From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 48
October - November 1987
The Johnson Arms
David Smith drew the Abbey Tavern
from an old photograph.
Before beginning our profile on The Johnson Arms we have a little to say about its forerunner, The Abbey Tavern. And it is 'a little', as we haven't discovered very much at all. In the early 1860s William Shaw appears to have opened a beerhouse on Abbey Street, which became known as The Abbey Tavern. This meant that those living in the Abbey Street area of Lenton could now choose to patronise anyone of four pubs - the other three being The White Hart, The Red Cow and The Boat. (Like William Shaw, the landlords of The Red Cow and The Boat had obtained 'beerhouse' licenses, which meant they were prohibited from selling spirits and hard liquor) .The Abbey Tavern was set among a group of buildings beside the canal (the River Leen now flows there) and so the pub was well placed to attract the trade of bargees who travelled along the canal between Nottingham and Langley Mill. At this time, however, Abbey Street wasn't a major thoroughfare; it merely led on to Dunkirk Road, which served the odd farm and farm worker's cottage. This meant that Mr Shaw could not rely upon passing trade in the way that, across on the Derby Road, the publicans of The Rose & Crown and The Three Wheatsheaves could.
Proposed layout of Johnson Arms - 1912.
Initially William Shaw may indeed have had a relatively small catchment from which to draw his patrons, but in the ensuing years the situation would undoubtedly have improved as the Warwick Street area was developed and houses began to appear on the Dunkirk Estate.
Frank Johnson probably had a fairly shrewd eye for a 'good' pub and he evidently liked the look of The Abbey Tavern because, in 1904, he chose to buy it. A number of minor improvements were put in train, but in 1912 he decided that the pub and adjoining buildings should be demolished and new ones put up in their place. To the right, courtesy of Nottinghamshire Record Office, we have included the proposed layout of his new pub, 'The Johnson Arms', which he submitted to the City Council for building regulations approval. In later years the ground floor kitchen area was sacrificed to make way for inside toilets. The publican also lost his private sitting room. The kitchen was moved upstairs and by way of compensation the large club room situated on the first floor was converted into two rooms for the private use of the landlord and his family. Despite such alterations the basic look of the pub was to change very little over the years, even after its purchase by Shipstones in 1953. As late as 1979 Chris Arnot in an article about the pub in Nottingham News could describe it as an 'old fashioned, basic, down to earth' pub.
Alan Johnson's photograph showing him
serving behind the old bar.
This all changed, however, after the retirement in 1981 of Grace Sanders, who had been landlady there for thirty-four years. As her successors Shipstones chose Alan and Andria Johnson. The brewery and the new couple were both keen to see the pub 'modernised' and within five months of taking over Alan and Andria had the workmen in. Internal walls disappeared, the bar was repositioned and a complete internal refit was carried out. After two months of hectic activity the pub was ready. If Alan and Andria had held any fears as to how the drinking populace were going to react to the changes, they need not have worried. The number of customers increased dramatically and the pub's popularity has been maintained ever since. These include long-term regulars and more recently acquired locals. Given its proximity to the Queens Medical Centre and the University it is no surprise that The Johnson Arms is now extremely popular with both students and hospital staff.
During the summer months those who enjoy fresh air with their drinks can sit out in the garden at the rear of the pub. Initially the brewery had envisaged setting out this garden when they carried out the internal alterations. Unfortunately they found that the foundations at the side of the pub were in a bad way and needed a lot of remedial attention. As a result they went over budget and the planned garden improvements had to go by the board. So Alan Johnson took it upon himself to knock the garden in to shape. All who visit the garden can see the success of his efforts. Its crowning glory is the huge pear tree, which must have been there in the days of The Abbey Tavern. It is a sight to behold when it is in blossom and later in the year when laden with fruit it becomes a magnet for many of the kids round about who slip in to try a spot of scrumping - a practice which has undoubtedly been going on generation after generation.
Alan Johnson and customers in 1987.
Photograph by Paul Bexon.
Alan and Andria have now been at The Johnson Arms for six years and feel very settled here. For Alan it has been something of a return to his roots. Although he was born and brought up in East Leake, his grandfather had a barrel making business in Dunkirk while Alan's father was born at Lenton Firs Farm and grew up on Lace Street in Dunkirk. The move to The Johnson Arms was also something of a dream come true for Alan. He had always wanted to run a pub and had put in plenty of practice, after a day's work at Rolls Royce, pulling pints in other people's pubs. That their first pub should bear their name (though Alan is no relation of Frank W. Johnson) is just an added bonus. During the alterations there was some suggestion that the pub's name should be changed back to The Abbey Tavern but for obvious reasons Alan and Andria weren't too keen about this and their view prevailed. Andria puts on pot meals, pies etc. during lunchtime but the Johnsons are determined that at The Johnson Arms the emphasis should remain with the drink they will not be going down the road which leads to the pub-restaurant. It may no longer be 'basic' and 'down to earth' but Alan and Andria hope The Johnson Arms will remain a traditional pub, complete with its cards, dominoes and darts.