Famously known as 'Norman's', the pub occupies a striking four-storey building dated around 1840. The interior was completely remodelled in 1937 and this work survives largely intact. Originally, there were three separate bars (public bar, private bar and saloon), each with its own entrance; that layout remains, though the dividing double-doors were removed around 1960 and the middle entrance has gone. The wall panelling, tapering counters and bar-back are all in light oak and two areas still have a spitoon trough at the base of the counter; in the saloon bar the trough has unusual removable panels with ring-pulls for ease of cleaning. The top section of the right-hand part of the bar-back was added around 1962, hence the adverts for drinks of that time. 'Norman' was long-serving landlord Norman Balon, who retired in 2006 having earned the (self-proclaimed) title of 'London's rudest landlord'.
A four storey building of rendered brick dated around 1840 (the pub itself announces a date of 1847, although the basis for this is not clear). At the end of the C19, during the London ‘pub boom’ years, the freehold was held by the Cannon Brewery and as part of their remodelling in 1889 the frontage was redesigned and a row of twelve slender, fluted, cast-iron columns with enriched ornamental necks and substantial square capitals were added on both street façades supporting the upper floors. In 1930 Cannon Brewery was taken over by Taylor, Walker & Co., who in 1937 carried out a refit of the interior and this work survives largely intact.
The pub has three separate bars each originally with its own entrance - Public Bar on the Greek Street side; Private Bar in the middle; and Saloon Bar with its entrance on the Romilly Street side. The Saloon Bar has both a double door on the left-hand of the Greek Street end and a single door on the corner so it is possible that there was an off sales in the past? Or they may be original Victorian entrances and this bar has only been a single space since the inter-war refit?
The rooms are divided by walls with interwar panelling to two-thirds height and with double doors. The doors for the central partition screens were removed in around 1960 and appear to have been reused in the entrance screen to the women’s WC (built in line with post-war licensing requirements). It is now easy to move between all three bars but the original three-roomed layout still remains. There were some interwar windows advertising ‘Wines & Spirits’ in red on frosted glass and ‘Luncheons’ on Romilly Street side but they have been replaced by toughened glass panels in recent years.
The interior is fitted-out with simple light-oak interwar panelling. The three bars have tapered wooden bar counters with a linoleum inlay to the top from 1937 as is date of the bar-back shelving. The top section of the right-hand part of the bar back, which straddles the doorway leading to the first floor, has back-lit signage advertising ‘Double Diamond’, ‘Ind Coope’ and ‘Skol Lager’ which looks to have been integrated about 1962. Taylor, Walker & Co were taken-over by Ind Coope in 1959, the same year Skol was launched; also, Draught Double Diamond was introduced in 1962. This part of the bar back with its glass shelves looks different to the smaller one to the left.
It is interesting to note the subtle differences between each room reflecting the status of the clientele that used it. The left-hand Public Bar has an overhanging counter top, which, combined with the tapered counter and the lack of a spittoon trough here, appears to have been designed to accommodate bar stools at this corner of the servery. The middle Private Bar has a spittoon trough between the wooden frontage and the carpet, and the counter top is narrower than that in the first room. At the base of the bar counter the terrazzo trough continues from the adjacent saloon bar.
Drinking at the bar was generally discouraged in the smarter bar rooms in the 1930s and, correspondingly, the right-hand Saloon Bar has a much narrower counter top and a substantial terrazzo trough that runs around the corner at the base (this with unusual (unique?) removable panels with ring-pulls for ease of cleaning). An additional degree of comfort is afforded in the saloon by the original brick fireplace at the north side of the room and meals could be sent down via a dumbwaiter, which is integrated within the panelling to the east wall.
The doors to the toilets have narrow oak doors but both gents and ladies’ have modern tiled walls and modern fittings – it is possible they have been changed around in recent years?
The upper floors appear to have never been intended for public use (at least the awkward route through the bar servery strongly implies it was a later change). On the first floor on the Greek Street side is a dining/function room formed of two originally distinct domestic rooms. Several features from around 1840 are retained including a fitted cupboard, a decorative plaster cornice and two simple, moulded fire surrounds with cheek tiles and cast-iron insets.
On the curved Inn sign over the first and second floors it states “Norman’s” as the pub was run by Norman Balon, the self proclaimed ‘Rudest landlord In London’. He left the pub in 2006 aged 79 and was likely to be the main reason why the pub’s interior is so little changed. There was no juke box or piped music but the day the tenants that followed Mr Balon left the pub a contractor for Fullers was knocking on the door to install background music.
Some information from ‘You’re Barred You Bastards: The Memoirs of a Soho Publican Hardcover’ (1991) by Norman Balon (Author) and Spencer Bright (Collaborator) ISBN: 9780283997624.
The following details come from an article by Christopher Howse that appeared in The Telegraph dated 23 May 2006.
‘For 40 years, Private Eye has held its fortnightly lunches for informants and prominent people in a chill room upstairs once described as "a National Health side-ward decorated from Army surplus stores". Richard Ingrams, co-founder and second editor of the satirical magazine, William Rushton and Peter Cook and the rest came over the road for lunch each day. Norman soon figured as "Monty Balon, the genial meinhost" in the magazine. In turn, Mr Balon invented Jeffrey Bernard, who used the pub as an office and had a supply of Senior Service cigarettes kept for him in the cupboard by the stairs. Immortality came in 1989 with Keith Waterhouse's play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a sell-out with Peter O'Toole in title role and the pub interior as the set. Mr Balon would refer to it as "My play".
Norman Balon’s father took on the tenancy on Feb 3, 1943, a noisy time in London. Norman, just turned 16, left school to help. They sheltered in the cellar during air raids. The top-floor room where young Norman slept was in recent years used as a studio, first by Richard Ingrams's son, Fred, then by the successful painter Rupert Shrive. Painters always drank in the pub: Francis Bacon sometimes, Lucian Freud generously, Frank Auerbach intently in conversation with Bruce Bernard, a writer about painting.’