The Dove in Upper Mall, Hammersmith is one of London’s favourite riverside pubs, famous for good beer, for a fine view of the Boat Race and for what is supposed to be the tiniest public bar in Britain, at just four feet two inches wide and seven feet ten inches long. This is the story of that tiny bar, a tale of deceit and mystery.
The pub’s popularity means a raft of mentions in guidebooks, with most of the “facts” printed about it being demonstrably wrong. At least two current guides to riverside pubs claim Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn used to visit the Dove, which would have been difficult without a time machine, as it wasn’t built until around 60 years or more after Charles II died.
Even the 2008 Good Beer Guide entry on the Dove contains four historical errors in 70 or so words. It says the pub was “licensed in 1740 as the Dove’s [sic] coffee house” (it wasn’t), and James “Thompson” (sic – it was Thomson) composed Rule Britannia in an upstairs room (he didn’t – in fact he didn’t “compose” it at all, Thomas Arne composed the tune and Thomson wrote the words, most probably at his home in Kew).
How the Dove came to have such a tiny bar was explained by George Izzard, the pub’s landlord from 1931 to 1965. He wrote one of the best “landlord’s memoirs”, One for the Road, and he made the Dove a magnet for celebrities from Ernest Hemingway to Alec Guinness (who drank Guinness) to Dylan Thomas (whose usual order was mild-and-bitter, according to Izzard).
Until the time of his predecessors at the pub, Alfred and Elizabeth Mayes, the Dove – then called the Doves – was a one-bar beerhouse, licensed to sell beer only, not wine and spirits, Izzard wrote in One for the Road. The Mayeses, who came to the Dove in 1911, wanted to apply to the licensing magistrates to turn it into a fully licensed pub, and sell the more profitable whisky, gin and rum alongside the four-ale. But the law said a pub could only have a full licence if it had two bars.
Putting a second bar in meant structural alterations, and structural alterations to a pub also required the permission of the licensing magistrates. However, it could be dangerous to ask the licensing bench for leave to make structural alterations: they might demand, as the price of permission, that a landlord make even more costly upgrades, such as new toilets. Even worse, in the early decades of the 20th century, licensing benches were proactively closing pubs and beerhouses deemed “surplus”. If the Mayeses drew attention to the Dove, the magistrates might come along and decide this little out-of-the-way beerhouse near the Stamford Brook creek needed shutting, not improving.
What to do? The Mayeses, Izzard wrote, decided on a cunning plan. Next door to the pub was a boatyard run by Mrs Mayes’s brothers, the Coles. They would ask the Coles to build a prefabricated saloon bar in their boatyard, sneak the parts into the Dove late one evening and erect it when no one was about.
… the bar had only to be screwed down and the whole operation could be carried through in complete silence. The Cole brothers did their stuff. The new bar was built, spirited into the front door and screwed into place without anyone a penny the wiser.”
The following Brewster Sessions Mr Mayes, landlord of the now two-bar Dove, applied for and was granted his spirits licence without the slightest difficulty, Izzard wrote. The tiny new compartment to the right of the Dove’s front door stayed as a designated saloon bar, where beer cost a penny a pint more, until Izzard decided he would make much more money turning the main bar into the saloon, and changing the far smaller space, just 33 square feet, into the public bar, which is how it remains today.
It’s a terrific story, and there is only one problem with it: The Dove never was a beerhouse, it has always had a full licence, and there was no need for the Mayeses to have a second bar built. It is true the Licensing Consolidation Act of 1910 stated that a pub had to have two separate public rooms to be able to sell spirits. But the Act also said that this rule did not apply for any premises which had had an on-licence from before 1872. The Dove’s history as licensed premises went back much further than that: indeed, it predated the Beerhouse Act of 1830, which brought in beer-only licences and saw tens of thousands of new drinking outlets open across the country.
The London County Council Survey of London of 1915 described the Dove, and its adjoining neighbour at 17 Upper Mall, a private house called The Seasons, as dating architecturally from “the middle or early part of the 18th century”, and probably one building originally, or two cottages under one roof. The Survey suggests, though with no evidence at all, that there may be a link between the Dove and two cottages “and a grass orchard” by the riverside listed in the local manor records between 1678 and 1718, but even if they were on the same site the Dove, architecturally, must be a rebuilding.
Thomas Faulkner’s Historical and topographical account of Fulham; including the hamlet of Hammersmith from 1813 says the Scottish poet James Thomson wrote part of Winter, the last section in his poetic cycle The Seasons “in the Dove coffee-house”, adding that “he was in the habit of frequenting the room when the Thames was frozen and the surrounding country was covered in snow. This fact is well authenticated and many people visit the house to this present day ” It is on this claim that 17 Upper Mall is called The Seasons: the 1915 Survey of London says that “it has been suggested that the room occasionally occupied by Thomson may have been the upper room of number 17 before it was divided from the inn.”.
Thomson, whom the Dictionary of National Biography calls “a keen and practised drinker” (you go, Jimbo), wrote The Seasons between 1725 and 1730. It was not until 1736 that he was living in the area, in a cottage in Kew Foot Lane, Richmond, from where he would walk the nine or ten miles into London, with “The Doves inn at Hammersmith as his customary watering hole,” the DNB says. This is at least in part anachronistic: the premises were still called “the Dove coffee house” at the end of the 18th century, and the Dove never properly turned into the Doves until around the middle of the 19th century.
Thomson wrote the patriotic Alfred: A Masque, which features “Rule Britannia”, in 1740, though there is no evidence he wrote the song at the Dove. He heavily revised The Seasons in 1743, and might have done this while at the Dove on his way to or from London, but again, there is no evidence. What is known is that, after walking one hot summer evening in August 1748 from central London as far as Hammersmith, Thomson took a boat for the remainder of his journey home to Kew, caught a chill which turned into a fever and died a few days after, aged 48. His wake, the DNB says, was “as drunken as Thomson could have wished”.
If Faulkner and the DNB are right, then the Dove may have been around, and serving customers, as early as the 1730s, at least: I don’t know what their sources are, however. The first documented evidence for the Dove’s existence does not come until November 1790, when the local manorial court rolls record that Julian Bere, spinster, died “seized of the Doves [sic] coffee house then in the occupation of James Cade”. Two years later, Montague Beer, evidently a relative of Julian, was shown in the manorial records as taking up the ownership of “a coffee house called the Dove, near Chiswick”.
The Dove was then occupied by “James Thompson or his undertenant”. “James” Thompson was probably a mistake for John Thompson, then owner of the brewery down the road in Chiswick that later became Fuller Smith & Turner, because in November 1796 the manorial records say Beer surrendered “the Dove coffee house by the creek” to the use of John Thompson of Chiswick, and 1796 is when Fuller’s records say the brewery acquired the Dove.
The fact that the Dove was called a coffee house, even though the involvement of Thompson shows it was selling beer as well, suggests a rather more upmarket or exclusive establishment than a simple riverside alehouse. Coffee houses, in London at least, in the 18th century, were places where the middle classes met, where (expensive, highly taxed) newspapers were made available, where wits tried to outdo each other in cleverness, where politicians plotted and where businessmen transacted their affairs.
Hammersmith at this time was still fairly rural: there were fields and orchards on almost every side. However, the district did attract upper-class visitors. In a later book Thomas Faulkner said the Seasons, next door to the Dove, was used by Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), sixth son of George III and Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle, as a “smoking box”, where he would “smoke the social tube” in the garden next door to the river. He was not the first royal to visit Upper Mall: Queen Catherine, the widow of Charles II, spent her summers in a house further along from where the Dove now is between 1686 and 1694 (which may be where the canard that Charles II himself visited the area comes from), and her brother-in-law James II would regularly call on her.
According to the 1965 A History of Hammersmith, the Dove was still called the Dove Coffee House in 1820, when it was one of the places where a petition in support of Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of the newly crowned George IV, could be signed: Caroline was living in Hammersmith, and being visited by Whig politicians who were supporting her as a way of embarrassing the Tory government. By the time of Pigot’s trade directory of 1826/7, where it is listed under “Taverns and Public Houses”, the place is simply called the Dove – no mention of coffee.
At least one source claims the change of name to the Doves happened in 1860 after “the artist repainting the sign was overcome with enthusiasm and put in two birds instead of one”. In a directory of 1845, however, and again in the 1851 census, it is called the Doves, plural, while in Simpson’s directory of 1863 it is called the Dove, singular, again. A watercolour painting by JT Wilson from 1867, however, shows the riverside signboard calling the pub the Doves. (It also shows an advertising board for “neat wines”, confirming, if it were needed, that the Dove/Doves had a full licence even then).
Although the pub continued to be called on its signs the Doves, the licensing records for Hammersmith and Fulham which begin in 1873, show the pub, with its full licence, was always listed as the Dove, singular. When, in 1948, George Izzard discovered what the name had been originally, he decided to revert to the old style, and the pub has been the Dove again for the past 59 years. (Ironically the dustjacket of Izzard’s autobiography, published in 1959, shows a photograph of the pub from the river with the name in huge letters on the signboard as “THE DOVES”.)
But if the Dove/Doves already had a full licence, why did the Mayeses feel they had to have a second bar? Alfred Mayes died in 1921, and his widow Elizabeth carrying on at the pub until her death in 1930. George Izzard must have heard the “wanted to upgrade the licence” story from one of the locals who knew the secret of how the new saloon bar had been installed, perhaps second-hand, and did not know the pub could sell wines and spirits even before the new bar was snuck in one night.
My guess is that the Mayeses had been told that the 1910 Licensing Consolidation Act said only two-bar pubs could have full licences, and, not realising they were safe from this rule because of the Dove’s age, had panicked and decided to secretly upgrade the pub so they complied with the law. Alfred Mayes already had a mark on his record: in 1916 he had been convicted for serving alcohol after hours. Perhaps he felt, because of this, under a particular obligation to be seen to obey the regulations.
Whatever, the tiny but “delightful” bar (to quote Camra’s guide to London pubs of special interest) albeit a 20th century addition, only increases the attraction of this 18th century riverside pub. It deserves all its places in the guidebooks, with its black oak settles, stone floors and Thames-side terrace (indeed, in the days of named London telephone exchanges, the pub’s telephone number was actually RIVerside 5405, and riverside is what it still is, with the first part of the current number, 8748, being 8RIV).
It’s only a pity the guidebooks can’t get their facts right, but each author seems to copy-and-paste the errors of the previous writer, and introduce an error of their own at the same time. You can trace the development of the Charles and Nell myth, for example, from a pamphlet about the pub written in the 1950s saying the pair “stayed in the district” through to the current nonsense that the Merry Monarch and the orange-seller actually drank at the yet-to-be-built pub: I’ve just been reading an entry on the Dove in a book written three years ago by a man I know and respect which has the story of Thomson’s death hopelessly mangled. Yet the DNB is available online – he didn’t even have to go to a library to check on what the true story is.