Monday, 14 September 2015

The English Pub

Halfway through a semi-annual clear out, a stack of magazines has bobbed to the top of the pile whose existence I'd completely forgotten about.

In what seems to be a complete set of English for All, published for German prisoners of war in England between 1946 and 1948, issue no. 30 of 17th June 1947 caught my eye with its lead article entitled "The English Pub".

As L.P. Hartley famously wrote in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." So what has, and hasn't, changed in the English pub as it was described almost eight decades ago?

"Broadly speaking, there are three types of public house  the city pub, the village pub and the "local," – though the the last-named category may, in certain cases, embrace one of the other two."

Still broadly true, although there are a few more categories that could be added now: family and fun pubs. pub-restaurants, estate pubs, sports pubs.

"British inns differ from their continental counterparts principally in that we make no serious effort (generally no effort at all) to cater for food...our opening hours are restricted and children under 16 are not admitted at all."

Although there are still some wet-led pubs which don't serve food or admit children, they're now a minority, and restricted hours have long gone.

"Also our public houses invariably have two classes of bars (saloon bar and public bar), each charging different prices for the same drinks; in some parts of England (and in the whole of Scotland) public houses are closed all day on Sunday."

Sadly, the majority of pubs which had a saloon and public bar (or lounge and vault as they're called in the North) and snug have long since knocked them through to create a single room; the ones that haven't – many of them listed on CAMRA's inventory of Historic Pub Interiors – should be treasured.

I just about remember drinking in a pub where it a was a couple of pence a pint cheaper in the vault, as a student in the now closed Victoria in Stoke-on-Trent, and the end of "dry Sundays" in some areas (I seem to recall heavily Nonconformist parts of Wales holding out on that front well into the 1980's).

"The drinks they consume could be had at any Off-Licence at prices about one-third lower"

Bottled beer is still cheaper in off-licences than pubs, although I'd have thought that most people drinking in the latter would, as now, order draught beer. Up until at least the  60's, many pubs also had a separate "outdoor"/bottle and jug for off-licence sales where I'd guess prices for bottled and draught beer were the same as in the public bar/vault.

"Cases of drunkenness are to-day negligible in Britain."

I reckon that was even less true then than it is now.

"There is also the essentially English custom of "treating"."

Although now better known as buying rounds, a sociable tradition that is thankfully still going strong.

"In the public bar a dozen or so workmen are drinking beer and enjoying the sandwiches they have brought with them. Four of them are playing darts."

Good luck with finding a pub with a public bar/vault where you can bring your own food and there's a dart board.

"It is two o'clock and no more drink may be served...Reluctantly the glasses are drained and the last customer disappears. The pub is closed until 5.30 when the real business of the day will begin."

I just about remember afternoon closing too, although I thought it started at three o'clock?

"Let us hope that you, too, will one day accompany us into the saloon bar...(by then the beer may be stronger!)"

Richard Boston's Beer and Skittles has a handy table giving the average original gravity of English beer in the twentieth century: in 1923, it was 1042 (much lower than it had been before World War I), in 1933, (after teetotal Chancellor Philip Snowden's 1931 Budget) 1039, in 1948, after another World War, 1032, and in 1953 1036, stopping around that mark until 1973. I don't know what it is now, but I'd guess that it's slightly higher at about 1040.


  1. I well remember afternoon closing, usually at 3pm, although in some places it was 2.30pm, and always 2pm on Sunday. Market towns sometimes had all day opening on market days for the convenience of those attending the market; Ormskirk was one.

    It could be quite frustrating when we were students, enjoying a few lunchtime drinks, and then the bar shutting for two and a half hours, after which the mood had long gone. We could have gone to an off licence, of course, and continued drinking that way, but we rarely did, because drinking in a room in our halls of residence was not the same as drinking in the pub.

    All day opening began in August 1988; I was on holiday at Whitby Folk Week at the time, and it felt really odd to be drinking in a pub at four in the afternoon. It was seven more years before all day drinking was allowed on Sunday.

  2. I think the claim that food was virtually unknown was rather exaggerated - see this blogpost.

    Afternoon closing was 3 pm in the North and in London, and 2.30 in the South and Midlands. There was a line between the two that meandered across England - for example, Shrewsbury was 3 pm, but Wolverhampton 2.30.

    Some towns, such as Northampton and Worcester, were as early as 2.00 pm, while Wigan was 3.30 pm, and many places in the South Wales Valleys as late as 4 or 4.30 pm. I have no idea why, though.

    Evening closing also varied between 10.30 and 11.