What Colour Should a Pub Be?

Yesterday Tandleman (@tandleman) posted a load of pictures on Twitter from a 1960s Wilson’s brewery calendar. They’re great because (a) they show pub interiors, which is rare; and (b) they’re in colour.

We couldn’t stop looking at them last night: they’re so vibrant and the colour choices so… Un-pubby. Finally, stealing an idea from @CINEMAPALETTES, we spent a few minutes coming up with these.

1. Classic Pub

A photo of a pub interior with colour pallette at bottom.

2. 1960s Pub
Interior of 1960s pub with colour palette at bottom.
Source: @Tandleman

Even allowing for the difference in the style of photo — the former was snapped by one of us on a smartphone in afternoon light; the latter looks stage-lit and Technicolor gaudy — that’s quite a difference.

We might do a few more and add them to this post as we go. It would be interesting to look at a full-on craft beer bar, for example, most of which, we suspect, would be shades of cream and grey. And Samuel Smith pubs would be brown, dark brown, darker brown and black-brown, right?

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Mass Observation Revisited, 1961

Did you know about Tom Harrisson’s follow-up to 1943’s Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, entitled Britain Revisited and published in 1961?

We certainly hadn’t registered its existence until the other week when a Google Books search turned up a reference. We ordered it from Amazon for £7 delivered — a lovely looking edition in a bright yellow Gollancz dust-jacket.

Book cover: Britain Revisited.

The pub chapter runs to 27 pages and draws on the original Mass Observation work from the 1930s; a commercial follow-up project comissioned by Guinness in the late 1940s; and a new set of observations carried out by one of the original team in 1960. If you’re interested in pub history you won’t need much more than that to persuade you to get hold of your own copy.

We’re going to be referring to it substantially in product of The Big Project but here are a couple of interesting nuggets to be getting on with. First, here’s Harrisson on a substantial change in drinking habits:

[There] is an increase in midday drinking, including a smattering of reeling drunks around town in the early afternoon — something not seen at all in the thirties. This affected locally by the new system of shift work in the cotton mills, by which no one there works all day, as they did before… Affluence has enabled drinking to be more extended and produced the occasional midday drunk as a new phenomenon in the North.

This is a point he also picks up while summarising the difference between a typical young man of 1960 and his father:

You may wear a tie instead of a scarf, your second best suit instead of the working clothes that had once been your only best suit, drink ‘best mild’ instead of ordinary, twenty-two pints a week instead of twenty, and maybe put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford.

Well, we think he’s picking up the same point anyway, assuming he’s using ‘dinner-time’ here to refer to the middle meal of the day, as in school dinners, as in breakfast-dinner-tea-supper.

So can we conclude that the lunchtime drinking culture it sometimes feels we’ve lost — The Pub Curmudgeon often mentions it — was another of those things we didn’t really have for long in the first place?

A photo spread from Britain Revisited feat. a shot of a pub.

That section quoted above also starts us on another trail: which beers were people drinking in 1937, 1947 and 1960? The 1947 Guinness project notes, quoted in big chunks by Harrisson, record that:

About half of pubgoers usually drink mild or bitter or mild-and-bitter. Of the remainder about a third drink Guinness or stout. One drinker in the thirteen — even after prompting — can give no details about his usual drink beyond that it is ‘beer’.

But by 1960 a shift was underway:

[More] expensive beers are being drunk. More bitter (the rather costlier beer) and more bottled in the pubs.

Harrisson argues that this was part of a general narrative of what he calls ‘up-affluencing’ — a drift towards the better bars, away from the barebones vault or public; and a growing taste for Babycham, Cherry B, ‘a drop of gin dressed up’, and even cocktails among younger female drinkers, where their mothers would have been happy with stout. This quote from a pub landlord on the subject of flashy young men with money to burn contains a lot of meaning for a few words and might well apply to the craft beer scene of today:

[Lads] have always liked a drop of the best.

Bits we Underlined In… How To Run a Pub, 1969

Cover of book with illustration by Tim Jaques.

This 130-page hardback was written by Tony White of Evening Standard Pub Guide fame and acts as an interesting companion piece to Peggy Mullis’s similar how-to guide.

The style is breezy and fairly witty — think Len Deighton — but is a product of its time: it is addressed entirely to men, women are a problem to be dealt with, and the language around race might shock some modern readers.

The book opens with the now customary attempt to put off wide-eyed idealists by shattering their ‘pipe-dream’. This also provides a helpful glimpse into the Ideal Pub as it was viewed 1969:

You are the genial landlord of a small timbered country inn where the warm August sun is miraculously reflected in the burnished horse-brasses and marmalade pans… There you are, your elbows propped on the scrubbed wood counter, swapping war stories with the quality in the Saloon and gentle bawdry with the locals in the Public, pausing now and again to draw a pint of amber-coloured bitter into a pewter tankard… At your side, your devoted lady wife… serenely dispenses, with a pair of white plastic tongs, plump, smoking, home-made pasties… Somewhere in the not-so-far-off distance can be heard the clonk of leather on willow.

White’s next question is a good one: given the difficulty of running a pub in reality, why does anyone bother? He finds several reasons the most interesting of which is the idea that being a publican is one of few careers you can start later in life — a thought which still finds an echo in the words of Micropub guru Martyn Hillier almost 50 years on.

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Irish Pubs, English Pubs and the Essence of Pubness, 1964

A pint of stout.

Was part of the appeal of the Irish pub in the 1980s and 90s that real Irish pubs were more like ideal of the English pubs than English pubs had become?

This fantastic article by Irish journalist Mary Holland (1935-2004) published in January 1964 covers multiple issues in a few hundred pithy words.

First, the mystique of Dublin pubs: ‘I’ve always gone along with the belief that any Dublin bar has a magic aura which causes the talk to shimmer and sparkle as fast as the Guinness flows.’

Then their true qualities: ‘I now think the Dublin pub mystique is thriving as never before for the simple reason that its pubs are more comfortable.’

(See also a related 1996 columns from the Pub Curmudgeon here.)

And, finally, there’s a pointed examination of the state of English pubs in the mid-1960s:

One of the most recent attempts to revamp a pub’s image in central London is a bar designed to appeal to ‘business executives and the younger set,’ in which rattan cane, murals of brooding buddhas, slatted bamboo swing doors and a background of jungle noises are among the attractions. Yet this is only an extreme example of the way the brewers seem bent on catering to a city of pub-lovers. Given that the beer is good (and I know that this is another question), I can’t believe that anyone wants to drink his pint, let alone talk the evening through with friends, in the kind of South Seas Traders tavern or sub-Scandinavian bar which seems to appear whenever the painters and decorators move in on an ordinary pub.

You can imagine how that delighted us, what with our ongoing obsession with theme pubs.

In general the Spectator archive is a fantastic resource: searchable, fully indexed, with material provided as both OCRd text and original page scans. Our ramblings through it to date suggest that it was very much a wet office — there’s lots of coverage of beer and pubs — so if you’ve got a pet obsession, give it a search and see what you can turn up.

Definite Scope: Dodgy Draymen, mid-1960s

Old advertisement: men loading a dray with casks.
An ad from the wrong time period (1929) and wrong city. So sue us.

On our travels round the country over the last few months we’ve been seeking out small press local history publications like Mike Axworthy’s A Garston Working Life (2012), which we found at Liverpool Central Library.

As well as being a keen frequenter of pubs Mr Axworthy also worked as a drayman (beer deliveries) when he was a teenager in the mid-1960s, and gives us this glimpse behind the scenes:

I soon learned why our wages were so poorly paid, because the company knew we made them up on the fiddle. I am ashamed to say that no one was safe, the company were robbed in many ingenious ways, like putting extra crates on when the checker wasn’t looking. These we would sell cheap to barmen at a low cost cash price. Then often we would walk out of the bar with some of their stock in empty boxes, or with bottles of spirits up our shirt. We justified this thieving by our low wages, but really it was just greed…

I was definitely not guilty when a big robbery took place in the warehouse. Inside ‘Kings of the Bottlers’ warehouse there was a strong room that contained the spirits… [It] had a steel door and a 2ft thick brick wall. One morning we came in and a hole had been knocked through the wall and most of the spirits spirited away. No one was ever caught for the theft but we all had an idea who it was but grassing was definitely out in our culture.

Presumably this kind of thing doesn’t happen today, or is very rare, what with electronic stock control and CCTV and so on… or maybe we’re being naive?

We’re posting this in response to something on the same topic that appeared on, and then disappeared from, Ron Pattinson’s blog. When it turns up again we’ll add a direct link. UPDATE 29/5/2016: And here it is.

PS. There was no blog post yesterday but we did update this 2014 post on The Britannia Inn at the 1958 Brussels Expo with new information and pictures.