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What Happened to the Firkin Pubs

(Please Note: This article was originally written in 2000 when I created my first pub review and travel guide. I’ve added some annotations and additions, and these are indicated.)

History

Firkin Dogbolter Pump ClipThe Firkin pub chain was started in London in 1979 by David Bruce[1]. He stepped in and bought a few run-down pubs off the major brewers where they were unable to make them pay. As well as redocorating the pubs in a basic but friendly style, he introduced the long forgotten concept of pubs brewing their own beer.

The breweries were tiny and were located behind or underneath the pubs – often with viewing windows or hatches so that the ‘machinery’ became part of the environment.

I first became aware of the chain in 1980 when friends took me to one of the original pubs, the Goose and Firkin in Borough, London SE1. The pub was packed and the atmosphere very lively, with a pianist leading everyone through an old style pub sing-song. I also used to frequent the original Frog and Firkin – a tiny pub just by the Hammersmith & City line near Westbourne Park station. Another well known pub was the Phoenix and Firkin which occupied the old ticket office at Denmark Hill station in South London. The name refers to the fact that the ticket office was previously destroyed by fire, but was renovated to create the pub.

Expansion

With the success of the concept, the chain grew rapidly until 1988 when David Bruce sold the chain to European Leisure. The pubs changed hands a couple more times in a short period until in 1991 the chain was taken over by Allied Lyons (later Allied Domecq).

Flyman & Firkin, Shaftesbury AvenueAfter this the chain expanded again, not just in London but all over the country – typically in university towns. There were a few wobbly periods but generally the pubs were excellent, had a great atmosphere and played good music too.

The 1995 CAMRA Good Beer Guide records that the chain had 44 pubs of which 19 actually brewed. (The non-brewery pubs were supplied by one of the other Firkin pubs). Each pub tended to have it’s own named bitter, along with the Dogbolter and other seasonal beers.The Dogbolter[2] was always my favourite drink as it tasted like nothing else – a rich, dark, strong brew, although it didn’t do to drink it all night long.

When going for a night out in London, trips to Firkin pubs were always on the schedule. My favourites were The Flyman and Firkin, Fanfare and Firkin in the West End of London, along with The Fringe and Firkin in Shepherds Bush. I can’t remember the name but the Firkin pub in Winchester was really good too.

The Bass Takeover

Apparently in the spring of 1999, Whitbread and Punch Taverns both made hostile bids to take over the entire Allied Domecq pub roster. After a bidding war, Whitbread pulled out of the running leaving Punch Taverns to take over with financing from Bass. It then appears that Punch Taverns sold the Firkin chain on to Bass.

Early in October 1999, signs were appearing in Firkin pubs in London announcing that Firkin beers were to be discontinued, to be replaced with two ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ brews – namely Tetleys and Burtons.

So on October 8th 1999 all brewing of Firkin beers stopped completely and all the brewing staff were made redundant. Some of the Central London Firkin pubs had stock left for a few days, but because of the high turnover, it didn’t last to the following weekend.

It is unclear why Punch Taverns/Bass bought the chain and then decided to cease production of the distinctive Firkin beers, but it was certainly not done in the interest of consumer choice[3]. Tetleys, and Burtons especially may have been quality beers, but they are limp and lifeless when compared to Firkin beer.

Following any of the links in this section will take you away from this site and I can’t be held responsible for their content.

2010 Notes

  1. David Bruce is now a director of the Capital Pub Company which operates about 25 pubs in London. These pubs are appranetly not themed in the same way the Firkin pubs were, and none of them brew their own beer.
  2. Dogbolter actually does live on! The Ramsgate Brewery, based in Broadstairs brews Gadds’ Faithful Dogbolter Porter which I believe uses the same recipe as the original Firkin versions. And I have read comments that it tastes very like the original. You can read more about it in a blog post elsewhere on this site from 2009 entitled Firkin Dogbolter.
  3. In 2000 I naively believed that pub chains would care what their customer thought since it was the customers that chose to go there and buy the beer. Looking back it was obvious that Punch wanted to minimise costs and maximise profits so weren’t really interested in the craft brewing and other unique aspects of the Firkin chain. I guess they were also interested in acquiring a chain of pubs that were often in prime locations within towns.

112 Responses to “What Happened to the Firkin Pubs”

  1. Julian Sadler says:

    Yes I remember the Fox Lewisham previously Flanagan’s The Black Bull not a place to linger. In the Fox when they handed out the song sheets I didn’t need ’em. Happy days of long ago. Plus I was in the Firkin South Croydon when they put on the last 9 of Dogbolter. It went in half an hour and that was it. No more Dogbolter ever or so we thought.

  2. Q says:

    Very sad to read of the demise of the Firkin chain. I lived on Camberwell Grove as a student in London in the eighties, the Phoenix and Firkin was my closest pub. The Firkin pubs put good quality real ale back on the map.

  3. Martin Geoffrey Robinson says:

    Great to see this post. Friends and I were regulars as Firkin pubs. Notably the Frog, Goose and Phoenix. Sing-songs at the Goose were infamous, with Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill being belted out by mostly students. David Bruce was ahead of his time. So sorry that the venture got killed by the corporates.

  4. Ex Firkin Brewer says:

    “It is unclear why Punch Taverns/Bass bought the chain and then decided to cease production of the distinctive Firkin beers”
    Bass bankrolled punch taverns to go in and handle the redundancies etc. The story was that as you get taxed at a different rate depending on your brewery capacity, if Bass acquired the breweries directly it would take them over some Excise duty threshold. SO the little eager beavers Punch taverns went in with their hatchets and did all the messy firing of staff in return for some of the run down estates, they then passed the now beer production free brewpubs over to Bass.

  5. Christina says:

    I used to work and live in the Goose and Firkin in 1985. At that time there were about 8 pubs, I think the latest one was the Flounder. (I still have a beermat somewhere!). It was mad, but good fun. I used to cut and butter the large bags that you could buy for £1 with various fillings. The most popular beer was Dogbolter (of course) then all the pubs sold the same brew but it had a different name depending which pub you were in ie the Goose in Goose and Firkin. There was also another beer called Gagglegobbler which we could only sell in half pints. There were different live acts, I remember Kjarten Poskitt who played the piano and sang, he was known from the children’s tv programme “Pob”. Also Debbie and the Bear. I remember mould growing on my shoes from the spilled beer. All good fun!

  6. Kjartan says:

    What a nice page! I played the pianos in almost all the Firkins in the 1980’s, in particular Fridays at the Frog, and Saturdays at the Falcon in Hackney, then later Saturdays at the Flamingo in Kingston. Completely bonkers nights they were too. One night people jumping about in the Flamingo cracked the beams in the cellar. And new years eve 1987 in the Falcon, the piano (covered in glasses) was rocking so much it fell over backwards. Yay! Paid off my first mortgage, found myself a wife and met some brilliant characters. Good times.

  7. Martin Geoffrey Robinson says:

    Thank you Kjarten! I owe you multiple pints for all the great times you gave us!

  8. Kjartan says:

    Well that’s weird! When I posted my comment I honestly hadn’t seen Christina’s comment above mine, posted just a few hours before. Fancy her remembering Pob’s programme. I did a lot more work with the producer Anne Wood – including helping to develop the Teletubbies and writing for “Rosie and Jim” – one of the proudest things on my CV. In the Flounder David Bruce had a big fish tank at the back by the piano, and randomly chose a load of pretty fish to go in it. It turned out that there was a cannibalistic hierarchy so every Thursday when I played it was interesting to see what had survived the week! And Martin – you owe me nothing. I was so blessed to have such a loyal bunch who kept me company week after week. Cheers Mate. (By the way, which pub(s) did you frequent? I’m trying to recall you.)

  9. Andy says:

    I used to drink regularly in the the Phantom and Firkin in Loughborough, an excellent pub. We turned up one day to find notices on all the tables announcing that owing to ‘customer demand’ the Firkin beers were being replaced by Greene King IPA. Haven’t been in since!

  10. Warren Smart says:

    My now wife and I got together in the Frog in 1988. We are both from New Zealand and by our recollection there were at least 12 people from our home town there that night. We did all the Firkin pubs in London and collected a beer coaster from each. Our last day in London saw us go to our last Firkin pub. My Frog t-shirt has finally given up the ghost and is now in the rag pile. Great memories. Always thought we’d get to go back one day, but it seems not

  11. Gerry Altenburg says:

    I loved the Frog and Firken pub back in the 80s..kiwi and Aussies doing our OE. Great times. Frog was our local

  12. Adrian Hall says:

    Hi all, I used to run the Flyer and Firkin in Reading from 1997 to 2001 and my other half Diane ran the Firefly in Bournemouth in 2000. They were mental fantastic busy busy days, you will never ever see pubs like this ever again! Way ahead of their time, giant Jenna and giant Connect 4, as big as a person, tables made for dancing on and the most insane staff and beer you would ever find! Oh happy days!!

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