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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.

208 Responses to “What Happened to the Firkin Pubs”

  1. Richard,
    I used to play piano in the ferret on Saturdays and the only way to the loo was out of one door run around the corner and in the other. Always remember graffiti on the overflow “Watney’s best” !!!!
    Great days I’ve found some audio I’ll try to put up.

    Cheers
    Chris aka Boots 🙂

  2. Beverley says:

    Please can you help me find out ehat happened to flea and firkin and other firkin pubs in Manchester.
    I was a student in Manchester from 1992-1995.
    Thanks

  3. Sharon says:

    The Fox & Firkin was the original home of Dogbolter. Each pub that had its own brewery had a signature brew which was named for a twist on the pub name, eg the Fox was Dogbolter and the Font was Ale Mary.

  4. Graeme Palin says:

    The Firkin pubs were my “go to” in the early to mid-80’s when I was NE London Poly. The Pheasant & Firkin down the Angel was always a good starting place. My mate, Big John, and I ended up getting banned for falling off a table (on to people below) during a rendition of the “Wild Rover”…them were the days.

    Did they not have a Goatbolter beer for a while, as well?

  5. James Reid says:

    I played guitar and sang at the Phoenix & Firkin for a while in the early 90s. The nice booking guy found me from the Covent Garden buskers list. Great crowd and the Dogbolter was excellent. Happy memories of groups of students leaning over the balcony rail to shout requests and sing along.

  6. duncan adams says:

    when Allied Domeqc brought the Firkin brand to Scotland in mid 90s I worked on all the pubs, the first one being the Physician & Firkin in Edinburgh, quite a large one with its own brewery. Probably spent a couple of years in total doing the conversions, most of them involved takin down large walls to open up floor space in what were previously small segmented bars. They always had grand opening nights, the first couple were free bars all night, as it went on it changed to a couple of free drinks each, used to enjoy a few pints of dogbolter

    Edinburgh
    Physician & Firkin
    Footlights & Firkin
    Fiscal & Firkin
    Fringe. & Firkin

    Glasgow
    Fitter & Firkin
    Fruitmarket & Firkin

    Dundee
    Freelance & Firkin

    St Andrews
    Feathery & Firkin

    Aberdeen
    Flare & Firkin

  7. Bob Green says:

    Good news, Dogbolter is available here at Ramsgate Brewery. I ordered a case and it took me right back! Help an ex-Firkin brewer out who has had to go largely online due to covid and all the pubs shut.
    https://www.ramsgatebrewery.co.uk/
    It is run by Eddie Gadd who brewed the Dogbolter that won the award. (From memory I think it was brewed at the Ferret, but I could be wrong about that.) It was supposed to be Nick Milo’s at the Falcon, but a production issue meant it wasn’t going to be ready in time 🙂 Happy days!

  8. Alex says:

    I remember a few visits to the goose and firkin with me mates, we used to go by motorbike from Essex, what a brilliant trip down memory lane this blog has been, the piano tinkling away, the singing, the entertaining ride home after a dog bolter or two.. Cheers. ??

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