If you are a devotee of lavish Victorian pubs then Madam Geneva deserves your gratitude. Madam Geneva, one of the 18th century nicknames for gin, is the reason that such splendid boozers exist. During the 18th and 19th centuries when so much of the under-class in Britain was blighted by the gin frenzy, the juniper based spirit could not only be purchased in pubs, but in unexpected places such as the barber’s, the blacksmith, even in a church. Competition for customers increased when the Government acted to mitigate the devastation to society caused by addiction to gin. In 1830 the Beerhouses Act was passed which encouraged the opening of pubs and for beer to be sold at a reduced price with the intention of moderating gin consumption. People still craved gin however because it was the most effective method of intoxication.
With so many licensed premises how could the owners attract custom? By making their venue look better than the others. This was the purpose of what became known as gin palaces, spectacular edifices with no expense spared on the interior décor. Marble, stained glass, etched mirrors, carved mahogany, gas-lighting. People who lived in reduced circumstances were not welcome in luxurious hotels or restaurants but for the price of a drink in a pub, they could enter a gin palace and be surrounded by beauty. Given a choice of a dark and dilapidated alehouse or the sumptuous surroundings of a gin palace what would you choose?
Gin palaces are camp and ostentatious and I love them. But there are so few remaining. In the modernist 1960s when design was all about less-is-more, flamboyant 19th century gin palaces were passé and most were bull-dozed. The ones that did survive are now protected by heritage orders so we can be sybarites and gaze at those undoubted masterpieces.
In the beauty pageant of gin palaces Belfast’s Crown Liquor Saloon is certainly a candidate for Queen. This one-of-a-kind watering hole is so priceless that it has a Grade A heritage listing and is owned by the National Trust. Please do judge a book by its cover. Polychromatic ceramic tiles, classical columns, pilasters, portholes and stained glass windows adorn the facade. It’s a showstopper for sure, but that’s just the hors d’ouvres in this visual feast. Step over the mosaic entry floor and through a portal into another era.
The bar servery, extending down the length of the room, is topped in red granite and faced with yellow ceramic patterned tiles. The ceiling comprises yellow, gold and red plasterwork, supported by carved wooden columns with Corinthian capitals. Everywhere you look glass is painted or etched with fleur de lys, pineapples and shells. And the wood. Oh the wood. Carved mahogany private drinking boxes line the other side of the room. They resemble confessional boxes and may well have been inspired by such ecclesiastical cubicles because they were created by Italian craftsmen moonlighting from church building. But rather than using them to confess transgressions these snugs are perfect for sinning in.
Perhaps the Italian church builders who helped to construct the pub contributed to the miracle of its survival. The Crown Liquor Saloon is opposite the Europa Hotel which was bombed dozens of times during ‘The Troubles’. Inexplicably the pub sustained no damage and survives as an undisputed jewel of a gin palace.