Beer and biryani in Hampstead High Street

MANY PEOPLE HAVE FAVOURITE restaurants. My parents were no exceptions. Amongst the restaurants they frequented often in London during the early 1960s were Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street; Otello in Soho; Cellier du Midi in Hampstead; and the Tung Hsing in Golders Green, one of the first restaurants in London to serve ‘Pekinese’ cuisine. For Indian food, they patronised the Shahbhag in Hampstead High Street. 135 feet west of that still extant restaurant there is an archway decorated with sculptures depicting sheaves of barley and an inscription that reads:

“Established 1720. BREWERY. Rebuilt 1869”

The archway is at the street entrance of a covered cobbled lane that leads to a converted Victorian industrial building, now named ‘Clive House’, within a yard of varying width. The yard contains a well-head covering a well that looks quite old, and certainly not of recent construction.

The brewery was that of the ‘Hampstead Brewery Co. Ltd’ founded in 1720 by John Vincent (died 1755).  In about 1713, Vincent, already a landowner, acquired the Jack Straws Castle pub near Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp66-71). He founded the brewery behind a pub called the “King of Bohemia’s Head” in 1720. In 1733, he was granted a 33-year lease of a spring by the trustees of an estate in Hampstead, which contained it and other wells including those with curative mineral waters. It was:

“…used only to supply the Vincents’ brewery in High Street and a few adjoining houses, was of little value to anyone other than the brewer.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).

Thomas J Barratt, a historian of Hampstead, wrote (in 1912) that Vincent selfishly believed that:

“… he could utilise the water to his own profit and the benefit of some of his neighbours; therefore, with the leave of the trustees, he laid down pipes and conveyed water from the pond not only to his brewery but also to a number of better-class houses in the town. He charged the householders for the water, and no doubt did well out of the transaction; but when, after many years, the Chancery decree brought about a day of reckoning he was ordered to pay £322 for arrears of rent, and the water was advertised to be let to the highest bidder. When Gayton Road, a thoroughfare now connecting Well Walk with High Street, was being formed, remains of the pipes conveying this water to the brewery were discovered a few feet below the surface.”

In addition to the brewery, Vincent acquired much other property in Hampstead including several pubs. On his death in 1755, Vincent’s brewery and other properties passed to his younger son Robert, who is thought to have continued running the brewery with his elder brother Richard (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp111-130). Richard entered Wadham College, Oxford, in April 1736 and became a barrister (Inner Temple) in 1743 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Alumni_Oxoniensis_(1715-1886)_volume_4.djvu/270).

In 1787, Robert’s widow Elizabeth became involved in running the business and some of the Vincents’ pubs in Hampstead including the ‘George’, the ‘Black Boy’, and the ‘Coach and Horses’. She retained an interest in the brewery until 1812, which is well after it was taken over by Messrs Shepheard and Buckland in 1797. The brewery was rebuilt in 1869 with two shopfronts on the High Street, and by the 1880s, it was owned by Mure & Co. In 1928, the company had 184 employees, but it closed in about 1931. Reffell’s Bexley Brewery acquired it in 1931 (https://builtforbrewing.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/on-hampstead-high-street/).  

The brewery buildings had become quite dilapidated by 1959 when they were being used for motor repairs. Later, the structure was converted for use as office space and an attractive group of residences were built within its compound.  The main brewery building is now named Clive House. It is currently the offices of the Pears Foundation, which is:

“…an independent, British family foundation, rooted in Jewish values, that takes £15 ‐ 20 million of private money every year and invests it in good causes.” (https://pearsfoundation.org.uk/who-we-are/).

The Brewery’s grounds were adjacent to the grounds of a church, which has been converted into residential dwellings, which retain some of the original windows topped with ogival arches. This building is labelled as ‘Trinity Presbyterian Church’ on a map surveyed in 1866. It was founded in 1844 and had its roots in Calvinist theology. The church’s story is as follows (https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail/REFD+LMA~2F4352?SESSIONSEARCH):

“Trinity Presbyterian Church began after a report by the Presbyterian district visitor for Hampstead that Scottish inhabitants needed a preaching station … By the end of 1845 the average attendance was 130 in the morning and 80 in the evening … The congregation moved to Well Walk Chapel in 1853, however, the building was dilapidated, so a site at 2 High Street, on the corner of Willoughby Road, was bought in 1861. The new church opened in 1862. It was demolished in 1962 … Shops were built on the site and the hall was converted into Trinity Close.”

So, what can be seen today was the church hall.

All this history is making me hungry. So, let us return to the Shahbhag, which my parents enjoyed back when I was a youngster. I went there once in the early 1970s and had a pleasant meal. Then, I did not return to it until the mid- to late 1990s.  It looked different to what I remembered of it, but its location was the same as of old. I sat down and ordered a meal. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I looked around at what was arriving on the plates being served to other diners and I did not like what I saw. It looked and smelled far less attractive than the food that I was used to having in other Indian restaurants at the time. I was beginning to regret having entered this restaurant, mainly for nostalgic reasons. I waited and waited for an extremely long time, but my food did not arrive. I looked at the time, almost 45 minutes had elapsed since giving my order, and realised that soon I had to meet my wife and some friends. I called the waiter and told him that I could wait no longer and that I would be cancelling my order. He seemed undismayed as I walked out of the restaurant.

Recently (January 2020) when I explored the grounds of the former Hampstead Brewery, I noticed that the Shahbhag was still in existence but closed for the time being because of the current viral pandemic. I am glad it still exists as it is something that reminds me of my parents, but I doubt I will be entering it again when it reopens. When restrictions relating to covid19 ease up, I would rather have a beer than a biryani in Hampstead.

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