Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fulham High Street, London

Still there – just

It must have been in the 1970s, when Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse came out, that I first read and was moved by a poem by P J Kavanagh called ‘The Temperance Billiards Rooms’. In it, the poet remembers how he used to walk past the Temperance Billiards Rooms with his wife, who died tragically young. Aged just 33, the poet salutes the Billiards Rooms alone. He makes the building stand for continuity, in this moving poem about carrying on after a disaster: ‘it just goes on, as I do too I notice’. But it’s also fragile (‘something so uneconomical’s sure to come down’) and so is the grieving poet. It’s a touching poem, and Kavanagh’s description of the place, ‘in red and green and brown, with porridge-coloured stucco in between and half a child’s top for a dome…it’s like a Protestant mosque!’ has a melancholy humour.

I wonder if this is Kavanagh’s building. It’s now a pub (The Temperance), is repainted a rather sorry dark grey and is offering special deals on cocktails. There’s still a dome, still bits of stucco decoration, still stained glass in red and green, still the hall to the right which must have contained the billiard tables. If it’s not the building in the poem, it’s one very like it. Designed in 1910 by Norman Evans, it was one of several such buildings, built for Temperance Billiard Halls Ltd in northern England and the suburbs of London. Their art nouveau glass and decoration, and the chance of a game of billiards, were meant to attract punters away from the temptations of the demon drink, part of a movement that began in the middle decades of the 19th century and saw a late resurgence in 1900–1910. As late as 1908 there was a bill in Parliament to reduce the number of licenses to sell alcohol and ban the employment of women in pubs, a bill that was vigorously supported by temperance campaigners, and equally loudly decried by others, especially those, such as the Barmaids’ Political Defence League, who stood up for the barmaids who were to lose their jobs. The bill was defeated in the end, and the temperance movement declined.

This billiards hall, at any rate, is still there, although the dark paint spoils what looks it had. It’s also fiendishly difficult to photograph, hemmed in by road signs, wires, aerials, railings, and continuous traffic along the Fulham High Street. The best I could do was to include one of the most interesting vehicles that went past as I stood outside, a Mercedes Benz 280SL that takes us just about back to the 1960s, when Kavanagh wrote his poem. Like him, I’m glad the building is still there, although I cannot, like the poet, say that there are, ‘for all I know men playing billiards temperately in there’.

* * *

For more about architecture and temperance, see Andrew Davison’s essay ‘”Worthy of the Cause”: The Buildings of the Temperance Movement’ in Geoff Brandwood (ed), Living, Leisure and Law (Spire Books, 2010).

For P J Kavanagh’s account of his loss, see P J Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (1966)


Hels said...

I have come back to the question of the temperance movement and its architecture many times in my blog, starting with the 1880s Coffee Palaces, Temperance and Melbourne. There were all sorts of beautiful hotels, beach guest houses, coffee palaces etc etc.

But I have never heard of temperance billiard rooms. It was well worth opening your blog today just for that alone :)


Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: It's a fascinating subject, and I'm pleased to have thrown some light on a corner of it. I'll be on the look-out for temperance halls and hotels now. And, I've just thought, if I do, I can quote W H Auden ('Does it look like a pair of pyjamas Or the ham in a temperance hotel...').

worm said...

I got very drunk in the Temperance about 2 years ago. It's still a nice building (nothing original left inside though)can't remeber if there were billiard tables, but it was packed full of sloanes in rugby shirts

Philip Wilkinson said...

Worm: I like the idea of getting drunk in somewhere called The Temperance.

bazza said...

A pub called The Temperance is a bit ironic. So many pubs are now closing and if often seems to be the characterful ones.
The 'Doctor Johnson', my nearest pub, has been boarded up for several years and will probably become yuppie flats eventually.
This pub seems to have survived the economic downturn; let's hope it remains.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: It seems to be a difficult time for pubs. Around where I live, many of the pubs seem to change hands (or managers) every year or so, although only one in this small town has actually closed in ten years. This is a shame, because a pub doesn't happen overnight - it takes time to bed in, attract users, become more than the sum of its parts.

George said...

In The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Sainstbury writes that the manner in which the House of Lords did in the 1908 licensing bill contributed to the temper that helped the Liberals do in the Lords' veto. (Their veto itself likely accorded with the opinions of the country.)

There is a Temperance Monument in Washington, DC, and as recently as 30 years ago one could not purchase alcoholic beverages in the Maryland suburb Takoma Park, which then had the headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I suppose that some of the Delaware beach resorts must once have been dry, for the Methodists helped establish them (Bethany Beach, Rehoboth Beach). But in the US a pool hall without a liquor license is just a pool hall.

Burnsie said...

Dear Philip: Came across this site and have to ask - do you know anything about the ownership of the Temperance Billiard Halls company? I suspect that my great-grandfather, Arthur Charles Thomas, was the owner, at least at one point, but I have been able to find only one vague reference about his connection to the company. The family story is he sold up in the mid-20th century and moved to California with his wife and one daughter. . .any help you can provide would be appreciated! Terry Burns, Ontario, Canada

Philip Wilkinson said...

Terry: I'm sorry, I don't know who the owners were. Originally they were set up by a company/corporation called Temperance Billiard Halls Limited. I don't know how the company was constituted or whether perhaps your great-grandfather bought them out at some stage.