The Fellowship and Star – ‘it’s like someone waved a magic wand’

The Fellowship and Star in Bellingham has opened its doors after an extensive renovation and restoration.

The Grade II Listed building was in a very poor state of repair and only one of the bars remained in use when Lewisham Council transferred the property to the resident led, co-operative Phoenix Housing Association.

Historic England were asked to take a look at the pub and they were impressed that the original features from the 1920s remained untouched. The formal Listing says: “[The Fellowship Inn is] an ‘improved’ public house built in 1923-4 by FG Newnham for the brewery Barclay Perkins and Co, the survival of most the original interior fittings and the original layout, as well as the largely unchanged exterior appearance, makes this a rare, virtually unaltered, example of a 1920s ‘improved’ public house.”

An ‘improved pub‘ was built immediately following World War I. In the book, Pubs and Progressives: Reinventing the Public House in England, 1896-1960, they are described as having ‘certain features that made them easily distinguishable from pre-war beerhouses and pubs: vast size, absence of advertisements pro-claiming the sale of specific beers, few entrances, opaque windows and spacious pullups and gardens. In planning the construction of improved pubs, brewers employed the most expensive building materials and, for the first time, the country’s leading architects as designers. They helped make Tudor architecture popular in the 1920s.’

Much later, in 1946, Eric Blair or to use his pseudonym, George Orwell wrote that public houses should not have: “glass-topped tables or other modern miseries… no sham roof-beams, inglenooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak”. So, he wouldn’t have been a fan of the architecture. However, after the introduction of a new style there is often a backlash and a desire for the past. In the The Moon Under the Water,  Orwell favoured the Victorian pub.

A description of The Fellowship Inn shortly after the opening appeared in the Daily Herald. Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive for this extract below:

A PUBLIC-HOUSE DE LUXE

Where They Wait on You to Music

“It is just a month since the opening of the Fellowship Inn, on the London County Housing Estate at Bellingham, South East London, and it is now possible to estimate how far success has attended this striking departure from the ordinary English public-house practice.

The sign itself is enough to attract any passer-by into the house, for it is a delightful representation of an eighteenth century three-decker, painted by Sir Arthur Cope, the well known R.A. The door is opened without ostentation by a commissionaire, and the visitor immediately hears the strains of an orchestra somewhere in the background. At oak tables sit men and women drinking their malt liquors or spirits —and taking their time about it, too. In the Fellowship you may linger over one glass of beer without receiving a hint that you ought to spend more rapidly.

There is a bar, it is true; but notices all around the walls (walls, by the way, of oak panels, unpolished) warn customers that servants will attend to their wants at the tables, and that you must not lean against the bar. Another notice on the walls says ” No Gratuities.”

Delightful lanterns, said to be of Elizabethan pattern, diffuse a soft green light which taken in conjunction with the strains of the orchestra, ‘meets Blankenburghe rather than Bellingham. If only the orchestra would play Carmen,” the illusion would be complete.

“OFF-LICENCE” JOINTS

The orchestra itself is located in a dancing hall downstairs, provided with enough of the ubiquitous tables and chairs to accommodate a couple of hundred people. Here, again, it possible to sit as long as one likes over one drink and enjoy the music. Facilities are provided in this hall, as everywhere else in the Fellowship Inn, for taking a meal if one feels so disposed. Attached to the inn is what looks like shop, the ” off-licence,” where, in the window, attractive-looking joints are flanked by bottles of beer and stout with a backgronad of spirits and liqueurs.

Nor is the Fellowship inn without its ” four-ale bar.” Here the prices are a little less, but there are still the tables and the chairs ; there are still the eatables exposed for sale, and the strains of the orchestra are still to he heard.

Many people might, however make the criticism that the Fellowship Inn suffers from what they regard as a defect which characterises all English public-houses- it is so built that you cannot see from the outside what is going on within. “

This delightful idyllic portrait of the pub didn’t last forever. In more recent times the building was transferred from the London County Council to the Greater London Council and on the demise of the GLC to Lewisham Council.

Later the pub acted as a training base and home for the heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper ahead of his 1963 fight with Cassius Clay.

Henry Cooper lived in Farmstead Road Bellingham and trained in the Fellowship

In 1963 the American magazine Sports Illustrated reported on Henry Cooper before his fight with Cassius Clay, who later became known as Muhammad Ali: “For weeks he had lived at the Fellowship, taking his meals there, training in the back room when a wedding reception or tea party did not interfere.”

It reported that ahead of the fight: “The menfolk [at the Fellowship Inn] munched pork pies and lifted their nightly pints of lukewarm bitter in salute to the doggerel posted over the bar by one of the regulars. It made the point that Humble Henry would soundly thrash Gaseous Cassius ‘and once again prove that very old adage: Action speaks louder than strong verbal cabbage!’”.

During the late 1960s and 70s the theatre hosted bands including Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Lewisham Council had made minimal repairs, mainly after Councillor Ron Stockbridge, a celebrated former Leader of the Council who led the council during the ratecapping rebellion against cuts, had intervened. Cllr Ron Stockbridge feared that the pub was destined to be sold at auction and turned into a block of flats. When Phoenix Community Housing acquired the premises after a long and tortuous negotiation, the pub had a veritable garden growing in the basement and much of the building was mothballed and unsafe for the public.

One advantage of this unorthodox approach to conservation was that the original features of the pub remained in tact and this resulted in the Grade II Listing.

Phoenix Community Housing produced a short film with their vision:

The Heritage Lottery Fund made an award of £3.8 million to Phoenix Community Housing in 2014. Then, Sue Bowers, Head of HLF London, said: “It’s innovative and commercially-focused projects just like The Fellowship Inn, for which the Heritage Lottery Fund created Heritage Enterprise.  Once at the heart of a thriving community for heroes, this vital funding will give this beleaguered building the financial leg-up it needs not only to return it to use but to enable it to be the driving force behind the rejuvenation of Bellingham.”

Electric Star were appointed the pub operator as the work neared completion. Rob Star, director of Electric Star Group, said: “The Fellowship has such an amazing history and we are really excited about working with Phoenix to restore this beautiful pub to its former glory and make it an asset that the whole community can enjoy.”

Fellowship and Star opened its doors in June 2019. The cinema is due to open in July.

Local resident and former chair of Phoenix Community Housing, Pat Fordham MBE said:

“I have seen the Fellowship Inn have good times and I’ve seen its worst times. It was left in a state.”

“It seemed like an impossible dream.”

“Now, when I visited the venue to see progress on the newly restored cinema, it was like someone had waved a magic wand and brought it back and made a community pub again.”

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