The Renaissance of the English Public House

Basil Oliver’s The Renaissance of the English Public House was published in 1949 1947 and argues that the period between the two World Wars was a golden age of pub design and building.

Cover: The Renaissance of the English Public House.It is printed on post-war paper (rough and yellowing) but is crammed with photographs and floor-plans of specific pubs up and down the country.

In his introduction, Oliver observes that, in the period before World War I, new pub buildings were rare because of the ‘misguided idea… that to improve buildings was to encourage drinking’. He observes, however, that the prohibitionist urge actually triggered a great resurgence in pub design and building: when the state began to run the brewing and pub industry in Carlisle in 1916, ‘it permitted unhampered experiments in many directions, but especially in the evolution of the public house’.

County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.
County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.

An entire chapter of the book is given over to the Carlisle State Management scheme. During WWI, Oliver says, improvements were limited: the removal of hard-to-supervise snugs and ‘snuggeries’ (small compartments) to create ‘light and airy cheerfulness’. After the war, new buildings were commissioned, including The Gretna Tavern, which replaced (Oliver reckons) six ‘snug-type houses’. We could not help but think of Wetherspoon’s.

Away from specific pubs, the more general detail Oliver provides on contemporary pub culture offer a useful companion piece to the Mass Observation book The Pub and the People. On alternative names for the ‘public bar’, he observes that ‘Tap Room’ is out of fashion, and…

Saloon Bar has a faint suggestion of superiority, and is the haunt of the ‘toffs’ (or would-be toffs) but even they frequently require the inevitable darts-board. Smoking Room… is also popular…. Private Bar and Bar Parlour… are equally indicative of their purpose — private transactions and intimate conversations — and from being popular with the fair sex have virtually become, in many houses, a Women’s Bar.

The last, lingering remains of Victorian morality can be detected in a coy discussion of toilets: ladies’ and gentlemen’s lavatories, he insists, must be apart from each other, secluded, but also easy to supervise. (The horrifying fact that people of both sexes piss must be kept secret, but there should be no opportunities for hanky-panky either.) Even today, it occured to us, the easiest way to find the ladies’ toilet is usually to walk as far from the gents’ as possible, and vice versa.

As for beer, Oliver is quite clear: ‘From the consumer’s point of view, the ideal way of receiving his beer is direct “from the wood”, and — on a hot summer’s day — from a very cool cellar.’ Cellars, he suggests, should be cut off from the outside world, running with damp, have earth floors, and be exposed as much as possible to the cool soil beyond their walls. The ideal, he concedes, is rarely possible:

More likely is it that new ways of drawing draught beer will be invented for conditioning draught beer which will eliminate all the complicated paraphernalia of beer engines, air-pressure installations, flexible pipes…

The grand ‘Tudor mansions’ of Mitchells & Butlers in Birmingham are also granted a chapter of their own, highlighting the advantages to brewers of building on new sites rather than restoring old pub buildings: restaurants, car parks, gardens, and even bowling greens were common. London gets a chapter of its own, too, with the rest of the country, from Liverpool to Devon, wrapped up in two more general surveys of urban and ‘wayside’ pubs.

We spent a bit of time looking up pubs mentioned on Google Street View. Many are gone altogether. Others were rebuilt on the same scale but with less style. A few remain, but often defaced with plastic banners, ugly signage, and accumulated grime: the Apple Tree in Carlisle, featured in the big image at the top, is now ‘Pippins‘, and still a handsome building.

For a rather specialised, technical book, Oliver’s prose is very readable, with the occasional amusing turn of phrase and impassioned diatribe. We paid around £20 for our copy, which is not in great condition, but it isn’t rare or hard-to-find. Depending on how interested you are in the detail of pub design and/or this particular period, that might seem a bit steep, but we enjoyed it.

The Lost art of Drawing Pubs

In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, there was a flood of books about pubs, many of which included illustrations.

London Pubs by Alan Reeve-Jones (1962) has many lovely drawings by artist Miriam Macgregor, who went on to become a well-respected engraver. Her rendition of the Mayflower in Rotherhithe is below.

The Mayflower pub, Miriam Macgregor, 1962.

When Assheton Gorton provided drawings of pubs for the 1973 edition of Martin Green and Tony White’s Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs, he also tackled the Mayflower.

The Mayflower pub by Assheton Gorton, 1973.

Both of the above are interesting and entertaining books, which cannot, unfortunately, be said of The Alka-Seltzer guide to the Pubs of London (1976). Its illustrations, by ‘Myerscough’, are quite nice, though. He, she or it unfortunately ignored the Mayflower, but instead created a block print of the nearby Angel at Bermondsey.

The Angel pub, Myerscough, 1976.

As colour printing got cheaper, beer books and pub guides became home to a certain kind of tasteful, arty photography, and illustrations like these became less common. These days, they tend to be filled with free images, snapped by the author on a phone or digital camera, or borrowed from the internet. That seems a shame.

Note: we’ve reproduced the images above in low-resolution for, er, illustrative purposes, and will remove them if asked to do so by copyright holders.

West country beer tasting

We were down in Somerset for Bailey’s Dad’s birthday a couple of weekends ago and, as always, scheduled a visit to Open Bottles, the West Country’s premier eccentric beer shop.

The owner has had trouble getting some of the nationally known brewers to ship to Somerset but the result has been good for the shop. He’s now stocking many more local beers, including some real obscurities with homemade labels and “quirky” branding. Here are three we enjoyed:

Cheddar Ales Gorge Best

Gorge Best! Geddit? Geddit? Like “George Best”, the famous alcoholic, only it’s made in Cheddar with its famous gorge.

The branding on this one, dodgy puns aside, is pretty impressive, latching onto an essential truth: Gill Sans or variants thereof + screen printing = Britishness.

The beer itself is dark gold in colour, bottle-conditioned, and bitter as Hell. In a good way. Very cask-ale-like from the bottle and, all in all, an excellent beer.

Whistling Bridge, by Ringmore Craft Brewery (Devon)

It boast spices, cranberries and curacao orange on the charmingly amateurish label (sadly, no photo). We weren’t expecting this to work, but it did. It’s a pale colour, with a good head, and tasted fruity and refreshing. It also went surprisingly well with the roast dinner we were scoffing at the time. We’ll be looking out for more of their stuff.

Quantock Stout, by the Quantock Brewery

This was a very satisfying milky, creamy stout. Didn’t take any more notes on this one, but we liked it.

Open Bottles is at 131 Taunton Rd, Bridgwater TA6 6BD. It looks like any other offy from the outside, with megadeals on rubbish lager advertised in on bright paper, but it really is worth a detour if you’re in the area and want to sample stuff from local microbrews. You’ll have better luck there than in any of the pubs in town, sadly.