Friday, March 23, 2012

The White Lion

The White Lion  (l967-68)

The White Lion

Location: 51 Grange Road, West Kirby, Merseyside, England

Opened: Dates back to the 17th century, became "ladies only" in 1975

Closed: Apparently still open. But it ceased to be "ladies only" sometime in the early 1980s.

By the looks of it, the White Lion is one of those classic Olde English pubs, the kind where you toss back a pint or two with your mates. In other words, a thoroughly laddish affair. But for a time in the mid 1970s, it was staked out as a womyn's space. The announcement that the White Lion was now "ladies only" even got picked up as an Associated Press story in March 1975:

A 17th century inn here has made history with a new sign outside one of its bars: "ladies only."

The White Lion Tavern in this northwest England town claims to have the only bar in Britain from which males are banned. The click of knitting needles has replaced the thunk of darts, and martinis perched on tables once splattered with the foam of ale.

Not surprisingly, the White Lion's owner is a woman. But Margaret Richardson doesn't claim to be a women's libber.

A visit to a London bar convinced the 36-year-old drama teacher that she wanted to open a place where women could go for a drink without being "humiliated, ogled or assumed to be an easy pickup."

The ladies bar, Mrs. Richardson admits, doesn't make money.

But she says she isn't worried. It is enough "that I've provided a place where respectable women can have a civilized drink without harassment," she says.

"When I went into that bar in London," she recalls, "my reception was such that I left without finishing my drink, and I was determined to provide a place where women could drink without fear of insult."

So with the support of her accountant husband, Mrs. Richardson turned the White Lion's games room into a female preserve.

It's fascinating how carefully this "ladies only" space is coded as heterosexual. All the way from the prominent mention of the knitting needles (in the 1970s?!?) to Mrs. Richardson's marital status and her "women's libber" denials. Was this a deliberate attempt at camouflage, or was Mrs. Richardson really intent on reserving this as a place for "respectable" wives and mothers? Did lesbians manage to claim this space regardless? The whole tone of this article comes across as remarkably disingenous for the time, as if this little English village pub existed in some pristine bubble that history forgot.

But the bubble finally pricked and it all came to an end regardless. A 2002 piece in the Liverpool Echo picks up the tale over 25 years later:

The White Lion stands on the hill that glides down into West Kirby's town centre, with Hilbre Island seemingly floating in the late December sea of slate grey sky. A return to harsh reality came with the realisation that the Lion has no car park - but the muncipal at the next major turning right provided a cheap (30 pence for three hours) and accessible (less than five minutes walk) alternative.

The inside is a traditionalist's dream more like a warm cave than a boozer. Lanterns shed dim light across the stone floors and walls, a pleasant musky smell from the coal fire beside the bar adding extra savour to the welcoming atmosphere and the excellent quality of the ale. And being a trad pub there is strictly a 'no young kids allowed' policy. We parked ourselves on wooden benches around the long oak table in a raised alcove facing the pumps dubbed the Royal Box by Christine Stokes licensee/manager of a decade-plus. "That's what we call the naughty table - it's always very noisy and rowdy up there'' explained Christine later, aware that perhaps we'd found our spiritual home. The Royal Box is also home to a potted history display for this building which has been serving ale for much of its existence since the 1600s.

Special prominence is given to a period through the late 70s and early 80s when it became the focus for national press attention as an early bastion of Girl Power.

The former licensee Margaret Richardson declared one of the alcoves a Man Free zone where women could drink without harassment. It has, however, been consigned to the knicker drawer of history because as Christine stated: "It's not necessary any more; women are far more confident these days than to need such things.''

Ah yes. The women-don't-want-womyn's-space-anymore line. They've outgrown it. After all, male harassment ended, um, around 1980, right? Doesn't exist anymore! So have some more Kool-aid, er ale, girls. Bottoms up!

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