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To most people, one beer-pump handle is much the same as any other. It is not a thing worthy of note, just a fairly unremarkable feature of the apparatus involved in the process of dispensing that perfect pint of ale. The customer's immediate focus is invariably, and quite understandably, drawn to the pump clip, for that determines the important business of what tipple is on offer. These, of course, now come in a profusion of shapes, sizes, colours, designs and materials, all competing for the drinker's attention with but one aim - TRY ME!
The Modern Beer-Pump Handle
Perhaps it is as much to do with ensuring that this message gets across with the minimum of other visual distractions, as the economic dictates of mass-production and standardisation, that the modern ceramic beer-pump handle no longer vies for attention with quite the flamboyance of its predecessors. In most pubs now there are generally just two variations on the theme - plain black or plain white.
There are, of course, exceptions - such as the various styles of "hunting scene" decoration which became the vogue during the 1960s, and handles displaying a brewery logo, eg Bass. However those are in a distinct minority. Most, as has already been observed, are just plain black or white, and it must be said, rather boring.
The modern beer-pump handle has also adopted a standard size and shape, being 9" tall and 2" in diameter at its widest point, with a double-collared base, relatively slim profile and a fairly pointed apex.
Yet it was not always like this...
The Vintage Beer-Pump Handle
Before the advent of the "modern standard" ceramic beer-pump handle, probably during the 1950s although it may have been earlier, there was no precise uniformity of shape, size, design or colour. This obviously reflected a similar lack of standardisation in the manufacture of the beer engines to which they were fitted. Often a bank of beer-pumps would have handles of similar design but in different colours. In the days before the emergence of the pump-clip, and when most pubs were tied to a single brewery, it is not inconceivable that this served a purpose as a way of colour-coding the pumps containing mild, bitter and best, for example.
In practice, of course, beer-pump handle design then, as now, was dictated largely by the ergonomic requirements of its function, so the variations that are to be seen are relatively subtle. Nevertheless, a vintage beer-pump handle has various characteristics that set it apart from its modern cousin, and which make it readily identifiable:
1) Height. Can range from 5.5" to 10.5", although around 9" tends to be the norm.
2) Size & shape. Although the diameter of the upper section at its widest point is also around 2" it has a rounder, more bulbous profile than that of the modern handle, which makes it appear bigger. The apex is much more rounded, and on the full size handles the bottom end profiles usually conform to one of three types, which I have designated "flared", "ball" and "double-collared" (for examples, see nos 10, 11 & 14 respectively, below). The spindles on vintage beer engines are tapered, and the spindle-hole at the apex is much narrower than the 5/8" found on modern handles to accommodate the top finial barrel. This means that a vintage beer-pump handle will not fit on to a modern beer engine without drilling out the top end (Noooooo!!!).
3) Colour & design. Although plain black or white were a standard feature then, as now, the mid-to-late 19th century saw the emergence of beer-pump handles decorated in a rich variety of colours and wide diversity of designs. Predominant themes include blue on white willow pattern, hop bines, birds, butterflies & insects, abstract, art-nouveau and floral designs - many hand-painted, others transfer-printed.
Reproduced below are pages from the 1879, 1888, and 1896 editions respectively of Thomas Twyford's trade catalogue (photos kindly supplied by Terry Woolliscroft). Twyford's are perhaps better known as a producer of sanitary ware. These catalogues, however, show that their product range also extended to such things as spirit barrels and beer-pump handles:
Twyford's 1879 trade catalogue
Twyford's 1888 trade catalogue
Twyford's 1896 trade catalogue
Twyford's 1896 trade catalogue front cover
Now if it is correct to assume that Twyford's were typical of other manufacturers in reflecting the market trends of the time, it is interesting to note the apparently very short period - just a decade or so - during which the fashion for highly-decorated and brightly-coloured beer-pump handles remained the vogue. By 1896, it can be seen that Twyford's had reverted back to offering just the same three plain white options (plus one additional shape variation) of beer-pump handle as had been listed in their catalogue of 1879. Why this was is unknown; I can only speculate that the flamboyance of the late 1880s was perhaps connected with Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887, after which more sober tastes became the order of the day.
Of course, it is possible that Twyford's may have had entirely different reasons for discontinuing their range of decorated beer-pump handles. A hand-written attribution (admittedly unsubstantiated) that is attached to a pair of hand-painted examples with beautiful colouring and exquisite detail (nos 45 & 46 below) attests to their presence in The Great Exhibition of 1851. This suggests that the "Golden Age" of the decorated beer-pump handle was not necessarily confined to the 1880s, but indeed enjoyed a much longer span.
In 1998 a group of sixteen highly-decorated beer-pump handles was unearthed during an excavation in Sheffield. A report on the find, by Hugh Willmott and Glyn Davies, was published in 2004 in the journal of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (volume 38, part 2, p226-8). A link to the article is here. Unfortunately the photographs in the article are only shown in black-and-white. They were, at one time, reproduced in colour on the SPMA's website. However that site has since undergone a redesign; the original link is now dead, and the photographs have disappeared. Nor can I find any trace of them on Sheffield Museum's website using the accession number given. Fortunately I did print off a copy at the time, a scan of which is reproduced below:
Click on an image to enlarge it
My Beer-Pump Handle Collection
Below, are photographed and described individually more than 100 beer pump handles comprising my collection and those known to exist elsewhere. Of those, I have been able to attribute only three sets to a particular maker (Wedgwood). As to the others, I have no knowledge as to when, where, or by whom they were made. Doulton, Twyfords, Minton, Chelsea and Wedgwood were all associated with the manufacture of such items during the 19th and early 20th century. Some have a number inscribed on the bottom collar (which I believe to be the pattern number), but in many cases the collar is either damaged or missing, and beyond that none have any other identifying marks, which makes attribution all but impossible. The only clues might come from the designs themselves, however without access to all of the original catalogues it is difficult to know which are generic and which are unique to a specific manufacturer.
Click on an image to enlarge it
1. Blue on white Willow pattern. Gilt band around the bottom; traces of gilding are also evident on some of the detail.
2. Reverse view of 1.
3. Blue on white birds, flowers and butterfly.
4. Reverse view of 3.
5. Olive green with gold, pink & white flower design.
6. Pale blue, white central panel with transfer-printed chrysanthemums.
7. Reverse view of 6.
8. Green with hand-painted yellow, gilt and cream stylised floral design.
9. Same design as 8 but on a black background. Pump handle is same overall size but has bulbous bottom shape rather than the flared profile of 8. More of the gilding detail on this remains.
10. Green with yellow central band and hand-painted yellow floral design. Almost all of the gilt edging has worn away, but traces can be seen under where the top finial sat.
11. Same design as 10, but with cranberry red background. Pump handle is same overall size but has bulbous bottom shape rather than the flared profile of 10. Most of the gilding on this is still intact.
12. Green with vertical gilt stripe pattern. Large central panel depicts Grenadier Guardsman, repeated on reverse. Zulu/Boer War era?
13. Pale cranberry with rococo bordered central panel containing hand-painted floral design. Similar on reverse. V. large (10.5"), one of a pair.
14. White bottom with faded gilt design near centre. Salmon pink upper section with hand-painted floral decoration. V. large (10.5").
15. Brown with gilt edging and raised enamel dots. White upper panels with hand-painted flowers. Large (10.25").
16. Pale green with white Art Nouveau tree/leaf/fleur-de-lys design.
17. The one that started it all off! Royal blue with central panel containing painted transfer-print of two Bacchanalian cherubs pouring water (or wine?) from a pitcher on to a grapevine. The design is repeated on the reverse. Traces of faded gilt decoration remain around the panel edge.
18. Red background with abstract design in pale blue and yellow with gilt edging.
19. Red background with green vertical stripes contained within a white border around the lower circumference; white horizontal band with yellow ovals around the upper section. Always reminds me of a fairground carousel.
20. Green top with gilded design around the central area; white, yellow, pink and green banding around the bottom with gilded patterning. One of a set of three.
21. Red, with an elongated cream centre panel containing hand-coloured transfer-printed floral decoration.
22. Pale green, cream panel with hand-painted kingfisher perched in reed bed. Reverse shows kingfisher in flight with dragonfly. One of a pair.
23. Second of pair 22, showing reverse.
24. Deep cobalt blue, centre panel with transfer-printed floral pattern.
25. Rich cranberry red, centre panel with similar floral pattern to 24 and gilt edging. One of a pair.
26. Similar to 25, but in pale blue, with centre panel having the same floral design as 21. One of a pair.
27. Salmon pink with 4 vertical stripes forming into diamonds containing yellow flower pattern and bounded by raised blue enamel dots in upper section. Yellow banding around top and bottom, with traces of gold rococo pattern on the pink stripes. One of a set of three.
28. Cranberry red with abstract hop bine and leaf design in white. One of a pair.
29. Blue on white willow pattern. Virtually identical to 1, but ink more heavily applied with some consequential loss of detail.
30. Reverse view of 29.
31. Small (6"), royal blue with similar hop leaf design to 28 in white with gilt edging.
32. Small (6"), white with gold transfer-printed grapevine design.
33. Small (6"), pale green with rococo-bordered central panel containing hand-painted flowers. Similar, but not identical, floral posy on reverse. One of a pair (see no 81 below).
34. Small (6"), white bottom, blue top with decorative gilt banding and panel containing hand-painted flowers. Similar on reverse.
35. Small (7"), ebony with brass or nickel bands and top finial. Tortoiseshell collar at base.
36. Rosewood with central brass or nickel band and top finial.
37. Turned ebony with small brass mount and brass top finial.
38. Black with raised blue and white enamel dots and cross decoration, repeated at each quarter.
39. Plain white tapering cylinder, with brass mount and collar stamped "BOWEN DOVER" on bottom.
40. Green veined marble, presumably made purely as a decorative piece, since the centre spindle hole is too narrow to accommodate either vintage or modern sized spindles and finial caps.
41. Pink top fading into blue bottom with gold relief transfer-printed leaf decoration.
42. Wedgwood Jasperware, blue, 6.75" tall. White bas-relief of acanthus leaves and bellflowers. Single impressed letter "D" on the base, c1820. One of a pair.
43. Pale blue with transfer-printed floral designs.
44. Blue, white upper panel with transfer-printed pansies.
45. Pale blue with yellow star decoration.
46. Green background, decorated with hand-painted floral sprays, each different, on three pink vignettes; mounted with wooden base and finial. One of a pair.
47. Second of pair 46. A hand-written inscription on the base reads: "Crystal Palace 1914 from bar known as The Hole In The Wall. Originally in Great Exhibition, Hyde Park 1852" (sic). The Great Exhibition was, of course, held in 1851.
48. Upper section decorated with transfer-printed roses on white background. Salmon pink lower half with faded gilt banding.
49. Cranberry red with abstract hop bine and leaf design in white. Identical design to that of 28, but the handle's profile is much slimmer than was typical, closely resembling the modern slimline shape that is the current standard today.
50. Similar to 49, but in pale green.
51. Cherry red with a hand-coloured transfer-print design incorporating the rose, thistle, leek and shamrock - the national emblems of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Possibly intended to commemorate an event of national unity - the end of WW1, perhaps? One of a pair.
52. Same design as 51, but on a green background with a white stripe around the base. One of a pair.
53. Green background with white hop-bine decoration identical to 28, 49 and 50, with faded gilt edging.
54. Salmon pink background with yellow banding containing faded zig-zag gilt decoration dividing the upper, middle and lower sections. White central panel border containing raised blue enamel dots, and hand-painted white flower in the centre.
55. Reverse view of 54. Similar in decoration, but with a blue flower.
56. Blue with white band containing white floral decoration, repeated on lower band with gilt background. Three circles of raised enamel and gold dots.
57. Green hop leaf and yellow flower design on a white background. Traces of patterned gilding still visible around the centre.
58. A design hinting at the Gothic revival; one that Pugin might almost be imagined having commissioned for the House of Commons bar! Green background top & bottom with cream hop leaf and geometric line pattern decoration; a series of cream-coloured perpendicular columns with gilded recesses form the central barrel.
59. By way of comparison, and to show that there there are always exceptions to the general rule, this is a modern-profile handle from the 1950s that does buck the trend, boasting an abstract decoration typical of that era. Note the slimmer shape compared with that of the vintage handles.
60. Red background with three elliptical vignettes containing hand-painted floral displays (repeated on reverse with slightly different floral scenes). Intricate gilded patterns decorate the other two faces.
61. Reverse view of 60.
62. Side view of 60.
63. Turquoise green with transfer-printed yellow flowers on white banding.
64. Pale blue on white with two transfer-printed characters from Greek mythology (Dionysius & Aphrodite?). Traces of gilding remain around the base, and underneath the top finial. 6.5" tall, one of three.
65. Reverse view of 64.
66. Seasonal design with a festive theme, featuring hand-painted holly leaves & berries on a dark, fading to light, olive green background. 8" tall.
67. Wedgwood Jasperware, pale blue, 5.5" tall. White bas-relief of trees and classical Greek figures. Single impressed letter "B" on the base, c1820. One of a pair.
68. Reverse view of 67.
69. Green background with a white central panel containing transfer-printed red & white chrysanthemums. One of a set of three.
70. Cherry red with a white central panel containing transfer-printed floral decoration. One of a set of three.
71. Red background with hand-painted white poppy flower & leaves, repeated on reverse. Traces of a vertical gilt lily-of-the-valley flower pattern visible on white background at the base. One of a pair.
72. Salmon pink on a white background with turquoise banding. One of a pair.
73. Delft style rustic scene in blue on white around top third, with a cobalt blue background on the remainder and a chain-link pattern around the base. Possibly hand-painted, as the scenes do not appear to be transfer-prints.
74. Reverse view of 73 showing a different scene.
75. Salmon pink decorated with yellow-bordered white blobs & lozenge shapes. Small, 6" high. Excavated in 2013 from the site of a demolished pub (identity unknown) in Holmes Road, Kentish Town, London NW5.
76. Black & white transfer print of a classical Greek character on a mustard yellow background (same on reverse). Hand-painted rococo-style decoration in purple on white at the top & bottom. 6" high. From same excavation as 75.
77. Another, similar, example from that excavation. Salmon pink background with red on white decoration top & bottom. One of a pair, both depicting a different character on the reverse.
78. Reverse view of 77.
79. Second of pair 77.
80. Reverse view of 79.
81. Second of pair 33 above, featuring slightly different floral decorations front & reverse. 6" tall. From same excavation as nos 75-80.
82. White with a brown shield-shape over a white Tudor Rose outline, repeated on reverse (not identically). Brown painted band and stripes on the base. 9" tall.
83. Similar to 82, but with a uniform brown background and black dappling. The Tudor Rose motif is repeated around the base.
84. Pink and yellow abstract shapes on a black background, with faded gilt decoration and banding below.
85. Wedgwood Jasperware, dark blue, 5.5" tall. White bas-relief of trees and classical Greek figures. No visible mark on base, c1820. One of a set of four, each featuring two different characters only one of which is duplicated within the set.
86. Reverse view of 85.
87. Second of set 85.
88. Reverse view of 87.
89. Third of set 85.
90. Reverse view of 89.
91. Fourth of set 85.
92. Reverse view of 91.
93. Extremely unusual cut glass crystal beer-pump handle. Possibly Edwardian or 1920s - the patterning suggests a Mackintosh/Art Deco influence. Perhaps bespoke-made for an exclusive private club? A stunning piece, almost certainly unique. 7" tall (excluding base).
Some Other Examples
Below are some other Victorian and vintage beer-pump handles known to exist outside my collection - a few of the ones that got away! I know there are many more out there. My thanks to Jez Horton for the photos he has provided of his own collection.
If you have any similar examples that you think should be featured, please email me a photo and I will do my best to include it. The primary purpose of this website is to help promote and expand the visual knowledge-base relating to this somewhat neglected area our social history. The inclusion of a hitherto unrecorded item can make an invaluable contribution in furthering that aim.
Click on an image to enlarge it
1a. Multi-coloured abstract design on a cream background. Faint traces of gilding remaining in the central panel suggest a continuation of the hemispherical designs above converging at a single point below - rather like an inverted teardrop.
2a. Delicate floral tracery in gilt and white enamel on a royal blue background.
3a. Green with a white upper band containing a floral design.
4a. Wedgwood Jasperware, dark blue, 6" tall. White bas-relief of Euterpe & Melpomene, the Muses of Lyric Poetry and Tragedy.
5a. Wedgwood Jasperware, light blue, 6" tall. White bas-relief of Greek figures and trees. Both very similar to my own Wedgwood examples (see nos. 42, 67-68 & 85-92 above).
6a. Cream background with a colour transfer-print of a group of cherubs, one of whom is pouring water or wine from a pitcher into a bowl. The left part of the scene is identical to that depicted on one of my pump handles (see no. 17 above).
7a. Green with abstract hop bine and leaf design in white, having gilded edges and detail (mostly worn away at top) and gilded bands around the bottom. A pair. Identical (apart from different background colour and better preserved gilding) to no. 28 above.
8a. Set of three having light blue, cherry red, and dark blue backgrounds; each with an elongated central panel containing a transfer-printed floral design identical to that in nos. 24 & 25 above. Unusual to see them with matching china base collars.
9a. Blue on white Willow pattern. A pair (one of two similar listings).
10a. Hand-painted gold leaves with crimson flowers on a white background. Small, 6" high.
11a. Hand-painted image of a medieval queen on a cream background. One of a pair.
11aa. Close-up of image detail on the other example of the pair.
12a. Hand-painted image of a gentleman in Elizabethan dress. The lime green background appears to be a colour distortion caused by the flash proximity & white balance settings. It is actually more of a dark greyish green - see next photo.
12aa. Close-up of 12a taken in natural light, giving a more accurate colour rendition. This observation applies similarly to examples 13a, 14a & 15a.
13a. Similar to 12a, with a different pose & costume.
13aa. Close-up of image detail on 13a.
14a. Hand-painted image of a lady in Elizabethan dress.
14aa. Close-up of image detail on 14a.
15a. Similar to 14a, with a different pose & costume.
16a. Hand-painted image of William Shakespeare on a grey-blue background.
16aa. Close-up of image detail on 16a.
17a. Hand-painted image of Francis Bacon on a grey-blue background.
17aa. Close-up of image detail on 16a.
18a. Hand-painted image of Edmund Spenser on a grey-blue background.
18aa. Close-up of image detail on 18a.
19a. Coloured transfer-print of two Bacchanalian figures on a purple background. Identical scene as in examples 17 & 6a above.
20a. Three pairs of small (6") pump handles. The black and red ones are smaller versions, with identical decoration, of my full size examples 9 and 60 above.
21a. Green background with yellow and white banding containing gilt oval loop decoration.
22a. (i) Cream background with transfer-printed roses, (ii) identical to 17 & 19a above but with a buff-coloured background; (iii) transfer-printed flowers on a white background. From Jez Horton's collection.
23a. (i) Similar to 22a with different flowers; (ii) transfer-printed flowers on a pale blue background, identical to 43 above; (iii) identical to 6a above - possibly the same item. From Jez Horton's collection.
24a. (i) White art nouveau design with gilt border on a green background, one of a pair; (ii) black abstract fern design on an olive green background; (iii) vertical black stripes on a pale green background; (iv) black abstract shapes on a yellow background; (v) second of pair (i). From Jez Horton's collection.
25a. (i) White abstract hop leaf design on a cranberry red background, similar to 28 & 49 above; (ii) blue on white flower design; (iii) transfer-printed cherries & leaves on a cream background. From Jez Horton's collection.
26a. Small, with hand-painted flowers and butterfly on a Royal Blue background. From Jez Horton's collection.
27a. Set of three mounted handles, the outer two being identical with rectangular cream panels containing hand-painted flowers and traces of patterned gilding on a cranberry red background. The central handle has wavy cherry red banding on a cream background inset with hand-painted vignettes of red berries, and a floral decoration beneath.
28a. Set of three mounted handles on original pewter base. The outer two are cranberry red, the one in the centre is pale green. All have the same Art Nouveau pattern applied on a white background, the edges being delineated in gilt.
29a. Wedgwood Jasperware, pale blue, 6" tall. White bas-relief of Polymnia the Muse and trees. No visible mark on base, c1810. Photo courtesy of Alexis Antiques.
30a. Green with white floral (possibly hop-leaf) design. Tapering cylinder with a single collar base, approx 7" tall.
31a. Matching pair with blue and pink backgrounds and a white upper panel containing transfer-printed pansies.
32a. Hand-coloured transfer print of Queen Victoria garlanded by floral wreaths on a white background, commemorating her Golden Jubilee on 21st June 1887.
33a. Set of four mounted handles with a multi-coloured abstract design, identical to 1a above, but on a yellow background with green veined marble effect.
34a. Set of five mounted handles with hand-coloured transfer-prints of flowers on a white background. A brass plaque on the base gives the maker's name as J. Hobson, 12 Nursery St, Sheffield.
35a. Beer-pump handle, ceramic with multi-colour floral decoration, on a brass and pewter base inscribed W. Rogers. May originally have come from the White Hart pub on Temple Mill Lane, Hackney Marsh, which was under the ownership of a Walter Rogers from 1879-1891. Total height 430mm (handle itself is approx 6"). From the Hackney Museum collection.
36a. White flower and dot design with white banding on a royal blue background.