Happy St George’s Day to you. If you are planning the kind of celebrations that people like me sometimes indulge in on St Patrick’s Day, have one for me, and have a good time. I will be unable to join you, but I have been reminiscing about a St George’s Day back in the 1980s when a group of us from school got drunk for, literally, shillings.
For those unfamiliar with pre-decimal currency here in the UK an old shilling was worth 5p. There were 20 shillings to the pound. After decimalization (which happened on 15 February 1971, not a date I had to look up) the old shilling coins were kept in circulation for many years and new 5p coins were minted which were the same size and weight. Old and new coins were interchangeable. The same was true with 10p pieces and their “old money” equivalents, florins (or 2-shilling pieces). 50p coins were introduced to replace the old “10 bob notes”. (A “bob” was another name for a shilling.)
I am a little out of date with my knowledge of pub chains, the groups of pubs that are managed by brewers or other large firms. The scene was transformed in the 1980s by legislation dictating how many pubs could be owned and run by an individual brewery. The largest pub chain in the UK right now is Wetherspoon’s, and I realize that I haven’t visited one for many years. Ours may be one of the few postcodes that is Wetherspoon free.
Back in the 1980s there were pubs known as “St George’s Taverns”. I have no idea how big this chain was, but The Rutland in Hammersmith, one of our regular meeting points for under-age drinking back then, was part of it. One St George’s Day, when we were still at school, the Evening Standard had a special offer: a voucher that you could use in any St George’s Tavern to buy a pint of bitter for one old shilling. It had to be an old shilling – you couldn’t use a new 5p piece in its place. At the time a pint of bitter cost between 40p and 50p, depending on the pub (and whether you were in the Saloon or the Public Bar). Even with the cost of the paper (10p, if memory serves me right) you could get a pint of bitter that night for 15p, around a third of its usual price.
A group of us met at the Rutland around 8pm, ready with our vouchers and a stack of old shillings. We weren’t sure whether the voucher entitled us to a single pint or whether we would get more than that. I generally drank Guinness at that pub and half-expected to have a cheap pint of bitter and then switch to the dark stuff. As things turned out the bar-staff weren’t sure what the voucher entitled us to either, and they served us beer all evening long at a shilling a pint. We didn’t even need to show our vouchers after a while. I had gathered together about ten old shillings, just in case, and by the time I had spent eight of them the pub had run out of bitter. Like some of my schoolmates I had bought and drunk a gallon of beer for the equivalent of 40p in new money. I didn’t really need another pint but could have had a Guinness or a lager for another 45p or so. I chose not to. It was close to closing time, and we had school the next day.
I got chatting to an old guy at the bar, probably in his 70s. He asked if we’d come a long way to take advantage of the offer. I told him that we were often here on Friday nights, went to school nearby and most of us lived nearby too. He asked where. “Chiswick,” I told him. “Terrible rough place that Chiswick,” he said, “All them gangsters down Devonshire Road. You wouldn’t find me down there after dark. Very dangerous place.”
I asked him when he had last been there and where he lived. He hadn’t been there since the 1930s, and he lived a mile or so the other way, in Barons Court. I was amused that someone who had lived through two world wars, and probably fought in the second of them, was scared of the streets near where I grew up but maybe he’d had a bad experience there. All these years later I can’t remember whether I walked home along the river or took a bus from King Street. It’s hardly surprising. I’d just got drunk for 8 shillings.