Why No Northern Pub Guides?

We’re trying hard not to be unfairly London-centric with our latest Big Project but it’s really quite difficult.

We’ve got 20th Century London pub guides coming out of our lugholes (see above) and even its commuter zone is quite well covered:

Home Counties pub guides, 1960s.

But when it comes to the North, we’re all but stumped. There’s one bona fide classic

Mass Observation: The Pub and The People.

…but, otherwise, it’s a matter of scrabbling for scraps, like the chapters on working men’s clubs and immigration in Graham Turner’s The North Country, or the odd chapter in more general books about The Inns of Old England.

All this only goes to highlight one of the Campaign for Real Ale’s many contributions to beer culture in Britain since the 1970s: truly local guidebooks.

CAMRA local guide books 1990s-2000s.

Although even those tend to be sadly light on prose and the oldest and most interesting ones are extremely hard to get hold of.

So, that’s mostly a moan, but if you do happen to know of a Mancunian, Liverpudlian, Leodensian or Geordie equivalent of, say, Alan Reeve-Jones’s 1962 classic London Pubs then do let us know. Otherwise, we’ll keep nosing around for crumbs.

Q&A: Why the Obsession With Bell Pushes?

In descriptions of old pubs there is often a focus on the retention of ‘bell pushes’. Why are these of such interest to pub fans? — Mark Crilley

This is a rather abstract question but we’ll do our best.

Push-button electric bell systems were fitted in stately homes from the 1880s onward (PDF), often battery powered; and they seem to have arrived in pubs from around the turn of the 20th century as mains electricity supplies rolled out across the country. In commentary (e.g. (The Urban and Suburban Public House in Inter-War England, 1918-1939, (PDF) by Dr Emily Cole for Historic England, 2015) they are often associated with the inter-war ‘improved pub’ movement which sought to head off temperance campaigns by making pubs cleaner, safer and more respectable.

By 1949, however, Francis W.B. Yorke’s otherwise painfully comprehensive book The Planning and Equipment of Public Houses, mentions electric bells only briefly: ‘Adequate bell service should be installed, and bell pushes well distributed in convenient positions around the public rooms…’ And, furthermore, like other books of this period whose writing and publication was hindered by the war, it really describes the pre-war situation: few pubs built after 1945 resembled the ideal specimens he describes.

So it is probably safe to say that their period of real popularity stretched from c.1900 up to World War II.

This gives us the first reason for the fascination they hold: the basic issue of their rarity. Like ‘snob screens’ and gas lamps, bell systems and their buttons — by no means universal to begin with — are just the kind of feature that got ripped out during refurbishments and so-called improvements in the mid- to late 20th century. Very few survive and those that do have therefore become notable, or even precious, by default.

But they also have value as reminders of the way pubs, and society, used to operate.

Nowadays, many pubs have one large room and everyone orders at the bar. There was once a time, however, when pubs had multiple rooms reflecting class distinctions in society. In the more refined rooms, where drinks cost more and people took their drink sitting down, you could expect to have your order brought to you by a member of bar staff or even, perhaps, by a white-coated waiter.

If you see a bell push in a pub, it probably means that the room you’re in was once something like (allowing for local dialect and custom) The Lounge, even if there is no longer any other sign of its once elevated status.

So, the bell push isn’t only an interesting architectural feature but also, in its own modest way, represents a vanished social structure — it evokes the fingers that used to push them, the people they summoned, and their relationship to one another.

Suggested further reading: ‘The Vanishing Faces of the Traditional English Pub‘ (PDF), Geoff Brandwood, 2006; Raising the Bar (PDF), Historic Scotland, 2009.

If you’ve got a question you’d like us to try to answer email contact@boakandbailey.com and we’ll do our best.

QUOTE: Something Will Turn Up, 1940

Dominoes in the pub, 1940.
Men playing dominoes in the pub, LIFE magazine, 1940.

This is the text of an anonymous advertisement (probably placed by the Brewers’ Society) that ran in The Times on 10 January 1940:

Disraeli once said that the real motto of the English people is — “something will turn up.”

It is certainly true that not even the advent of a European war, nor the threats of raids, nor the frustration of the black-out have dimmed our cheerful faith and philosophy among us.

It is in the pub where one sees it best. Around the glasses of beer the people of all classes have found a warm, bright, kindly atmosphere in which cheerfulness supplants alarm. The pub gives relaxation. It promotes our national democratic feeling.

And beer too has played its traditional part in keeping us friendly, buoyant and good tempered. Good barley malt and country hops brewed in the manner handed down to us through the centuries has been John Bull’s drink in many a hard day — giving him the health to withstand and courage to endure!

(Exeunt. Alarum, and chambers go off.)

Heather Ale, 1900: ‘…the brewery caught fire…’

Digging through copies of Brewing Trade Review looking for information on pubs last week we couldn’t help but get distracted by, for example, a 1900 article that offers an intriguing footnote to our long piece on Williams Bros from last year.

It’s entitled ‘Heather Ale’, the author isn’t named, and it almost has about it the bones of an H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen story — why did the brewery catch fire? To conceal the diabolical secrets unearthed by Dr. Maclagan who has since gone quite mad? (No.)

And, 116 years on, the practical information might even still be useful to anyone keen to brewer heather ale themselves this summer.

Here’s the article in full:


As there are many legends about the abnormal virtues of heather ale, Dr. Maclagan has been at great pains to investigate the whole subject, and his results quite fail to support the wonderful reputation which centuries have woven around this beverage. So far as documents go it appears to have been brewed with great success by the Picts, who, however, refused at all times to tell the Scots how to brew it, and the secret was supposed to have died with them. There are one or two recipes in existence, but all require a good deal of malt or sugar. Dr. Maclagan had some heather bloom analysed, and found that it yielded 17 per cent of a substance which reduced Fehling’s solution and appeared to be a sugar, but every attempt to ferment it was was unsuccessful. Recourse was then had to a practical brewer, Mr A. Melvin of Edinburgh, who made an extract from 4 lbs of pure heather bloom with 6 gallons of water in a steam jacketed copper. Yeast was added to extract (Sp. Gr. 1001.5) in a cask which was kept well-rolled, but no fermentation took place. Wort and heather flowers alone when mouldy in a short time, so the following experiment was tried: Four gallons of wort, Sp. Gr. 1100, with four gallons of water, were boiled with heather flowers, the total quantity used being 2½ lbs. The mixture was strained and the filtrate boiled for another half-hour. The fluid smelt strongly of heather and had an agreeable taste. It was next rapidly cooled, and, when at a temperature of 69º F, was poured into a six gallon cask, topped up with boiled wort, and a pint of yeast well roused in. As it fermented the cask was kept topped up and the beer properly cleansed. The beer thus produced was bottled, and the result was a fairly palatable liquid with a rough woody flavour. A further experiment was made with more heather, and a highly satisfactory sample was obtained, but unfortunately the brewery caught fire, and the heather ale was destroyed. The result of the inquiry, however, was precised, though disappointing; heather may be all right as a flavouring for those who like it, but it is useless for producing beer by itself. As two ounces of bloom measures about a pint and a-half, and take over an hour to collect, it would be an expensive ingredient, and its loss is therefore not to be regretted.

We forgot to note in which month this article appeared (probably April) but it’s certainly on p.373 of the collected volume for this year if you want to look it up.

The Mystic Power of Guinness, 1959

There’s been a fair bit of Guinness chat around in the last week what with Ron Pattinson’s series of posts on Park Royal, our filleting of a 1971 article about draught in the UK, and Gary Gilman’s series of posts on various aspects of its flavour and history.

Now we’ve come across a short piece by humourist Paul Jennings published in The Times on 10 November 1959 which provides, first, further evidence of the status of Guinness before it became ubiquitous and (in the view of many or even most beer geeks) bland:Guinness smile advert, 1939.

It seems that Messrs. Guinness are convinced that the most widely remembered of their famous posters is the one with the workman carrying off the girder. Well, that is not the first image that comes to me… I think first of those great big glasses of Guinness with a moony smiling face in the froth… This smile is the nearest they have got to expressing the true mana of Guinness — that great Irish mystery and paradox, the light froth from the unimaginable dark heart of the liquid, the light from darkness, like the laughter and wit that well up from the Irish soul itself… I, like any other non-Irish consumer of Guinness, drink it because it is there… [in] the sense in which Mallory said that Everest was there. I might drink beer automatically, but Guinness is a thing, it has to be reckoned with. Drinking Guinness is a conscious act, like playing the piano or reading poetry, only much easier.

(Note, by the way, what looks almost like an early example of saying ‘a thing’ being a thing…)

In addition, he also provides some observations on packaging and public perception that bring to mind the present-day chat around contract brewing and transparency:

It is a fact that three-fifths of the Guinness drunk in this country is brewed at Park Royal, that great functional-looking place that looked like an atomic power station before atomic power was invented when it was opened in 1936. It is full of vast stainless steel vats and marvellous pipes and machines and science graduates… [and] has had a head brewer a world-famous statistician — but all this was kept very dark because, as everybody knows, or thinks he knows, the special quality of Guinness comes from the waters of the Liffey… Now that they have started selling some Guinness in cans, for instance, it is reported that in pubs in Wales they think the cans have come from Dublin, whereas the bottles contain rotten old English Guinness.

Finally, he goes on to suggest that, even though St James’s Gate brewery was just as hi-tech and sterile as Park Royal, there was some truth in the myth because export brewing (that is, for hot countries) did take place there:

[The] science graduates have worked the amount of ‘x’ you must put into a bottle of Guinness for it to taste as a bottle of Guinness would taste to a man in the Red Lion, to a man in a tin shack in Borneo, after it has been humped and banged half-way round the world. If you can manage to get some of this Export Guinness before they have exported it, you will find that this means quite a lot of ‘x’.

That’s a nice way of putting it and makes us think that Guinness today really could be saved if they turned up the X dial.