The Renaissance of the English Public House

A State Management house: The Apple Tree.

Basil Oliver’s The Renaissance of the English Public House was published in 1949 1947 and argues that the period between the two World Wars was a golden age of pub design and building.

Cover: The Renaissance of the English Public House.It is printed on post-war paper (rough and yellowing) but is crammed with photographs and floor-plans of specific pubs up and down the country.

In his introduction, Oliver observes that, in the period before World War I, new pub buildings were rare because of the ‘misguided idea… that to improve buildings was to encourage drinking’. He observes, however, that the prohibitionist urge actually triggered a great resurgence in pub design and building: when the state began to run the brewing and pub industry in Carlisle in 1916, ‘it permitted unhampered experiments in many directions, but especially in the evolution of the public house’.

County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.
County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.

An entire chapter of the book is given over to the Carlisle State Management scheme. During WWI, Oliver says, improvements were limited: the removal of hard-to-supervise snugs and ‘snuggeries’ (small compartments) to create ‘light and airy cheerfulness’. After the war, new buildings were commissioned, including The Gretna Tavern, which replaced (Oliver reckons) six ‘snug-type houses’. We could not help but think of Wetherspoon’s.

Away from specific pubs, the more general detail Oliver provides on contemporary pub culture offer a useful companion piece to the Mass Observation book The Pub and the People. On alternative names for the ‘public bar’, he observes that ‘Tap Room’ is out of fashion, and…

Saloon Bar has a faint suggestion of superiority, and is the haunt of the ‘toffs’ (or would-be toffs) but even they frequently require the inevitable darts-board. Smoking Room… is also popular…. Private Bar and Bar Parlour… are equally indicative of their purpose — private transactions and intimate conversations — and from being popular with the fair sex have virtually become, in many houses, a Women’s Bar.

The last, lingering remains of Victorian morality can be detected in a coy discussion of toilets: ladies’ and gentlemen’s lavatories, he insists, must be apart from each other, secluded, but also easy to supervise. (The horrifying fact that people of both sexes piss must be kept secret, but there should be no opportunities for hanky-panky either.) Even today, it occured to us, the easiest way to find the ladies’ toilet is usually to walk as far from the gents’ as possible, and vice versa.

As for beer, Oliver is quite clear: ‘From the consumer’s point of view, the ideal way of receiving his beer is direct “from the wood”, and — on a hot summer’s day — from a very cool cellar.’ Cellars, he suggests, should be cut off from the outside world, running with damp, have earth floors, and be exposed as much as possible to the cool soil beyond their walls. The ideal, he concedes, is rarely possible:

More likely is it that new ways of drawing draught beer will be invented for conditioning draught beer which will eliminate all the complicated paraphernalia of beer engines, air-pressure installations, flexible pipes…

The grand ‘Tudor mansions’ of Mitchells & Butlers in Birmingham are also granted a chapter of their own, highlighting the advantages to brewers of building on new sites rather than restoring old pub buildings: restaurants, car parks, gardens, and even bowling greens were common. London gets a chapter of its own, too, with the rest of the country, from Liverpool to Devon, wrapped up in two more general surveys of urban and ‘wayside’ pubs.

We spent a bit of time looking up pubs mentioned on Google Street View. Many are gone altogether. Others were rebuilt on the same scale but with less style. A few remain, but often defaced with plastic banners, ugly signage, and accumulated grime: the Apple Tree in Carlisle, featured in the big image at the top, is now ‘Pippins‘, and still a handsome building.

For a rather specialised, technical book, Oliver’s prose is very readable, with the occasional amusing turn of phrase and impassioned diatribe. We paid around £20 for our copy, which is not in great condition, but it isn’t rare or hard-to-find. Depending on how interested you are in the detail of pub design and/or this particular period, that might seem a bit steep, but we enjoyed it.

15 thoughts on “The Renaissance of the English Public House”

    1. Somewhere, we’ve got a great article about the ‘darts craze’ — 1930s onwards, I think. Must dig it out.

  1. A problem with many of these “improved” pubs is that, while often designed with great care and architecturally impressive, they never really “worked” as pubs and were not popular with customers who preferred something more cosy and intimate.

    In the modern era their large footprint has made them attractive for redevelopment while in many places their smaller and older brethren are still in business.

    While it may not have been the case in London, in the pre-WW1 era there was a lot of new pub building in the North-West, resulting in edifices like this.

    1. Well, that’s it — he’s an architect and is talking in purely idealistic terms about ‘great buildings’.

      There’s also some interesting stuff about refurbishing smaller country inns, often replacing boring but authentic frontages with inauthentic Olde Worlde half-timbering and other such affected archaisms. Has made us wonder how many ‘quaint old pubs’ actually have frontages from c.1935.

  2. Do Whitbread get a mention? One of the things Sydney Neville talks about in his autobiography is the struggle to improve pubs against the objections of prohibitionists.

    1. Yes, although they don’t feature as prominently as others. The King of Bohemia in Hamsptead gets a shout out: “…a model of economic planning”.

    1. It’s an ‘open gallery or verandah’, so presumably a way to enjoy the terrace without going out in the rain.

  3. presumably he didnt much like Tolly Follies either, but as he designed pubs for many breweries in the 1930s, I think Greene King commissioned a few & theres certainly a heritage pub in Cambridge he designed. But might his views then necessarily champion his architectural vision over and above and at the expense of his rivals, or different approaches?

  4. Purely for info purposes …

    My copy of this book was originally priced at 25 shillings !
    I purchased a copy in 2013 for £20.00p from a Cardiff book shop.

    My copy was published in 1947, (not ’49 as stated above).
    It has 114 B+W plates
    There are 52 pages of floor plans of some of the pubs mentioned.

    1. Dave — you’re quite right, it was published in 1947. We can only blame a mental block on our part. Post corrected!

  5. The County Arms is in a very sorry state nowadays. It’s actually a rather uncompromisingly modernist building that on first impression I would have said was postwar rather than 1930s.

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