THE new ban on smoking in public places claimed its first victim with the closure of Southend's best known real ale pub, the Cork and Cheese.

The pub's owners decided to close its doors on Saturday, the day before the laws came into force, believing trade would inevitably drop.

From Sunday smoking in enclosed public places became illegal. Landlord John Murray said the smoking ban had been the final nail in the coffin, after redevelopment work in Victoria Plaza caused its trade to fall by about a quarter.

He said the pub's position inside the plaza also meant it was impossible to provide an outside area for smokers.

Mr Murray said: "It's very sad to be leaving. We were the last traditional-style pub left in Southend. There was much sadness, much gaiety and much boozing on Saturday."

Mr Murray said he was touched by the number of people who showed up to pay their last respects to the pub on its final day.

He said people were also scrambling to get a souvenir of the pub, originally called the Joint and Jar, as they sold off its fixtures and fittings yesterday. He said: "Friday and Saturday was mind-blowing. They were the busiest days we've had in years."

Mr Murray has been running the pub for the past 16 years and believes the smoking ban is just "political correctness gone mad".

He said he will never understand why there could not be smoking and non-smoking pubs, or even smoking and non-smoking rooms within a pub.

He added: "It's a very sad day, but they call it progress. People's social lives are being taken away from them in the name of political correctness."

Mr Murray said he was unsure what he would do now, but was considering his options and would most likely return with another pub.

"I've been in catering for the past 42 years. It's hard to know what else to do."

Business as usual

IT WAS business as usual in pubs in south Essex yesterday, despite fears of a slump in trade following the introduction of the ban on smoking in England.

Owners and managers of pubs, clubs and cafes are legally bound to enforce the ban and face fines of up to 2,500 if they fail to do so.

Anyone caught smoking illegally will be given a fixed penalty notice of 50, reduced to 30 if paid in 15 days, or fined up to 200 if they are prosecuted and convicted by a court.

Pauline Yates-Leavens, the publican of the Long Riding, in Long Riding, Basildon, said there had been no drop in trade.

She said her patrons had been well behaved and had accepted the new laws.

She said: "All the people here are regulars and they all understand and accept the changes.

"They're taking it in good humour and are all going outside to smoke even though the weather is terrible."

Lynn Mylan, the publican of the Jolly Friar, on Whitmore Way, Basildon, said no one had dared to light up and everyone was well behaved.

She said: "There has been no drop in business. It's just a usual Sunday.

"It's just strange not seeing the ash trays around."

Curt Allford, of the Slug and Lettuce, Southchurch Road, Southend, said the pub had already banned smoking inside its premises about two months ago.

He said the pub, formerly known as the Hog's Head, now offered a large back garden area for smokers instead.

He added: "The ban coming in hasn't worried us because we had already gone smoke-free inside." However, Mr Allford said he felt the ban had attracted a different client base to the pub.

Newly-appointed Health Secretary Alan Johnson hailed the ban as a big step towards a healthier population.

Virtually all enclosed public places are now smokefree; these include offices, warehouses, factories, pubs, cafes, railway stations, working vehicles and leisure centres.

Mr Johnson said: "Labour has taken action to protect people from smoke in their workplace, pub or cafe.

"Only by tackling the causes of illnesses will we be able to improve health inequalities and save lives. A smokefree country will improve the health of thousands of people, reduce the temptation to smoke and encourage smokers to quit."

Last fag at the Chequers

A PUB welcomed more than 100 customers at a "last fag at the Chequers" party just hours before the smoking ban came into force.

The Chequers, in Billericay High Street, even sold memento ash trays with the inscripition "I smoked my last fag at the Chequers".

Landlady, Cath Thwaites, said: "We sold all the tickets well before the night.

"This is, or was, a smokers' pub and the ban may spoil the atmosphere for a short time, but I think everybody will get used to it.

"Only a tiny minority are fiercely opposed to the ban."