Within a stretch of a mile, across the boundaries of Whitehall and Easton, are three iconic pubs – The Plough, The Chelsea and The Lion. The latter two are run by Lemmy, who sits across from me in the Chelsea pub garden, as we shelter from the gale force winds raging outside. And that’s not the only storm he’s battling with.
Last week, the three Easton institutions announced they would no longer be stocking Thatchers cider, as its owner Martin Thatcher is a member of the Society of the Merchant Venturers (SMV). The continued existence of a society whose origins can be traced to slavery, have long been a source of contention in Bristol’s reckoning with its historic involvement in the slave trade.
The move came after a post was shared by campaign group Countering Colston (CC) urging “Don’t buy Thatchers! People who don’t care about slavery.” But campaign group Glad Colston’s Gone, the umbrella coalition group which Countering Colston is a part of, said they haven’t launched a formal boycott campaign but simply want to highlight the links between Thatchers and the SMV.
“It’s important Bristolians are aware of the wealthy business people who’ve been invited to join this secretive club, which was built on profits from slavery and associated trade, because of the power and influence they continue to wield today.”
But the reaction has been fierce. The post announcing the pubs’ boycott last week has since received some hundreds of comments – some supportive, others deeply critical. The story made frontpage news in Bristol and was even picked up by the Daily Mail. What started as a local story has since become embroiled in the national so-called ‘culture wars’.
“We never wanted this to be a news story,” Lemmy tells me. “But now the cat’s out the bag, we won’t be bullied into backing down.”
‘This is about the Merchant Venturers, not us’
“The bottom line is, this is about the Merchant Venturers, not Thatchers,” says Lemmy. “Our loyal customers don’t care that we’ve stopped selling it – they know what we’re about.”
Lemmy moved to Bristol 20 years ago, setting up The Chelsea in 2006 and The Lion in 2011. “The pub was always set out as a community space, we’ve always been ethical and political,” he tells me. The Chelsea has always been a platform for musicians and artists, he adds, and a support network for community and activist groups.
And Thatchers isn’t the first drink to be barred by the pub – Coca Cola and Heinken have never been served, Tyskie was discontinued when its parent company Kompania Piwowarska became involved in anti-LGBTQ activity.
“So comments that we are doing this for attention are just completely wrong,” he says. An example comment is: “You are boycotting Thatchers because Martin Thatcher is a member of a charitable organisation that 300 YEARS AGO was involved in the slave trade … [it’s a] pathetic publicity stunt.”
But the problem, Lemmy insists, is that the SMV are not confined to the past. “I’d known of the Merchant Venturers ever since I moved here.”
“They’re the cartel! They shouldn’t be managing public money!” another adds a bartender from The Lion, who doesn’t want to be named. Staff from the Chelsea and the Lion join our table, who mainly came to know of the SMV due to the now toppled Colston statue. “I know they blocked the wording of the plaque, I know they didn’t want schools with Colston in the name to change,” one says. “It isn’t right that a secretive, unelected elite have so much influence in our city!” another says.
Their criticism of the Merchant Venturers joins calls from across the city – Labour MPs Thangam Debbonaire and Karin Smyth have both called for the society to disband. After the recent acquittal of the Colston 4, Green Councillors Cleo Lake and Christine Townsend vowed to hold the SMV to account for their interference in local democracy.
As Colston Road, just a few metres from The Chelsea, this week became the Colston Four Road, there is a sense that the tide is turning in the city. “Stop talking about us, start talking about the Merchant Venturers!” Lemmy urges.
‘The debate is toxic’
The discontinuation of Thatchers was never meant to cause the furore it has, Lemmy tells me. It is hardly the most popular drink, and there are plenty of other locally sourced alternatives for cider drinkers. “This is not some kind of call to action for everyone to boycott Thatchers! We’re just trying to be more conscious in our decisions of what we buy.”
Not only are Lemmy and the staff reluctant of such media attention, it’s the way the discussion has been played out that they feel particularly dismayed about. “We never wanted to divide people, or make this a partisan issue. All we were doing is letting our customers know why they won’t be able to order Thatchers anymore – and it’s being totally weaponised.”
“Bad media is to blame,” a bartender from The Chelsea adds. “The front page of the Bristol Post ran with the headline ‘Who sider you on?’ – it’s incitement.”
An article in the Daily Mail, ran with the inflammatory headline, “Now Bristol’s woke warriors cancel CIDER.” Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage blasted the move on GB News channel, making a deliberate point of drinking Thatchers on live television.
One comment by JohnJones14 on Bristol Live’ website read:, “A tiny number of right-on pubs pitching at the woke brigade have decided to up their street-cred among fellow snowflakes and soap-dodgers by announcing their alignment with the neo-Marxist agenda of BLM and its affiliates to destroy our history, our heritage and our identity so they can re-make our society in a revolutionary socialist image.”
Popular culture war terms such as “woke,” “commies,” “snowflakes” are now being hurled at Lemmy and his staff. “These words are ridiculous, they just used to undermine people who are just trying to make better choices!”
“Perhaps they should call you Lemmy of the Woke Arms!” the staff joke. At least however, the battle rages online and not in the confines in the pub.
But the pub landlord is resolved to stand firm, “I think the furore is telling, we’ve touched a nerve. To be honest it strengthened my resolve. It’s simultaneously terrifying and empowering.”