>> ARCHIVE: 20 pubs York has lost in the last 20 years

EVEN today, some people talk of it in the way they would talk about a lost friend. They say it was, for a good decade or so, the best pub York had. A wonderful place full of wonderful people. The city at its very best – until it was taken from them.

Former regulars and nostalgic landlords smile when they remember it and shake their heads dolefully when they recall its destruction.

Walk along Layerthorpe today and you would find no evidence it existed. But in the memories of thousands, and in a heartfelt video online, it lives on.

The John Bull closed 20 years ago this coming Wednesday, a move still seen by many as wholly needless and cruelly barbaric. This was no struggling backstreet boozer that became unviable. This was a popular, vibrant pub, closed because a businessman next door wanted to extend his car-park.

The pub was built by John Smith’s in 1937, in a similar style to the Masons Arms in Fishergate. It closed for a spell in the 1970s but was reopened in the early 1980s by Neville Hobson, a former baker with a love of beer and music.

He turned it into a real ale freehouse at a time when such venues were rare and it was doing well when the wrecking ball came calling. Loyal customers fought tooth and nail to save the pub, but their efforts came to nought. The final pints were pulled on May 28, 1994, and the pub was reduced to rubble soon afterwards, its fittings and contents auctioned off to regulars hungry for souvenirs.

York Press:

The John Bull in 1994

I didn’t arrive in York until 2000 so rely entirely here on others’ memories and that fantastic video. It was produced by Old Dairy Studios in the pub’s final days and is a tremendous piece of York social history, showing regulars gathering around the curving bar, a group singing, musicians playing, pints being pulled, groups chatting and lone drinkers enjoying their world.

There are bursts of laughter but also moments of visible sadness between a handful of interviews. The beer list is tantalisingly out of shot, but the sandwich board offers cheese, hummus, ham, beef or turkey. Were it not for the lost fashions and the cigarette smoke drifting across some shots, and if you didn’t know the truth, then you could think the film had been shot yesterday.

The video ends with manager John Schofield proposing a toast: “To the John Bull: Long may it remain in people’s memories.” For those who were there that night, and as one who laments what I missed, here’s a renewal of that toast. Cheers!



York Press:

The John Bull during the campaign to save it


Maggie Thorburn, who helped lead the campaign against closure

The beer was lovely and the surroundings unpretentious. Neville furnished the 1937 interior with old enamel signs, it had a real fire, the sandwiches were amazing and it wasn't like anywhere else.

I'm not sure what created the particular chemistry that made the Bull such a special place. It certainly had an eclectic mix of people as regulars: artisans, students, pensioners, doctors, people out of work (beer was cheaper then), bikers, bookbinders, auctioneers; anyone and everyone just mixed in together. That was certainly part of it. It was a friendly place where people talked to each other. There was no jukebox, only live music and the occasional theatre performance. There was a genuine sense of community and if you went down there on your own you knew you'd end up chatting to someone interesting. People met, sometimes fell in love or made life-long friends; did what people do when they have a good place to meet.

Some of the music nights were legendary; Acme Blues Band on Mondays were so packed that people would go up to the Frog Hall to get a pint as they couldn't get to the bar in the Bull. People danced, sometimes on the tables. There was a lot of music, The Butter-Mountain Boys, Brendan Croker & Steve Phillips (who later went on to form the Notting Hillbillies with Mark Knopfler), Rory Motion, Ray Stubbs.

It was an offence against the community that a local businessman was able to destroy such a treasured community asset.

York Press:

A campaign badge from 1994


Pauline McAdam, a former regular, now living in France

The Bull became recognised as a great place to meet and socialise, where you could get an excellent range of beer and stonking sandwiches. Rowan [one of the bar staff] used to get supplies for the sarnies from Sainsbury’s just round the corner and across the River Foss. Half a loaf, a slice of cheese an inch thick, ditto of pickles and about two inches of green salad were combined into a sandwich you had to dislocate your jaw to eat, anaconda style. There was no juke box, no piped music and no TV. Particularly nice was that as a female, I could go into the John Bull on my own, or on one occasion with the cat in her carrying box (the vet was just up the road) and find good conversation on any topic whatsoever.

York Press:

The John Bull during the campaign to save it


Dave Gamston, author of York’s Real Heritage Pubs

It has never been replaced. It was a very special place and there is just nothing like it. It was pushing the boundaries of its time, being a real ale freehouse with live music. At the time, it was very different and quite exciting and there was a community around it as well, including a cricket team. Those people dispersed afterwards. It was a place where you felt a great sense of community. The beer was excellent as well. I remember Malton Double Chance, which was always one of favourite ales. I also remember Franklin’s and Ward’s for some reason.


Chris Titley, editor of YorkMix and former pub columnist for The Evening Press

The John Bull was a place apart. Unremarkable from the outside, idiosyncratic on the inside, going through its front door was like climbing through the wardrobe and finding a licensed Narnia, with fewer fauns and a lot more laughs.

It certainly felt like an alternative universe. At its worst, York can feel a little narrow minded, but the best thing about the Bull was how accepting it was of all comers. Men, women, old, young, black, white, it was a place where you were always welcomed, never judged.

The John Bull was a place to chat, argue, joke, listen to music, drink a fine pint of Landlord, smoke too much, unwind, make and meet friends. All those who crossed its threshold would love to walk through that wardrobe door again.


Mat Lazenby

It was a fair walk out of town but totally worth the welcome you received. It had a really infectious no-frills atmosphere. It was home to an amazing blues band called the Homewreckers whose many members seemed to half fill the back bar. As a young lad embarking on a lifelong love affair with real ale it was the John Bull that first cemented in my mind what a good pub was. The fact it was torn down to make way for an extra few feet of car dealership makes its demise all the more difficult to accept.

York Press:

The end of an era: The John Bull is flattened


Nick Fallon

The things that stick out in my mind are:

• Great ale. That was the era when Taylor's Landlord wasn't mass produced. Tasted totally different then. There was always a small but reasonable selection on of other ales.

• No Juke Box and an informal atmosphere. People just turned up and started to talk.

• Jamming in the back room - This was superb. People would turn up with their instruments and start playing. There was a lot of Irish folk that used to get played in those days.

• A stressed Neville – a balding chap with a beard who used to be landlord. Always looked hassled but being as the place used to get packed out a lot, understandable.

• New Year’s Eve - Always special. Each table had a candle in a bottle on it and sometimes a flower. That was it! No decorations.

• The decor - All the old adverts on the walls for an age gone buy. Never painted. My granddad (deceased) used to go drinking in there when he was a young man. When I described the place to him, he said it was pretty much as it was when he frequented the place.

• The permanent iron broken bar stools in the front room which dated from God knows when.

• The boomerang run - a few in the John Bull then up to the Spread Eagle (was a good pub then) for some OP then back to the John Bull meeting people doing the same on the way.

York Press:

Contents of the John Bull are auctioned off