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The Grill: Iconic Aberdeen pub celebrates its milestone 150th birthday

A moment in time for The Grill's history - when a protest broke out over its ban on women customers in 1973.

In its 150-year history, no-one has been allowed to sing in Aberdeen’s most iconic pub, The Grill. Except once.

“It was the night Aberdeen won the cup in Gothenburg,” said Agnes Flett, who has worked at the Union Street bar for 40 years.

“We were strict at that time and you weren’t allowed to sing in The Grill, but this was such a happy bar that night… so they were allowed to sing. And how they sang.”

Becoming party central on the night of glory in Gothenburg is just one of many memorable moments The Grill has seen since it opened its doors at 213 Union Street as a restaurant and dining room in 1870.

An early photo of The Grill at 213 Union Street.

The stunning mahogany veneer panelled interior has been home to a range of Aberdeen characters and worthies, seen stars of stage and screen come through its doors – and even found itself at the heart of a national storm over sex discrimination because of its infamous “no ladies, please” policy.

Wealth of tales

Now the owners of The Grill are asking people to share their memories and stories of The Grill to help it celebrate its 150th anniversary… and Agnes has a wealth of tales to get the ball rolling.

“I had worked at the Wimpy but when it closed down I went to The Grill, I had never worked in a pub before and I always thought The Grill was a restaurant. I never knew it was a bar,” said Agnes, who is still a member of staff at the tender age of 82. “I’m the oldest barmaid in Aberdeen,” she joked.

The Grill has been a refuge and a place to relax since the turn of the century, but it was 1973 before women customers demanded to be served at the men-only establishment.

When she started, Agnes was impressed by the broad range of customers drawn to The Grill, from workmen to lawyers, shop staff to office workers. One group in particular called it their local watering hole.

“We had the famous posties,” said Agnes. “I remember the first week I started I was told at three o’clock on a Thursday, the doors would open and all the posties would come jamming in, through both doors and it would be so crowded. So I hid in the toilet.

“They were very good customers, this was when the Post Office was just on the corner and at three o’clock they were allowed out for their break. You had the posties in one corner and the other workers in the other.”

Many real characters

The Grill had its fair share of regulars, many of them real characters.

“We had people like ‘Cheesy Bill’ who worked for Fine Fare and sold cheese. And we had ‘Sweetie Willie’.  We also had a boy who used to come in dressed as Elvis Presley. They were just real characters, who used to stand and chat.

Joe Smart pours a ‘nip’ of Glenavon whisky in 1977.

“And Joe Smart, the barman, he was a character, too. If you wanted a story, you would come in to see Joe. He worked on the buses and tramcars and always tell the people the stories that used to happen.

“You got to know the customers… and now I know their grandsons.”

It wasn’t just ordinary folk who enjoyed a pint and a natter at the bar. With the Music Hall just across the road and His Majesty’s Theatre a short walk away, some famous faces have been through the doors of The Grill, too. Agnes remembers some of them well.

Stephen Tompkinson pictured when he was in Aberdeen in 2003.

“One gentleman came in one day and I said: ‘I seem to know your face’, and he said: ‘Do you really?’. It was Stephen Tompkinson and I was fan of his from Ballykissangel. So I got a signed photograph with him. He was in Aberdeen doing a play, but he used to come in to The Grill and we became very friendly. He was a very nice lad.”

Viking invasion

Another familiar face for Agnes was Scots actor Davie Sneddon, of Take The High Road Fame, who popped in while appearing at His Majesty’s.

“He came in every day for the week he was on for a pie. He was so natural and friendly. Such a down-to-earth man. He would just blether away and people would stand and chat with him.”

Members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra were also regulars in The Grill, making it their haunt after concerts at the Music Hall.

The famed gantry of The Grill and its ever-growing whisky selection.

And once there was even a Viking invasion.

“It was when the Tall Ships were here and all these Vikings came in. They were so friendly.”

It can seem as if time has stood still in The Grill, but Agnes has seen some changes, including its ever-growing whisky selection, for which it is now famed, lining its ornately carved gantry.

“When I started they just had two or three malt whiskies, but it grew over the years,” she said. “But would you pay £325 for a nip? Well, we had a bottle of Macallan that was £325 a nip and I sold the first one. I was given a bottle of malt I liked because I managed to sell the first one. And we sold it all.”

Her treasured memories also revolve around the people she worked with and for – including the renowned owner of The Grill, Eddie Watson, then his son Graham.

The Grill staff in 1991, including owner Eddie Watson, middle, and barmaid Agnes Flett, far right.

“Mr Watson was a very good boss. It was strict, but happy, I didn’t get off to get married. I had to work the day. You had to choose between your private life and your job. But I’ve always loved The Grill, good bosses, good atmosphere and good staff.

“But it was such a happy bar with a great atmosphere. When I started, I was told to serve customers the way I’d like to get served. It was very much a man’s pub at the start, but ladies were allowed in.”

Agnes started working at The Grill after it hit the headlines in 1973 with the infamous protest over its ban on women  but she was there when the ladies’ toilets were eventually installed… in 1998.

National cause celebre

“Before that you would maybe see a lassie sneaking into the toilet and folk would yell at them. Then when they came out they would see it was a bloke with long hair.”

The storm over refusing to admit women became a national cause celebre in 1973, said local historian Dr Fiona-Jane Brown.

Women hold up a No Ladies sign in a protest outside The Grill bar on Union Street.

“Eddie Watson had only been landlord for a year and across the road, the STUC annual conference was taking place in the Music Hall and had been debating the pending Sex Discrimination Act. George Robertson, who we know later from Tony Blair’s government, was a union secretary at the time and basically said: ‘There’s a pub across the road I was in at lunchtime that has a sign up banning women… let’s go there and I’ll happily buy any of the female delegates a pint’.

“So they piled in to the pub, all these women, and Eddie Watson, basically had a fit.”

The Grill, with its striking exterior, is a landmark on Union Street.

The protest, which saw police called to escort the ladies off the premises, made headlines across the country and Fiona-Jane said it helped raise awareness and support for the Sex Discrimination Act, which became law two years later.

“The protest made The Grill fair game… it became a bit of a local sport among working women to go in and order a drink and use the men’s toilet. But it was good-natured. Eddie was very much a Tory, a member of the local Conservative Association, and had been used to having a banter with the local trade union guys.”

Police arrive on the scene and ask the women to leave The Grill Bar on Union Street.

The incident still fascinates today.

So much so, that Fiona-Jane masterminded a successful short film about The Grill’s brush with infamy. No Ladies, Please, filmed with local actors.

But controversy apart, The Grill has been very much at the heart of Aberdeen life during its 150 years Fiona-Jane said – even if 213 Union Street has a longer history as a hospitality venue.

No ladies please

“In 1853 it opened as Wood’s Piano Saloon,” she said. As The Grill, it put itself on the cutting edge of the city’s leisure life, advertising its new-fangled electric lights and billiard tables.

“The Grill, as a pub, is really from 1926,” said Fiona-Jane. “John Innes took over as landlord and had the whole front of the building remodelled… and he was the one who put up the sign ‘no ladies, please’.

Customers at The Grill raised a remarkable £865 after a mass bottle-smashing ceremony in 1989.

“It still has that lovely dark wood and curved booths. The tables are wrought iron stands and were made especially for the bar, it says The Grill on them. It’s the sort of thing you see in a stately home, plus this long bar with its cabinet of whiskies, which it is still famous for.

“It was an auld mannies pub and was part of that tradition of working men’s pubs – although being further up Union Street it attracted lawyers’ clerks and office workers, so had a bit of a higher profile than some of the harbour pubs.”

The Grill’s sense of tradition continues to this day – it still has no TV or music. It’s a history which the McGinty’s Group, who took over The Grill last year, wants to celebrate in its 150th anniversary year.

Many of the plans to celebrate The Grill’s milestone year, have sadly been halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

A special charm

But the firm will be releasing celebratory merchandise this month as well as The Grill’s own anniversary whisky, in a limited edition of 65 bottles, as well as putting staff stories and memories online.  The McGinty’s Group has also launched a social media call out, asking people to share their memories and old photos of The Grill. You can find out more on their Facebook page here.

The Grill as it is today with the coronavirus measures in place.

Jillian Miller, the Aberdeen group’s sales and marketing director, said: “The Grill is an iconic Aberdeen bar. One of the main things for me is the interior. There isn’t a bar that looks like that anymore in the city and is in such good condition. I think it’s special to people because there’s nowhere like it.  The whisky collection is something that makes The Grill stand out, too. We have 500 to 600 bottles and are continually adding.

“But it just has such a special atmosphere. There has never been music in The Grill, it’s just about people being there and chatting. Obviously, we don’t have that at the moment, but it is still well loved and people will come back to it once the coronavirus is all over. It has a special charm.”

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