Not Enough Opening Hours in the Day

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

It seems that this is ‘Quirks of Licensing Law’ season here on the blog: today, a few notes on the problems, and opportunities, of neighbouring districts with different pub opening hours.

The 1921 Licensing Act gave magistrates the freedom to fix within limits the opening and closing hours of pubs in their districts. In London in particular, this led to great consternation among publicans, who simply wanted uniform pub opening hours from, say, 11 am to 11 pm.

It also turned the whole business into something of a game, as one report in The Times pointed out:

A curious effect of these varying hours is that anybody setting out to get drink during as long a period of the day as possible could begin at 11 am in Kensington, continue — if he took lunch — until 3:30 pm, start again at 4:30 in Stoke Newington, and by returning to the Holborn area have a glass before him until half an hour after midnight. (03/11/1921, p.7.)

What was fun for some, however, meant trouble for others. In 1929, Mr E.H. Keen, chair of the Holborn Licensing Justices, told the Royal Commission on Licensing of the result of Holborn’s pubs staying open until 11 while those in neighbouring Marylebone, Finsbury and St Pancras closed at 10:

Between the hours of 10 and 11 outsiders from all quarters pour into Holborn, and the scenes in the public-houses nearest the boundaries baffle description. The bars are overcrowded with disorderly men and women, many of them the worse for drink, and at closing time they are turned out with difficulty and behave outside in the most disgusting and rowdy manner. The nuisance to the neighbours is unbearable… The condition of things is a disgrace to civilisation. All decency is disregarded. (Lancs Evening Post, 05/12/1929, p.7.)

But it would take years for this problem to even begin to be solved — until the 1961 Licensing Act, as far as we can tell — during which time the strategies of drinkers became cleverer and more elaborate as they learned of more dodges and tricks.

Book cover: What's Yours? by T.E.B. Clarke, 1938.T.E.B. Clarke, author of the 1938 comic guide book What’s Yours?, was evidently a master as shown by the chapter entitled ‘Round the Clock in Publand’ which set out a plan for how to ‘revel in the twenty-hour Publand day’:

Towards five o’clock in the morning, tracks may be made for the market districts of Smithfield, Billingsgate or Covent Garden, where at this hour the pubs first open. It is true that only those with work to do in the markets are legally entitled to enter them; but that does not deter the true pubman, who considers that the small outlay required to make him a meat, fish or fruit trader in a modest way is excellent value for the right it gives him to drink at dawn without interference from the police or trouble with the Guv’nor.

He also suggested, as an alternative, some sample dialogue to break into if a policeman should appear:

“I tell you, old man, what with this present spate of heavy hoggets, and fat tegs down to sixty-one bob, I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for the springers.”

The pubs in Smithfield closed at 8 am when there was ‘a swift exodus to Covent Garden’ until 9 am. Then there was an enforced ‘dry period’ until 10 am, during which time, according to Clarke, those in the know headed to Romford, Ongar or Brentwood…

for these lie in the east, and thus receive the full blessings of the Publand sun half an hour or an hour in advance of other parts. (A much-favoured motor-coach leaves Aldgate at 9:14 every morning and reaches Romford at 10.09.)

Afternoons were problematic and Clarke recommended (a) on Tuesday or Friday, Caledonian Market, when pubs opened from 10 am to 10 pm; (b) a football match, race meeting or the bar at Lord’s Cricket Ground; or (c) the rather desperate measure of ‘bottled beer or spirits and rides in a Pullman to Brighton and back’.

His suggestion was to kick off the evening session in the City, East End or Kensington, where the pubs opened slightly earlier after their enforced afternoon break, finishing the night in Holborn or West London to take advantage of theatre-land’s 11 pm closing. ‘Those who do not mind being seated in front of sandwiches’, he concluded, ‘may now carry on till midnight in almost any licensed restaurant, after which it will not be difficult to find one enjoying its weekly extension night.’

Frankly, it all sounds exhausting.

We’ll leave you with one last quotation, this time from a 1964 article by architectural critic Ian Nairn, collected in Nairn’s Towns (2013), which shows the glee felt by a ‘dedicated pub man’ (that is, a barely functioning alcoholic) on discovering a licensing hours wheeze:

For me, Brighton is a fairy tale come true, even to the means of getting there. I can leave my Pimlico flat at 8:45 and catch the nine o’clock from Victoria, which gets to Brighton at ten. Five minutes later, thanks to what are sometimes inappropriately  called ‘country’ opening hours, I can be enjoying the day’s first Guinness with the sea twinkling away to the other end of Queen’s Road…

10 thoughts on “Not Enough Opening Hours in the Day”

  1. 1964 was the year of Nairn’s London; I don’t think he’d qualified as a “barely-functioning alcoholic” by then. That quote does show a rather alarming zest in the first pint of the day, though.

    1. A flippant point, really, about ‘dedicated pub men’, but Nairn’s London (1966) was really his last really great piece of work — Nairn’s Paris which followed was scrappy and various other projects, such as a guide to the industrial north, fell by the wayside. All the way through his TV career, from the late 1960s onwards, he seems to have been constructing his schedule around pub opening hours, and was reportedly only fit to film before lunchtime on most days, so its really remarkable he achieved as much as he did.

      1. Poor bugger – not that he didn’t do all right before the beer lorry ran him over, and even for a while afterwards. Can’t help feeling there must have been something wrong way back; maybe too far back for anyone to do anything about, though. The Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean died of cirrhosis of the liver; when somebody asked him how he’d become an alcoholic, he said, “I first drank alcohol when I was twelve. I liked it, so I carried on.” There but for fortune, eh?

  2. Even in the 70s and 80s, there was a wide variation in opening hours. Some places, mainly in the South, allowed the pubs to open at 10 am, but further North it could be 11 or 11.30. Lunchtime closing was 2 pm in a few towns like Worcester and Northampton, generally 2.30 in the South and 3 in the North, but as late as 4.30 in parts of South Wales. Evening opening was generally 6 in the South and 5.30 in the North, but 5 in some places.

    Of course, back then, it was rare for a pub not to open its full permitted hours, except maybe for not opening until 7 pm on Saturday evenings. It’s likely that many pubs actually open shorter hours in total now than they did thirty years ago.

    I agree with Phil’s comment about Ian Nairn, btw.

    1. That reminds me of another phenomenon we’ve lost, the afternoon lock-in. I remember sticking my head hopefully round the door of a pub in Laugharne that appeared still to be open in mid-afternoon. Seven or eight blokes dotted around the bar looked round at me and called out “We’re closed!”.

  3. In my Northern home town before all day opening there were various WMCs that specialised in afternoon opening when the pubs were shut. Those clubs are defunct and maybe soon the early morning clubs may close, I cannot imagine why that would happen. Cannot be the Wetherspoons. I always imagined that all towns had WMCs that would specialise in afternoon opening. From a Thursday night to Monday morning I can still drink legitimately in the local area.

    In the mid 90’s in London I had a couple of 48 hour drinking circuits, Shepherd’s Bush always as the alpha and omega.

    A friend was on the last ever london to Brighton (Belle?) Booze train. Apparently a very tearful occasion.

  4. In Birkenhead the Beehive club was a favourite afternoon haunt. Cheshire introduced 11:00 p.m. closing at the weekend some time in the early 80s but Merseyside not for another 4 or 5 years. My local in Bebington would empty after 10:00 p.m. as drinkers jumped into their cars (!) to gain the extra half hours imbibing.

  5. My mate’s favourite story (lie) is that pubs next to primary schools were exempt from afternoon closing so the teachers could get a pint in at half three once the kids had left (not secondary schools, obviously, that would be ridiculous…).

    Thing is, there are a surprising number of pubs next to primary schools in London and every time I see one I think “ah, primary school pub” before remembering it’s not actually a true thing that happened…

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