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Time Gentlemen Please!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BRITISH PUB
April 7, 2004
Red faced, whiskers bristling, mine host shakes his brass bell vigorously and leans over the counter to glare around the gloomy, oak-beamed room. “‘Aven’t yer got homes to go to?” he bellows. “It’s time, gentlemen.” Reluctantly, the young couple get up from their cosy table in the corner, the old man by the roaring log fire puts on his flat cap, the middle-aged bottle blonde at the bar tips the remains of her gin and tonic into her scarlet stained lips, and the lager lads ignore everyone, firmly fixed on finishing their game of darts. It’s cold outside. In here it is warm. In here is a world away from work tomorrow and the agonies of real life. In here is the British pub - a home from home for the locals, and a drop in place for the tourist keen to experience this unique aspect of British life and social history.
The typical British local is a tiny community that closes together with fierce loyalty, forming its own sports teams to do battle with rival pubs in the area. The British pub offers alcohol, food, warmth, entertainment and sometimes a bed for the night. The British pub is the best outlet for Britain’s best product: cask-conditioned, top fermenting, fruity yet bitter ale. The British pub is many things to many people, and its history and development has mirrored the social history of the British people themselves.
A place in which to consume alcohol is common to all countries, and certainly the Celtic warriors of Ancient Britain would have knocked back their heather flavoured ales sitting on benches like a German bierkeller. However, with the Roman invasion came roads and a need to set up taverns to refresh the weary traveller. These taverns would have offered food and drink and games such as chequers (a common pub sign). The British pub was starting to take shape. Games are an essential part of a traditional British local, though the larger, modern pubs in high traffic locations will have no dart board, pool table or petanque pitch: such activities will presumably interrupt beer sales.
The next major development came about due to a 12th century murder. The assassination of the turbulent Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral resulted in pilgrimages to such sacred sites as Becket’s shrine becoming as popular as a package holiday is today. Inns and hostels sprang up to provide shelter for the pilgrims - a tankard of ale, a good meal, conversation with fellow pilgrims, and a bed for the night. A number of these inns still survive, such as The Cat and The Fiddle in Hampshire, The Old Bell in Malmesbury or The Weary Friar in Cornwall; plus the two pubs which claim to be Britain’s oldest, The Fighting Cocks at St Albans, and The Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham. But the most famous pilgrims’ inn, The Tabard in Southwark, was sadly pulled down to make way for a railway. The Tabard was the pub from whence the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales drunkenly set forth, taking the large and merry host with them along the way.
However, not all pubs were inns or hostels run by large concerns such as the manor house or monastery, some were small alehouses: a local source for ale brewed by an alewife. At this period all beer was produced on the premises. However, by the 14th century smaller alehouses were buying in their supplies from the large taverners and innkeepers and small independent breweries. The alehouse was usually an ordinary domestic house in which people were allowed to come into the kitchen or front room to drink. And this private home atmosphere is still retained by many of the small local pubs today. In any pre-1930’s residential area there will be a local pub within five minutes walk, often at the end of the street. In my street of 100 houses we have two pubs with seven more in side streets within easy reach.
In the 18th century the alehouse started to change. This change would result in the first of the Public Houses: the first true British Pub. Before we get there though we need to consider Britain’s most famous pubs: the coaching inns which started to spring up in the late 16th century to serve the coaching routes, both passenger and Royal Mail, that were spreading across the country. The pub furniture found in most out of town establishments is a reminder of the coaching era: polished copper pots, horse brasses, lamps, trumpets, tankards and the yard of ale glass for the thirsty coachman. Coaching inns are easily found in the countryside; they are less easy to find in large towns and cities due to road developments over the centuries. However, The George off Borough High Street in London is an excellent surviving example.
Coaching inns come in two basic styles. Wayside inns would merely be set back from the road to allow space for the coach to draw up in front. There would be stables at the side or back to allow for a change of horses. The town or city inns, however, would be built right beside the road. There would be an archway entrance to allow the coach to pull into a galleried courtyard. The lower floor would house the stables and rooms for eating and drinking. External stairs would lead up to the gallery, from which doors would lead into small rooms - mostly for sleeping, but also for private consumption of food and drink for the better off who didn’t wish to mingle with the common folk who rode in peril on the outside of the stagecoach. Each town will claim its own coaching inn to be worth visiting, and I shall claim that The Bull in Rochester, 400 years old and still retaining its courtyard, is the one to see. It changed its name in 1836 to The Royal Victoria and Bull after Queen Victoria stayed the night.
But, let’s return to the public house. Small alehouses had started to buy in their beer by the 14th century, and the larger taverns and inns began to do the same so that by the 18th century brewers were competing with each other to supply the local establishments. They were also competing against gin houses, and against the protests of immoral behaviour, gaming and entertainment provided by beer establishments. Social distinctions were also becoming so divisive that the middle classes did not wish to frequent the dives of the labouring classes and vice versa. However, with a purpose built beer establishment of decent size, with separate rooms for each class of person, all cleanly run, a shrewd businessman could get a decent return on his money. The public house was born. And with the invention of porter, a beer that could be brewed and stored in vast quantities, breweries grew so large they needed a secure outlet to safeguard their investment. Agreements were drawn up and signed that tied the new public houses to taking their beer from just one brewery. By the start of the 19th century three big London breweries, Meux, Truman and Whitbread had tied up enough pubs to guarantee the sales of at least 45% of their production. Smaller breweries on the fringes of London, such as Young’s, could only compete by buying up the independent establishments and putting in a tenant landlord to manage the pub.
It was the public house that first introduced the concept of the bar counter being used to serve the beer. Until that time beer establishments used to bring the beer out to the table or benches. A bar might be provided for the manager to do his paperwork whilst keeping an eye on his customers, but the casks of ale were kept in a separate taproom. When the first public houses were built, the main room was the public room with a large serving bar copied from the gin houses, the idea being to serve the maximum amount of people in the shortest possible time. It became known as the public bar. The other, more private, rooms had no serving bar - they had the beer brought to them from the public bar. There are a number of pubs in the Midlands or the North which still retain this set up. But these days you fetch the beer yourself from the taproom or public bar. The most famous of these is The Vine, known locally as The Bull & Bladder in Brierley Hill near Birmingham.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great British engineer and railway builder, introduced the idea of a circular bar into the Swindon station pub in order that customers were served quickly and didn’t delay his trains. These island bars quickly became popular as they also allowed staff to serve customers in several different rooms surrounding the bar. In a modern renovated pub, where the partitions between rooms have been removed, the island can be clearly seen.
These traditional public houses served as the backbone of the Victorian town expansion. The first building on any new site would be the pub. The pub would draw in other speculative builders who would build around the pub. Building the pub first would also allow the builder to get an instant income from the men working on the other houses as they would no doubt use that pub to quench their thirst.
The coming of the railways and trams had a curious effect on pubs. Tram stops and (at first) railway stations were named after the nearest pub. With the terminal stops this did the pub a great favour as people would get off the tram or train and go straight into the pub. Such pubs becoming so famous that entire areas would be named after them - such as Elephant & Castle, Angel and Swiss Cottage in London. Each railway town would have its Railway Hotel, the modern equivalent of the inn. However, riverside pubs began to decline as people used the railway instead of boats, and pubs along the roadside also suffered as their customers were now rushed past in trams and trains.
But in general the public house thrived. And by the end of the 18th century a new room in the pub was established: the Saloon. Beer establishments had always provided entertainment of some sort - singing, gaming or a sport. Balls Pond Road in Islington was named after an establishment run by Mr Ball that had a pond out the back filled with ducks, where drinkers could, for a certain fee, go out and take their chance at shooting the poor creatures. More common, however, was a card room or a billiard room. The Saloon was a room where for an admission fee or a higher price at the bar, singing, dancing, drama or comedy was performed. From this came the popular Music Hall form of entertainment - a show consisting of a variety of acts. The most famous Saloon was the Grecian Saloon in The Eagle, City Road, London. A pub more famous these days because of an English nursery rhyme: “Up and down the City Road / In and out The Eagle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop goes the weasel.”
Increasing social division led to a new room being created in the late 19th century - the Snug. This was a small, very private room that had a sliding frosted glass window, set above head height, accessing the bar. You paid a higher price for your beer in the Snug, but nobody could see you. But it was not only the well off snobs who would use these rooms - prostitutes found them very useful as well! It is rare to find a pub with a snug these days, though The Argyll Arms in London is still set up in this manner.
Social pressure, rather than social division, led to the next major development: interior design. Temperance movements campaigned against the squalid attractions of the public house, so landlords set about decorating their establishments with educational and artistic items such as books, paintings, stuffed animals in cases; artefacts displaying the technical advancements of the time, guns, clocks and embossed wall paper. The pub became an ornate museum of the achievements and aspirations of the Victorians - how could anyone complain now? Look around at the interior of a grand Victorian pub and you will still see those stuffed birds and that embossed wallpaper. And over in the corner, dusty and unread, will be a shelf of aging books.
We now move into the 20th century - a time of quickly changing fashions in which many old pub interiors were ripped out to suit the mood of the day. But the two most significant developments in this period were first the building of huge Road House pubs to serve the motorist in his new fangled car. The Road House is typically a red brick monster with a huge car park. Because of their size and location, few managed to survive independently; most are now owned by pub chains such as Beefeater or Brewer’s Fayre. These are dreadful places - no more than a conveyor belt restaurant serving bland food and keg beer, often dressed up in a faux olde worlde style. They are to be avoided at all costs - drive on for another mile and you will come to a 16th century coaching inn with several cask-conditioned ales, home-cooked food and a genuinely welcoming atmosphere. The second development was the removal of the distinction between the saloon and the public bar. In most cases, the removal of the dividing wall itself. The saloon had settled into a middle class room - carpets on the floor, cushions on the seats, and a penny or two on the prices; while the public bar had remained working class - bare boards, sometimes with sawdust to absorb the spitting, hard seats, and cheap beer. During the blurring of the class division in the 1960’s and 70’s, the saloon/public bar set up was seen as archaic. While these names may still be seen on the doors of pubs, once inside everything is egalitarian; prices are the same in both rooms, as is the standard of decoration.
The final movement of note in the British pub is the modern pub chain. Because of complex British laws involving the sale of beer by breweries to tied houses, it is now easier for the brewery to be separated from the pub chain. Wychwood and Brakspear for example have sold off their brewing operations to Refresh UK, but have kept their chain of pubs. A modern pub chain will stamp its house style on its range of pubs, and will buy up pubs or buildings in prime locations. Wetherspoon is the most innovative in this area. Wetherspoon’s buy up old banks, libraries, cinemas, theatres and, in Soho, the old Marquee Club - a famous rock venue where The Rolling Stones and The Who started out. They are usually huge places - temples to the god beer. They play no music and offer no games. The buildings, while remarkable, have no place in the history of pubs. They are (usually) clean, tidy and well run by efficient young people looking for promotion. They are the McDonald’s of the beer world. But they offer a constantly changing range of seven real ales in excellent condition. You pay your money and take your choice.
Next time you are in a British pub, spend a moment looking around you to get a feel for the history of the place and its special atmosphere. But don’t spend too long because before you know it the red faced man at the bar will be yelling at you: “Time gentlemen, please!”
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