A historic pub interior of national importance
Listed Status: A46 Great Victoria Street
Tel: (028) 9024 3187
Real ale & Cider: Real Ale
Public Transport: Near Railway Station (Great Victoria Street) and Bus Stop
View on: Whatpub
This is one of the UK’s three most spectacular pubs. Built in the 1840s, it was refitted in late Victorian times. The outside, with its exotic tiling, gives a hint of the treasures within. On one side is the servery; on the other a row of small drinking booths lettered ‘A’ upwards with working bell-pushes, which register at an amazingly ornate annunciator box halfway down the bar (booth J, in the vicinity of what is now the gents’, was removed in the 1970s). The booths are guarded by gryphons and lions bearing shields with Latin inscriptions which translate as ‘True love of country’ and ‘Fortune favours the brave’. All the snugs have charming back-painted mirrors. The bar-back contains a series of casks and also two banks of taps which dispensed spirits in times gone by. The magnificent ceramic counter was made by Craven Dunhill and probably dates from around 1898: the granite top is later. There is a large advertising mirror of about 1898 in the snug to the left of the main door (bomb damaged in 1993 and restored 1998). Much of the lighting is by gas (though it’s uncertain if the fittings are old and have been in continuous use) but this means of illumination adds greatly to the atmosphere. In the porch, a mosaic crown gives rise to the saying that here you can trample on the British Crown with impunity! Owned since 1978 by the National Trust which has undertaken exemplary restoration work.
No visit to Northern Ireland would be complete without a trip to the Crown. It is, after the Philharmonic in Liverpool, the most spectacular pub in the British Isles and is a true masterpiece of Victorian furnishing and decoration. Inside is a treasure house of tiles, glass, lavish woodwork and includes an extraordinary tiled bar counter in a setting of 10 snugs which is unique to Northern Ireland . The building was put up in the 1840s and became the Railway Tavern in 1849, shortly after the opening of the Great Northern Railway terminus opposite. In 1885 it was bought by Michael Flanagan and his son Patrick, a student of architecture, was responsible for the decision to subject the pub to an amazingly opulent refurbishment designed by Belfast architects E and J Byrne. The exterior of polychromatic tiling was added in 1898 and is the work of Craven Dunnill.
The ground floor exterior façade is covered in colourful tiles and there are also Classical columns and pilasters, portholes and stained glass windows which gives a hint of the treasures within. The fascia has the wording 'Liquor ... The Crown ... Saloon' which has given rise to the pub often being mistakenly referred to as 'The Crown Liquor Saloon: the proper, simpler name is boldly painted at high level - 'THE CROWN BAR'. Look for the reversed letter 'A' in 'Vaults' on Great Victoria Street side and the 'Q' in 'Liquors' on Amelia Street side. In the entrance porch the mosaic floor with the words 'Crown Bar' around a crown gave rise to the saying that here is a place where you can trample on the British crown with impunity.
The National Trust bought this exotic property in 1978 (Sir John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate, played a crucial role in the Trust’s decision.) In 1981 the Trust carried out a sympathetic restoration, and it took the sum of approximately £400,000 to restore the bar to its full Victorian splendour. Battered by over 30 blasts (it is situated opposite the Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe) its stained glass windows had been shattered many times. Stills from the 1947 film Odd Man Out were used to help create the lost plasterwork and stained glass; gas lighting was re-installed, and the moulds for the 1885 tiles were discovered at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in Shropshire. The opening ceremony was performed by TV newsreader Angela Rippon.
What makes the interior so distinctive is the row of small drinking snugs ranged opposite the counter - you will find similar ones (or traces of them) at other pubs in Northern Ireland but nowhere else, The Crown has the most ornate of all the Northern Irish snugs – the other best remaining examples of snugs in Northern Ireland are at the Rock, Belfast, Northern Ireland; Ronnie Drew's, Belfast, Northern Ireland; Mandeville Arms, Portadown; Fort Bar, West Belfast; Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen and the rare survivor Carraghers, Camlough, Co. Armagh being a small village pub. The idea was to give customers some privacy and they could order drinks and food to be brought to them by pressing a bell-push. You still can lunchtimes as waiter service is available Mon-Sat 12 noon-3pm; and 12.30 to 4 Sun - find an empty snug and a member of staff will come and take your order by pressing the bell – all of them still work. You will see a superbly decorated unique rectangular bell box halfway down the bar with the letters A to J: which relate to the various snugs. Pressing a bell makes a disc move in the respective window to show where service is required. You'll search in vain for snug J - it was removed in the 1970s to give access to the Crown Dining Rooms upstairs – you can still see part of the partition wall complete with its ‘matches’ strikers as a dado on the wall either side of the front door to the ladies toilet.
Each snug entrance is guarded by carved griffins and lions holding armorial shields inscribed with Latin inscriptions like ‘Verus Amor Patria’ (Love Your Country); Audentis Fortuna Juvat’ (Fortune Favours the Brave). Each snug has leather-covered benches all around the partitioned walls with a gunmetal plate for striking matches, a bell push, a black and white tiled floor, and one oblong table. The front wall of each snug has colourful painted glass panels – also in the doors where the centre circular panel has an individual letter. A row of bevelled mirrors within the snugs have paintings of shells, fleurs-de-lys, fairies, pineapples and clowns. At the base of the exterior of all the snug partition walls is a row of colourful Victorian tiles and above them are carved wooden panels. It may be possible to book a snug for lunchtime dining, otherwise to be sure of drinking in a snug it is best to visit the Crown at non-busy times such as early morning, mid-afternoon and late weekday evenings.
Expense was certainly not spared by the Victorians in fitting out the Crown, as is shown by the spectacular ceramic counter, one of only fourteen such in the British Isles. It was made by the Shropshire firm of Craven Dunnill and probably dates from around 1898. Other Heritage Pubs with a ceramic bar counter are the Black Horse, Preston, Lancashire; Burlingtons Bar (at the Town House), St Annes on Sea, Lancashire; Mountain Daisy, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear; Red Lion, Erdington, Birmingham; Polar Bear, Hull, East Yorkshire; White Hart Hotel, Hull, East Yorkshire; Garden Gate, Hunslet, Leeds, West Yorkshire; and Golden Cross, Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales;
Other examples can be found at Horse & Jockey, Wednesbury, West Midlands where a small part on the left has been lost; Castle, Manchester City Centre; Hark to Towler, Tottington, Greater Manchester where the bar has been moved; Waterloo Hotel & Bistro, Newport, Gwent, Wales which has no public bar facility; and there is one in China Red which was the Coach & Horses, Dunswell, East Yorks and now operates as a Chinese Restaurant. The bar top is of red granite. There are three heavily carved short screens attached to the bar counter – each features two arch shaped plain mirror panels both sides over which is a semi-circular emblature topped by an urn.
The impressive eight-bay bar-back fitting is the most ornate in Northern Ireland with its wording of 'Bonders of Old High Class Whiskies Direct Importers Sandeman’s Special Wines' along the top. Four of the bar-back bays have gilded and decorated mirror panels and three bays are filled with three casks – originally these would have held whiskey etc. Under two of the sets of three casks in the bar back fitting you will see two banks of seven spirit cocks which also used to dispense such drinks. CAMRA is only aware of four other sets of spirit cocks at Shipman's, Northampton; Queens Head ('Turners Vault'), Stockport, Greater Manchester; Haunch of Venison, Salisbury, Wiltshire; and Bull, Paisley, Scotland - all CAMRA Heritage Pubs.
Between the counter and the snugs is a wide expanse of black and white tiling, On the front internal wall is a dado of colourful Craven Dunnill tiles. The ceiling is held up by five wooden columns with decorative Corinthian capitals – all along the exterior walls are more decorative capitals at the top of square pilasters faced with relief plasterwork. The exterior colourful painted windows have a central feature of a crown in a garland. The bar is lit by 27 gas lights: these are modern replacements but add greatly to the atmosphere. Even the gents' retains its original tiled floor and what looks like inter-war tiled walls to two-thirds height. The door has two colourful painted panels topped by the words ‘Lavatory’. Accessed by a door near the toilets or from its own exterior door on Amelia Street upstairs is the Crown Dining Rooms added in 1988. It has two Victorian style fireplaces, modern bar counter and bar back fitting.
In 2007 the National Trust carried out a £500,000 refurbishment when the blackened ceiling (due to smoking) was thoroughly cleaned: it is now more of a red-brown colour with two small illuminated sections above the bar-back fitting returned to the original burnished primrose yellow, gold and red plasterwork. Damaged tiling on the bar front was repaired, the bar-back glass and bell-box indicator cleaned, and attempts were made to remove some of the graffiti in the snugs. The Crown has featured as a location in numerous film and television productions, such as David Caffrey’s Divorcing Jack (1998) and as far back as 1947 (a facsimile) in Carol Reed's 1947 film Odd Man Out which starred James Mason.