“The development of Boggleton, a small English town which I have traced at set periods in the next pages, is symptomatic of all England. We can learn the character of a country from the scars and wrinkles on its face.”
John Betjeman, ‘1837-1937’, 1937
With apologies to Sir John what follows is our attempt to condense the overall plot arc of the English pub in the last two centuries. It’s simultaneously a bit of fun — well, it was certainly fun to write — and semi-serious in intent, given that the town is purposefully generic and completely made up.
This also seems like a good place to announce what most of you have probably already guessed from all the hints we’ve been dropping about The Big Project: we have a new book on the way. It’s going to be called 20th Century Pub: from beerhouse to booze bunker and is due out this summer. It covers everything from improved pubs to micropubs (the long 20th Century, shall we say), via estate pubs, theme pubs, Irish pubs, Wetherspoons, and numerous other stops.
Boggleton, being a relatively sober town much dominated by church folk, had only twelve pubs, to serve a population of 3,000 people. They were not called pubs at the time, however. One, The Dolphin, was most certainly a great Inn, situated on the main street, busy with coaches and the horses that drew them. It had beds, served meals (grudgingly, it must be said) and all sorts of drinks from ale to wine. The building rambled, was riddled with mice, and was marked by a gilded sign hanging over the street depicting something like a mer-tiger.
The Red Lion on the market square was smaller, sagging and smoky, intricately half-timbered. It too was an inn, at least on paper, but people rarely stayed or ate there. Sometimes it was referred to as a tavern, but it was not quite that either — there was nothing of the city about it, and it had no wine of distinction. It was most often called a ‘public house’ and was busiest on market days when farmers from the surrounding villages came into town, stuffed into shirts and waistcoats, sweating and merry.
The rest were beerhouses, or beershops – small establishments more-or-less resembling the cottages that surrounded them. They were licensed to sell only beer and were brought into being by the passing of the 1830 Beerhouse Act. None had prominent or elaborate heraldic signs and many were simply known by the names of the people who ran them. Thompson’s Beerhouse was typical: a single room – formerly the parlour of old Thompson’s own home – with bare plaster on the walls, scrubbed floorboards, a bench against one wall, and a wooden cask of home-brewed beer on a rough-hewn table in the corner. The beerhouses could be wild places and soaked up working men’s wages which worried the pious people of the town, but all they could do was complain, and watch like hawks.
When the railway came in the 1850s, New Boggleton was created. There came row after row of houses for railwaymen and for workers at the new factories, as well as suburbs and villas for the well-to-do. And for 100,000 people, twelve pubs were hardly enough.
Despite the efforts of the Boggleton Temperance Society, founded in 1855, the beerhouses had grown in number and some, the most successful, had increased in size, too, until they rivalled The Red Lion. Thompson’s had become The White Hart and scarcely a trace of the original dwelling from which it had sprung remained.
Nor could the Temperance Society prevent the magistrates from granting licences for new beerhouses on street corners among the terraces, until it was said that from any point in town you could always see two pubs. The Venezuela on Oxford Road, serving the piston works, was purpose built by the firm that constructed the surrounding houses in 1860. It was small but nonetheless had two rooms, one a touch more respectable and suitable for foremen and clerks.
Amid the new shops and offices on the busy town centre streets there also appeared a handful of fully-licensed public-houses in a more ornate style gesturing at, but stopping short of, big city glamour. The exterior of The Adamsbec Arms was typical: built by one of the eight local breweries, it was blazoned with painted signs, a large lamp brought up from London hung over the door, and there were classical and gothic details thrown together like fruit in a salad. High windows, sparsely engraved and inlaid with small but colourful stained panels, made warm jewels of the light inside. The pub, named after the wealthy family whose stately home once stood near the town, had pretensions, offering chop lunches, and furnished snugs in which businessmen might conspire. For all that, the main bar was still a bare room where people spat, swore and ate street-sellers’ pies of indeterminate filling.
Road traffic had dwindled and most travellers now stayed at the new Railway Hotel opposite the station, leaving the poor old Dolphin stranded at the tumbledown, half-abandoned village centre. One of its wings was entirely closed off and near collapse — a sad relic of the pre-industrial age.
Eight breweries became six, each with its own estate of fully-licensed pubs (as they had at last come to be known) acquired out of pragmatism as the number of outlets for their beer began to shrink after a long boom. Some pubs that had seemed smart 30 years before were now decrepit and dirty, like The Venezuela. The brewery that owned it had no incentive to keep it up. If a tenant could be found, and the customers kept coming, that was fine. If the council and magistrates pressed them to surrender the licence of this and one or two other pubs in return for the right to build a big new one, where more beer could be sold by fewer staff, all the better.
The third generation of the piston making family – one brother a Liberal politician, the other running the firm – stopped short of being teetotallers but did subscribe to modern ideas about drink and public houses. Consequently, they sponsored a grand new public house on the edge of the factory estate, to be run by a professional manager from London employed on a fixed salary by a trust. It was their idea that, with such a place on their doorstep, the workers might drink less and eat better food, perhaps while reading an improving newspaper. Some did, but others grumbled that The Earl Grey was like ‘a ruddy morgue’ – too big, too clean, with altogether too much sarsaparilla where there ought to be mild ale. If it failed as a pub, The Earl Grey was at least well-built, decorated in the arts and crafts style, and was the making of the young architect who took on the job and wrote it up for the journal of his institute.
Six breweries became two through mergers and expansion. The survivors were both substantial concerns whose managing directors were public school men and members of the Brewers’ Society, more at home in London than Boggleton, truth be told. Greenleaf’s beer was cheap and, it was said, ‘Not fit to wash the dog’, while Ironside specialised in refined draught bitter and bottled pale ale for the national market.
Greenleaf’s estate of pubs was rather sorry comprising most of the remaining slum beerhouses (though no-one called them that anymore) and one larger pub just off the town centre which, though intended to be the flagship house, always looked as if it needed spraying with DDT. They refurbished when the money could be got together but otherwise were quite happy to wait for the pubs to be demolished for road widening or slum clearance and claim compensation.
Ironside, on the other hand, had an in-house architects’ department led by the man who had built The Earl Grey before the war. It was responsible for several impressive new public houses in Boggleton. The Heart of Oak, built to serve Adamsbec, the Homes for Heroes council estate near the old Abbey, came first, with bowling green and baronial affectations. Though only a decade old it was often mistaken for a medieval inn. On summer nights, the sounds of a band could be heard drifting over the lawn as couples in Sunday best swooned on the terrace in the moonlight.
Then, at the head of the widened London road, there came The New Red Lion – new indeed, its outlandish curves covered with white plaster, resembling a cinema or cruise ship more than a pub. In lieu of a painted sign it had a sculpture of a lion that might have passed for something raided from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but was actually the work of a London man who also designed sports cars and, it was said, had two wives. At weekends, the car park filled with motors which disgorged laughing young people into the lounge where they drank cocktails, best bitter and lager. The people in the public bar were just the same Boggleton folk, though, in flat caps and work boots, tiptoeing about to avoid smudging the specially designed geometrically patterned linoleum.
In the meantime, The Dolphin, that ancient coaching inn, lost a wing and all its stables (a branch of Boots was built on the site) but gained a car park. It was given incongruous half-timbering, too – nailed on, in line with fashion, and public expectation of a Quaint Old Inn.
After the war, Ironside swallowed up Greenleaf, and Boggleton found itself down to a single vast, towering brewery – one of the town’s largest employers. The Greenleaf pubs were either sold off or, when permission could be gained from the Ministry, refurbished in a cut-price version of the modern style. Once building restrictions were lifted and the rationing of supplies came to an end, Major Ironside, so often seen shooting about town in a sports car with his military moustache fluttering in the breeze, cut the ribbon on five new pubs in a six-month period.
The Sir Edmund Hillary, The Spitfire, The Atomic Arms, The Pistonmakers and The Longwood were like quintuplets – the same size and basic shape, made from the same materials (brick, wood, glass, asbestos, fibreglass, and so on), and with signs painted by the same artist over the course of one fortnight. Like the new housing estates on which they stood, they were the product of much study and theory, but lacked romance. The city folk who moved to ever-expanding Boggleton to take houses on those estates liked the new pubs well enough but were often to be heard reminiscing in bitter-sweet terms about the Victorian ones they had left behind.
The Heart of Oak on the inter-war housing estate had gone bad. Major Ironside regarded it as a burden – too big, too elaborately decorated, too old-fashioned, and too out of the way to be turned into a restaurant. An attempt to bring it up to date by knocking down interior walls and closing the billiard room did little to help. The council bought the bowling green and on it erected a health centre.
The New Red Lion, on the other hand, had found a place for itself as a place where boys on motorbikes congregated. They drank more coffee than beer, and occasionally raced or brawled, but it was better than demolition, just.
The Dolphin had shrunk further and become a tea shop – hardly The Dolphin at all, except that the sign remained. The Old Red Lion, however, was much as it had ever been only now university people with architectural gazetteers came to look at it and take photographs: ‘A remarkable survival! Fine vernacular style.’
Ironside having sold out in the 1960s almost all of Boggleton’s pubs now belonged to one of the big London breweries who had outfitted them with up-to-date matching plastic signs in the corporate style.
There were exceptions. In the old town centre, now crowded with antique shops, The Dolphin became a pub once again under a sign that said: ‘THE OLDEST PUB IN BOGGLETON’.
The owners of The Red Lion disagreed, of course, and had signs of their own: ‘A PUB FOR AT LEAST 400 YEARS – 10 REAL ALES’. There, a refit carried out in the 1970s had added more wooden beams, brand new authentic fireplaces, and at least a ton of horse brasses. The line of hand-pumps ensured a constant turnover of out-of-town pilgrims as well as a regular clientele of social workers, college lecturers, and journalists from the local newspaper.
A few doors down was The Angel Inn, converted from a run of three ancient cottages knocked together, and with yet another sign: ‘ON THIS SITE SINCE THE 17th CENTURY’. A subtle fib, of course, but the sloping floors, bulging walls and creaking timbers sold the con – several guidebooks insisted it was an ancient pub and The Angel’s owners did not correct them. The small brewery installed in the basement turned out a house brew, Angel’s Tears Strong Ale, ‘brewed to an old recipe’.
Out on the post-war housing estates the ‘modern’ pubs suffered a variety of fates: The Sir Edmund Hillary was renamed The Charles Dickens and given plastic bow windows; The Spitfire burned down and was not replaced; The Atomic Arms and The Pistonmakers were popular, both being far from town, but grew tattier and less appealing to outsiders with every passing year; while The Longwood became a kind of nightclub with blacked out windows and bouncers. None of them looked modern anymore, just plain, and unlike their Victorian predecessors they gained no character with age.
The Art Deco New Red Lion was gone, demolished to make way for a bypass. The Heart of Oak on the Adamsbec estate hung on, at least ostensibly, though its multiple bars and function rooms were all closed, trade being continued in one small, sorry front bar. The kitchens and living quarters upstairs were flooded and home to flocks of pigeons. A tree grew from the roof.
In the terraces of New Boggleton, now itself more than a hundred years old, many of the corner pubs had gone, but a few could still be found, kept alive by their darts teams and Saturday night pub crawlers who would make their way into the centre on foot and stop for one or two at each pub they passed.
The Venezuela, in London brewery livery, looked smarter than in many years. A person with a notebook and camera came one day and marvelled at the wonderfully preserved snug, the ornate windows of c.1898, the surviving but unused gas lamps, the pre-WWII bell pushes, and every other feature of which successive generations of publicans had been faintly ashamed. It won an award simply for existing. When the brewery tried to knock down a wall, there was a protest, with songs and banners. The locals watched with amusement as anorak-wearers crept in through the door and ordered pints of mild, otherwise drunk only by Old Harry who lost a leg at El Alamein.
Inclusion on the Campaign for Real Ale’s list of heritage interiors couldn’t save The Venezuela. The pub company that acquired it from the London brewery after the Beer Orders were passed in 1989 didn’t know what to do with it and waited until no-one was looking before tearing out the fixtures and fittings in a ‘contemporary makeover’ that made it feel cold and dead, like bleached coral. It was permanently either UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT or A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO RUN A PUB. Its pulse slowed almost to a stop.
All the estate pubs were gone –burned down or turned into convenience stores – except The Heart of Oak, closed for a year, now, with steel shutters on its windows, but still standing and theoretically ready for duty. The locals watched it anxiously — would it too go up in flames one day?
The Dolphin was bought by a television chef and became a gastropub – the kind of place where staff said, ‘Yes, of course you can just have a drink’ without conviction, ushering such thirsty unfortunates into a corner out of view of the dining room. A little more prim than two hundred years before, perhaps, but not inapt for an establishment where respectable travellers had stopped on their way from town to another.
The Angel, after a decade as Ma Flaherty’s, had just reverted to its old name, but with a new surf-and-turf Cajun barbecue concept menu. The Adamsbec, lately known as Stinky O’Hara’s, became The Cork & Lobster wine bar. The Red Lion, firmly protected by the heritage establishment, had been saved the indignity of being renamed, but the London brewery (which had long stopped brewing) made it the restaurant of a new budget hotel next door, with full continental breakfast buffet and two Olde Red Lion burgers for £9.
The biggest change of came with the conversion of the old Quaker Meeting House into a brand new pub, The Josiah Jenkins, by a national chain. It gained a never-ending new conservatory with space for fifty tables and informative posters recounting the history of the town. Josiah Jenkins himself looked down from the wall with distinct disapproval as meal deals and pitchers of lager were ferried about beneath him. Local antiquarians were divided – it was an act of vandalism, said some, while others suggested that the alternative – collapse or demolition – was worse. The pub was lively, at any rate, and brought the breath of life to the old town.
When the city people realised Boggleton was only an hour’s commute on the fast train, or a short drive down the motorway, they began to arrive in numbers. They colonised the villas and the larger terraced houses where factory managers and clerks had once lived. Tin pots of herbs appeared on windowsills and refurbished Victorian front doors were painted in Greek Thyme or Atlantic Mist.
For The Venezuela, this was good news. The pub company that had all but forsaken it leased it for what they thought was a punishing fee to a young entrepreneur. It was renamed for the first time in its life: ‘The Ven’. The frontage was painted black, the name picked out in wide-spaced sans serif text. Picnic tables appeared on the pavement and signs offered Sunday roasts, burgers and buttermilk fried chicken. The new furnishings looked remarkably like those that that had been cast into a skip a decade before – mismatched chairs, church pews, and unadorned wooden tables. Young parents came with strollers and dog owners with poodles. A few old Boggletonians who had hung on in the area took it more or less in their stride, ignoring the jazz soundtrack, working on their pints in the company of the ghosts of their grandparents.
The Heart of Oak was in the process of coming back to some kind of life in the hands of a community group. The ballroom, they said, would make an ideal arts cinema, once the rotten floor was fixed, and there was interest in turning the lounge into a yoga studio. The smaller public bar, the old reading room, would make a good coffee bar and community library. And there would be beer, of course – hopefully made on site, using ingredients grown by the cooperative allotment project, assuming the grants came in as planned.
On the Longwood Estate, where the post-war pub of the same name had long ago collapsed as a result of fire and flood, an unlikely event occurred: in a parade of shops, between a butcher and a shop selling fishing tackle, there appeared a brand new pub. The Lanky Plank had enough room for ten customers at most and sold only real ale. The landlady, who had sunk the entirety of a redundancy cheque into the project, was scarcely out of the local paper in the first year and won every CAMRA award on offer. Most of the locals were bemused but there were a few loyal drinkers whose custom was bolstered by a constant stream of anxious visitors clutching copies of the Good Beer Guide. It felt, oddly, more like Thompson’s beerhouse of 1837 than any other pub in town.
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Perhaps you think we’ve been too optimistic, or too cynical. If so, why not get creative and give us a paragraph on how you think this story should have unfolded? Or, indeed, tell us about a made-up town you know well.