'Having a beano': Highgate ghost sign evokes works outings to the Heath
- Credit: Andrew Whitehead
"We're having a beano!" The phrase harks back to a lost era of bottles of pop, iced buns and innocent fun.
The word "beano" would have all but disappeared from the language but for the persistence of the Beano comic, first published in 1938 (its main rival for many years had a title almost as dated, the Dandy) and still going.
The word derives from "beanfeast", a works outing organised and paid for by the employer - a workers' treat and a term which bore just a hint of high jinks, food to excess and plenty of booze too. Sometimes these beanfeasts were formal dinners, but more often they were excursions to a country pub, a picnic venue or a beauty spot.
An evocative reminder of these outings is still visible on a wonderful ghost sign overlooking a busy entrance to Hampstead Heath. It's on the back of a cafe - then as now - off Highgate West Hill, just by the junction with Swains Lane.
"Catering for Beanfeasts, Parties, Clubs" reads this marvellous sign with a commanding view over the Heath, still clearly legible though it could well date from fully a century ago.
1 Highgate West Hill was, before the First World War, the site of the refreshment rooms of Capital and Counties Cafes.
The employer could arrange in advance for his charabanc outing - charabanc is a word of similar vintage, an open-topped horse-drawn or motorised coach used for excursions - to stop off at the cafe, pick up the food and drink and then head on to the Heath to consume it.
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North London is rich in ghost signs, which often reflect businesses that closed down many decades ago.
This sign is unusual in throwing a light on a social institution which flourished in the era of small family-run paternalist minded family firms but has long since faded away.
The poet John Betjeman, who was brought up on Highgate West Hill, immortalised these outings in verse, recalling "beanfeasts with my father's firm". His family business, an upper-crust furniture business in Pentonville Road, was famous for inventing the tantalus, a portable and lockable miniature wooden cabinet designed to hold decanters of spirits or sherry. The outing that Betjeman recalled was not to the Heath, however, but to "Epping Forest glades".
"Beanfeast" had become abbreviated to "beano" by the Edwardian era, as reflected in that old music hall song: "We don't have a beano every day."
And if the word beanfeast continued in use, it came to mean any meal or outing with a touch of excess, as in the glutinous adventures of the Owl of the Remove at the fictional Greyfriars School in Billy Bunter's Beanfeast.
The workers in Robert Tressell's masterly novel of exploitation and immiseration, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, looked forward eagerly to their annual beanfeast. He describes a meeting of workers offering unanimous support to the motion: "That this meeting is in favour of a Beano."
Printers had their own similar tradition called the "wayzgoose", a term suggesting that these highly skilled artisans expected their boss to include a roast goose as part of the revelry.
The office Christmas party (remember them?) could be said to continue something of the beanfeast tradition, though that's hardly commemorated in ghost signs.
The same building on Highgate West Hill bears another sign summoning up an earlier era: "First Class Tea Rooms Upstairs."
It's now a Mediterranean-style bistro and it has on its walls - check it out once the lockdown eases - an old sepia photo of the cafe, with a tram passing by along Highgate Road, from the time when excursion groups would pop in to pick up supplies for their beanfeast.