The downstairs part of Ryan’s Bar – on Abbey Road – used to be The Old London Inn.
The only entrance was half way up the steps opposite the Gallery entrance of the Theatre Royal. It had a public bar, a private bar, a smoke room and a Bottle & Jug. As the Inn counted among its patrons the audience, actors and staff of the theatre, when the building changed into a cinema in 1933 a good deal of trade was lost.
In 1992 the Herald published a couple of articles from Harold Browning, whose father was the landlord. He recalled how, during the 1930s, the London was a Beer House and could only sell beer and cider. The cider came as either sweet or rough, the latter being scrumpy and known as ‘lunatic broth’.
To quote Harold: “It may well be that the expression ‘legless’ came from drinking rough cider. People who could normally drink a fair amount of beer, on drinking rough cider simply lost the use of their legs… they simply collapsed, perfectly coherent, but absolutely unable to stand.”
Bar food consisted of the newly arrived Smith’s Crisps and local Cornish pasties.
“Our supplies were delivered by draymen driving horse drawn wagons,” wrote Harold.
“As it was customary to give each coach driver a pint we reckoned that they each drank at least 20 pints a day…
“Our customers consisted mainly of working men, some of whom came in still dressed in their corduroy trousers with leather straps around the knees, straight from digging the roads by pick and shovel…
“Occasionally an American warship would come into the Bay and their sailors, coming from Prohibition in the States, soon got very drunk and it was a common sight to see their naval police collecting up the drunks and literally throwing them into the boats in the inner harbour”.
In 1837 the Court Book of the Manor of Torwood recorded that seven houses were to be built in the ‘orchards, furze and grass plots’ on Lower Commercial Road – later to be renamed Lower Union Street. Up till 1874 there was still a plant nursery owned by Joseph Morgan at, what was to become, Castle Circus. The name Morgan’s Gardens lives on in Morgan Avenue.
While the land was being cleared, an old well was filled in and at the bottom was found a cannon ball. This was claimed to be from the French ‘shelling’ of Torquay – following on from their 1690 attack on Teignmouth. The new houses were built with garden plots and rails in front and had a front and back parlour. However, with the development of Upton and Torre and the opening of the railway in 1848, the Higher and Lower Commercial Roads became popular thoroughfares. The front herb gardens and flower plots then developed into shop fronts.
At the same time as the houses were built, Joseph Reed opened the Castle Inn in Binney’s Orchard. This remained a successful and popular free house until 1974 when it was sold to Heavitree Brewery. At the time it was described as ‘the most valuable public house in south Devon’ with annual sales of 1436 barrels of draft beer and 223 barrels of bottled beer. The inn contained a public bar, off licence, the ground floor Castle Lounge, a basement lounge bar – a popular disco – and three staff flats.
Ready to cater for new tastes in the market, in 1981 the Castle opened Plonkingtons’ Wine Bar. A particular success was the Sunday Special where double spirits sold for 60p.
By 1992 the Castle was being described as ‘a drug troubled pub’ and was relaunched under the name Chaplins Cafe Bar. In December 2008, after 171 years, the pub was closed by its owners, Peninsula Inns Ltd, and remains empty.