Public Houses (Pubs), like fish and chips and village cricket, are a bastion of the English. It is an institution that did not really have a foreign equivalent until the “English/Irish theme pub” became popular a few decades ago. Being such a fundamental part of the UK’s heritage, it is unsurprising that such establishments have inspired many great writers, including Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and George Orwell. Johnson in particular, together with the diarist Samuel Pepys, was a devotee of the London drinking house. A quote by the 19th-century lawyer and politician Sir William Harcourt (1827–1904), who served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under William Gladstone, perhaps summed things up: “As much of the history of England has been brought about in public houses as in the House of Commons.”
Although in modern-day parlance there is a blurring of the terms “public house,” “inn,” “tavern,” etc, there was, as we shall see, a definitive difference between these types of “on the premises” drinking establishments. These are not to be confused with “off-licences,” where liquor is retailed for consumption off the premises. Thus, we can speak of on-trade and off-trade. The exact derivation of the term “public house” is obscure, although it probably arose as a contracted form of public alehouse (in contrast to small, illicit, private alehouses) and first seems to have been used in the late 17th century. The term became more frequently applied to alehouses in early Hanoverian England. However they are named, the history of these places of refreshment can ultimately be traced back to the Roman occupation of Britain, when roadside watering holes sprang up alongside roads. These establishments, variously known as diversoria, cauponae, or tabernae diversoriae, were meant to provide respite for the weary traveler (and his horse). The Romano-British equivalents of publicans, therefore, were diversores or caupones.
Pub heritage may go back even further because, during the Celtic period, there was an order of people called beatachs or brughnibhs, who were keepers of open houses established for the expressed purpose of hospitality. Like their Roman counterparts, these premises were not merely drinking houses; food and entertainment were also available. Similar premises existed in Italy as well, and we know that in Herculaneum there were no fewer than 900 public houses. It was not until Anglo-Saxon times that something like the alehouse, where consuming strong drink was the main aim, developed—but then the Anglo-Saxons did not consider drunkenness dishonorable.
Further afield, we know that inns existed in classical Greece and Rome and that ancient China harbored similar establishments. Korschmas, tavern-like premises, were available to 12th-century peasants in parts of what is now Poland and Russia, and contemporary writings from colonial Mexico indicate the presence of innumerable pulquerias, where the indigenous beverage could be purchased. Likewise, visitors to Japan during the 17th century pontificate about numerous small shops/inns selling sake. As the rise of industrialization and urbanization spread throughout Western Europe and North America, so did the influence of the public drinking place. It seems as though Europeans exported their drinking and social habits to the colonies of the New World.
Legend has it that the Roman drinking houses that had been established in Britain were destroyed by the Anglo-Saxon invaders and that for a couple of centuries, at least, there were no public places of rest and refreshment. New establishments evolved, however, and it was in Anglo-Saxon times that Britain saw the first real distinctions between drinking houses open to the public because those ancients recognized the alehouse (eala-hus), the winehouse (win-hus), and the inn (cumen-hus). The latter is certainly of Anglo-Saxon origin, and, like the hostel, was meant to signify a lodging house, not a place for drinking.
Manorial records indicate that local controls over drinking were in force throughout medieval times, but these did little to prevent drunkenness and social disorder. Distinctions between drinking places became more precise when licensing them became a requisite. This aspect of the industry dates from the reign of Edward VI, with acts being passed in 1552 and 1553. The Alehouse Act of 1552 (5 and 6 Edw. VI c.25) was the first attempt to nationally coordinate existing controls, and from this point, an alehouse was a place where only ale (or beer) was sold. An inn provided bed and board, as well as beer, and the tavern provided liquor other than ale and/or beer and might also provide accommodation. The Act of 1552 gave justices of the peace power to license or to suppress houses, and licensees had to supply surety for good behavior and the prevention of drunkenness on their premises.
In 1577, there was a census of alehouses, inns, and taverns in England, and the results showed that there were around 14,000 alehouses, 1,631 inns, and 329 taverns, plus about 3,500 other unclassified licences. The census was to form a basis for making a levy on drinking places to raise money for the repair of Dover Harbor (at the rate of 2 s 6 d [12½ p] per license). The figures obtained from the census indicated there was one license for every 187 people, 9 alehouses to every inn, and around 40 alehouses to every tavern.
The importance of drinking houses to the general populace and the predilection for overindulging in them at this period fostered a vociferous anti-drink faction
I say that it is a horrible vice, and too much used in England. Every county, city, town, village, and other places hath abundance of alehouses, taverns, and inns, which are so fraught with malt-worms, night and day, that you would wonder to see them. You shall have them there sitting at the wine and good-ale all the day long, yea, all the night too, peradventure a whole week together, so long as any money is left; swilling, gulling and carousing from one to another, till never a one can speak a ready word …And a man once drunk with wine or strong drink rather resembling a brute than a Christian man, for do not his eyes begin to stare and be red, fiery and bleared, blubbering forth seas of tears? Doth he not froth and foam at the mouth like a bear? Doth not his tongue falter and stammer in his mouth?
After the Restoration in Great Britain there was a trend toward more extensive, better controlled drinking premises, and magistrates, who supervised licensing matters, started to insist that licensed premises should be equipped with stabling (previously confined to inns) and lodgings. By restricting licenses to specific houses within the community, magistrates gave an incentive to publicans to enlarge and improve their properties. In 1739, a public house for sale in Leeds was described as “a new brick-built house, garret height, well guested, with a good stable …good vaulted cellars, brew-house, and a well.” All this, of course, meant that property and rental values increased. In the 1690s it was claimed that two-thirds of all pubs in the country paid over £5 (c. $8.15) per annum in rent. Rents were especially high in London and other cities, and in 1725, The Public-Housekeeper’s Monitor complained of “high rents to which public houses are generally advanced so as very often to exceed double the rents of private ones of the same real goodness.” In addition, incoming landlords in London were expected to pay a premium for “goodwill,” a practice that continues to this day.
It should be stressed that even up until the early 18th century, the name alehouse was still being widely applied, even for houses with improved facilities. Many of the basic functions of the alehouse persisted, but the ever-increasing demands of a more sophisticated clientele resulted in many more facilities being required (and provided). There was also more respectability, and premises located in cellars, down narrow back-alleys, or on the remote outskirts of town were no longer acceptable. The provision of food might no longer be the major source of income for a publican anymore. As the century progressed, many landlords moved away from brewing to concentrate on retailing beer and other commodities. In any case, the publican who made both beer and food was finding it harder to compete, quality-wise, with ever more competent common brewers. Having said this, the brewpub was to have a resurgence during the late 20th century and would form an important segment of the “microbrewery revolution.”
By the start of the 19th century, the term “alehouse” had largely been replaced by public house, and within a few decades the “pub” had arrived. Premises increased in size, and a class of professional, prosperous, and well-established landlords was developing. From the 1810s and 1820s, purpose-built pubs began to appear in London and other major centers of population. The old alehouse had essentially been an ordinary dwelling place that had been adapted (to varying degrees) to retail beer. Henceforth, brewers, landowners, and builders started to construct public houses with identifiable facades and fittings that were solely for the purpose of retailing liquor. These new buildings could be expensive; the estimated cost of a new house in London in 1814 was reckoned to be £1,000–£2,000 (1,643–3,286 US dollars), with those in the countryside being around half that.
Many of these new pubs were built on new sites, in expanding urban areas, but many replaced older, smaller premises. Occasionally, established inns were converted into new-style pubs, and it was not uncommon for the more pretentious landlord to present his house as a tavern or an inn, when all he really sold was beer; this further blurred the distinction between the outlets. By the 1830s, an informal hierarchy of public houses was evolving, and this would largely supplant the traditional taxonomy of inns, taverns, and alehouses. The largest and most commercially oriented pubs were mostly in towns, usually along major thoroughfares or on street corners. This maximized their visibility and was aimed at attracting a better-off clientele, especially through passing trade. Smaller, less elaborate houses would be found off of the main roads and served local, generally less affluent, customers. This period also saw the evolution of “ethnic” houses in larger towns and cities.
Illicit, unlicensed drinking houses (hush shops) also abounded during the early 19th century, and pubs had to compete with them. Some were merely small, run-down alehouses, whereas others catered to specific sectors of society, such as “flash houses” (criminals and prostitutes) and “dram shops” (spirit drinkers). The notorious metropolitan gin shops, whose numbers soared at this time, were often little more than a single room in someone’s house—then there were the gin palaces, which were starting to emerge. Very often, when a backstreet alehouse lost its license, it would re-emerge as an illicit gin shop. The high density of drinking houses in prime areas was a cause of concern for magistrates and for publicans, as well as the emerging police force. In 1823, the Liverpool Mercury complained that within 300 yards of a new marketplace there were over 100 licensed premises. Magistrates were clearly having a hard time regulating the sale of liquor, and in 1818 some 14,000 Londoners petitioned Parliament against the high price and poor quality of alcoholic drink sold in the capital. By this point, there was a widespread populist belief that public houses were controlled by a corrupt political establishment, and there was a growing movement for the liberalization of the liquor trade.
In 1830, in response to the growing unpopularity of brewers and publicans and concern at the volume of gin being drunk, the burdensome tax on beer was abolished and some licensing laws were changed. This Beer Act (1Wm.IV c.64) reversed the licensing policy of the previous couple of centuries and allowed any rate-paying householder to sell beer, ale, and cider without consent from local justices, but by taking out an excise license from the Excise authorities. It also allowed pubs to open for 18 hours a day, except Sunday (they were already open from 6:00 am until 9:00 pm), but they could not sell spirits or fortified wines. This was a genuine (if misguided) attempt to “improve the plight of the working classes,” but the immediate impact was the mushrooming of “beer-only” premises all over England and Wales, and these were known as “beer shops” or “beer houses.” Some 25,000 licenses were taken out in the first 6 months, and this number rose to around 46,000 after 6 years (there were only around 56,000 fully licensed pubs). The Act became known as the Duke of Wellington’s Beer House Act, after the then prime minister. The fee for such an establishment was 2 guineas per annum, and the license included permission to brew.
The immediate result was an increase in bad behavior. Sydney Smith, a contemporary Whig reformer, penned the following classic lines: “The new beer bill has begun its operations. Everybody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling. The sovereign people are in a beastly state.”
Peter Clark correctly observed that the 1830 Act marked the end of the English alehouse (and, by connotation, its evolution into the pub) and as a kind of obituary penned the following: “The enduring reason for the success of the alehouse in the centuries before 1830 is that it was quintessentially a neighbourhood theatre in the widest sense, in which ordinary people could be actors and observers. Against the backdrop of its flickering fire men could gossip and rant, joke, laugh and posture, sublimate their miseries in drunkenness, applaud their own success in generosity and games.”
In cities like London, it seemed as though the construction of public houses was central to the strategies of the developers in many areas between the 1830s and 1860s. At first, most of these new pubs were almost indistinguishable from the rows of terraced houses around them, but by the time of the beer boom of the 1860s and 1870s, their design became increasingly more distinct. Public house building probably reached its acme during the late Victorian/Edwardian period when we witnessed palatial buildings containing numerous rooms, each with its own appeal (public bar, saloon bar, etc), and, very often, rooms designated for meetings, snooker, and the like. Some specimens still exist, and the wondrous Barton Arms, Aston, Birmingham, is one of the finest examples of Victorian pub architecture.
The Beer Act held sway for just under 40 years, for, in the 1869 Wine and Beerhouse Act, the stricter controls of yesteryear were reintroduced. It was now once again necessary for publicans to obtain their licenses from justices. The 1872 Intoxicating Liquor (licensing) Act reinforced this legislation and obliged clerks of licensing divisions to keep a register of all licenses granted. Licenses were only granted, transferred, or renewed at special Licensing Sessions and would only be granted to respectable individuals. The 1869 Act was to form the basis of pub licensing matters for many years.
During the period 1891–1903, Charles Booth penned his mammoth Life and Labour of the People of London, which detailed the activities of the poor of that time. From the work it is evident how important the pub was to that unfortunate section of society. He declared, “public houses play a larger part in the lives of the people than clubs or friendly societies, churches or missions, or perhaps than all put together.”
World War I had a major effect on both public houses and breweries. Within 4 days of the declaration of war, on August 4, 1914, the first of a series of regulations under the broad title of Defence of the Realm Acts was introduced. These gave the authorities the power to pass laws necessary for securing public safety and the defense of the realm. Regulation 7 gave naval and military authorities the power to determine licensing hours in or near any defended harbor. Regulation 17 made it an offense to encourage members of His Majesty’s armed forces to drink “with the intention of becoming drunk.” This Act also gave local magistrates the power to control opening hours of licensed premises in areas that were considered “sensitive,” such as railway marshalling yards. Then, on August 31, the Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act was enacted, which gave magistrates even more power to curtail drinking in sensitive areas, a description that applied to almost 25% of all licensing districts in the UK. Pubs affected by these regulations had their opening hours “temporarily” restricted to 11 am to 2.30 pm and 6.30 pm to 9.30 pm. By the end of the War, some 94% of all British citizens had been subjected to limited drinking opportunities. The evening limit was increased to 11 pm, and these hours persisted until the 2003 Licensing Act, which, in theory allowed “all-day drinking.”
Even with these measures, a shortage of munitions that jeopardized the war effort in early 1915 was attributed to drink. The then chancellor Lloyd George urged moderation, saying: “Drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together …We are fighting Germany, Austria, and Drink, and as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is Drink.”
This speech was monumentally significant because it meant that concern over the drink problem was no longer confined to an enthusiastic temperance lobby, it was now a matter of national importance, and greater powers were considered necessary. Such powers arrived with the Defense of the Realm Amendment, which created a new body, the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic), which possessed huge powers over licensing hours and other licensing matters and the power to “acquire” pubs and breweries in “sensitive” areas. Within weeks, the sale of alcohol was banned in Newhaven (Sussex) from which munitions were shipped to France. The same happened in other ports, such as Southampton and Bristol. Because of production problems in nearby munitions factories, in January 1916 the Control Board embarked on measures that would see Carlisle’s 4 breweries and some 235 pubs in and around the town being taken under government control. These were then run (mostly inefficiently) by managers—an innovation in the industry—and a number of pubs were closed (especially the men-only drinking houses). This Carlisle and District State Management Scheme had a policy of running fewer, but “better” pubs, and by 1920 their estate had been reduced by 40%. The Scheme lasted until 1974, when the property was denationalized and purchased by T. & R. Theakston Ltd, of Masham, Yorkshire.
Despite a difficult financial climate between the two World Wars, around one-quarter of the UK’s pubs were improved in some way. No longer would the majority of the population tolerate the basic “boozer” as a place of recreation. Over the next few decades, the public house milieu would change drastically, and from consisting of a humble cheese roll, food provision has improved beyond recognition. Today’s pub is as much about food as drink, and more than 80% serve a variety of food.
Identification of the presence of drinking places has always been critical and originally involved the hanging-up of a recognizable object outside the premises concerned. Objects gradually became painted signs and eventually lettering was added. Names such as Sun and Star became common. The most common pub name in Britain is the Red Lion, followed by Royal Oak, White Hart, Rose and Crown, Kings Head, and Kings Arms. All of these have special significance as far as British history is concerned.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the British pub is at a crossroads. Most are now owned by mammoth pub companies, the “pubcos,” many of which are more interested in real estate than selling beer. The number of outlets is in decline, with around 50 closing per week in 2010. The reasons put forward are simple: spiralling costs, declining sales, and the 2007 smoking ban. Beer sales are at their lowest since the Depression of the 1930s. Those pubs not focusing on food have been the hardest hit. Many pubs are now restaurants in all but name and represent 40% of all catering outlets in Britain. Catering now accounts for around one-quarter of pub turnover.
In the past, the public house has been the subject of much literary attention and, keeping in mind the vast amount of pleasure that the pub has brought to its patrons over the years, it is pertinent to take note of the following evocative, oft-quoted words by essayist, poet, and travel writer Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), which illustrate how much of a British institution the public house was at the beginning of the 20th century.
When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.
Belloc also wrote The Four Men, which describes a journey made on foot with three companions from one end of Sussex to the other. The story commences with the author sitting in the George Inn at Robertsbridge and, in the course of his travels, he winds his way through country lanes, where small rural pubs seemingly jump out at every crossroad. In what is much more than a rustic pub crawl, there is mention of a number of establishments, and we are left in no doubt as to Belloc’s love of the English pub: “Is there not the Bridge Inn of Amberley and the White Hart of Storrington, the Spread Eagle of Midhurst, that oldest and most revered of all the prime inns of the world …”
At its best, the English pub, through all of its changes, remains a touchstone. The pub is still the home of Britain’s national drink, cask-conditioned bitter, although it is not nearly so common as it once was, and cellarmanship seems a waning art. But a pub is not a bar, and there is still something left to the idea that it is a “public house.” In most pubs, it remains possible to get a pint of beer at the bar, sit down in a chair, and read a book for the next hour, undisturbed by the patron of the house. In winter, the fireplace may glow with wood or coal. Properly run and well kept by hospitable people, the pub seems a remnant of a more civilized age, even if we know that this age may never have really quite existed.