Panic on the Streets of Woking: Rise of the Lager Lout

 This bumper #beerylongreads post is dedicated to the kind folks who have sponsored us via our Patreon page, like Chris France and Jon Urch — thanks!

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.

Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.

The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.

What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?

In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

Lager. Lager was to blame. A type of beer that had arrived in earnest in Britain only thirty years before as the upmarket, sophisticated, sharp-suited Continental cousin of the traditional pint of wallop.

Where did it all go wrong?

Skol advertisement, 1960: "British Brewer Goes Continental".
In the Beginning

Lager was first brewed in Britain as far back as the 1830s and had its first boom in popularity, primarily as a hip, high-price imported product, from the 1860s until World War I. (See Gambrinus Waltz for more on that.) For the next 40 years or so it sat in the background, very much a minority interest, represented by imports from the Continent and the occasional attempt by British brewers such as Barclay Perkins. In the 1950s it had a less than 2 per cent share of the total UK beer market.

The 1950s were an unsettling time for British breweries. They could no longer rely on armies of industrial workers tramping to the pub on a regular basis to drink ale in substantial quantities. Young people seemed less interested in pubs and beer and drawn rather more to burger bars, coffee shops, Coca Cola and pop music. Mild was definitely passé – a relic of the slum era – and though sales of bitter were surging, it too lacked glamour. Bitter drinkers wore blazers and smoked pipes. The tiny handful of Lager drinkers, on the other hand…

Continue reading “Panic on the Streets of Woking: Rise of the Lager Lout”

The Pubs of Boggleton, 1837-2017

“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.

1837

Header graphic: 1837 town map.

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.

1867

Header graphic: 1867 with Victorian manicule.

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.

Continue reading “The Pubs of Boggleton, 1837-2017”

Brewhouse Death Trip

With apologies to Michael Lesy and James Marsh and a respectful nod towards the long-running ‘Strange Deaths’ column in Fortean Times, we present a macabre compilation of ways that breweries can kill you.

We have been collecting these stories as we’ve come across them for a couple of years now, and one has previously featured on the blog. All are sad, many are truly grim, and if you are prone to squeamishness or shaken by suicide or industrial injuries, you’ll want to stop reading now.

Continue reading “Brewhouse Death Trip”

In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

This article first appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER in 2015 and is reproduced here with their permission. The original beer mat in the main image was given to us by Trevor Unwin. We’re very grateful to David Davies for the use of his contemporary photographs. 

In 1975, the Campaign for Real Ale invented the modern beer festival when it staged a five-day event with more than 50 beers attended by 40,000 thirsty members. Forty years on, we asked those who were there – volunteers, Campaign leaders and drinkers – to share their memories.

Chris Bruton (organiser): A Cambridge branch member suggested a beer festival in the Corn Exchange at an early meeting in 1974. The main credit should go to the late Alan Hill – then a Personnel Manager at Pye in Cambridge. The festival made a significant profit, and the donation to central funds was essential to keep the Campaign afloat during a difficult period.

Chris Holmes (CAMRA chair 1975-76): Because of the success of Cambridge, someone had the bright idea of a bigger festival in London. I’d like to say that we were being very sophisticated and testing the market for a national festival but, really, we just had the opportunity and said, ‘Let’s do it!’

Chris Bruton: By this time CAMRA had employed a Commercial Manager, Eric Spragett, who was a Londoner. The main organising trio was Eric, John Bishopp and me. For some time a huge warehouse at St Katharine Docks was the favoured site but the logistics proved insurmountable. Finally, we found the old Flower Market in Covent Garden.

Continue reading “In Their Own Words: The 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition”

A Brief History of Beer Weeks

It’s Sheffield Beer Week this week (14-22 March) which got us thinking about beer weeks in general — where did they come from, what are they for, and where are they going?

In the UK arguably the original beer week is Norwich City of Ale, which first took place in May 2011. It involves mini-festivals in pubs across the city featuring breweries from the region, and special events designed to create a buzz such as tasters of beer being given out in the street. It was the brain-child of lecturer Dawn Leeder and publican Phil Cutter, AKA ‘Murderers Phil’. As Dawn Leeder recalls there was no particular inspiration except perhaps, obliquely, Munich’s Oktoberfest. Its launch was covered by an enthusiastic Roger Protz in this article for Beer Pages which concludes with a call to action:

It’s an initiative that could and should be taken up other towns and cities in Britain with a good range of pubs, craft breweries and a public transport network. Nottingham and Sheffield, with their tram systems, spring to mind.

Red Routemaster bus with Norwich City of Ale livery.
Norwich City of Ale promotional bus, 2013. SOURCE: Norwich City of Ale website.

Glasgow’s beer week first ran in 2011. It was inspired equally by US beer weeks and by the Glasgow Beer and Pub Project organised by Eric Steen in 2010, a six-week arts and culture event which culminated with a home-brewing event in a pop-up pub. Glasgow Beer Week co-organiser Robbie Pickering recalls some of the difficulties faced by amateur volunteers:

We had our disasters, like the time we managed to schedule a meet-the-brewer in a pub where a live band was playing on the same night. I am very lucky that brewer still speaks to me. I am still proud of some of the events we put on even if hardly anyone came to them. We did the first beer and cheese tasting in Glasgow and the first UK screening of the US Michael Jackson documentary, and got Ron Pattinson over to speak about British lager together with people from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. And I have a lifetime’s supply of beautiful letterpress beer mats with a spelling error.

It ran for three years the last being in 2013:

I think GBW collapsed in the end because of lack of interest. After the first year most of the other people involved had moved away and I was left running around on my own… I announced the dates for 2014 before deciding not to go ahead with it. Nobody ever asked what had happened to it which kind of suggests it was the right decision.

From our distant vantage point it also seemed to bring to a head tensions in Glasgow’s beer community with expressions of ill-feeling still being expressed via social media three years later.

Robbie Pickering sees some positives in it, however: the kinds of events that the Beer Week was built around now occur organically and frequently in Glasgow negating the need for a special event.

In 2012, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ran a London City of Beer celebration piggybacking on the surge in visitors to the capital during the Olympic Games. But it was two months long, not a week, and didn’t turn into an annual event.

The next British city to get a beer week proper was Bristol. It launched in October 2013 when, having bubbled under as a beer destination for a few years beforehand, the city was just on the cusp of a boom in specialist bars and breweries. The initial idea came from Lee Williams who was born in Bristol but lived in the US for ten years where he ran a blog, Hoptopia, and wrote a guidebook called Beer Lover’s Colorado. When he returned to Bristol to work in the beer industry he brought with him experience of several US beer weeks and suggested the idea of running something similar to a friend and fellow beer blogger, Stephen Powell.

Bristol Beer Week featured more mini-festivals, talks, tastings and special one-off beers brewed in collaboration with beer writers who duly plugged the event.

Continue reading “A Brief History of Beer Weeks”