Gastropubs of 1951

Detail of book cover: The Good Food Guide 1951-1952.

“It’s gone all foody,” people used to grumble in the nineteen-nineties when a pub started offering meals. “It’s a restaurant now,” they’d mutter, “not a proper pub… knives and forks… smimble…”

Is the idea that food is something essentially ‘un-pubby’ a post CAMRA Good Beer Guide idea? A recently acquired pocket-sized gem of a book, The Good Food Guide 1951-1952, certainly suggests quite a different point of view.

First Rule. — If you are in a strange town, without any guidance from a friend or an entry in this list, always prefer a clean and brisk-looking public house… [You] are more likely to find there than in teashops a survival of the older English tradition of solid eating. In both cases the cooking may well be, at the best, unimaginative, but in a pub, at last, you are not expected to peck like a sparrow.

Perhaps, then, it’s only pretentious food which is un-pubby?

And what about women in pubs, inhibiting the farting and sexist banter? That’s a new thing, too, right?

[A] clean-looking British public house with a menu outside is a place where any respectable woman can go for her lunch without any disquiet… She should not go into the Public Bar, which may be rough, but into the Saloon Bar or the Lounge; nor need she drink beer, for lemonade and such are sold equally willingly. She should also, by the way, ignore the statement… that “British beer should be drunk warm”.

Still, one thing we know is new are the terrible pressures under which pub licensees find themselves compared to the halcyon days of old. Oh, wait…

[The] proprietors of licensed houses are having a difficult time, and deserve the support of all the benevolent people. they pay heavily for their licences, and the disproportionate taxes on beer have driven away their customers.

And yet, sixty years on, there are still pubs, and there are still customers.

Inside the Pub, 1950

Detail from an illustration by Gordon Cullen.
One of Gordon Cullen’s illustrations depicting an ideal modern pub.

Maurice Gorham’s best-known books on pubs are The Local (1939) and Return to the Local (1949), neither of which we have yet read. What we did acquire, thanks to a tip from Herb Lester, was a battered copy of Inside the Pub (1950), a pub designer’s manual which Gorham wrote with Harding McGregor (‘H. McG.’) Dunnet for the Architectural Press.

It’s an interesting book for various reasons but what leapt out at us were the opening lines of the introduction by J.M. Richards, on the subject of the alchemy of pub atmosphere:

If I were asked what are the qualities I would like to find in a pub I would say simply, ‘the right atmosphere’, and if asked to be a little more precise I would say that the right atmosphere is one which provides warmth, cheerfulness and a sense of seclusion and one in which the charm of the familiar is somehow combined with a sense of something intriguing just round the corner. A pub should make people feel at home and yet have the capacity to lift them a little out of themselves.

Later in the book, Dunnet says that many pubs built just before the war suffer from the lack of nooks and dividers, offering only a ‘large bleak interior’; they are sometimes ‘indistinguishable from post offices or banks’; they ‘deny the whole pub tradition and only succeed in discouraging the customer from joining his cronies round the kitchen chimney corner’.

We can think of a few pubs to which that description would apply.