Revealed after 20 years: The untold story of the John Bull pub closure

2 Jun 2014 @ 11.44 am
| Opinion
Inside the John Bull on Layerthorpe, York: a still from the Old Dairy Studios film about the pub
The John Bull on Layerthorpe, York: a still from the Old Dairy Studios film about the pub
MatthewLaverack_HeatShot_2012Former regulars queued up to pay tribute to the John Bull pub on the 20th anniversary of its closure, including the editor of YorkMix. While no one denies that the pub has a special place in the memories of many, there is more to the story than has ever been made public – until now. Here Matthew Laverack reveals facts that shed new light on a divisive episode in York’s recent history – facts that his late friend Peter Turnbull chose not to make public in his defence, even when the campaign to keep the pub open became heated and personal

Fans of the John Bull have been marking the 20th anniversary of the Layerthorpe pub’s closure with memories of its great atmosphere, beer and food. These came with the usual malevolent swipe at the owner who demolished the premises to expand his car dealership.

Peter Turnbull is no longer here to defend himself so I have taken it upon myself to protect the reputation of a decent and honorable man.

The John Bull Action Group, abetted by the local daily newspaper, and with the support of the MP, Lord Mayor and others from the city council, did its best to portray the situation in a manner intended to garner sympathy for a campaign to keep the pub going in perpetuity.

In this they were rather economical with the truth.

But now for the first time the full story can be told and all the facts revealed.

It is a sad story of betrayal and dishonour – but not by Peter Turnbull. He was portrayed as the villain but in truth he was the hero.

Without his generosity the pub would never have had those “golden years”.

His reward for all this was to be vilified, to have his reputation besmirched and his business attacked.

Behind the scenes

These are some of the pictures Matthew took showing the state of the pub after it closed. Click on a picture for a larger view

A potted history

The John Bull was purchased as an empty pub in 1978 long after it had been closed down by the brewery.

No one was interested in it at the time and no one objected to plans for Turnbulls to expand onto the site.

The council granted planning permission on October 23, 1980 for motor accessories and parts storage with retails sales on the ground floor and residential use above.

This was an interim measure pending longer term proposals to eventually clear the site for parking when new showrooms were erected.

The building was then used for storage of car parts but it was much bigger than needed for this purpose.

An approach was made to Mr Turnbull to lease the pub temporarily until the site was required for dealership parking.

Mr Turnbull did not actively seek a tenant and was not particularly keen on the idea. However, the interested party pleaded with Mr Turnbull to allow the pub to reopen for a limited period.

Solemn promises were made that an agreed rent would be paid, that the building would be looked after and be vacated and handed back in good order at the end of a fixed term.

So, on the strict understanding that this was a short term measure the pub reopened in 1982 on a fixed term tenancy contract.

Layerthorpe in 1979 with the John Bull pub. Photograph: York Libraries And Archives
Layerthorpe in 1979 with the John Bull pub. Photograph: York Libraries And Archives

After some years when the building was still not required for expansion an extended contract was agreed; again with the same stipulation that it was a temporary arrangement.

In 1988 Mr Turnbull sold his car business to the Dixon Motor Group. He bought it back again in 1990. The contractual terms of the occupation of the John Bull remained unchanged throughout this period.

The pub was on a fixed term lease and it was fully understood by all parties that a time would eventually come when it would be needed for expansion; the very purpose for which it was bought in 1978 when Mr Turnbull had the foresight to purchase a shut down pub that no one else wanted.

The problems begin

Things began to go wrong when the leaseholder of the pub failed to honour his word or the contract he had signed.

It can now be revealed that despite an apparently busy pub with good takings the rent was not being paid.

Arrears were months overdue and thousands of pounds were owed.

This convinced Mr Turnbull that the time had come for him to implement his long term proposals.

He duly advised the defaulting tenant that there would be no renewal of the lease which expired on October 31, 1993.

Had the tenant immediately settled the arrears with a commitment to honour the agreed contract in future it is possible that the John Bull could have stayed open longer.

Unfortunately, the response from the tenant and his supporters was not one which had any chance of persuading the building’s owner to change his mind.

A most unpleasant campaign against Peter Turnbull began and the rent remained unpaid.

An extract from a card Matthew sent out at the time putting forward the other side of the story
An extract from a Christmas card Matthew sent out at the time putting forward the other side of the story

On October 31, 1993, £7,725 was owed. Not a negligible sum today but far more significant 20 years ago.

Peter Turnbull, being the gentleman he was, declined to use this information against the campaigners.

Certain members of the campaign group showed no such scruples.

They resorted to underhand tactics to try to impose their will – that they should be allowed to go on boozing in their favourite watering hole no matter what promises had been made or contracts entered into.

Information published by the John Bull Action Group conveniently ignored the full facts, made no mention of the original agreements, the breaches of contract or the breaking of trust.

In my opinion, it is disgraceful that in pursuit of its campaign the Action Group demonised Peter Turnbull to make him appear an uncaring businessman out to evict poor innocent people and to destroy heritage assets.

All untrue and a gross distortion of the real position. It was the leaseholder – also a businessman – who was behaving unfairly.

Abuse and libel

As much as five years earlier action had been taken behind Peter Turnbull’s back to try to scupper his redevelopment proposals.

The city council had been solicited to have the pub declared a listed building but in December 1988 the Department of Environment rejected a council request because the building did not meet the criteria.

In any event listing would not have secured the pub tenancy – or even the use of the building as a pub. It would have only protected the building’s fabric.

The campaigners again pushed for listed status and the council again went along with it. The second request was rejected, quite rightly, on October 8, 1993.

A telephone advertising campaign by the car dealership was sabotaged by supporters of the pub and this was reported in the local newspaper.

References were made to Mr Turnbull “owning the land on which the pub stands” – a phrase clearly intended to suggest that the pub itself was not owned by Mr Turnbull and that he was destroying something not rightfully his.

Worse came when the newspaper referred to Mr Turnbull as “a rogue”. For this libel they were obliged to print an apology, pay legal costs and make a substantial payment to charity.

But it didn’t stop there. Foul and abusive phone calls were made to Peter Turnbull at work by drunken louts who identified themselves merely as “the lads from the John Bull”. Obviously too cowardly to give their real names.

As someone who had publicly supported Peter, I got the same treatment.

People would come onto the garage forecourt and verbally abuse anyone thought to be associated with the intended pub closure.

One active member of the John Bull Action Group sent me copies of correspondence delivered to third parties raising issues of my integrity and asking if I had breached any aspect of the Architects Code of Conduct. This was clearly intended to intimidate me.

The message was “Back off or we will make life difficult for you”. It had the opposite effect.

I was more determined than ever to support a man who was being unjustly denigrated on a daily basis.

The final insults

Turnbulls garage in 1979 with the John Bull on the left. Photograph: York Libraries & Archives
Turnbulls garage in 1979 with the John Bull on the left. Photograph: York Libraries & Archives

Peter Turnbull was forced to take expensive court action to get back premises which had been promised (and contracted) would be returned to him.

But even then he was treated despicably.

After the last night of trading the tenant stripped out valuable pub fittings and auctioned them off.

He used the local newspaper as a free advert for his sale, stating “the building is to demolished anyway so I am taking these things”.

In fact he had no right to do this. These were the property of Peter Turnbull and were to have been salvaged as part of the demolition contract to off-set clearance costs.

Rather than calling in the police Mr Turnbull suffered the loss in silence. That was typical of the man. Gentle, mild mannered, softly spoken, non-aggressive.

And the final irony is that when the pub was handed back it was found to be filthy and disgusting. Record photographs were taken.

It did not get like that overnight. It had obviously been in that trashed state for a considerable time. It was like an abandoned squat.

The cooker on which the much applauded bar food had been prepared was caked in grease and grime.

The cellar was flooded with sewage from a broken drain. Beer pipes which only days earlier had been taking ale up to customers were draped in contaminated black water.

So YorkMix readers, when folk speak to you all misty-eyed about the long gone wonderful pub with wonderful people and they hiss at the name of the man who demolished it, you can now put them straight on the facts.

The John Bull had a good 12 years’ extra life thanks to the generosity and goodwill of Peter Turnbull.

He was a decent and honest man whose only mistake was to believe that those with whom he entered into legally binding agreements would actually keep their word.