Special feature: The lessons of Upton Park

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Special feature: The lessons of Upton Park

Related tags West ham united f.c.

East End pubs around the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park, lived and died by their claret and blue credentials, so it’s little wonder a year after West Ham upped sticks and moved to Stratford that some have already put the shutters up.

Pubs in the East End of London have been well and truly hammered as a result of the local football club setting up home in a new ground. In 2016, West Ham United left the Boleyn Ground at Upton Park – its base for more than a century – and took up residence at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

Pubs in the Upton Park area that were packed and overflowing on match days are now largely empty. One pub has closed and a second will follow this month. With one exception, publicans use one word – “terrible” – to discuss what trade is like without football fans downing pints and filling tills.

West Ham is not the first club to move to a new stadium. Arsenal, Leicester City, Manchester City and Southampton have decamped to new grounds and others will surely follow. The unique problem for pubs in the Upton Park area of east London is the result of the changing pattern of the social scene.

Fact file

■ East Ham, West Ham, Plaistow and Stratford are all part of the modern London Borough of Newham. 

■ West Ham United’s first ground was at Canning Town and, when the club moved to Upton Park, it changed borough to East Ham but kept the original name. 

■ The Boleyn name for the old ground and the tavern is rooted in local history – the Boleyn family came from Kent but built a manor house in what became East Ham. 

■ The aim was to attract king and courtiers to stay with the family and hunt in Epping Forest. 

■ Anne Boleyn married Henry VIII and was “shortened” when she went to the block. 

The old white working-class users of pubs have largely moved away, leaving a large Bangladeshi community, which doesn’t use pubs for cultural and religious reasons. Long before the football club left, the long swathe of the Barking Road from Upton Park to Canning Town showed just how pubs have suffered in this fast-changing area, with such famous old Cockney boozers as the Green Gate and the Ordnance Arms either shuttered or turned into shops.

The situation has clearly been made worse since West Ham packed boots and goalposts, and went three miles up the road to Stratford. But one pub still thrives and has shown great imagination in holding on to its customers.

Lion still roars

The Black Lion, close to Plaistow station, is and remains popular with football supporters. It’s a good 15 minutes’ walk from the Boleyn Ground but fans made the trek as a result of the excellent range of beers – both ale and lager – on offer. It’s a former Courage pub but is now a genuine freehouse run by Tom and Veronica Friel and their son Ryan.

Cask beers regularly feature Mighty Oak and Doom Bar with the revived Truman’s brewery in Hackney supplying Runner, Swift and Scorcher. 

Ryan Friel says that at the start of last season a lot of regular customers moved to pubs around Stratford Broadway. “But they found beer was more expensive there and moved back to us.”

Tom Friel has made the journey easy by laying on a minibus on match days. Fans can enjoy a pre-match pint, go to the game and then get a lift back to either clink glasses in celebration or drown their sorrows.

How to avoid a hammering            

Here are a few suggestions of what can pubs do to hang on to trade when a football club moves?

■ Follow the lead of the Black Lion and lay on transport to ferry fans to and from matches.

■ Make pubs attractive to new customers by offering a good range of beers.

■ The success of the Black Lion shows how wrong the stereotype of lager-swilling footy fans is. Many prefer to drink cask ale and craft beer.

■ Don’t ignore food. Both the Black Lion and the Miller’s Well have good menus.

■ Pub owners should speak to both clubs and local authorities about how to ease the pain of losing long-standing customers and getting specialist advice on how to build a new customer base.

■ Breweries and pub companies should use their expertise to advise tenants and managers on how to attract new customers by staging special events such as mini beer festivals, and beer and food matching evenings.

The Black Lion is in a busy urban area now but it has some history. There’s been an inn on the site for 600 years and the current building dates from 1747. It has two cosy bars, a garden bar and a function room while a host of pump clips on the ancient beams show the enormous range of cask beers that have been served over the years.

Tom Friel says “We’re doing very well. Trade is only about 40% down on match days.” While food is not served when football is on, there’s an imaginative menu of home-cooked food the rest of the week.

Glory gone

Closer to the old Boleyn Ground – which is now a vast heap of rubble and demolition cranes – pubs are faring less well. The Queens is just a few yards from Upton Park station and was so busy on match days that bouncers were employed to control the crowds.

Small on the outside, the Queens is surprisingly spacious inside, with plenty of seating and the walls decorated with portraits of former West Ham players. It serves lager, including Kronenbourg, and John Smith’s keg bitter.

When I asked the manager how the pub was doing, he shrugged resignedly, said “terrible” and joined his two customers for a smoke on the pavement.

Next to the old ground, the Boleyn Tavern, with an inn sign showing the unfortunate Anne, is an architectural feast, ranging over four storeys. It was built between 1899 and 1900, is now Grade II listed and is on the Campaign for Real Ale’s national inventory of pubs with historic interiors. 

It has several large rooms, including a billiard room with an imposing glass ceiling dome. There are glazed windows, a long oak bar with a wood-panelled gantry, and an embossed ceiling. 

Like the nearby Queens, the Boleyn heaved with supporters on match days. Bouncers were employed to control the crowds and tell away fans, in the local parlance, to “sling their hook”. 

The barman repeated the mantra that trade was now: “Terrible. We used to get 2,000 on match days, now we’re lucky to get 30.”

As a result of its architectural importance, there have been concerns that the pub might close. But it’s a former Spirit outlet now run by Greene King and, alongside the usual range of lagers, offers Greene King IPA and Timothy Taylor Landlord.

Demise of the Central

As the former football ground next door is due to become upmarket apartments – and it’s a sign of the time that they’re advertised as apartments and not flats – the pub could attract a new clientele if it can hang on.

One pub that hasn’t hung on is the Central on Barking Road. It was another packed house on match days, with fans spilling onto the pavement. But it’s now closed and forlorn, and its substantial size suggests it could well become housing.

A few minutes further east, at the junction of Barking Road and East Ham High Street, the Denmark Arms is almost as impressive a building as the Boleyn Tavern. It’s Grade II listed and dates from the late 1890s but its listing won’t prevent the shutters being pulled down soon.

Popularity has waned

Relief for drinkers is close at hand in the Miller’s Well, a Wetherspoon outlet opposite East Ham Town Hall. It’s an attractive pub with seats on the pavement and hanging baskets adorning the exterior. The spacious interior is illustrated with old photos of the area and a portrait of Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP who represented West Ham.

It was popular with fans on match days but a member of staff said trade was “substantially down” as result of the football club leaving for pastures new. 

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