The demise of some pubs is felt strongly by local communities, by their former regulars and often by those who were occasional drinkers but perhaps saw the pub as part of their community – their passing is regretted and the mere mention of their name provokes fond memories. But for a pub which started life as the ‘Northover’ on the south corner of the junction of Northover and Whitefoot Lane these rose-tinted reminisces proved harder to find, although not impossible, as we’ll return to later; a comment on a local blog described it as the ‘late unlamented Governor General’ (its latter name) set the scene.
The pub opened around 1937 as the Northover; not that much imagination in naming a pub after the street it was sited on. It was a striking, large building on a big plot designed by the firm A W Blomfield for Watneys. Blomfield was a well-established architectural firm, the founder made his name as a church restorer – his work included substantial alterations to what was then St Saviours, Southwark – now the Cathedral and his staff included for a short period a very young Thomas Hardy. Arthur Blomfield had died a generation before the pub was designed though.
The pub is clear about 40% of the way up on the right hand side of the 1937 photograph from Britain from the Air website that was taken around the time it opened. Beyond it are the well planned lines of the Corbett Estate dominating the rear of the shot and the local authority housing of Waters Road the mid ground. The open ground around the middle of the shot was to become the Excalibur Estate a decade later.
The location of the pub was on the edge of the Downham estate which had been developed from the 1920s, there was an excellent post on the estate in the Municipal Dreams blog. The first and then largest pub in England, the Downham Tavern, had been built in 1930; the Northover was one of the second phase of community facilities which included the library and swimming pool, whose original incarnations were also opened in 1937.
It was in a prominent location and as the Britain from above shot showed, highly visible from above; as a result it would have been vulnerable to attacks from the Luftwaffe – so some attempts were made to camouflage the pub during World War Two – they clearly worked as the pub survived the war intact – remnants of the camouflage remained into the 1970s.
It is not clear when the name change happened, although the logic is clear – it was a reference to the rich and prominent local Forster Family, who lived at Southend Hall, which was at what is now the junction of Whitefoot Lane and Bromley Road. Henry Forster had been ‘elevated’ to the peerage in 1919 and was Governor-General of Australia between 1920 and 1925. He died in 1936.
The pub’s only real claim to fame was that it was that it had a small ‘part’ in the 1979 gangster movie ‘The Long Good Friday’ (poster – Wikimedia Commons) which starred Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, which the picture to below (source – the fantastic Reel Streets) is a ‘still’ from. Unlike Bob Hoskins, where the film became a launchpad for a successful career, the Governor-General faded back into obscurity and local semi-notoriety.
Other on line references are very few and far between, the Governor-General appears in several message board discussions of ‘rough’ pubs where fights were a regular occurrences and there was even a strange suggestion that the pub’s name change followed its purchase by Danny LaRue. While LaRue certainly owned other pubs and hotels, such as the Swan at Streatley on the Thames, and the upmarket hotel Walton Hall – owning a boozer on the edge of a council estate is probably unlikely.
There have been a few Facebook ‘threads’ on the pub including several relating to this post; the SE London Memories Group which started with its reputation claiming it ‘used to be a drinking hole for most of South East London’s underworld.’ Many remembered this aspect of the pub’s past with comments such as – ‘Northover was the sort of pub where you wiped your feet on the way out and ordered a fight at the bar along with your drinks.’ Someone else called it a ‘pint and a fight’ pub. One person remembered their father returning home, rather shaken, after someone he had been standing next to at the bar was threatened with a crossbow.
One former employee described it as ‘a dump …. nothing but punch ups, (the) public bar was like a wild west saloon! ’ It was pointed by someone else though out that most of the pubs in the area had fairly similar reputations.
But many more had fonder memories – there was a function room at the back which several had held their weddings receptions, it was often packed out on Friday evenings when there were rock & roll and rockabilly bands and often discos; and, for the more refined, there were dinner dances there too. It was the venue for football and other club ‘do’s’ too.
There were memories of the two worlds colliding too – there was a recollection of a mass brawl following a talent night being gate-crashed in the 1970s.
On a different thread , the pub is remembered as the location of the first, underage, pint – trying to and probably failing to look 18, and younger memories of sitting in the garden with just lemonade and crisps where the salt came in a blue packet (presumably before it was done on a retro basis). Similar recollections came on some of the threads relating to this post too.
The filming of the Long Good Friday is remembered too – apparently Bob Hoskins had a kick about with several local teenagers, and generally being friendly towards locals; he may have received the attentions of a number of the local young women… One of the part of the filming went slightly wrong in that an actor was meant to be swung around seem to hit a poster on a wall, there was apparently a mixture of fake and real blood when it was salvaged as a souvenir.
The pub car park was the scene of a rather bizarre incident in the late 1970s when a large block of ice deposited from an aeroplane smashed through a car taking the engine with it!
The pub closed in the early 1990s – a pattern followed by several others on the edge of Downham – the Garden Gate, now a McDonalds, just off Bromley Hill and the Green Man, demolished and now a housing association office. These days the site would no doubt have been developed for housing but around 2000 it opened as a petrol station, initially, as Q8, latterly a Shell filling station
As with other ‘lost pub posts’ on Running Past, it would be good to be able to add in some other memories into the post. If you worked there or drank there tell your story – who were the characters that were regulars at the Governor-General? What about the landlord, the staff, the atmosphere, recollections of the friends, the memorable nights, (given its reputation) perhaps the fights and any memories of the filming of ‘The Long Good Friday.’ You can use your Facebook or Twitter login to comment here, first comments get moderated before they appear though. If you found the post via Facebook, you can write your recollections there. I will update the post with the memories. Please don’t put anything libellous or that might offend others though…..