“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.