Pubs in English Life
The Rovers Return, the Queen Vic, the Bull and the Woolpack are amongst the most famous English pubs, but you can’t have a drink in any of them. That’s because they exist only in soap-opera fiction. However, they illustrate how the pub is at the heart of the community, in villages, towns and cities, all over England.
The pub is more than just a shop where drinks are sold and consumed. For centuries it has been a place where friends meet, colleagues ‘talk shop’ and business people negotiate deals; a place where people gather to celebrate, play games, or to seek quiet relaxation.
Due to changes in the law, the pub is now a place for families. It is re-establishing itself as the place to eat, a tradition that had all but disappeared after the last war. Many provide affordable accommodation, particularly in rural areas. In remote communities pubs often serve a dual role, such as church or post office.
So how has the pub evolved its unique role in English life?
Today we talk about the ‘pub’ but this is a term invented by the Victorians, an abbreviation of ‘public house’. It was the Romans who gave England its first ‘pubs’ almost two thousand years ago. In Roman towns tabernae served food and wine (and probably the local ale too), they displayed vine leaves outside to advertise their trade. When the Romans left, the tabernae disappeared.
Over the next few centuries invaders came and went, and occasionally settled. One thing all the invaders had in common was their fondness for drinking. They had a particular thirst for ale, which was brewed using malted barley, water and yeast. It was sweet and often very powerful. Skill was needed to produce good ales, but they soured easily and did not keep well.
As with all skills, some people were better at brewing than others. Those who made good ale sold it within their village, and beyond. The ale was sometimes consumed at the brewer’s house and thus, the informal alehouse was born. However this arrangement was likely to be part-time or when the brewer had enough money to brew. We know that as early as the seventh century the number of ale-sellers was restricted by Ethelbert, the King of Kent, so perhaps the population was becoming a little too skilful at brewing.
Three centuries later, another King of Kent, Edgar, regulated the size of drinking vessels, which suggests that ale was served and drunk at a particular location. Incidentally this drinking vessel was shared and each measure was marked by a peg, requiring the drinker to drink down to the peg and then pass the vessel on. However the drinker often drank beyond the measure…taking the next drinker ‘down a peg or two’ an expression which is still used today.
The spread of Christianity did nothing to lessen the English thirst for ale and many Pagan rituals which involved drinking, were adopted by the Christian church. Ales were sometimes brewed especially for church festivals or to raise funds, these were known as ‘scot ales’, and those who brewed secretly to avoid giving the church its share were drinking ‘scot free’.
The Middle Ages saw increased population and the spread of industries which began to pollute the water supply. As a result of this pollution ale become the only safe drink. Because of the increase in demand, alehouses began to take on a permanent role.
Room at the Inn
Expansion in trade, particularly in wool, saw a marked increase in the traffic of goods and people on the treacherous roads. This traffic was further increased after the horrific murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket on 29th December 1170, in Canterbury Cathedral. Christians from all over Britain and even overseas made the pilgrimage to his shrine. Soon the faithful would be making pilgrimages to other shrines all over England. This put a tremendous strain on the resources of the monasteries, which had provided sustenance and accommodation for these travellers. A new type of establishment was needed, the inn.
The earliest inns were run by monks who offered travellers shelter and food, as well as drink. Many of these old inns are still in business today and continue to offer hospitality to travellers, although the monks have long gone. Probably the most famous of all the inns was the Tabard, in Southwark, London. It was here in 1388 that Chaucer begins his Canterbury Tales.
‘In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start For Canterbury……’
Chaucer’s journey takes place more than two hundred years after Becket’s death. The pilgrimages continued for another two centuries after that, ensuring the inn was a permanent feature of English life.
(The Tabard was demolished in 1874 See the George Inn).
There was another association between the Church and the inn. Medieval masons and craftsmen involved in church construction were often housed in church owned inns, or in properties which were later converted into an inn or alehouse when the church was completed. Many of these still exist today and have names linked to the church.
Enter the Tavern
During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) England began to assert herself in the world through trade and exploration, as well as military might. Population growth and a changing economy saw the expansion and creation of towns. There was now a permanent urban population. The professional classes, such as lawyers, bankers, writers and civil servants, prospered most from urban society.
The tavern grew up in the towns and sold only wine. The essential difference between the tavern and the alehouse, was that the tavern was a place for leisure and pleasure, whereas the alehouse was a place of necessity. In the alehouse, the poor sheltered, spending the little money they had, to sustain themselves and find relief from their plight. The taverns on the other hand, were where the professional classes ate, drank and relaxed. The tavern offered comfort and served superior food.
The image of the cosy tavern; with a large open fire; its customers gathered round in lively conversation; smoking pipes and quaffing ale and wines, hangs in many a modern pub. This is a romantic, eighteenth century image when the tavern thrived. Although the clientele may have been wealthier than those who frequented the alehouse, their behaviour was not always gentlemanly. There was much drunkenness, but drunkenness was not disapproved of as it is today. The taverns also attracted confidence-tricksters and prostitutes, who preyed on the inebriated and unsuspecting.
Taverns became the fashionable place to be seen, similar to the exclusive wine bars of today. The City of London was famous for its taverns. Ben Jonson, Samuel Pepys and Dr. Samuel Johnson (pictured) were pillars of tavern society, many London pubs claim one, or all of them, as past patrons. Some have named bars in their honour. (See Anchor & Cheshire Cheese).
It was Boswell’s famous quote of Samuel Johnson that appears in many a pub;
‘….No, Sir; there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.’
But by the end of the eighteenth century, competition and changes in social structure, saw the decline of the tavern. Alehouses began to mimic them; they lost their monopoly on selling wines; the ‘gin palaces’ drew away some of their custom and drunkenness was no longer acceptable to the middle classes. The upper classes left the taverns in favour of gentlemen’s clubs.
The Alehouse, Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration
The English Civil War, which began in 1642, was not an uprising of the people, nor a class struggle. Only three percent of men were involved in the fighting and many families were split in their allegiance. It was essentially a power struggle between Parliament and the King.
The unrest saw the rise of the Puritans. Part of their strict code was against the evils and excesses of drink. They had a lot to complain about. To them, and many observers at the time, it seemed that much of the English population was permanently drunk, and alehouses too numerous to count.
Alehouses, taverns and inns were taxed to pay for the war. They were also used by both sides, Roundheads (Parliamentarians) and Cavaliers (Royalists), to billet their troops. As the progress of the war swung in favour of one side and then the other, an alehouse would change its name from say, the King’s Head to the Nag’s Head and back again.
Pub names often reflect historic events. In Uxbridge, an inn was used as a venue for unsuccessful peace talks in 1645, and was renamed the Crown & Treaty. The Royal Oak, refers to the story of Charles II avoiding capture, following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, by hiding in the hollow trunk of an oak tree.
Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead army was victorious. King Charles I was executed on 30th January 1649, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. At the Red Lion in St. James’s this event is commemorated by customers who dress up as Cavaliers and lament the killing of the King.
With Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, there was religious and intellectual tolerance, but repression of peoples everyday enjoyment. Games, sport, dancing and singing (except in church) were banned. Many alehouses and taverns had their licenses withdrawn or refused, and illegal drinking outlets were closed. One positive consequence was an improvement of standards.
Three new drinks were about to change the habits of a nation. Coffee was introduced in 1650, chocolate in 1657 and tea in 1660. The first coffee house opened in London in 1652 on the site of what is now the Jamaica Wine House, Cornhill. It is claimed that newspapers began in the coffee houses, they were centres of gossip, some of which was written down and circulated.
When Oliver Cromwell died, his son Richard, took over but his regime soon collapsed. Parliament decided to restore the monarchy, albeit with much reduced power. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and with the new monarch came optimism and extravagance. Charles took a keen interest in the sciences and encouraged their development. Another interest was his string of mistresses, the most famous of whom was Nell Gwynne. Many pubs claim to have entertained the lovers including The Dove, Hammersmith.
Soon after the accession, London was to suffer two calamities. In 1664-5 the Great Plague killed thousands of Londoners. This was followed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London, which all but destroyed the entire City. The medieval and Tudor buildings were made of wood and the fire burned out of control. A law was passed so that all future London buildings were to be made of brick or stone.
Of course a great many inns, taverns and alehouses perished in the fire too. One house at the edge of the fire survived and later became a pub called the Hoop & Grapes. The cellar of the Olde Cheshire Cheese survived and Samuel Pepys witnessed the fire from the Anchor.
The Great Fire did rid the City of the plague. Plans to rebuild London in the Italianate style, with wide streets and piazzas, were abandoned. However several of London’s finest buildings date from that time, many the work of Sir Christopher Wren. St. Brides Church was one of them and the mason’s house is now the Olde Bell pub.
Coaching Inns – Romance & Heartbreak
The coaching era is imbedded in English history as a time of romance and legend, a Golden Age. To this day, prints hanging on pub walls depict idyllic scenes; a coach and horses outside a rustic inn, its passengers greeted with ale and wine by a rotund, red-cheeked landlord; or a speeding coach, its team of horses wild-eyed, nostrils flared, gallop along a country track, the coach driver leaning into the wind. Pubs, even new ones, are adorned with relics of the time; postal horns, horse brasses, copper pots, bed pans, lanterns and whips.
The coach as a mode of transport had been around for centuries, but was the preserve of the wealthy, much like motor cars at the beginning of the 20th century. Other wheeled transport on the roads would have been agricultural wagons or carts moving merchandise.
The growth of coaching and its inns gathered pace at the start of the industrial revolution. The movement of goods and people was essential to trade and commerce. At the same time improvements to roads was crucial. Most routes, even between major towns, were little more than dirt tracks; rutted, pot holed, liable to flood or collapse. The Turnpike Act of 1663 transferred responsibility for roads from parish councils to Turnpike Trusts. Tolls were charged to fund improvements. The scale of the task meant progress was slow and the road network, if it could be called that, took centuries rather than decades to achieve.
In 1657 the first proper coaching route from London to Chester began, but it took another hundred years before most cities and major towns were on a coaching route. The boom in coaching was not seen until the early nineteenth century. Brighton had a skeleton service in 1757; by 1840 it was served by more than forty coaches per day.
Although the speed and range of coaches increased, there were frequent stops to rest, feed and water the horses, as well as refresh the coachmen and passengers. The coaching inn fulfilled this need. An entire industry grew and the coaching inn was at the centre of it.
Romance aside, coach travel was far from comfortable and despite improvements to roads and carriage suspension, the whole experience was often an unpleasant one. Breakdowns and crashes were not uncommon. The coachmen, and passengers who rode on top of the coach at a reduced fare, were occasionally thrown off with fatal consequences or died from exposure in cold weather. They were prey to robbers too, the highwaymen, romanticised in folklore, were desperate and murderous.
Despite their failings, coaches became the safest and most reliable way to travel long distances within the country. For most of its history, coach travel was expensive and the preserve of the middle and upper classes. It was not until the early 19th century that coach travel became more affordable. The introduction of a regulated mail service in the late eighteenth century set new standards for punctuality and reliability. The postal service became legendary and the postman, in his scarlet Post Office livery, and armed with his all too essential musket and pistols, became the legend’s hero. So reliable was the service that it passed into folklore that villages would set their clocks by the sound of the postman’s horn. The coaching inn however, was much less reliable.
A team of horses had a limited range of around twenty miles, depending on the terrain. So existing inns at these distances became coaching inns and were either converted, extended or built anew. As speed became more important the distances between the staging posts were shortened, subsequently more staging points were needed. Horses were changed, instead of rested, so extra stabling had to be provided.
Coaching inns came in many guises and location was everything. Those on minor routes on remote country roads barely survived, others on busy established routes thrived. For some old Tudor inns, their good fortune was to be on a revived coaching route and they flourished once again. Many were purpose-built.
New towns were established or existing villages were expanded, because of their position along a staging route. One such town was Stoney Stratford, near Milton Keynes. Its raison d’etre to serve the traveller, its long narrow street having no fewer than eleven coaching inns. Most are now hotels or pubs, their tell-tale stable yard entrances remain. Some towns had traffic problems, their centres jammed with horses waiting to be stabled or hitched. Northampton’s human population was almost equalled by its equine one.
Standards varied enormously. If done properly, the cost of setting up an inn was considerable. Warm shelter had to be provided, with food readily available for travellers who might stay only half an hour and consume nothing, before dashing on their way. Staff had to be on hand, stabling had to be provided, rooms had to be furnished and kept ready, fresh provisions constantly available. Those well paced en route or at a terminus would have enough trade to prosper, others had a harder time.
Travellers tales complain of damp rooms and linen, bed clothes soiled and stinking, food that was stale and rancid, incompetent staff and landlords who were indifferent to their needs or plain rude. Some were also criminal, in cahoots with highwaymen, the landlord telling them which guests had full purses.
Coaching inns also became centres of trade. Many were associated with one trade or another, such as wool or hops. Lawyers met their clients in them and businessmen met to negotiate deals. They were often used for auctions and became secure places to hold money for transactions, taking on the role of an informal bank. Traders stored their goods in the inns own warehouses. Circuit judges held court in them, good news for the innkeeper who would provide rooms, food, drink and stabling for their horses.
All these activities enhanced the standing of the inns owners. They may not have been educated, some were illiterate, but their premises provided a place for commerce as well as livery, accommodation and food. A landlord’s position carried influence and power, as well as an opportunity to become rich.
The scale of the grandest inns is hard to imagine. The larger ones had sixty bedrooms and stabling for 50 horses. They were often several storeys high, particularly in London where space was at a premium, with galleried courtyards, as can be seen in what remains of the George in Southwark. Many were lavishly decorated with Chinese silks and the finest linen, quality furniture, silver cutlery and tableware.
For some the investment would be ruinous. The advent of the railways and their dramatic expansion brought the Golden Age of the stage coach to an abrupt halt. As before, location was everything, and those coaching inns which were close to the new railways stations or termini survived, usually as hotels.
Many fell into disrepair and were demolished. The George Inn, Southwark, is close to London Bridge Station but was no longer considered suitable and closed. It was sold to a rail company who demolished two thirds of it to make way for a warehouse. What was left is now the treasured possession of the National Trust.
When Charles II died in 1685, he left no legitimate heir to the throne. His brother, who had been living in France, returned and was crowned James II. His strong Catholic faith put him at odds with the Protestant majority. One of Charles’s illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, led a revolt against James, but was defeated. The revolt’s survivors were dealt with ruthlessly by the Lord Chief Justice Jeffries (see the Prospect of Whitby & the Town of Ramsgate ).
James wanted England to have a Roman Catholic monarchy, similar to that of France under Louis XIV. Fearing the worst, a group of statesmen invited James’s Dutch nephew, William of Orange, who was married to James’s daughter Mary, to contest the throne of England. William landed with his army at Torbay, Devon in November 1688. James was deserted by his few supporters and fled to France and his bloodless overthrow became known as the Glorious Revolution. William and Mary shared the crown of England and agreed to a shift of power back to Parliament.
William III hated France and encouraged a ban on trade. French brandy and wines were very popular in England, and the ban sparked a huge increase in smuggling. As a substitute, William encouraged the distilling of ‘Geneve’ or Gin as it was known in England. Restrictions on distilling Gin were removed and by the early 1700’s the country was awash. The availability of so much cheap alcohol proved devastating, particularly amongst the poor.
In the mid eighteenth century, Gin’s perils were immortalised in William Hogarth’s engravings, ‘ Beer Street’ and ‘ Gin Lane’. The characters in the former are plump and healthy, but in ‘ Gin Lane’ there is death and chaos, a mother so drunk that her baby falls from her arms. Gin’s effect was such, that in London, despite improvements in sanitation, its population actually fell. Londoners were drinking themselves to death.
Gin’s hold on the population was temporarily slowed through new laws to curb production and sales. The imperative to do something about it came from the disapproving middle classes and the new industrialists who needed a sober workforce.
In the mid 1820’s anti-smuggling measures led the duty on spirits being drastically lowered. Statistically spirits consumption increased, but this probably had more to do with a switch from smuggled to legitimate drink. Even so there was an alarming increase in the number of ‘gin shops’, many were former pubs which had been converted.
Unlike the pubs they replaced, the gin-shops served no food and had no seating. They were usually in poorer areas and designed for fast turn-over, the poor had little money so were not encouraged to stay once they had spent what they had.
The success of the gin-shops coincided with developments in plate glass production and gas lighting. These new products were employed to the full, creating a dazzling spectacle of light and reflection. They stood out in the dark streets like beacons. To the poor they were palaces – Gin Palaces.
Government acts, the 19th Century
Pubs have always been subject to legislation by government, or in times before parliament, by royal decree. The purpose is either to control them or levy tax on them or their sales.
The euphoria that followed the defeat of Napoleon’s army at Waterloo in 1815, and the end to the Napoleonic Wars, was soon tempered by economic decline. Stagnating trade and civil unrest prompted the government to relax some of the restrictive trade laws in an attempt to stimulate growth.
One such attempt was the Beer Act of 1830, which lifted restrictions on the sale and production of beer, allowing any ratepayer (rates being a local tax) to set themselves up as a beerhouse, provided they paid the license fee. The logic behind this was to stimulate the local economy by making beer cheaper, which would please the masses and encourage them to drink beer instead of gin, the consumption of which had reached epidemic proportions. It would undermine the market for smuggled wine and spirits, whilst at the same time raise extra revenue through the license fee.
The result was somewhat different from the intent. There was an explosion in the number of beerhouses, many literally in someone’s house, no matter how modest. Consumption rose, as did drunkenness and crime, but it did nothing to curtail the consumption of gin. This massive increase in the number of licensed premises made them impossible to police. Furthermore, it managed to upset the brewers and established publicans whose trade was being undermined. Those that could afford it improved or even rebuilt their pubs to make them more attractive than the basic beerhouse.
The genie was out of the bottle and the government at risk if it tried to put it back. Instead it tinkered with the legislation with new acts which increased license fees and restricted opening hours. Until now, pubs opened when they wanted to. Justices were given back responsibility for issuing new licenses. Despite this, the number of licenses rose.
Drunkenness didn’t have the stigma in the 17 th and 18 th centuries that it has today, alcohol was seen as medicinal, after all, it was safer than the water. It is wrong to suggest that all drunkenness was due to poverty, but the poor had good reason to escape reality through drink. Little thought was given to the reasons why a huge proportion of the population drank so much. This was the century of industrial revolution and massive urban expansion. The poor lived in stinking, unsanitary and cramped conditions. They were drunk in public for all to see, not in a club or private house, so were an easy and visible target for condemnation.
Fears of drunkenness and related crime grew, particularly amongst the urban middle classes, who, through enterprise, education and good fortune were able to improve their lives. Social divisions appeared in pubs themselves, many divided into ‘Public’, ‘Saloon’ or ‘Private’ rooms. There was also a move away from pubs altogether, those who could afford it joined Gentlemen’s Clubs, or frequented restaurants or cafes.
Despite its critics and the genuine concern about drunkenness, the pub served a vital social function for many. Much of the drinking water was contaminated, sometimes lethally. Beer at least was relatively safe. Pubs provided food too, and would heat up food brought in, for a small fee. They also provided a social function and respite for the poor, a warm and comfortable refuge compared with their customer’s homes.
In the convivial atmosphere of a pub, friends, colleagues or total strangers will strike up conversations over a pint. It is not surprising then that pubs were also a meeting place for societies and political groups, some trades unions started life in the pub. They also acted as informal labour exchanges. The satirical magazine, Punch, was founded in a pub in Fleet Street, renamed the Punch Tavern in honour of its former customers.
There was entertainment too. Musical acts and magicians performed their acts in pubs. Some of the pub venues were so successful that they became musical theatres, or music halls. Pubs sprang up where people massed, in particular near transportation terminals, such as bus, tram or railway stations. How many Railway or Station Taverns are there? As well as adapting their names to the transport links they served, termini and stations took their names from pubs. The Angel at Islington; Elephant and Castle; Half Moon at Herne Hill; Royal Oak; Swiss Cottage all are named after pubs.
The growth of the temperance movement and the reaction against drunkenness gained momentum in the mid 19th century. Although not as successful as its American model, the anti-drinking lobby did influence later government legislation.
So what has all this to do with pubs? Acts of Parliament, the Temperance Movement and even sanitation, had an influence on the pubs we drink in today. Licensing laws, governing opening hours, the number and restriction of licenses, the size and shape of pubs, their proliferation and decline, were shaped by events over a century ago, particularly in London.
Walk down any of London’s major thoroughfares and it will have several Victorian pubs or their remains. Corner sites were particularly common and a little investigation will reveal a tell tale space for a pub sign, or a carved panel with a pub name. It is difficult to imagine how many pubs there were, but by the 1870’s St. James’s, in the centre of the City of Westminster, had one pub for every 116 people. Pressure to reduce the number of licenses lead to a clamour for pubs. Brewers did deals with the Justices, agreeing to close two or three pubs in order to gain a license on a new, larger or improved pub. In the 1880’s and 90’s a pub boom took place, the like of which has never been repeated. Competition in London was particularly fierce as brewers from Burton-on-Trent, the traditional home of English brewing, began buying pubs in the capital.
The boom couldn’t have happened without the funds to fuel it and, by design or coincidence, many brewers floated their businesses on the stock exchange. This raised millions of pounds, which in turn was spent on acquiring, improving or rebuilding pubs. The majority of Central London pubs on this website were built, rebuilt or remodelled during this time.
Keen to outdo each other and with money to burn, some designs were so extravagant, they cost the equivalent of millions of pounds today. The architects were generally used to designing commercial buildings, after all these were public houses, not public buildings. Nevertheless they had access to a vast selection of materials, from exotic hardwoods and stoneware, to the finest glass and ceramics. Many of these materials were new, either brought from the extremes of the Empire or manufactured using novel processes.
The brashness and brilliance of these pubs was reminiscent of the Gin Palace, but with a self conscious tone of class rather than brass. An air of respectability was essential. That was the aim, but the result was often a mish-mash of styles, with decoration on decoration, a complete contrast to current modern styling. Even now, with ornaments removed and decoration toned down, these pubs seem fussy and overly ornate. Closer inspection however reveals an unrepeatable quality and craftsmanship.
Examples need to be experienced rather than explained. Only a few of these extraordinary establishments have survived, none of them entirely intact. The Red Lion, Duke of York Street, St. James’s, the Argyll Arms near Oxford Circus and the Princess Louise, Holborn are magnificent examples of the craftsmanship of the mirror and glass manufacturers. Each pub divided into small bar areas by screens of deep cut and etched glass, set in hefty French polished frames. Beautifully painted mirrors in the Victoria, Bayswater, add refinement to an impressive interior. The walls of the Princess Louise, Holborn, are decorated in superb colourful ceramics and the Prince Alfred, Maida Vale, has huge bowed glass windows, snob screens and carved joinery.
(See fine examples of glasswork etc at the Red Lion SW1, Argyll Arms W1, Princess Louise WC2, Kings Head SW17, Salisbury WC2, Prince Alfred W9)
The 20th Century
As sure as night follows day then the pub boom of the 1880s and 90s was followed by bust at the turn of the 20th century. Massively inflated prices fuelled by debt could not be sustained. As with all bubbles, albeit dotcom or property, it didnt take much to burst. Debts had to be repaid and when the income from many pubs could not service the money owed, bankruptcies followed. The breweries which had lent publicans money, or paid over the odds in the clamour to buy up licensed premises, either went bust too or were swallowed up by their competitors.
Apart from the everyday problems of running a business, such as keeping their brewery boss happy, publicans were under pressure from the magistrates who were responsible for the issuing their annual license. The magistrates duty was to ensure that the publican observed the law and kept an orderly house. However many magistrates saw their role as one of suppression.
They refused licenses without explanation or on spurious grounds, completely outside their remit. Some magistrates intervened in matters of planning and design, for example the removal of snugs or private rooms, their judgement based on questions of taste, rather than legality. When brewers applied for new licenses, they were granted on condition that two or three were surrendered. The loser in all this was the publican, who lost his home and his livelihood, without compensation. The brewers often used this as an excuse to close less profitable pubs and were at pains to keep the magistrates happy.
What motivated the magistrates to act in this way is in part a question of class snobbery and lack of understanding. They were invariably middle class and unlikely to use a public house themselves. They were also patronising, believing they were saving the working classes from themselves by removing temptation. Many were involved in the temperance movement and had become magistrates with the intention of restricting the flow of alcohol whenever they could, whereas anyone connected with the drinks trade was barred from becoming a magistrate.
Government must have known and approved of the magistrates actions; after all, it was for the publics own good. But it seems no one ever asked the pub going public what they wanted. As Peter Haydon puts it in his book, The English Pub: A History It could be argued that throughout the history of British civil administration, nowhere else has the British public been so consistently patronised, ignored and ill-served as in the area of public house management between 1897 and 1939. This criticism is not only true of magistrates and government, both local and national, but for the brewers too, whose overriding concern was for their profit margin instead of their customers.
Drunkenness was seen as an affliction, affecting the health and well-being of the nation, rather than a symptom of the poverty and hardship faced by the working classes. Its worth remembering that the new century got off to a shaky start. This was a time of economic slowdown, the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria; there was unrest in Europe, which ultimately led to the Great War and revolution in Russia.
The style of pubs built at the beginning of the 20th century reflected a more wholesome, romanticised view of the Olde English pub. Gone was the brashness and glitz of the Victorian gin palace. This Ye Olde Merrie Englande theme was played out in several guises, such as the medieval hall of the Coal Hole in the Strand, or the tongue in cheek humour of the Black Friar, at Blackfriars.
War on Pubs
The First World War was a turning point in the history of Europe, so to look at it from the point of view of the pub may seem trivial or irrelevant, but the measures taken by government reverberated in English society for almost a century. The Defence of the Realm Act has parallels today with acts to defend against terrorism; it gave sweeping powers in the interests of national security and the war effort. Magistrates were given powers to restrict pub opening hours or to close pubs completely. Pubs near strategic sites such as munitions factories or military installations were closed.
The restriction on pub opening hours had a profound affect, a 10pm closing time was introduced and for the first time pubs were forced to close in the afternoons on weekdays. When the war ended the restrictions stayed and in 1921 they became law. The act was not repealed until 1988.
These measures were introduced to ensure a sober workforce and to prevent accidents, particularly in the munitions factories, but were deeply unpopular. To add insult to injury, the strength of beer was lowered which caused great resentment and may have been a factor in the industrial unrest of 1917.
Government interference took a further step when the Central Control Board assumed control of pubs and breweries in certain areas, the most famous being Carlisle. Here, the CCB closed down half the breweries and nearly a quarter of its pubs. Those that werent shut down remained in state ownership until 1972.
Soldiers returning from the trenches came home to weak beer and less opportunities to drink it. Another change was the role of women, who had helped keep the country going during the war, many taking on mens work. More women began to frequent pubs in the 1920s and there was a coincidental fall in the number of women charged with drunkenness.
Over the next two decades the pub was to have a tough time. Restrictions on licenses continued and beer consumption halved. There were new and exciting leisure activities; going to the cinema or listening to the wireless; sports, such as swimming or cycling and for the well off, motoring.
This was also the era of the suburb. Huge sprawling estates of semi-detached housing sprang up on the outskirts of major towns and cities. Pubs were built too, but as their numbers were restricted, they tended to be large. They were respectable pubs for respectable people, where food and non-alcoholic drinks were available; they had function rooms, playgrounds for children and sporting facilities, such as bowling greens. They looked different too, the mock Tudor in the suburbs was reflected in the pubs, becoming known in the trade as Brewers Tudor.
This improvement was not restricted to new pubs and many older and historic pubs were improved beyond recognition, stripped of their character and identity. There were more closures too, the brewers trading in several licenses in the cities, for one in the suburbs.
Ironically another casualty of the times was the Temperance Movement, it lost support as its aims were largely achieved more by social change than campaigning; and all calls for prohibition in the U.K. were silenced by the disastrous experience in the U.S.A.
The brewing industry was still undergoing change; despite a small rise in beer consumption at the end of the First World War, it was followed by a steady decline. There was drastic consolidation, the number of breweries falling from over 3500 to under 1000 between the wars.
By the time Britain was again at war with Germany, lessons had been learned both militarily and socially. This time access to good quality beer was seen as good for moral. Pubs held events to raise money for the war effort and their cellars were used as air raid shelters; but more crucially they were seen as the beating heart of the community, a unifying place where the nation could meet and gain strength from comradeship in a truly British way. Several thousand pubs were destroyed in air raids and stories of the stoical landlord still serving from the wrecked pub passed into legend.
Post 1945 Pubs
When victory in Europe was won, the British celebrated in time honoured fashion and went to the pub. Most were decked out in bunting and union flags, the patriotic heart of the community. Despite their popularity and importance there has been a steady decline ever since, with a net reduction in the number of pubs.
The number of brewers continued to decline too. Takeovers and mergers resulted in just a handful of brewers not only producing the vast majority of beers but also owning the majority of pubs. The Big Six, as they were known, Allied Breweries, Bass Charrington, Courage, Scottish and Newcastle, Watney Mann & Whitbread, put their brands to work. They were national brewers reaching all of the country and therefore could market their brands nationally. The corporate pub had arrived, and with it, keg beers. The most notorious and memorable being the Watney’s Red Revolution and Red Barrel, both now synonymous with an all time low in modern British pub history.
Keg (pasteurised) beers and lagers were, and are, popular with the national brewers as they have a long shelf life, need no special handling or treatment, do not deteriorate when transported and are consistent. This means their brand can be sold nationally without variation and there is little wastage, thus profits are higher. Unfortunately for the consumer it means a restriction in choice and a bland drinking experience. In 1971 a group of men from the North West of England, fed up with fizzy, poor tasting keg beers, decided to start a campaign to revitalize ale. The result was the Campaign for Real Ale, which now has 85,000 members.
The tie between pub and brewer is an old one, but in the late1980s this arrangement was seen as unhealthy and restricted choice, the brewers being both manufacturer and retailer. A government report recommended that each of the national brewers should have no more than 2000 pubs in their control and as a result about 12,000 pubs were sold off. Some brewers decided theyd be better off as retailers and sold off their breweries instead.
New retail pub chains were formed but the increased consumer choice envisaged by government was not realised as many of the pub chains bought their beers from the national brewers. The pub chains too have been bought and sold so many times it is hard to know who owns what. Some operate as property companies in all but name, selling off pubs for redevelopment. Pub closures are estimated by CAMRA to be about 50 per month. It has led to some historic brewing names such as Whitbread and Courage no longer brewing beer. The Beer Orders was revoked in 2003, the brewing and pub landscape changed forever, but not necessarily for the better.