarkets. With technological development of digital television (like Netflix and pay per view cinema) the home is increasingly an entertainment venue. As Jim Ripley (Chief Executive of Phoenix Community Housing) commented, it was not economically viable to simply restore the Fellowship to a local pub: ‘I had been to all sorts of pub operators beforehand, to see if anyone was interested before we got the [Heritage Lottery Money] money … So, I remember having a meeting with Fuller’s and Wetherspoons and they both said exactly the same, “No way. If it had been up the road in Bromley, yes, but not in that postcode.” So, they couldn’t see how they could make a pub work there financially.’
The Greater London Authority concluded in their report: ‘While the number of pubs has fallen by 1,305 over this period, the number of restaurants and cafes has increased by over 6,000. So perhaps Londoners are simply changing how they spend their leisure time, switching evenings at the pub for meals and espressos.’ (GLA 2018: 1). It is significant that the GLA 2018 Pub Audit showed that, at the same time small pubs in outer London were closing at an alarming rate, the numbers of large pubs (employing 10 staff or more) had actually increased since 2011. They estimated the total numbers of people employed in in 2017 was 3,800 and increase of 9% compared to 2001. They concluded: ‘This data may point towards changes in what pubs are offering in London, with more becoming ‘gastro’ pubs and becoming more food and family-oriented’ (GLA 2018: 1).
Those pubs that remain in London are also prone to forms of gentrification that not only renovate them physically but also change them socially in terms of the make-up of their clientele. Put simply, they serve only those who can afford them and as a consequence they come to markers of social division rather than shared community life.
The Fellowship and Star is a different story of pub re-development. Through the investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund this historic pub has been brought back to life as a community resource that aspires to a less divisive model of urban change in London. Electric Star, the company that will operate the venue, has an economic model in tune with the social mission of Phoenix Community Housing. Their roots are in the ‘rave scene’ and the ‘pop up’ economy with a deep attentiveness to both the community that they are located within and their audience. The emphasis on partnership is a potentially exciting alternative model for community-based development.
In July 2019 the new Bellingham Film Palace opened its doors inside the Fellowship. It began its programme with the new Spider-man: Far From Home movie for the princely sum of £5 entry. A high end cinema experience was enjoyed by groups of local teenagers from Bellingham munching pop corn alongside trendy film enthusiasts from more affluent neighbouring streets and the odd middle-aged sociologist. It may just be that this new community venue will offer a bridge and a meeting place for south London’s increasingly divided social landscape.
The report is available here.
You can listen to a podcast about the Fellowship Inn Project by Les Back here.
Greater London Authority (2018) London Pub’s Audit 2018 Greater London Authority; London Data Store https://data.london.gov.uk/apps_and_analysis/londons-pubs-audit-2018/ downloaded 11th May, 2019.