Having spent many hours in pubs over the decades I have long been fascinated by their history and the people who used them. I wrote this for the Twentieth Century Society newsletter about fifteen years ago.
Between the wars the public house in all its many forms struggled as never before. This was the period of Metroland, of the wireless and the cinema – all of which took customers – particularly young people and women - away from pubs. Even so they remained very popular. In Bolton, for example, Mass Observation found that: ‘More people spend more time in public houses than they do in any other buildings except private houses and workplaces.’
Often they were very shabby places with minimal facilities. The public bar of a typical East End pub was described as: ‘The walls are bare except for a dart-board and its scoring slate, a few display-cards for proprietary drinks, and a notice forbidding gambling or the passing of betting slips. There is sawdust on the floor and two spittoons.’ One in four Brighton pubs had no hot water in 1938.
Many pubs, particularly in rural areas, had changed very little for centuries. Robin Croft-Cooke described Cotswolds’ pubs such as the Frog and Puesdown, where to enter: ‘was to enter a strange and now long-vanished world... the changes during the last three centuries were negligible...lamplight instead of candlelight, cigarettes instead of clay pipes, and some small differences in dress.’
And Mass Observation said that they were ‘still essentially very much a pre-industrial institution. Format, ritual, traditions, nomenclature, games have not changed very much in the past three hundred years.’
That said interwar public houses did not remain in aspic. Over a third of the 75,000 or so licensed premises establishments were in some way improved and another 5,900 were built or rebuilt between the wars. In general, the larger brewers, such as Mitchell and Butler around Birmingham or Barclay Perkins in London, could afford to do more than the smaller brewers with fewer tied houses.
Guides of the period comment on the changes in the trade. In English Inns and Road Houses George Long claims to have visited thousands of establishments drinking nothing stronger than ginger beer. He laments the closure of many: ‘ancient and noteworthy hostelries such as the Dick Withington in Cloth Fair, Smithfield; the Jack in Northbrook Street, Newbury and the Sun in Market Place, Cirencester... which are now occupied by a warehouse, a garage, and a branch of a famous chain store.’
However, he welcomed the restoration of roadside pubs to meet the needs of motorists, such as the Rose and Crown at Harnham near Salisbury, which the author knew for 40 years as a humble pub until new owners: ‘peeled off vast quantities of paper from the inside and removed thick layers of plaster from the exterior] to create a ‘beautiful old pub.’
Efforts were made to improve the facilities in pubs for good reason. There are constant complaints in travellers accounts about the poor food served and lack of reasonable accommodation on offer. One such account was Douglas Golding’s Pot Luck in England which contains much grumbling about the quality and expense of hotels and to a lesser extent pubs. In particular Golding attacks those establishments which were run by upper class landlords ‘with more capital than experience.’
‘Some’ he found ‘are delightful, others too snobbish and pretentious for words... full of publicity hunting near-socialites, mostly pansies.’ Perhaps he had John Fothergill in mind, whose bestselling An Innkeeper’s Diary was about his attempts to create an upscale hotel and restaurant – the Spread Eagle – in Witney.
The diaries are wonderfully snobbish: only his social equals and betters - whose names are carefully recorded - appreciate his efforts and his cooking. All the lower orders want to do is to grumble about his prices and use his toilets without buying a drink.
A more typical landlady was Bessie Beed who ran the Red Lion at Blean near Whitstable. In her memoirs she describes a world very different from John Fothergill’s. Here the pub’s customers were the local fishermen and agricultural labourers. It was very much a centre of the community, where a box club was run and where the centre of the social calendar was ‘share-out night’ when a big dinner was held.
In general pubs were centres of the community in the way that few are today. Maurice Gorham talks of specialised pubs which catered for various groups: ‘there are pubs around Portland Place where you will feel lost if you do not know the jargon of the rag trade or the BBC.’ In the East End, pubs were ‘community centres, where everyone meets, arranges his common activities, lays his personal cares aside and satisfies some of his social cravings.’
Britain never adopted prohibition – thank heavens – but the temperance lobby came pretty near to strangling the pub in the years before and after the First World War, through a raft of petty restrictions most notably on opening hours and the banning of gambling, but many other activities discouraged. One observer saw a sign in a Sussex pub saying that there should be ‘no loud laughter.’
Unique to the period was the ‘new improved’ public house, inspired and promoted by ‘true temperance’ reformers, with wholesome facilities where the working class man and his family could spend their leisure hours in a wholesome way. Whitbread the brewers described them as being: ‘altogether larger, cleaner and brighter establishments, with buffets for food, good architecture without and good decorative taste within, with tables for families to sit at their ease...’
Such places were often built on the new arterial roads or suburbs in a faux architectural style often mocked as being in a Brewers’ Tudor style, such as the listed Black Horse, Northfields, Birmingham which imitated a Midlands manor house of the 16th century when it opened in 1929 by Mitchell and Butler.
More typical was The Fawcett Arms in Southsea, designed by A H Bone for Strongs of Romsey, with ground floor glazed tiling, mock Tudor beams at first floor level and a witches hat tower. Perhaps the most extreme example of this style is the King and Queen in Brighton by Clayton and Black in 1931-32 for the small Edlin group of pubs at a cost of £25,428, with carved timber framing, herring-bone brickwork, stained glass and tapestries. It still survives and doesn’t seem to have changed very much.
A variant was the estate pub – often the only such establishment in the new council estates. When it opened in 1930 the cadaverous Downham Tavern was the largest pub in Britain, serving some 35,000 residents on the Downham Estate in Mitcham. It was designed by the Architects Department of Barclays Perkins at a cost of £70,000. Here patrons found light airy refreshment rooms, rather than nicotine-stained cosy bars. They were not encouraged to buy drinks at the bar, instead they were served at tables by 35 evening-dressed waiters and could relieve themselves in any of the 36 toilets perhaps as a result of having consumed 30,000 bottles of beer a week.
Praised by temperance reformers and licensing magistrates alike they were less popular with drinkers who felt uncomfortable in them and resented the paternalistic intentions which lay behind them. Maurice Gorham, a producer at the BBC and author of perhaps the best book ever published on the pub The Local, summoned up the view of many: ‘The modern pub may be better, but the old-fashioned pub was nicer; we do not want to sit at small tables and pay a waiter to bring us our drinks; men seemed to have no scruples about bringing his wife to the old-fashioned pub, and as for the children, we all go to the pubs to avoid them; in short we have seldom known a pub to be improved in rebuilding and we have known plenty to be spoiled.’
One book on pub architecture described the public bar at the Norbury Tavern in South West London as a: ‘large bleak interior that resulted from the attempt to design pubs that would not look like pubs. Sometimes indistinguishable from post offices or banks, they deny the whole pub tradition and only succeed in discouraging the customer from joining his cronies round the kitchen chimney corner.’
George Orwell regretted the advent of these ‘dismal sham-Tudor palaces fitted up by the big brewing companies...for a working class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club’ and regarded it as ‘a serious blow to communal life.’
Then as now the pub was responding to the sometimes conflicting needs of its customers and wider society. From this brief survey we can see some of the seeds which bore fruit in the rapid changes in pubs from the 1960s onwards and which are still ongoing.
Rupert Croft-Cooke, The Wild Hills (WH Allen, 1966)
John Fothergill, An Innkeeper’s Diary (1931, reprinted Folio Society, 2000)
Juliet Gardner, The Thirties: an intimate History (Harper, 2010)
Douglas Golding, Pot Luck in England (Chapman & Hall, 1936)
Maurice Gorham, Back to the Local (1948; reprinted Faber & Faber 2009)
Maurice Gorham and McG Dunnett, Inside the Pub (The Architectural Press, 1950)
Maurice Gorham, The Local (Cassel, 1939)
David Gutzke, Pubs and Progressives: reinventing the Public House in England 1896-1960 (DeKalb, 2006)
Peter Haydon, The English Pub: a History (Robert Hale, 1995)
Paul Jennings, The Local: a history of the English pub (Tempus, 2007)
George Long, English Inns and Road Houses (Werner, 1937)
Mass Observation, The Pub and the People (1943, reprinted Faber & Faber, 2009)
The New Survey of London Life and Labour: Vol IX Life and Leisure (PS King, 1935)
JB Priestley, English Journey (Gollancz, 1934)
Whitbread & Co, Your Local (Whitbread, 1947)
The public bar of The Waggoners pub in Hertfordshire.
The public bar of a Improved Public House – the Norbury Tavern in Kingston, Surrey.
The saloon bar in a traditional London pub.