The Jewel that is the Crown.
There is a hero in this story; his name is Ken McIlwrath.
Belfast was not a very inviting place in the 1970’s. The city centre was closed off and fortified. Getting to the shops meant passing through a heavy duty turnstile, and submitting yourself to a search by armed security staff who in turn were watched over by soldiers. Those who were old enough at the time will remember the automatic reaction of entering a shop and raising your arms for the search; a reaction that could be a bit embarrassing when travelling outside our small province! The city’s night life had either moved out of town entirely, or to Great Victoria Street, an area then known as the ‘Golden Mile’.
The bar trade in Northern Ireland was largely run by the duopoly of Bass and Guinness back then. Bars were supplied by one or other except for the black stuff which made it into all bars, with occasional pretenders introduced to northern drinkers by Bass such as Beamish or Murphy’s. There was little choice for beer drinkers other than the colour of the brew.
Ken was the father of a school friend of mine; David, and seemed to be employed by Bass as a sort of trouble-shooter. He took over bars that were not performing well, and was in charge of bringing them back to life. I remember going with David to this new venue to cadge a lift home from his Dad. My first memory of entering the bar was of dull dark brown. There was no gloss in the place, and very little light. The whole room, windows included, had such a covering of years of nicotine and grime that everything was the same matt brown colour. Towards the back, one of the staff was vigorously mopping where the toilets had yet again overflowed and run into the back of the bar. It was a dump.
Bass had plans for a full makeover 1970’s style. The Crown was to become ‘trendy’, which in those days would probably have meant lots of beaten copper and swirling plasterwork if you can imagine such an outrage in this place. Now Ken had modernised other bars, but was obviously mesmerised by the character of this bar after only a couple of days in post. He pointed out a host of features like the original gas fittings and the ornate carvings on the corners of the cubicles. Shortly after, Ken went to war!
I suppose it all began simply enough, with a few hints passed up the management chain that this bar was different, that it had a history worth saving and that its contents and structure were irreplaceable. Management would not budge, but fortunately for posterity, Ken had no intention of giving up his quest either. I know that he tried to get the local papers interested, but failed. Younger readers probably cannot comprehend just how much orthodox religion penetrated our lives back then. You need remember that this was a time when Council’s locked up the swings and roundabouts on a Sunday, because the ‘lords’ day’ couldn’t possible include anything as profane as children having fun! The ‘demon drink’, and anything associated with it could not be a part of the heritage of anyone not already destined for hell, and so between righteous attitudes and probably a fear of losing advertising revenues on the papers part, Ken found no allies.
Contacting the National Trust was a last resort for Ken, and this too was not initially fruitful. Ken ran up against the same moral virtuosity that he had dealt with in his press contacts. The local National Trust did not want to know. Only pressing the issue further with the national organisation and by contacting anyone who he thought might apply a little pressure on his behalf did he eventually get the Crown the recognition that it still has today. If you look at some of the people that came to Ken's aid, he must have been a very resourceful and persuasive man. By this time, Ken was, to put it mildly, not his management’s favourite. He got moved on a number of times to lesser posts, but was always proud of what he had achieved in saving the Crown. His part in the history of this historic building is not known, probably because of the fight he had within his own organisation to save this beautiful place, so If you are in the Crown for a pint, let’s put this right. Tip your glass, and say a toast, ‘To Ken’.
A little History.
The crown owes its ornate finish to Italian craftsmen brought to Belfast to build public buildings like the Grand Opera House, and the many great gothic revival churches that adorn the city. In the late 1800’s Belfast was the fastest growing city in the whole of Britain, due to spectacular growth in its linen and shipbuilding industries. Apparently they worked on the Crown after completing their ordinary work, and received payment largely in kind, through free booze, and favours in the brothel that was upstairs. During the Crown's original restoration many of the upstairs floorboards were lifted to install cables. The space between the downstairs ceiling, and the first floor was filled with ash, (from a spent fire rather than ash wood). The Victorians used ash for soundproofing!
Beside the Crown there is now a bookies, and beyond that is Robinsons, another of Belfast’s Victorian bars, although this one did not manage to save its original interior. In a case of very bad planning, the bookies was originally opened as a temperance hotel sandwiched between two busy bars. There is a ghost story associated with this building too.
The first floor of the Crown lay unused for years, but in the 80’s (if I remember correctly), it was opened as a bar, and was named after Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. Britannic (the ship) was still being constructed when WW1 broke out, and was never commissioned in its intended role as a luxury liner. Instead it was fitted out as a hospital ship for the war casualties. In the 1980’s, the H&W shipyard was in decline, and many of its huge buildings were being either demolished or repurposed. In one storeroom, workers found a quantity of wooden panelling, originally destined for the fitting out of RMS Britannic, the ship. This was then sold on, and was used to fit out the Britannic bar, hence the name. Unfortunately the bar has since been rebranded.
This is what happens to idiots like me when I write a story quickly without re-reading everything. I never meant to imply that Ken was the only person involved in saving the Crown. He obviously must have had help. Wikipedia tells me that people like Sir John Betjeman were influential in applying pressure to the National Trust to save the crown. The logical thought would be that his involvement started through the Grand Opera House which is very close by, but it was closed from 1972 to 1980, so I have no idea how such arty people got involved. Wikipedia also tells me that the Crown was taken over by the National Trust in 1978, but I am pretty sure that Ken had been moved on to new pastures by then, although I’m also sure that he would still have been involved in the campaign to save the pub. In my opinion Ken still deserves recognition though. He spotted the value of the building, started and played an important part in the campaign to save it, and took a hit to his career as a result. Truly a man of courage, principal and determination. Cheers Ken.