Despite having lived less than a mile away for years, until recently all I knew Bellingham for was a vast bus garage that I had read a lot about (on bus timetables) but never actually seen – technically, it’s called Catford Bus Garage, but Google Maps shows it to be very much in Bellingham – and what has to be the prettiest former boating lake outside any Homebase in south-east London.
Wiser people than me, however, will know Bellingham for more illustrious reasons: Brit boxing legend Henry Cooper trained there for his bout with Muhammad Ali in 1963, and some big-hitting musical names, including Fleetwood Mac, played here during the ’60s – both of which happened at the same place: The Fellowship Inn.
Built during 1923-1924, the Fellowship is thought to hold the not-unimpressive title of ‘first pub on a London housing estate’. Developed by London County Council, the Bellingham Estate was part of PM Lloyd George’s promise to build ‘homes fit for heroes’ for returning WWI troops (although, as flagged-up on Social Housing History, his actual words were far clunkier and less headline-friendly: ‘Habitations fit for the heroes who have won the War’) and also – handily, some might say – to ease overcrowding among busier inner-city areas.
Which was all well and good, but surely what returning troops were also craving after enduring the horrors of war was a sturdy pint or five – because what is habitation without a decent pub nearby?
Despite the best efforts of buzzkill specialists the temperance movement, the pub was mercifully mapped-in to the construction of the Bellingham Estate under the guise of an ‘improved public house’, meaning the addition of community facilities like a games room, music hall, theatre and family rooms – rooms that people could do things in other than booze, essentially. Pointless as that sounds, it pacified the temperance bores.
The Fellowship was eventually constructed by F. G. Newnham, the in-house architect of Barclay, Perkins and Co., the largest brewery in London for a good while. The brewery’s claim to fame was its Russian Imperial Stout, which the company claimed was brewed for Catherine II, Empress of Russia. Cath clearly didn’t muck about when it came to getting on it, as the stout clocked-in at an eye-watering 10%. She wasn’t known as Catherine the Great for nothing.
News of the Fellowship’s progressive, community model even spread over the pond to South Carolina, where (as the ever-informative Transpontine blog points out) the pub’s opening was mentioned in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in July 1924, in a report on the UK’s attitude to prohibition:
In an effort to evolve an ideal public house, a big brewery firm has opened a “fellowship inn” at Bellingham, which is the first of a group of inns intended to serve alcoholic beverages and to cater to the social wants of all classes and particularly of families … The cooks and waitresses of the new public house have been instructed at a school instituted by the brewery company whose chair claims that the liquor problem cannot be solved by prohibition, government control or local option, and suggests his way – fellowship – is the right one.
It’s worth noting that the report opens with an account of Lord Dawson of Penn, physician to the royal family at the time, speaking up against prohibition in the House of Lords, claiming: ‘We haven’t any right to do anything which would diminish the cheerfulness and sociability of the world.’
As the Herald-Journal puts it: ‘Ridiculing the idea that liquor was a narcotic, Lord Dawson said that a large majority of members of the medical profession were of the opinion that it was a useful and beneficial substance in the proper quantities at the proper times. “Can it be said that we should have had some of our finest literature, paintings and poetry on a ginger-beer regime?” he asked.’
The words of the ROYAL PHYSICIAN, no less. Great lad.
As the years went on, the Fellowship carried on serving the good people of Bellingham, including one notable local whose love for a good punch-up was not just tolerated, but actively encouraged by the pub: Henry Cooper.
Cooper’s parents moved to Farmstead Road on the Bellingham Estate in 1940, with Henry aged six, although he and twin brother George were soon evacuated to Sussex, what with the war and all. Afterwards, Henry returned to Bellingham and both he and George began training at Eltham and District Amateur Boxing Club. Turned out Henry was a bit handy in the ring, although that didn’t stop him from continuing to work a ‘proper’ job as a plasterer, alongside pursuing the sporting dream.
Although his main training base was a gym on the Old Kent Road above the Thomas A Becket pub (now no longer a pub or a gym), Cooper also set up camp in a room at what would have been his local, the Fellowship, when preparing for his 1963 fight against Cassius Clay at Wembley Stadium. Let’s face it, the pub had enough rooms to spare.
US mag Sports Illustrated even saw fit to give the pub a mention in their coverage of the fight, using it to paint a not-at-all-derivative (but to be fair, possibly quite accurate) picture of British pub culture at the time.
And at the Fellowship Inn in Bellingham, in southeast London, the menfolk munched pork pies and lifted their nightly pints of lukewarm bitter in salute to the doggerel posted over the bar by one of the regulars. It made the point that Humble Henry would soundly thrash Gaseous Cassius ‘and once again prove that very old adage:/Action speaks louder than strong verbal cabbage!’ … For weeks [Cooper] had lived at the Fellowship, taking his meals there, training in the back room when a wedding reception or tea party did not interfere.
Sadly, verbal cabbage prevailed and Clay won the fight when the action was stopped in round five (due to savage cuts around Cooper’s left eye that were gushing blood), though Cooper famously floored him in round four with a left hook that became known as ’Enry’s ’ammer.
By this time, the Fellowship was also hosting bands as well as boxers. Fleetwood Mac played there twice in 1968 (in their early, bluesier, Peter Green-era days, before the cocaine-up-surprising-cavities rumours kicked-in – untrue rumours, it should probably be stated), as part of a mammoth tour that also took in Richmond Athletic Club, Battersea Town Hall, Beckenham’s Zodiac Club and the Star Hotel in Croydon.
According to pretty much every report about the Fellowship in the last few years, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds and Eric Clapton (perhaps as part of either of both acts, considering he had stints in both) also played the Fellowship, though after some reasonably extensive (and, it must be said, tedious) pouring through gig archives, I can’t find any bastard record of any of them appearing there. Please prove me wrong.
Despite all this, the Fellowship’s popularity waned somewhat in the succeeding decades and it began looking and feeling a little rough around the edges. Phoenix Community Housing (a ‘not-for-profit resident-led housing association’) eventually stepped in with grand plans to revamp the place, via a funding proposal submitted to the National Lottery Heritage Fund. They got the funding in 2014, £4 million of it, in fact. Having never refurbished a pub myself (it sounds like a fuck of a lot of work), I have zero idea how much a refurb costs, but this seems like a healthy amount of money to play with, by anyone’s standards.
In-keeping with the Fellowship’s roots, the pub’s new format was set to continue its community hub status, via a cinema, cafe, performance space for music and theatre and even a microbrewery, alongside plans to create over 70 new jobs and apprenticeships.
The Fellowship Inn finally closed its doors in 2017 to get the mega-refurb underway, though it wasn’t until late 2018 that the pub’s new name was revealed as the still-quite-Lord-of-the-Ringsy ‘Fellowship and Star’. The title change arrived courtesy of new operators the Electric Star Group, who have a solid history of sprucing up boozers into enjoyably hip haunts. Admittedly, Electric Star has been focused purely on pubs north of the river until now, but let’s try not to hold that against them.
Skip forward past several years of careful refurbishment (it’s now a Grade-II Listed building – F. G. Newnham clearly did a decent job back in the ’20s), press releases and excited chatter, and you arrive at mid-2019, when the Fellowship 2.0 finally opened its doors.
Compared to tracking down the bus garage, this seemed a preferable way of breaking my Bellingham cherry, and so I wandered down for opening night.
First impressions: Locals seemed understandably pleased to have a buzzy new pub, as what felt like most of Bellingham appeared to be inside. This was a good sign: The Fellowship was redeveloped to serve the community and on day one that’s exactly what it was doing. Let’s hope that continues.
Inside, it’s a vast space that still retains some of the look of the old venue, plus a bit of kooky art and kitsch wallpaper here and there. Reminders of the pub’s past also adorn the walls, including boxing gloves and photos of ‘Our ’Enry’ battling Ali.
Booze-wise, south London’s brewing scene is represented only by Brockley Brewery’s Session IPA and Cologne-style Nico lager from Walworth’s Orbit Beers on tap, but the fridge also holds cans from Brick Brewery and further Brockley and Orbit brews, plus Hire Wire Grapefruit Pale Ale from Huddersfield’s Magic Rock. Elsewhere on tap, there’s also Cwtch Welsh red ale from Cardiff’s excellent Tiny Rebel and Chicago’s actually-quite-dangerous Goose Island IPA. Dangerous because as it’s under 6% (it’s 5.9%), I can usually convince myself that it’s pretty much a session beer. It is resolutely not, as I repeatedly discover.
With my usual drinking partner out of town, I arrived at the pub alone. Sadly, this is not unfamiliar territory for me and I began hopping back and forth between pints from Brockley Brewery and Orbit, interspersed with the occasional ‘hydrating’ gin and tonic.
Things started to look up, but after enjoying the Fellowship’s considerable charms as much as is possible by yourself on a packed Friday night, I decided to call it quits and stumble home. Fate, though, had other plans, choosing that moment to nudge through the door two local acquaintances.
Inevitably, we settled into a corner and started on the Goose Island, by which time a DJ had begun banging out some very acceptable dub and reggae. Three hours then passed very quickly and a friendly-ish argument ensued between us about what constitutes a session beer – an argument I decided to ‘win’ by leaving the pub while I could still (sort of) speak and (barely) walk.
Since then, the Fellowship’s café – The Milky Way – has opened, selling fine coffee from West Norwood’s Volcano Coffee, as has the gorgeous cinema and back room (ominously named ‘The Space’) for live music, DJ sets and other artistic/community endeavours. Carrying on the Fellowship’s tradition of showcasing timeless musical icons, Bez of Happy Mondays recently put down the tambourine for a night and got behind the decks.
Plans for the microbrewery have unfortunately been scrapped, which is a crying shame, but even so, there’s still more than enough going on to make the Fellowship well worth a visit. It even beats a day out to the Homebase boating lake.
Image credits: Garage bound by Aubrey Morandarte, used under this licence; Homebase du Lac by the author; Old fellow by Ben Brookshank, used under this licence; Henry’s house by Quintus Petillius, used under this licence; Cuts and cabbage from Wikimedia (PD). Other photos courtesy of @fellowshipstar