Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944

Gulliver in a pub by Victoria Davidson (?)

The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about — or maybe an exposé of — bar staff in London pubs.

It’s credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ and is entitled Gulliver Peeps Behind the Bar implying a connection to the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s perhaps not the stuff footnotes are made of, unless carefully worded. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plenty of creative licence in writing up material from various sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:

‘You’ll get thirty-five bob a week,’ said the barmaid ducking through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her peroxide head popped up again in the frame of the ornamental bottles and frosted glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morning til eleven at night.’

She went on to detail the various ways barmaids in London pubs compensate themselves for their miserable lot, namely ‘fiddling’.

‘Go on with you,’ said the barmaid. ‘You know what fiddling is, making a bit on the side.’ She gave a mascara wink.

First, there was the barmaid who took additional compensation in the form of drink, ‘a bottle of gin before breakfast’, the empty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sherry’ to cover her tracks. The customers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.

The cover of Lilliput, December 1944.

Then there was a barman who was in the habit of slipping coins into his waistcoat but was found out because his pocket was wet: ‘Don’t you know that money taken over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the prevalence of this kind of thing, according to Gulliver’s informant, most pubs banned bar staff from having any money in their pockets at all.

There were various methods for fiddling the till. First, there’s the simple wheeze of taking orders for multiple rounds but only ringing up the price of one — easy, but risky. Alternatively, they might work with a friend posing as a customer on the other side of the bar: ‘Every time the accomplice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elaborate approach sounds positively ingenious:

Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The people in the bar used to drop the money on the floor, shuffle it down the hole and the cellarman used to catch it in a beer filter.

She explained that such dishonest bar staff worked in gangs, moving around to avoid the police, and alternating so that some worked while others laid low. They found new jobs using forged references, ‘sixpence each’.

The article concludes with details of a clever customer-side con trick that’s new to us:

The most famous trick is called ‘Ringing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Immediately after, the accomplice goes into the public bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the number. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accomplice had just handed in. Well, when that happens, the landlord has to pay up.

Can anyone who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still happens today, or have CCTV and the death of the multi-bar layout out done for this (ahem) fine old tradition?

The main illustration above is signed ‘Victoria’ which we think means it’s by Victoria Davidson, 1915-1999.

12 thoughts on “Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944”

  1. Somewhere I have a 1960s guide to working as a barman. It warns you of strangers with umbrellas. They’ll ask you to bring them an item from a far corner of the bar. As you turn your back they’ll spear themselves a free packet of cigarettes from the back bar with the pre-sharpened end of their brolly. Scams had more style back then

  2. ‘Gulliver’ might just be to go with Lilliput – was it a widely-used pseudonym?

    I’ve never seen a copy of Lilliput, but I confess to a mild fascination – it & its kind were the original ‘magazines for men’, in the days before that just meant pr0n (and when the latter would have been effectively illegal anyway). Does it read as particularly blokey now?

    1. Blokey wouldn’t be the word; ‘chappish’, maybe. Lots of full-page photos, two of which might be classed as titillating — there’s a single nipple visible in one! Elsewhere it’s humorous stories about the war, James Mason on the public perception that he was an insane woman-hater, and lots of ads for Y-fronts, socks, razors…

  3. When I worked in a pub we weren’t allowed to have money on us. All our stuff was locked away at the start of each shift. We weren’t allowed a drink either other than water. It was a good policy actually.

  4. I think the guide referred to by Mark is “Bar Service (a non-technical manual for male and female bar staff)” by James H Coombs, first published in 1965 by Barrie and Rockliff. It mentions a number of ploys by shady customers, including the “Ringing the Changes” trick mentioned above (though the pound note has become a fiver). Derek Cooper’s “The Beverage Report” (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) includes a chapter (“A little gold mine”) which describes various methods of fiddling by bar staff, including the simple one whereby a barman “may draw a half of bitter and then pointedly raise his glass to a group of customers with a merry ‘Cheers then’, and short of asking the group point blank the landlord has no way of checking whether his barman has been bought a drink or has just helped himself”.

    Lilliput did, of course, publish “The Lilliput Beer Book” in 1956, compiled by Andrew Campbell of “The Book of Beer” fame. I suspect it has been mentioned already here; but, if not, it is worth a look, particularly for its (not wholly accurate) map of breweries in England and Wales and its table of bottled beers brewed by a selection of UK breweries.

      1. I enjoyed your comments on the Lilliput guide – including your suggestion that it deals with beer as “part of an aspirational manly lifestyle, along with table tennis, rock climbing, MG cars, Terylene™ socks, pipe tobacco and American fountain pens”. With a limited interest in any of these other than beer, I am clearly failing to achieve that manly lifestyle – very disappointing!

        1. If you’re in the market for American fountain pens, check out a Chinese brand called Hero. These come from a factory which was originally a Parker factory. When Chairman Mao took over and nationalised them, they continued making pens with the same equipment, but with the slow speed of innovation typical of state-directed economies, so you are effectively getting a 1940s Parker.

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