As an ancient city, Canterbury has more than its fair share of very old pubs. A future article will look at some of these.
My current research has, however, thrown up a new category: Canterbury’s ugliest pubs.
After the Second World War, Canterbury, like many British towns and cities, faced huge problems. Bomb sites needed re-building, war damaged buildings and time-expired properties required clearing and provision had to be made for population growth and the greater use of motor vehicles.
Public tastes and habits were changing, too, and as much as we’re currently seeing High Streets being abandoned, so it was in the 1950s and 60s in the licensed trade.
Up until the war most of Canterbury’s 70 odd pubs were family run neighbourhood locals. They’d largely have been quite small, rather smoky, very traditional and would’ve been owned by local breweries, rather than national conglomerates.
All this changed in the 20 or so years after the war, as Canterbury swept away a lot of the old and embraced the new.
Whole streets disappeared to make way for the city ring road, Northgate’s slums were cleared and new estates sprang up to rehouse residents and accommodate newcomers.
The baby boomer generation had arrived! Canterbury’s planners, while keen to tear down old or damaged buildings, including quite a few pubs, were attuned to the idea that the city’s population needed refreshment and places to socialise.
As a result, provision for a number of new pubs was included within the grand plan and although not all were actually built, most were. The one thing they all had in common was that they were the exact opposite of the much loved, pre-war, small, smoky, traditional locals.
These new pubs reflected their times, both in terms of their interior design, and external appearance.
To my eye, they also vied with each other for plug-ugliness.
Here are some of these 1950s/60s pubs, so nostalgia hats on and here goes.
Nag’s Head, Dover Street: Originally a small pub serving the Oaten Hill community, the Faversham brewers George Beer & Rigden must have had some idea that this was an improving area.
They knocked down the 18th century Nag’s Head in the foreground of the picture and put up the imposing 1930s roadhouse style pub immediately behind it.
The new pub lasted about 12 years until being flattened in the Baedeker Raids. Fremlin’s took over George Beer & Rigden in 1949.
Ten years later they opened the re-built Nag’s Head.
Fast forward some 30 years and changes in trends and the poor old Nag’s Head started changing its name, decor and theme every other year!
Who remembers (or would ever admit to having used!) Gator’s, Fat Piggies, Gladstone’s, Buddy Allen’s, Tonic Bar Bistro, Bar Xtreme, Bar 121 and The Farmhouse?
The final iteration of the Nag’s Head was as The Bing, which, so I’m told, was a pole and lap dancing bar.
Probably mercifully, this closed a couple of years ago and the site was then cleared for residential property development.
Leopard’s Head, Military Road: Another casualty of the Baedeker raids, the Leopard’s Head was re-built by Ramsgate brewers Tomson & Wotton in the late 1950s.
Originally, the pub name had been the Donkey’s Chump, which I think was a dig at the cavalry, whose barracks were at the far end of Military Road.
It was later the Leopard and then the Leopard’s Head, the name probably referenced the design found on some military belt buckles.
Most of the pubs in this area were regularly frequented by soldiers stationed in Canterbury’s artillery and infantry barracks and cavalry re-mount centre.
I don’t actually have a photo of the old Leopard’s Head (can anyone help me with this please?) but the 1965 image from Edward Wilmot’s excellent book on Canterbury’s pubs shows the modern design off very well.
The owners of the Leopard’s Head, Tomson & Wotton, Britain’s oldest brewery at the time, was bought and closed by Whitbread’s in 1968.
I’m not really sure what happened at the Leopard’s Head, as it was a popular and successful pub, which suddenly nosedived in the early noughties, then rather suddenly closed. The building now is a Domino’s Pizza outlet.
Gentil Knyght, Knight Avenue: As the London Road Estate was to have a Canterbury Tales theme, it was probably natural for Mackeson’s Hythe brewery to give their newest pub a Chaucerian name.
I’m told that it was built as two houses, just in case the pub idea wasn’t a commercial success.
Although a new build, the Gentil Knyght was quite a traditional pub, with public and lounge bars, as well as a strong following for darts and bat and trap.
Run for many years by the redoubtable Eddie Hardy, the Gentil Knyght, sold by Whitbread’s to Shepherd Neame in the 1970s, did very well, until the double whammy of the smoking ban and financial recession in the late noughties hit its trade.
Limping on for a couple more years, the Gentil Knyght finally closed in 2016 and the last time I looked, it was all boarded up and derelict. The 1965 image of the Gentil Knyght is another one taken from Edward Wilmot’s book.
Coach & Horses, St George’s Lane. Up until 1942 the Coach & Horses was a small corner pub on St George’s Street, more or less opposite where Wilkinson’s is now.
Well, the Luftwaffe changed all that.
The redevelopment of the Whitefriars’ area in the early 1960s saw the demolition of what was left of the old Simon Langton Grammar School and the erection of the Riceman’s, now Fenwick, department store, a multi-storey car park and a licensed brick shoebox.
As I recall, the Coach & Horses was a shining example of what happens when you take your eye off the ball and let the formica sales team loose in your pub.
Personally, I was not a fan but it did have quite a following and was always popular with people waiting for buses when it was raining.
Shepherd Neame sold the Coach & Horses about 25 years ago and as a free house, it re-opened as Fools & Horses.
In terms of serial name-changing, the Nag’s Head surely leads the way but Fools & Horses soon gave way to Crocodile Dundee’s, then Dundee’s Bar, followed by Fitz the Music Place, before finally becoming the Coach House for a year or so.
For a short period, after the Coach House closed, the building served as the bus station enquiry and ticket office.
The Coach & Horses building finally succumbed to the wrecker’s ball in the major Whitefriars renewal and the site is now part of the Canterbury retail experience.
So which of these pubs, all of which have now disappeared, wins the prize for Canterbury’s ugliest.
Well, I’ll let you choose!
Good pubs aren’t simply about the age or style of the buildings they inhabit, but are – and always have been – all to do with the people who run and use them. Long may that remain the case.
Canterbury is still blessed with a good selection of fine pubs and in later articles I’ll be showcasing some of these under a variety of headings.
Please feel free to send in your thoughts and if you have any old pub images I’d love to seen them.
Rory Kehoe is a local historian and collector with a special interest in the licensed trade and Kent brewing industry. He lives in Canterbury.