The Tin Pub - the drinking canteen in the temporary settlement of Birchinlee, Derbyshire
By Jim McIntosh
It has now largely been forgotten and little evidence of its existence remains. However, the Derwent Canteen, constructed with corrugated iron, did once exist in the temporary settlement of Birchinlee in the Derwent Valley, near Bamford. This is an account of the 15-year history of an institution that I have nicknamed ‘The Tin Pub’.
The Parliamentary Act of Consent for the Derwent & Howden dams project had the provision of workers’ housing included in its terms. This reflected concerns about the living conditions of workers (more commonly known as ‘navvies’) on major construction projects. When the nearby Woodhead railway tunnel was constructed in the 1840’s, one parliamentary observer likened the scale of deaths and injuries from accidents and disease to ‘the results of a small battle’.
To accommodate the work force, the Derwent Valley Water Board (DVWB) constructed a purpose-built settlement at Birchinlee. The village stood 800 feet above sea level and took the name of ‘Birchinlee’ from an old farmhouse that formerly stood at its northern end.
Known locally as ‘Tin Town’ because the buildings were constructed of corrugated iron, the settlement housed between 250 and 500 people and was in existence between 1901 and 1914 whilst the Derwent and Howden dams were completed. For the record, the best known dam in the valley, Ladybower, was built between 1935 & 1945.
Housing in Birchinlee comprised dormitories for single men, smaller huts for married men with families and separate huts for foremen, all arranged in formal rows separated by trackways. Facilities included two hospitals, a school and mission room, Post Office, greengrocers, cobbler and hairdresser, clothier and drapier, confectioner and tobacconist, bath-house, a recreation hall and police station. Of specific interest here was the ‘Derwent Canteen’, which was licensed to sell beer.
Construction of the canteen
Construction of the canteen was sanctioned by the Works Committee in June 1901 and a provisional licence was granted at the annual licensing meeting at Chapel-en-le-Frith in September 1901 on the understanding that the licence would only exist during the period of the building of the dams. The canteen opened for business on 30 November 1901 and records show that the fixtures, beer engine and counter were valued at £110 for insurance purposes.
Management of the canteen was undertaken by the People’s Refreshment House Association (shortened to ‘PRHA’ for the rest of this article) for an initial management fee of £75 per annum.
Known managers / licensees of the canteen are:
Arnut Pack Nov 1901 - Mar 1902
Arthur Manning Mar 1902 - May 1903
Henry Matthews May 1903 - July 1907
Mr Mitchell Dates not known
Responsible institution or drinking den - the dispute with the Temperance Society
So what was the attitude of the DVWB in reality? Were they looking to set up a model establishment to meet the social needs of their workers, or was their view that navvies are always going to drink and they wanted to ensure that the resulting profits did not end up in the hands of others? Before the canteen opened they had made the right noises - the licence application had stated that the ‘model’ house would prevent the men going off to the nearest inn at Ashopton, getting drunk there, and becoming a nuisance upon their return.
However, the canteen was subject to an ongoing dispute between temperance campaigners and the DVWB Works Committee and the true objectives of the latter tend to come through in how they responded to the criticisms made of the canteen.
A representative from the Temperance Society visited Birchinlee and subsequently wrote that ‘The canteen is just the same as any other pub. We see lots of men reeling about drunk. You should see them at night’. He also reported that even the village PC was seen drinking in the bar!
The Temperance Society went on to allege that the first licensee (Arnut Pack) had tried to limit workers’ beer consumption and had been driven out for his trouble.
The Works Committee investigated these allegations of drunkenness from the Temperance Society, discussed the matter….and decided to enlarge the canteen to overcome issues of overcrowding (as identified by the temperance campaigners).
Overall, the efforts of the temperance movement to discredit the canteen were in vain. Indeed the canteen was subsequently extended again on several occasions. This included an additional room built in 1906 for use by customers not requiring alcoholic drinks - the only success for the temperance campaigners.
A profitable business
The canteen was a profitable venture for the Works Committee and DVWB. Annual profits during the period 1903-14 often exceeded £2000 and the DVWB only returned small sums to the villagers, for example £20 in March 1903 for a concert at the recreation hall. The profits were also used to buy books for the village library and the ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Howden Dam in September 1912 was also financed by the canteen’s profits.
The Ashopton Inn and other possible competition
Evidence that the DVWB wanted to ensure that only they made profits from the drinking needs of their workforce comes from the tough stance they took against all possible competition to the Derwent Canteen.
Firstly the DVWB bought the Ashopton Inn from the Duke of Devonshire in 1902. Although it was eight miles away at Ashopton, this was the nearest pub to Birchinlee. The PRHA took over management of the inn in January 1905.
Just to ensure that their monopoly was not infringed, the DVWB also took steps to block any licence applications that would create competition for the Derwent Canteen. For example, in 1901 a Mr Pickford proposed to apply for a licence for a canteen to be called the ‘Crook Hill Canteen’. Conveniently for the DVWB, the application was withdrawn. It is not known what pressure the DVWB exerted to achieve this outcome.
Finally the DVWB opposed an application made by a Mr A Muir Wilson on behalf of Mr. J A Wilson. The proposed licence would have enabled a canteen to be opened near to the Bamford and Howden railway, then in the course of construction.
Unfortunately it has not been possible to date to establish which brewery supplied the canteen with beer. There was no facility for brewing beer on site and instead beer would have been delivered to the canteen by the railway, the prime use of which was to take construction materials up to the dam.
A surviving photograph in Brian Robinson’s book (see bibliography, item 3) shows the interior of the canteen as a small, sparsely furnished room with a circular bar in one corner. Handpumps are clearly visible in the bar. About a dozen men are crowded around tables at one side of the room.
The canteen building was sold to an unknown purchaser in September 1915 as part of the dismantling of the village. Its fate is unknown. An archaeological survey in the early 1990s discovered a 3m-deep stone-lined hollow with a doorway, which was part of the canteen’s beer cellar. This is still in situ today and is the only evidence that remains of its existence.
Jim McIntosh 2005
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