TWO PUBS NO BEER

12 April, 2021

The General Smuts and the Springbok by Peter Trott

The General Smuts

The area where the White City Estate now stands was once fields. Farm buildings occupied the land which is now the junction of Bloemfontein Road and South Africa Road. The area to the north east was cleared to build the Franco British Exhibition which opened in 1908. Further exhibitions followed but the 1914 Anglo American Exposition closed abruptly when WW1 broke out. During the war the site was used for military purposes but then lay neglected until the mid 1930s when it was cleared to build the Estate.

Construction began in 1938 and in that year there were also proposals to build a public house on Bloemfontein Road. The road had been named in 1881, after Bloemfontein the judicial capital of South Africa. The literal translation of the name from Afrikaans is ‘Fountain of Flowers’ although it is now known as the ‘City of Roses’. The new pub would be leased to Watney Combe Reid and apparently would replace an earlier Watney’s House. This is somewhat of a mystery bearing in mind it would have been within the boundary of the exhibition site. In fact the location was close to where the exhibition’s Canadian Scenic Railway stood. I have been unable to find any records of an earlier pub on Bloemfontein Road, however a 1939 aerial photograph of the partly completed Estate appears to show a building close to that spot. It was probably just a site hut but if it was a pub it must have been very temporary. All construction work stopped when war broke out and that area became a dump for bomb rubble.

When it was finally built the pub was named The General Smuts after Jan Smuts who had served in the Second Boer War. He later went on to be Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa (1919 – 1924 and 1939 – 1948). An interesting fact is that he was the only person to sign both peace treaties that ended the First and Second World Wars. At the time there were some concerns about using his name and alternative names of The Greyhound or The Hare were considered. Bloemfontein Road had been named in 1881which was the year that the First Boer War ended. Jan Smuts died in 1950 and the pub opened in 1952. That year was the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Boer War, so possibly for continuity and in his honour they decided to keep his name.

Built at a cost of £67,000 it was a very large detached building made up of the pub, a function room, a restaurant and living accommodation. There was a suggestion that the comedian Charlie Drake opened the pub. It is possible as he had not long turned professional and was starting on a long and successful career with the BBC.

It was the first pub to be built on the White City Estate and became the local for the residents. On match days it became popular with Queens Park Rangers supporters as it was the closest to the ground. Unfortunately, as hooliganism crept into football the pub was occasionally targeted by visiting fans. Even on non-match days it experienced quite a bit of trouble both in the bars and the function room. Problems spiralled in the 2000s due to the poor management who were continually flouting licensing laws.

There was a 99 year lease dated from 25 March 1951 which stated the premises could only be used as a public house. This created a problem for the council as the police were pressing for it to be closed down. The pub appears to have closed around 2008 but about the same time a bar called Marines opened on the Commonwealth Avenue side of the building. It later became the Smuts Bar which closed around 2015. It was replaced by the White City Musalla in 2016.

Around 2008 the front part of the building was operating as an East African restaurant named Zizinia Gardens. On 1 May 2010 it opened as a community centre and restaurant named The Egyptian House. Because of all the problems associated with the lease it was not until 2011 that the licence to sell alcohol on the premises was finally revoked. From that date the premises could only operate as a restaurant and function room. Since 2017 The Egyptian House premises has included The Little Egypt Lounge in Commonwealth Avenue and Bro’s Burgers on the corner of Bloemfontein Road.

Prior to the proposal to build the General Smuts the White City Stadium had hosted the British Empire Games in 1934 (the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games). South Africa Road was planned as one of the perimeter roads of the White City Estate and it was officially named in 1939 (the same year than Jan Smuts became Prime Minister for the second time).

White City Pubs (from OS Map)

The Springbok

After the war work recommenced on the building of the Estate which was extended beyond South Africa Road to include Batman Close. The tennis courts of Hammersmith Park opened in 1954 and the rest of the park the following year. The Springbok Pub was to be built in a vacant plot south of the park between Batman Close and South Africa Road. That location was on the site of the 1908 Exhibition’s Decorative Arts Palace.

As well as being the nickname for the South African rugby team the Springbok (springing buck) is the national animal of South Africa. Springbok is also the largest town in the Namaqualand area in the Northern Cape Province, which interestingly was originally called Springbokfontein.

Although it doesn’t appear to have been reported it is claimed that Paddington born boxer Terry Downes opened the pub on 6 November 1957. Terry had been discharged from the American Marines in 1956 and returned to the UK where he turned professional in January 1957. So it’s quite possible that he was being promoted by his manager at the opening of the pub.

When the pub first opened it was operated by Mann, Crossman & Paulin but the following year they merged with Watney Combe Reid and became Watney Mann Ltd. The pub kept the same name until sometime in the late 1980s when it became McQueens. It returned to the Springbok a few years later but was given the present name of The Queen’s Tavern in 2016. The pub’s crest is based on the Queens Park Rangers crest which the club had dropped ahead of the 2016 – 2017 season. Similar to The General Smuts the pub also had its fair share of trouble and possibly the changes of name and management were attempts to improve its image. Before the Covid pandemic the pub only opened for fans on match days and on other days the bar could be hired for private functions.

The majority of the building is now The Queen’s Hostel which advertises on many room booking websites. It has a large number of dormitories each decked out with bunk beds. So at the moment it looks very unlikely that it will ever reopen as a traditional pub.