Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Tied House Concerts

Here's another weird libel case, this time featuring one of Camden Brewery's tenants as plaintiff.

A local resident wasn'tkeen on the noise from a beerhouse and wrote to the Camden Brewery to complain. He should perhaps have been more careful in his choice of language.

In the Queen's Bench Division on Tuesday, before Mr. Justice Lawrance and a jury, Alfred Bellinger, a licensed victualler, sought to recover damages for an alleged libel contained in a letter written by the defendant, David Smith, to his landlords, a firm of brewers.

Counsel, in opening the case for the plaintiff, said it was one quite out of the ordinary class of libel actions. The plaintiff was the occupier of a tied beerhouse, known as the Elephant's Head, situated in the Lower Clapton-road, under a lease granted to him by the Camden Brewery Company. The plaintiff was a member of one or two athletic clubs. He soon got several clubs to make his house their rendezvous, and they met in the club-room and occasionally held social evenings there. At some of these concerts were given, and it was in respect of these musical evenings that the defendant, who lived in a semi-detached house immediately opposite the Elephant's Head, had thought proper to write to the Brewery Company and complain. The letter which contained the alleged libel was dated July 18, 1895, and was as follows:-

I must draw your attention to the disgraceful concerts or "sing-alongs" which take place at the Elephant's Head several times a week, and which are a curse to the neighbourhood as well as to the house. It is quite bad enough to have our garden made into a public urinal to accommodate your disgusting beerhouse - a rendezvous for drunken boys and girls - without having our brains split from nine p.m. until 12.30 a.m., and frequently two a.m., with a lot of drunken yelling brutes. Unless this nuisance is stopped, and that at once I must advise my neighbours to take drastic measures to put down this annoyance and disgrace.

The brewery company at once communicated the contents of this letter to the plaintiff, which was the first intimation he received from the defendant that he disapproved of the way in which he carried on his business. In further correspondence the defendant refused to retract his statements, and complained that he was also disturbed by the noise of the beer-engine in the bar, and desired that the windows should be kept closed.

Alfred Bellinger, the plaintiff, then gave evidence in support of his counsel's opening statement.

Cross-examined: Witness said there were generally from sixty to seventy young fellows, all members of their respective clubs, at these social gatherings, which were always orderly.

Re-examined: Very few women were served in the bar at any time. It was quite untrue to say that factory girls or women crowded into the bar on the nights that concerts were given.

Dr. Bremner, who lived at 12, Lower Clapton-road, stated that the concerts were of constant occurrence, and that the noise was often kept up until half past twelve. He had seen on concert nights men, but never women, after going in the defendant's garden, return to the public-house. He had never heard "shouting and yelling," but the acclamations and applause were of a very hearty description.

Mr. David Smith, the defendant, who described himself as a brewers' agent, gave evidence to the effect that the persons who attended these concerts were a very rowdy lot, and that there was a great deal of yelling and shouting. They could hear the concerts distinctly in the house, even with the windows closed. So many persons used the garden that it was in a filthy state the morning after a concert, and servants left rather than keep the place clean.

Cross-examined: Witness said that his statement in the letter that the noise was frequently continued until two a.m. was incorrect. On one occasion that was so. With this one correction he declined to withdraw any statement contained in the letter, and added, "the letter is the plain and unvarnished truth, and I glory in having written it."

The jury found that the letter had been written with the view of injuring the plaintiff, and assessed the damages at £150. Judgment for the plaintiff accordingly.
Reynolds's Newspaper - Sunday 17 May 1896, page 2.
I'm pretty sure that I've identified where all this happened. The doctor's address was a big help. Plus there are/were few semi-detached housed on Lower Clapton Road. I've circled in red what I think was the beerhouse:

I think I can understand some of the cause of the argument. This part of was an odd mix in the 1890's. There were some grand older semis which were being surrounded by much smaller new terraced houses. The inhabitants of the different types of houses must have been from very different social classes. The doctor Mr. Smith lived in the posh houses on the south side of the street.

Here's what the pub looked like in the 1970's (I think, could be early 1980's). As you would expect, it was a Courage pub.

And here it is today - renamed Fitzgerald's and closed:

And this is what the posh side of the street opposite looks like:

There are several weird things about this case. That someone who described himself as a brewer's agent should complain about the noise of a beer engine. How he could hear across a road with a tram running down it I can't understand.

I'm surprised that Dr. Bremner was so unsupportive. He lived on the posh side, too, and must have been subjected to a similar level of nuisance. I suspect that it was his testimony that swayed the jury.

In the late 19th century, the middle classes made a big deal of women going to pubs and drinking. They were a bit obsessed by it, much the way the tabloid press is today. How often do stories about binge drinking show a woman sprawled drunkenly on the pavement?

I had to smile when Smith said that the mess in his garden was so bad that he couldn't hang on to servants. He didn't have to clear it up himself. I can sympathise with him on having his garden used as a urinal. Didn't the pub have a toilet? And why didn't he just lock the gates?

£150 is a huge amount to have to pay. The equivalent of several years' wages for most people.

Sadly, Lesbia Road no longer exists.

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