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The Beginning

Having brewed my own beer for over 40 years, I have gradually accumulated the accoutrements and dispensing apparatus that go with it. My wife has long since become resigned to the kitchen dining area increasingly assuming both the appearance and function of a bar. It is also more than a little convenient that there is an adjoining cellar.

A number of very good books have been written that explore the development of the English pub. These offer tantalising pictorial glimpses through the portals of the Victorian tavern and alehouse; a place whose denizens could enter a world of escapism, typified by elaborate decor and brilliant cut glass mirrors, that was in stark contrast to the often meagre comforts of their own homes.

I seem to have made it my mission to salvage those forgotten items of pub furniture and bar fittings from an era that the Victorians made magnificent, and formed such a significant part of British social history, but which never seem to be represented in any museum. With the ever-accelerating trend towards the evisceration of pubs, stripping out irreplaceable features and turning them into bland, characterless, chrome and plastic "theme" bars where widescreen TV and karaoke rule and ale is anathema, I fear that soon these relics and reminders of their glory days will be lost forever, and generations to come will never know how our cultural heritage became the poorer for it.

There are a few specialist brewery museums, but these by their nature tend to concentrate on items connected with the brewing process, rather than pub history and the consumer's experience of the end product. Even in the Science Museum in London, where there is a whole area devoted to gadgets and items in everyday use from the late 19th Century to the 1970s, period pub furnishings and bar fittings are totally unrepresented. The invention and refinement of the beer engine, from the very first prototype patented by that prolific and diverse engineer Joseph Bramah, on 31st October 1797, to the present day, merits no mention.

In my late teens back in 1970 I remember visiting with my parents a tiny pub in Tenby, right by the old castle wall, called The Bush Inn. It was run by a redoubtable Welsh dragon of a landlady by the name of Christine, a wonderful woman who stood no nonsense and had much excellent advice to offer on matters such as where to get the best "bara lawr" (laver bread). Above the bar was a small collection of old, beautifully decorated, porcelain beer pump handles. That stuck in my mind even then, for they were not of the usual "hunting scene" variety, nor the ubiquitous black ebony type with the chromed centre band that reigned supreme throughout much of the 20th century. They clearly had their origins in a time when such utilitarian items were not required to conform to a standard shape, size, and pattern. Each was unique, smaller and squatter than the 9" slimline handles that are the standard today, and had been painted by hand.

A number of brewerania collectors' societies exist; however their focus concentrates on beer ephemera: cans, bottles, labels and beer mats, and most, being based in the USA, have a heavy bias towards the American brewing tradition. I find it odd that none of these organisations' terms of reference appear to extend to my particular area of interest. Surely I cannot be the only person living for whom these items hold a particular fascination and enduring appeal? This means, too, that there are few links to reference sources to aid investigation into the manufacturing and design history of the beer engine and the pump handle, as well as ancillary barware and fixtures such as spirit fountains and urns, optics, mirrors and advertising ware.

Victorian beer engines