Forgotten link between the Punch Tavern and the old Punch magazine

WE ALL loved the old Punch Tavern and for many years it was our local drinking hole until a mixture of laziness, closeness, convenience, and famed sloping, took us to the Poppinjay under the Black Lubyanka.

But Poppinjay landlady Josie and the modern surroundings of her hostelry was a far cry from the haunting ambience of days gone by that we felt supping Swan lager in the historic, Grade 11 listed Punch across the road, that rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of London.

However, over the years we supped there, most of us didn’t know the full story of the tavern’s colourful history or that the former Gin Palace was a hangover from the curse of the demon drink, aptly nicknamed Mother’s Ruin, in the late 18th and early 19th century. Never mind the gin in our time, it was mostly Swan lager that went down nicely.

In our reign, the Punch was run by old George, a portly, genial gentleman in his sixties with a pocket watch, who always wore a black suit, and was always three parts to the wind with a complexion you could fry an egg on. He was a lovely fellah, but not known for doing ‘afters’.

The pub closed bang on time because he was tired by then. I think that was why we drifted to the Albion … where top City cops enjoyed a few ‘afters’ at midnight too.

And some subs often spent the extra drinking time on their hands and knees in Mickey Barnett’s pub cellar searching for his wife Rhona’s cat, with the sound of the underground Fleet River on the other side of the wall. A bit spooky that. But if Rhona didn’t find her cat, Mickey’s life would be hell.

Meanwhile, as the Express first edition drew to a close, the Punch began to fill with us hacks around the famed copper bar that curled for a good 30 ft around the room and a fireplace Dan MacDonald would knock his pipe out on. Other rooms were partitioned off, not like today.

The journey to the loo meanwhile, was arduous after a few pints … it was down a rickety, winding staircase to the cellars at the back of the bar.

Today, the pub is all open plan and even the copper bar, where our old parish colleague Ken Weller (whatever happened to him?) always stood with a can of Swan or two at 5pm before his 5.30 shift, has gone.

It was here, along with other former Gin Palaces, like the Tipperary, that journalists would congregate as Fleet Street grew to what it became in the 50s, 60s and Seventies. And it wasn’t always called the Punch. It was originally the Crown and Sugar Loaf, but the new owners changed its name in 1893 to honour its loyal customers, the staff of Punch Magazine who drank there.

‍ The Sugar Loaf was still at the back of the Punch and had its own entrance. A banqueting room at the side was sealed off and once a week became the unofficial office, drinking den and dining hall of the Punch staff and others, with a narrow entrance from Fleet Street at the front. This entrance displayed all the ornate artwork mirrors of the Gin Palaces of the day, with the Victorian mosaics and tiles.

Some of the Punch journalists’ and illustrators’ best ideas were said to have come from the ever-increasing bottles of brandy on their conference table, as they puffed their cigars and lampooned famous people of the time like Gladstone and Disraeli. “In fact, they were often completely drunk,” one observer said. “Some of their best cartoons were the result of long hours imbibing.”

The magazine was launched in 1841, cost three pence and was a runaway success, quickly hitting a circulation of 100,000 and by 1948 it peaked at 184,000. It was published continuously for 151 years until its closure in 1992, although it was revived five years later.

In the heady days of its success, the weekly staff conference, often over a four-course dinner, went on so long that their real office at 85 Fleet St, in an old school, was almost abandoned. But little did they care. The magazine was so popular even Queen Victoria and Charlotte Bronte read it.

It used the name Punch because of the famous puppet which attacked everyone and was very popular in London at the time. But there was another reason too. Punch was said to be also named after the mixed ingredient, alcoholic drink because it was a ‘heady combination of news, illustrations and satire’. It’s first Editor was Mark Lemon … and people used to joke of him: “You can’t make a good Punch without lemon!”

There are some conflicting views on how the title was conceived. But the one I believe is that Mark Lemon was discussing the idea of the magazine with friends at the Edinburgh Castle pub in the Strand in 1840. The proposed titles were: ‘The Funny Dog’ or ‘Funny Dogs with Comic Tales.’ 

Next came the ‘London Charivari’ which was agreed upon. But later, at the printing works someone mentioned the excellent mix of drinks in the Punch at the Castle and how lemon had enhanced the flavour. “That’s it,” someone said: “Let’s call it Punch. We’ve got the Lemon.”

The birth of Gin Palaces came after London was hit by an epidemic of gin addiction. Poverty and crime were so bad that whole families took to it to dull their senses. And that only led to more social and lawless chaos. Many parents ended up in court for selling their children to pay for the drink and one couple were even hung for killing their son so that they could sell his clothes and buy it.

‍ Things were so bad that in 1751 William Hogarth depicted the epidemic in a painting and called it ‘Gin Lane’.

Eventually Henry Pelham’s Government passed Acts to control the addiction and people caught distilling it were often whipped or sent to the Colonies. It worked for a while. But there was still a demand for the drink and so new licensing laws were passed to make it legal only to drink gin in certain policed establishments nicknamed Gin Palaces.

The Punch Tavern became one of them, and they all featured the ornate glass and mosaics that we still see today. They were the trendsetters for pubs in the Victorian age and today the Punch is one of the Top Ten examples of the Victorian Gin Palaces in the world.

Soon there were several in Fleet Street and the whole area became a magnet for the rich and famous who enjoyed the smuttiness of the back alleys, pubs and vice dens. After the Great Fire, the rebuilding of the Street had begun, squeezing in new buildings next to the old, but keeping to the size of the medieval plots because of planning laws. That is why so many buildings are so narrow today. They are the same plots as they were centuries ago.

But it wasn’t until around 1855 that Fleet Street, apparently, became more commercial, thanks to the repeal of stamp duty which led to a drop in the price of newspapers. Readership boomed. New printing works opened, and taverns and the Gin Palaces flourished as newspapers and news agencies moved in. We had entered the communications age Victorian style.

‍ The narrow entrance to the Punch still retains its glass splendour today, although we hardly noticed it on our way to the bar in the 1970s. I don’t think we ever stood admiring the decorative glass, or mosaics beneath our feet, we just adjusted our ties in the mirrors. But I often wondered how visitors would have noticed the mosaic tiles in earlier times, because Fleet Street was a sea of mud, chopped up by horses and carriage wheels.

The Tipperary was another pub that had a similar narrow frontage from the legacy of the Great Fire. Sadly, once the oldest pub in London, originally named the Boar’s Head, where monks brewed ale in the 1300s, closed in December 2020. The end of another era, eh?

Over the years after the flames of the fire ravaged the area from the City to Westminster, the Fleet was still a partly-open river and the smells in the pubs and offices sometimes were awful. It also often flooded and had grown into a waste dump from the slaughterhouses and tanneries nearby … and of course, office and household waste.

‍ In 1710 Jonathan Swift wrote:

‍ “Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.”

Urine and excrement from the pubs like the Punch joined the mix too. The southern end of the Fleet was not finally covered over until 1766. God knows what size the rats are down there today.

As for dear old Punch magazine, you will remember that back in 1997 it was bought by Harrods boss Mohamed Al Fayed. He wanted to take on Private Eye which always attacked him. But Fayed’s Punch character hardly appeared on the front like its heyday. Instead, a boxing glove was often featured. Readers were told the Punch title and artwork meant that the magazine packed a punch, like a body blow.

The magazine was edited by our old friend of this parish Peter McKay for a salary rumoured to be around £180,000. His expenses and lunches in the finest traditions of the old Punch journalists of Victorian times were to become legendary.

Whether the rumours were true, I don’t know. But one former staff writer said: “Lunches were four hours long … and if you didn’t drink it wasn’t much of a job.” Sounds just like the original regime.

‘LAST ISSUE’: Punch folded in 1992 

but was revived in 1997

From the start, Fayed lavished money on promoting the magazine and there were endless adverts on TV and radio. Peter told everyone that Punch would become a British ‘New Yorker’ and packed it with pieces from his friends. “But the content, much of it in the first person, was too soft,” said a critic. Fayed’s dream did not take off and McKay was fired after two months.

The magazine, losing money and circulation, lumbered on. By 1999 it had lost nearly £2 million and a similar amount the following year. Former News of the World editor Phil Hall took the chair and cut costs, getting rid of the big names and the magazine managed to cling on for a while before Fayed finally pulled the plug. By then, subscriptions had fallen below 6,000, a far cry from the Victorian glory days of 100,000 sales.

The magazine finally folded in 2002 after soaking up £14 million of Al Fayed’s money. During that time, it fought 44 legal battles and lost four. Those in the know say that it wasn’t money that forced Fayed to close it.

He had lost interest in the project because it never really worked the way he wanted it to against Private Eye and particularly its editor Ian Hislop.

‍ I often wondered whether Hislop, who many of you know, enjoyed the battle with Fayed, which he easily won. As for the Punch Tavern, I popped in about a year ago, and sat for a while with a beer, remembering those days we took for granted around the fireplace. It wasn’t the same at all. But then, why should it be?


4 December 2023