The Brown Bull Hotel

Former Brown Bull, Copperheads Hotel
by Adam Bruderer CC BY 2.0

In the eighties I worked as a Home Office representative in Immigration Tribunal Appeals in London. We were a team of ordinary civil servants and were pitted against solicitors, barristers, silks, practitioners with an agenda. Our “boast” was that we didn’t have an O-Level in law between us. The proceedings were adversarial and involved cross-examination. We used to go in hard on the punters, but were frequently undermined by Immigration Department cock-ups.

You could usually find one. Part of my job was to manage the Manchester office which required me to travel up there and observe the proceedings, so that I could produce the team’s annual reports without them being total works of fiction. It needed a stopover of a few days, and although the local team could be relied on for a few lunchtime bevies, the solitary evenings stretched before me. The way round this was to arrange it so that my visit coincided with one of the London office chaps operating as a relief while a local was on leave. This ensured convivial evening company. I was in those days entitled to travel first class, so the relief bods were keen to travel up with me and take advantage of a then current wheeze, which was that accompanying junior grades were entitled to travel in the same class as the senior. This led to some pleasant dinners on the Pullman – a £1 supplement on the fare. But where to stay?

The appeal hearing centre was in Salford, a few yards over the River Irwell and practically opposite Salford Station. Yes, Salford – the original “Dirty Old Town” of Ewan MacColl’s song. He knew what he was singing about – he was born there. We stayed in local pubs-cum-“hotels” which were cheap and incredibly insalubrious. The low prices helped to liberate expenses, money better spent on beer. One of the venues was the Brown Bull Hotel on Chapel Street. It was built on the curve of a bend and architecturally very pleasing. The interior – not so much.

The first time I arrived at Piccadilly station I hailed a black cab, and being a polite sort of chap asked if the cabbie knew the Brown Bull: “Know it? I could piss in it from here” he spat. He was right, really. It wasn’t far. Now, the Brown Bull was a bit of an oddity in that it was a Marstons house – Marstons Burton Ales, to be precise. Cards on table: I don’t like Burton ales. Too “sulphurous” for me. However, it was the Marstons link that put me in mind of the old days. Their admirable refusal to comply with the ludicrous bureaucracy foisted on the re-opening pubs set me thinking. I haven’t checked, but I hope they haven’t succumbed to pressure from the authorities. I’m sure there are myriad ways to make them fall in line. I can remember little about the hotel side of the pub, other than a colleague claimed to have seen a rat in his room. The bar was the kind of time warp you see in black and white Talking Pictures films: filled with faces and the dodgiest-looking of the shifty. Behind the bar was landlord Jimmy Donnelly, or Jimmy the Weed as he was known to all.

Nothing to do with reefers, but a reference to his uncanny ability to “grow on you.” I’m not entirely sure of the full scope of that. Perhaps if you owed him money the meaning became more apparent. If Jimmy wasn’t there you might encounter his missus Rita, even more fearsome. Jimmy was a member of the notorious Quality Street Gang (probably named after their posh clobber and tastes) and although only five foot four in his expensive socks he was absolutely not a man to cross. Jimmy ran…businesses. He knew…people. The pub had for years been a haunt of celebs drawn by the strange fascination for mixing with hard characters of the underworld. “The twins” once came up to Manchester dragging round a punch-drunk Joe Louis on a wretched tour.

There was “trouble’ with a doorman, but it was all “straightened out.” Ronnie and Reggie were advised to keep moving. George Best was a regular, and his exasperated boss Matt Busby used to ask whether he’d spent all night in that Blue Cow, or Green Pig, or whatever. He couldn’t bring himself to pronounce the name and described it as the hostelry from hell. Because of the nearby Granada TV studios Michael Parkinson and the like would get in there. Germaine Greer was once chatted up by Bestie and we draw a veil over later proceedings. Jimmy used to give George the keys and tell him to lock up when he left.

Another customer was the late Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzie. His mother ran a club in Whalley Range over the other side of Manchester, and it was a venue for villains, showbiz types, sportsmen, and gays. Jimmy and the gang members would of course turn up. They would be expensively booted and suited, and generally steered clear of pubs to avoid irksome lowlifes. There was a strong Irish streak running through the gang so it was natural for Lynott to return the favour and drink in the Brown Bull. Now – you are likely familiar with the Thin Lizzie track “The boys are back in town”? Well, there is persuasive evidence that it was inspired by Lynott’s encounters with the QSG. The chaps would go on trips abroad – there was also a strong Italian streak in the gang. There is a picture of Jimmy and Larry Holmes in “Vegas.” He was a boxing promoter when I encountered him. When they all met up in Manchester in the club again Lynott’s mum would say – the boys are back in town. Any more evidence? Certainly. There is another Thin Lizzie track called Johnny the Fox meets – Jimmy the Weed! Johnny is thought to be Lynott’s alter ego. He identified himself as somewhat like Paul Whitehouse of the Fast Show’s “geezer” character – a little bit wheeyy, a little bit wurrrr. He probably was, too. What is not in doubt is that Lynott gave Jimmy the gold disc that marked 250,000 copies sold of the particular album, and it hung on the wall of the Brown Bull.

Thin Lizzy
Manchester Apollo by Harry Potts / CC BY-SA 2.0

My personal evidence for Jimmy’s status comes from one of my colleagues who used to drink regularly in the Bull. It so happened that this chap’s son’s car was stolen from outside the pub. Poor form – he needed that car for his business. Now, Jimmy used to hold a sort of surgery where people could bring problems to him. My colleague duly arranged an appointment and told the sorry tale. The car was returned within two days. As Home Office employees we were surprisingly treated with some respect. The locals knew what we did, and they thought we were actual lawyers. In any event, we were not police. I used to drink in many now-vanished Salford pubs and we were not always so well received. To distance ourselves from lawyers we used to affect blazers, collar and tie and trenchcoats. This appearance sometimes provoked suspicion in pubs off our manor.

One incident I recall was when I was out with a Jock colleague. He had a great liking for the track “From a Jack to a King.” He played it on the jukie, and then made the mistake of immediately putting it on again. A geezer walked up to the machine and kicked it hard, once. The track went off with a loud scratching noise of disintegration. We were a long way from home and made our excuses and left…

I didn’t stay in the Bull much. I preferred the Salford Arms over the road. At the time it was run by a diminutive but deadly Scotswoman and a Salford Rugby League prop. Yes, a brick outhouse. He liked me because we could chat rugby, amongst other things, which we did most evenings till about 3 am. He would then get up at six for the draymen. This chap was no fan of the QSG. He blamed them for a break-in during which he chased them out of the pub. A retreating villain picked up a lump of concrete which he threw at our man, breaking his foot. He still chased them, though. People in Salford were just plain hard. Thinking about this article I entertained myself with some Tripadvisor reviews of the pub: hilarious. They are divided into the ones who indignantly report the squalor and the ones too pissed to care. I usually fell into the latter category. One of my chaps inveigled the landlord into placing a copy of The Times on his breakfast table: we shared the full English with cleaners on their break. They smoked enough to cure the bacon. I reckon it was one the few copies of The Thunderer sold in Salford. Marx and Engels used to drink in a pub that once stood close by.

After a few years I moved on to managing the Birmingham office, which wasn’t nearly as much fun. The fate of the Brown Bull is the familiar one. Pretty run down, it lost its licence in the early nineties and closed. Various businesses tried their hand. The building still exists, but Google Streetview discloses an Ethiopian and Eritrean bar/restaurant. Fancy it? Jimmy is probably turning in his top-of-the range grave by now, though he was alive last year, with inoperable cancer. He published an autobiography in 2011 which is available on Amazon books: the blurb reads:

“Jimmy Donnelly is an underworld legend. Known to all as Jimmy the Weed, he has mixed with the most notorious gangsters in Britain and the Costa del Crime in a criminal career spanning five decades. He has been arrested on suspicion of serious crimes and faced numerous Crown Court trials – and walked free from them all. Most infamously, Jimmy was a key figure in the Quality Street Gang, a group targeted for years by Manchester Police. In this explosive autobiography, Jimmy tells how he rose from humble beginnings to become the biggest illicit ticket agent in the North.” He planned a second instalment to be called “The boys are back in town”, but I don’t think he got round to it.

© Bassman 2020

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