When MPs voted on 14th February 2006 to impose a ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces, including of course pubs, effective from the summer of 2007 many people (especially the smokers) felt that this was the end of personal freedom and life as they knew it.
The public health minister Caroline Flint MP declared, “We have this huge opportunity and we have got to make it work – to encourage more people to give up smoking, but also to create a different culture.” A spokesperson for Cancer Research UK described the decision as “the best possible Valentine’s gift from MPs to bar workers.”
Whether or not the smoking ban has actually created a different culture is now keenly debated as the apparent hoards who had stayed away from public houses allegedly because of cigarette fumes and were predicted to return, haven’t.
Certainly the impact of the smoking ban was felt throughout the Trade as publicans struggled firstly with the interpretation of the new law and then with finding somewhere outside for the seasoned smokers to indulge their habit. The air is certainly much clearer in pubs and, in many, redundant smoke extractor fans now hang from the ceilings.
It took many years of argument and counter-argument until the legislation enforced in 2007 was agreed. But would the smoking ban have been introduced much earlier if all those in favour of a ban had followed the example of one Yorkshire publican?
In the early 1970s one man, an Essex man by birth, a ‘rolling stone by habit’ but by then a well-established, formidable, Yorkshire-based hotelier/publican banned smoking completely from his pub and declared that this had become ‘THE FIRST NO SMOKING INN IN THE WORLD’. The inn was the New Inn, Appletreewick, near Skipton, north Yorkshire and the licensee’s named was John Showers.
John Showers was described by Peter Williams in the 1975 edition of Recommended Wayside Inns as ‘a lively character who loves his trade and who is never happier than when working on a new idea.’ Never was a truer phrase written.
Forty years earlier, after indifferent employment as a male mannequin, bus-conductor, banana grower, cattle raiser, travelling salesman and courier, Showers began his career as an hotelier. His first premise was The Stanhope, which he described as Yorkshire’s first ‘Road House’ where he, his wife and staff made every effort to ‘lift the standard from the ordinary ‘pub’.’
For over thirty years, Showers did everything possible to attract custom. His flow of ideas was phenomenal and he became a legend in his own time. In his second volume of autobiography Behind the Inn Door,published in 1958, Showers recalled being the first hotelier to introduce London cabaret in his, or any other, pub. The cabaret evening included a 12-page souvenir, ‘complete with everything appertaining to the hotel, such as menu, price lists, the cabaret programme’ plus ‘a weekly story I contributed for my patrons to read.’ Showers maintained a mailing list of over 15,000 customers each ‘having a birthday or anniversary card from us each year.’ Overseas visitors were always welcomed ‘with their country’s flag on their table and their national anthem being played.’
When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth played darts at a social centre in Slough in December 1937, Showers was instructed by his brewery to install a dartboard in the Cocktail Bar. The ‘royal match’ had inspired the upper classes to take an interest in the game and the darts craze was spreading across the land. Showers, although complying with orders from ‘those in authority’ was unimpressed with what he perceived to be a working-class invasion of his special bar. The ‘super dart-board’ was installed but did not last very long. Showers wrote ‘it was a nightmare. Indeed it only took me a very short while to close the doors on the board and use the tray, meant only to catch darts, for flowers.’ However, darts remained on the premises; in the Tap Room where, in his view, it clearly belonged.
Showers’ innovative ideas knew no bounds. He had Tudor themed nights and for a while ran a Tyrolean bar with female staff dressed in attractive Swiss dresses. In the 1950s, way before the late-night eating and après pub Chinese take-away culture, Showers introduced Chinese food, cooked by genuine Chinese chefs, ‘complete with Oriental setting’. The latter received a mixed reception from the press yet Showers proudly stated that for more than six years The Stanhope ‘enjoyed a monopoly of Oriental food in Yorkshire.’
The business went from strength to strength until by the mid-1960s Showers decided that it was time to move to the country and ‘enjoy life a little more leisurely’, if indeed that was possible for a man with his drive. He left The Stanhope in 1966, his new home being in the 16th century village of Appletreewick, near Skipton, a pub named the New Inn which commanded a glorious view across the Wharfe Valley.
The New Inn, so-called because it did not share the antiquity of the rest of the village having been built in the 1850s/1860s, had for all intents and purposes previously been a simple village pub or beerhouse. However, it was about to receive the Showers treatment, but first it needed a theme – an attraction.
As usual, Showers’ imagination ran riot but he finally took his inspiration from the Yorkshire Dales. As he admired the view from his pub he felt that the Wharfe Valley bore ‘many landmarks reminiscent of the Viking invasion’ so he thought “Why not bring Denmark back to the Dales?” (I’m not sure I’m following you here John.) Not surprisingly, the locals frowned upon the idea but Showers did not let that worry him. His previous experience had taught him that locals would never approve of anything new. However, they he believed that they would ‘proudly accept it’ if it was a success.
Renovation work went ahead with internal walls of the New Inn being torn down and smaller bars and little rooms converted into one large, spacious lounge with an up-to-date bar furnished with every modern device to ensure efficient customer service. By lavish use of wood-panelling the former village ‘local’ was transformed into a Danish theme pub and soon ‘assumed a Scandinavian atmosphere.’ To reinforce the Danish theme, Showers introduced ‘Smorrebord’ (‘delicious open sandwiches on Danish rye bread’) offering his customers over sixty varieties of this most Danish of foods. To complete the theme, five beers brewed by Tuborg Breweries of Copenhagen were provided ‘to satisfy every palate.’
Then came the smoking ban…
Although Showers agreed with the British Medical Council that smoking was a mild, habit-forming drug, his original main objection to the habit had always been not the potential health risks but the damage it caused to his premises.
Showers was of the opinion that cigarette smoking (as opposed to cigar or pipe smoking) had been the cause of more fires ‘than anything else in the history of mankind’ and, in terms of his establishments, he had lost count of the cost of repairing damage to carpets, floors and furniture. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke had also occasioned further cost due to the necessity of regularly redecorating nicotine-stained walls and ceilings. ‘Today,’ wrote Showers in 1958, ‘every lounge has to be air-conditioned equal to a stink chamber in a laboratory to cope with fumes, otherwise the atmosphere becomes so overpowering customers walk out.’ It can only be assumed that his Tap Room did not have this facility.
Less than twenty years later, the death of a close friend from lung cancer caused Showers to change his main objection from damage to the fabric of the building and his soft furnishings to the disease itself. He wrote, ‘The frustration of seeing the toll of this dread disease on one of whom [my wife and I] were so fond, was so horrifying we both agreed we would never sell another cigarette.’ They simply came home one night to the New Inn and cleared the bar of every cigarette, cigar and ashtray and introduced a ban on smoking for all time.
This decision caused a sensation in the local and national media and news of his smoking ban spread across the world. Showers was featured on television and radio and the newspapers were full of the story. He advertised the New Inn as ‘England’s First Fresh Air Inn’ and a notice on the door warned potential customers that they were entering ‘England’s First Licensed Smokeless Zone.’ Showers proudly announced, ‘I had dared to split this social atom’ and the reverberations were felt across the world, albeit temporarily.
Showers took a risk and it worked. He even received a congratulatory letter from George Godber, the then Minster of Health, applauding his decision. In 1975 Peter Williams wrote in Recommended Wayside Inns that ‘the pessimists have been proved wrong…for visitors come from far and wide, either out of curiosity or to enjoy the benefits.’
However, the original local, national and international attention faded. It would be another three decades before the British Government finally took positive action to ban smoking from all enclosed public spaces including public houses. Today we can all enjoy the pub of our choice with no risk to our lives or the lives of others from second-hand smoke.
Showers died some years ago and although he had planned to be buried in the garden of the New Inn, that did not happen. Wherever his body rests, my guess is that he is now organising yet another Tyrolean night in that great lounge bar in the sky.
When I first wrote this article for the PHS Newsletter back in 2008, the New Inn at Applewick was still there and, according to the internet, was run by John Pitchers, who was ‘a complete mountain bike enthusiast [and] has been for years.’ A veteran of many epic mountain bike challenges, which he managed to fit in around being a publican, the word is that ‘your bikes will be pampered as much as you’ at the New Inn. At that time the pub has a bike lock-up called the ‘Bike Livery’ and ‘a superbly stocked workshop where your expensive friend [That’s the bike I think]will sleep soundly too,’ a place where cyclists can also carry out running repairs before repairing to the bar for a pint of Belgian beer.
If mountain bikes had been around in John Showers’ day, I bet he would have thought of that too.
The New Inn continues to trade today.
I will have more to say about the eccentricities of John G. Showers another time.
© 2008 & 2014 Patrick Chaplin
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