The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoers brain.

When the first, second and third place are all the same

The third place isn’t work and isn’t home; it is somewhere you mingle with others; and it is vital to the healthy functioning of communities.

The concept was developed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, to which we were pointed by Stan Hieronymus while working on our own book 20th Century Pub.

Though primarily focused on social life in America, and especially on the 20th century tendency to build vast new suburban settlements without cafes, coffee shops or bars, its arguments are universal.

For example, there’s this on the value of the neighbourhood bar as pressure valve:

My suspicion is that a good tavern keeps ‘steam’ from building up more than it provides a means to ‘blow it off’… The ethnologist is likely to argue that there is a need to ‘let off steam’ and to do so collectively. Attention to the world’s many cultures soon reveals the prevalence of all manner of wanton reveling. Celebrations are institutionalized in the form of feasts, festivals, junkets, religious holidays, saturnalian binges, organized drinking bouts… It is characteristic of such events that everyday norms and decorum are ignored; that the spirit of revelry affects all and not just the few; that the madness is manifest in public and not privately, and not casually, but with a serious intensity.

It’s been on our minds a lot lately as we find ourselves denied access to not only the third place (pubs) but also to the second place, commuting from one room in the house to another for work each morning, and back again in the evening.

Ordering people not to go out, not to gather, might seem reasonable and easily managed if you’re not someone for whom gathering is important. But if, like most of us, stopping off at the third place is how you cope with the struggles of the first and second places, it’s easier said than done.

Some handle it by scrambling around for synthetic substitutes for maintenance therapy. In our experience, virtual drinks with friends or family over video aren’t anything like as much fun as the pub. But it does soften the withdrawal symptoms.

New rituals are emerging, too: the can or bottle held up to the webcam so that others on the call can see for themselves what you’re drinking; the unspoken agreement that someone must ‘chair’, inviting others to speak when the babble gets too much; and the calling of ‘time, please, ladies and gentleman’ as peering at the screen begins to fatigue.

Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect.

Other people (though less, perhaps, than press and social media would have you believe) can’t cope, so they break the rules.

Upsetting as it can be to hear that this is happening, it’s not surprising.

For those who live alone, or in unhappy households, removing the option to meet friends on neutral ground is necessary but no less brutal.

As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.

News, nuggets and longreads for 4 April 2020: Coping mechanisms, ecommerce, murder

Here’s everything in writing about beer and pubs that caught our collective eye in the past week, from online beer sales to digitally-enabled darts matches.

First, for Good Beer HuntingKate Bernot writes about how the global lockdown has prompted a leap forward in online beer sales in the US:

Under normal circumstances, an ecommerce portal would take breweries months of planning and roughly a month or two of web development work to execute. But the circumstances of the last month have been anything but normal. At least one brewery, in response to these turbulent times, was able to set up a web store in just two days… The need for a speedy solution is why there’s a new beer delivery truck rolling through the streets of Manhattan. It doesn’t have branded side bays or roll-up doors. It’s a beige 2003 Lexus GX 470 with a rusted trailer hitch and 250,000 miles on its odometer. The Lexus belongs to John Dantzler, CEO and co-founder of New York City’s Torch & Crown Brewing, and it’s one of the brewery’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Enterprise Inns

Publicans whose pubs are owned by large pub companies (pubcos) have begun campaigning to have their rent payments cancelled for the duration of the lockdown, as reported at This is Money:

Ed Anderson, 45, a publican with three pubs in Cheltenham and 25 years of experience in the industry, said it was ‘absurd’ that some landlord pub holding groups had failed to cancel rental fees during the pandemic… Typically, a pub tenant’s rental fees are derived from the pub’s finances. But, with no cash coming in, publicans like Ed face a huge financial hurdle, particularly if rental costs are simply deferred rather than temporarily scrapped altogether… An online social media campaign called #NoPubNoRent is calling on major pub groups like Star Pubs and Bars, Stonegate (Ei Group) and Greene King to cancel rents for tenants while the pandemic rages.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads for 4 April 2020: Coping mechanisms, ecommerce, murder”

When did pub quizzes become a thing?

We had a vague idea that the pub quiz was a product of the 1980s or 90s and so were surprised to come across the headline above in a newspaper from the early 1960s.

Here’s the opening of the story which appeared in the Daily Mirror for 7 July 1961:

BIG Jim Traynor, a pint of beer at his elbow, settled down in a corner of a Liverpool tap-room, opened a packet of crisps, and began to study an encyclopaedia. Across the table, Charlie Vipond, from the local gasworks, eagerly flicked through the pages of Whitaker’s Almanack. ‘Hey, mate,’ he shouted, ‘what year did Henry VIII lop off Anne Boleyn’s head?’ No one batted an eyelid. It was just part of the latest pub craze… QUIZ MANIA.

The article mentions ‘J. Robinson’ as one of the organiser of the Merseyside quiz league and mentions a ‘big hotel in Bootle’ as a nexus of quizzing activity.

Another piece from a little later (Liverpool Echo, 30 October 1963) provides more detail, including pinpointing the year of origin to 1959:

There’s no business on Merseyside, it would seem, quite like quiz business… For since it all started in a public house in Bootle four years ago there are estimated to be at least 4,000 people involved in the Merseyside Quiz Leagues… These consist of four leagues organising general knowledge quizzes in pubs, clubs and factory canteens.

‘It’s a jolly good way of enjoying yourself – and learning at the same time,’ said one of the men who has been on the Merseyside quiz scene since it started – Mr Jack Robinson [of] 108 Galsworthy Avenue, Bootle… ‘We’ve been on television,’ he told me proudly, ‘and radio too.’

It all started because of a chance remark, he says, made by a Mr. Eric Powell, 106 Gloucester Road, Bootle, one night at the Mount Hotel, Bootle… ‘We had been having a lot of friendly quizzes among ourselves,’ said Mr Robinson, ‘but when Mr. Powell suggested that it could be operated on a wider scale everyone seemed to think it was a good idea.’

So the first Merseyside Quiz League was formed, and a list of rules compiled. It was not long before there were four leagues – ‘stretching from Southport to Speke’.

It also gives us the names of some key personnel: Bill Brady, licensee of The Mount, was the quiz league’s chairman; Jim Howard was the quizmaster, also of Bootle; and the secretary was Harry Jackson, ‘an administrative railway officer from Garston’.

Now, this could just be a case of people, probably quite innocently, taking credit for a spontaneously emerging phenomenon, so we won’t quite go as far as to say Eric Powell invented the pub quiz, or that the Mount Hotel was where it was born.

But, still, all the earliest mentions in the newspapers do point to Merseyside/Lancashire and, in lieu of any other claims, let’s say this is the best origin story we have for the moment.

Arthur Taylor, author of the essential reference on pub games, Played at the Pub, seems to agree with the idea that Bootle was ground zero.

He also suggests that the emergence of pub quizzes was tied to the increasing popularity of TV, and especially American-inspired commercial television. He points out that both Double Your Money and Take Your Pick first aired on ITV in 1955.

An additional twist, though, is that among the small trickle of 1960s television programmes that sought to evoke the spirit of the pub there was one inspired by pub quizzing specifically.

Quiz Time Gentlemen Please first aired in March 1968, with a team from The St. Helier’s Arms, Carshalton battling against a crew from The Elm Park Hotel, Hornchurch.

It was hosted by Keith Fordyce, and featured a mix of darts and quiz questions – so, Bullseye, basically, 20 years before Bully was a twinkle in Jim Bowen’s eye.

It goes without saying that if you’re related to any of the Bootle blokes mentioned above and can tell us more about the origins of the pub quiz, we’d love to hear from you. Or if you have memories of pub quizzing from the 1960s or 70s.

Everything we wrote in the perfectly normal month of March 2020

Because March 2020 has been totally normal – perhaps the least remarkable month on record? – we managed to turn out a decent number of posts, albeit with an odd emphasis on the past.

We kicked off with a write-up of a remarkable document from 1944: the Mass Observation projects notes on young people’s attitudes to alcohol, with bonus commentary on how the sex lives of young adults in London revolved around pubs. It’s full of stuff like this:

The Saloon Bar is packed with young people some 60—100 strong. To order drinks people just elbow their way to the counter. Nobody minds the pushing and shoving. Lots of young girls, very well-dressed and heavily made up, come into the pub unescorted. Soldiers and Sailors are present, but it is mostly a young civilian crowd. 17—18 age group, although a small percentage of older people (not more than 30-40 years) are present. The room is hot and the fat man at the piano looks hotter still. The room is too packed for dancing, but girls hum the melodies the fat man plays.


Moving back in time, Jess wrote about her great-grandfather and his run in with the great London brewery Barclay Perkins:

There’s an interesting insight into how these things worked: my great grandad bought beer from the brewery and also paid a royalty of 2d per dozen bottles of non-company beer sold. They were rather sniffy about his business generally; “…[Company] purchases were small and the royalty only amounted to some £12 per annum”. Also, the implication in the minutes is that Barclay Perkins would probably find another site and trade the licence.


Another piece from Jess was this reflection on the recent rise in the number of breweries in Walthamstow, east London, where she grew up, with input from Des de Moor and Jezza:

When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife… And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.

Continue reading “Everything we wrote in the perfectly normal month of March 2020”

Gin palaces in Manchester: blessed gaudiness

As you might expect, when it comes to writing about gin palaces, London seems to hog the limelight, but they popped up all across England in the early 19th century, including Manchester.

Without Dickens to write about them or Cruikshank to draw them, the records are more sparse, but they do exist. And, once again, we owe disapproving temperance types a debt of gratitude for their information gathering, biased as it might be.

For example, here’s a summary of the situation from Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects by the French economist Léon Faucher who visited England on a study tour in the mid-1840s, with paragraph breaks added for easier online reading:

Only twenty years ago, drunkenness was considered a degrading indulgence; the dramshops were in retired places, and their customers entered secretly by private doors; and a candle placed behind the window was the dubious sign to arrest the attention of the passer-by.

But now, drunkenness has infused itself into the bosom of society. Habit has conquered shame, and that which formerly drew a blush from the men is now regarded as a daily habit by women and children.

By degrees, the dim lights have been replaced by the dazzling gas; the doors have been enlarged; the pot-house has become a gin-shop; and the gin-shop a species of palace.

The games hitherto carried on in these places not being sufficient, the proprietors have added music, dancing, and exhibitions, as additional attractions to a dissolute people. Formerly, concerts were held in these places only in the winter, but now they extend throughout the year; and, as in Liverpool, so here, the swelling of the organ, and the sounds of the violin and the piano, resound in their large saloons.

One of these houses, situated not far from the Exchange, and at the entrance to Victoria Bridge, collects in this manner, one thousand persons, every evening, until eleven PM. On Sundays, to diminish the scandal, religious hymns and sacred music are performed upon the organ and piano.

We can’t work out exactly which establishment is being described here but a quick look at this much later map, from 1888, suggests plenty of candidates – P.H. here, P.H. there, P.H.s everywhere. Whatever was previously on the site of The Grosvenor seems most likely.

Map of Manchester with many public houses.

In 1845, an American observer using the pseudonym ‘Looker On’ set out just how common gin palaces were in Manchester at that time:

To form any just idea of the magnitude of Manchester, and of the character of its population, it should be entered towards evening.

Then every mill is illuminated, and as their countless windows blaze forth, they present a brilliant spectacle. The black walls are no longer seen, and the canopy of smoke which overhangs all is no longer distinguishable by the eye.

At the corners of nearly all the principal streets are gaudy buildings, with enormous lamps, and into these Gin Palaces, as they are called, a continual stream of living beings enter.

And oh! what a wretched procession! Old men and little children, drabbish women and young girls; youths of besotted appearance, and men in the very flower of life, bowed down to the dust, energies quenched, strength prostrated, minds half destroyed.

Benjamin Love’s 1842 book The Handbook of Manchester gives us another couple of interesting nuggets, wrapped up in a lot of temperance hyperbole:

From an observation made on [Sunday] the 13th March, 1842, by the writer’s direction, there were found to enter one dram-shop only, in this town, the astonishing number of 484 persons in one hour! The greater part were women! Some decently dressed, apparently the wives of mechanics; others almost naked, carrying in their arms a squalid infant. When wives frequent gin-palaces, no wonder their husbands, on leaving work, proceed straight to the beer house.

Assuming we credit Mr Love’s figure, that means these places were undeniably busy. It also suggests a clear gender divide between types of establishment. Beerhouses were the antithesis of the gin palace – generally small and plain.

Here’s a bit more from ‘Looker On’ describing the scene inside a Manchester gin palace:

Behind a bar, decorated richly with carvings and brass work, multiplied by numerous mirrors, in costly frames, with three or four showy-looking, and flashily attired females, occupied incessantly in drawing from enormous casks, gaudily painted in green and gold, and bearing seducing names, glasses of spirits, which are eagerly clutched by the trembling fingers of those who crowd round the counter, gasping as if for breath, for the stimulus of drink. Look at their red, half-raw lips; their glaring lack-lustre eyes…

Right, well, that’s enough of that, but the description of the fixtures and fittings seems accurate.

Glitter and grandeur aside, they were by no means genteel places, as this note of a criminal case from 1847 makes clear:

Yesterday, at the Borough Court, before Mr. Maude, a fellow employed… about the Bowdun and Altrincham coach office named John Hampson, was charged with robbing a gentleman from Preston, of his purse and eighteen sovereigns.

It appeared that on Monday evening, the prosecutor who had come here on business, got ‘a little over the line,’ and being determined, as it seemed to have jolly good spree, and see life in Manchester, he bent his steps towards gin palace in Deansgate.

There, on the strength of his well-filled purse he was received by the company present as ‘a real good fellow,’ and very speedily his excessive liberality became apparent, as he insisted on standing treat for everybody.

When the hour for closing the vaults arrived, he was just in the height of his glory, and nowise inclined to go to bed, when the prisoner and some of his friends kindly offered to find him with quarters, provided he would pay for a supply of liquor.

Accordingly, he accompanied the parties to a house in Back Queen-street, where gallons of ale, quarts of rum, &c. &c. were sent for pretty freely, until overpowered with strong drink the Preston gentleman fell asleep, and on awaking found that he was minus his purse and eighteen sovereigns.

An 1857 guidebook to Manchester and Salford singles out the gin palaces of Ancoats for particular attention:

The oldest and the worst working district of Manchester, is the region known as Ancoats. Here, however, you will find the truest specimens of the indigenous Lancashire population, and hear the truest version of the old Anglo-Saxon pronunciation… Ancoats, in fact, is Manchester pur sang – Manchester ere sanitary improvement and popular education had raised and purified its general social condition.

Many of its streets, particularly the great thoroughfare called the Oldham Road, are magnificent in their vast proportions; but the thousands of by-lanes and squalid courts, the stacked-up piles of undrained and unventilated dwellings, swarm with the coarsest and most dangerous portions of the population. Here the old and inferior mills abound; here the gin-palaces are the most magnificent, and the pawn-shops the most flourishing; here, too, the curse of Lancashire-the ‘low Irish ’ – congregate by thousands; and here, principally, abound the cellar dwellings,and the pestilential lodging-houses, where thieves and vagrant; of all kinds find shares of beds in underground recesses for a penny and twopence a night.

Another source, also from 1855, paints a vivid picture of the contrast between the Ancoats gin palaces and their surroundings:

Returning from the Christmas treat of the St. John’s Industrial Ragged School, in company with the energetic and intelligent master of the New Ragged School in Angel Meadow, Ancoats, I met numbers of poor wretched looking children, in groups, round the corners of low streets and public-house doors, where the numerous gas lamps inside threw a gleam of light across the road, and the opening and shutting of the door of the magnificent gin palace gave a cheerfulness and bustle to a very dull and dirty street.

On the step of one public-house, a little girl, herself o about six years old, was nursing a pale and delicate infant not six months old, or rather just letting it lie over her knees. The mother was, in all probability, inside, spending her last copper; the rain was pouring, and it was past nine o’clock.

Finally, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life mentions gin palaces and pubs in passing in a couple of places, including confirmation of the obvious appeal of places ”where all is clean and bright, and where th’ fire blazes cheerily, and gives a man a welcome as it were”.

What we can’t work out – not easily, anyway – is if there are any surviving early 19th century gin palaces in Manchester today. There are plenty of wonderful historic pubs but most, such as The Marble Arch and Crown & Kettle, are late 19th century or early 20th century buildings.

On that, local intelligence would be welcome.

News, nuggets and longreads 28 March 2020: Berlin, BrewDog, Brasserie de la Senne

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that struck us as especially entertaining, interesting or important in the past week, from notes on isolation to virtual globetrotting.

First, Jeff Alworth provides a preview of a chunk of the upcoming second edition of his book The Beer Bible. It’s a profile of Ulrike Genz, who has dedicated herself to the revival of Berliner Weisse in its home city:

Genz’s story began in 2012, while she was studying at Technischen Universität Berlin—but visiting VLB regularly. A professor at the school brought a keg of Berliner to a summer gathering. “So I tried for the first time real one of these beers, and I simply fell in love with it,” Genz said, describing the experience. “It was not that heavy in alcohol, and the next day was perfect. The taste was so nice.” At that point, the only commercial example was from Kindl, a debased version sweetened with artificial syrups—nothing like true Berliner weisse. The only way she could taste it again was to brew it herself—so that’s what she did.


Stools at the bar in a pub.

Mark Johnson seems to be a man whose feelings run near the surface and in his latest piece, he probes his own sense of loss at being denied access to his local pub during the enforced lockdown of British society:

In one announcement, the social diary was wiped away, like a cloth to a whiteboard. The decision as to whether to have a pint after work. The decision as to where to meet a friend on a Thursday evening. The decision as to how to spend a weekend. Gone. Taken for us… There were comments near criticising anybody saddened by the turn of events – “you can go a few weeks without the pub, unless you have a problem” – showing the ignorance and aggression widely associated with social media… It is missed and it is irreplaceable, for those who crave sociability or for those of us who live life as the latter stages of a game of Jenga, frail and prone to fall with each block removed.


Shabby decor at the Oxford, Totterdown.

In the same vein, Adrian Tierney-Jones has revived his blog with a post that asks why we all miss the pub so much:

I am in the dark woodland of another traditional pub, where the tidied-up god-knows-where-they-got-them-from trinkets of another age stand on parade with the steadfastness of RSM gargoyles. Toby jugs, framed hunting scenes, burnished brassed off plates and here and there the odd black-and-white photograph of a local in the throes of lifting a pint. This is a decor that decorum doesn’t have a language for, a decorative pattern once thought to be as modern as the H-bomb, but obviously not as destructive… So what do we like about pubs — obviously we love what is put forward in front of us on the plate and in the glass, as well as how the mood and the atmosphere fills the air; then there are the people and their feeble but lovable attempts at jokes, the locals and the blow-ins, and the reason for why we are there.


BrewDog bar sign.Phil Edwards at Oh Good Ale has made his peace with BrewDog bars after years of irritation, admitting with great honesty that his change of heart is at least in part because he’s a bit better off these days and is no longer offended by the pricing:

I no longer read nefarious intentions into getting a price wrong on the menu, or naming a beer “Dead Pony Club”. (Apparently it was originally “Grateful Dead Pony Club”. Yeah, well… exits muttering…) Another thing that’s changed over the last eight years is my employment contract & consequent spending power – points 1-3 don’t bug me the way they used to. The prices were still high – all the pints were priced in the £5-6 range, and so were the beers advertised in smaller measures (2/3, a half or even a third, depending on strength). Point 3 above continued to irk me for a lot longer than 1 and 2, but I got over it; in the end I was a lot more bothered by the thought of a beer being priced at eighteen quid a pint!!! than I was by actually paying £6 for a third of something unusual (and very strong).


The Blue Bell
SOURCE: John Clarke

John Clarke has revived his long-dormant blog to provide us with a pub crawl in four dimensions, revisiting a 1988 CAMRA stagger around Shaw Heath, Stockport, to see how the pubs have fared in the past 30 years:

With so many pubs so close together there were bound to be some casualties – and time has not been kind to the pubs of the Shaw Heath area….


The sales team at de la Senne.
SOURCE: Eoghan Walsh/Brussels Beer City.

At Brussels Beer CityEoghan Walsh continues his month-long focus on women in the Belgian beer industry with an interview with the sales team at Brasserie de la Senne:

When Marta Resmini stepped out in 2015 as Brasserie de la Senne’s first sales and marketing representative, freshly minted business cards in her pocket, she didn’t get the reaction she was initially expecting. “I went to the first customer, to which I had to go with my business card,” she says. “He looked at my card and then paused for 5-10 seconds, and he was like, ‘Okay, so this is your phone number, what are you doing tonight?’ That was my first experience dealing out business cards.”

A lot has changed in the intervening five years. For one, Resmini gets fewer abortive pick-up attempts. She’s gained recognition as one of the most visible faces of the brewery, alongside Cleo Mombaers – her colleague in the sales and marketing team at de la Senne.


Finally, from Twitter, people have been having fun coming up with names for the virtual pubs that are filling the gaps left in their lives:

There’s more good reading in Alan McLeod’s Thursday round-up.

Brooke Clear Kennett and other delights in 1830s London

The novelist and historian Walter Besant’s 1888 book Fifty Years Ago is an attempt to record the details of life in England in the 1830s, including pubs and beer.

Of course this doesn’t count as a primary source, even if 1888 is closer to 1838 than 2020. Besant was himself born in 1836 and the book seems laced with rosy nostalgia – a counterpoint, at least, to contemporary sources whose detail is distorted by temperance mania.

Still, there are lots of interesting details, and lines of research that beg to be chased down. Take this note on beer styles for starters:

Beer, of course, was the principal beverage, and there were many more varieties of beer than at present prevail. One reads of ‘Brook clear Kennett’— it used to be sold in a house near the Oxford Street end of Tottenham Court Road; of Shropshire ale, described as ‘dark and heavy’; of the ‘luscious Burton, innocent of hops’- of new ale, old ale, bitter ale, hard ale, soft ale, the ‘balmy’ Scotch, mellow October, and good brown stout. All these were to be obtained at taverns which made a specialité, as they would say now, of any one kind. Thus the best stout in London was to be had at the Brace Tavern in the Queen’s Bench Prison, and the Cock was also famous for the same beverage, served in pint glasses. A rival of the Cock, in this respect, was the Rainbow, long before the present handsome room was built.

It doesn’t take much digging to find Besant’s source for this passage which was a guide to London nightlife published in the 1820s. The original contains this wonderful line which recalls Michael Hardman’s description of drinking bitter in the 1970s: “[In] many of the inland counties, the good folks like a hard, severe, cut-throat beverage”.

But what was Kennett Ale?

Our immediate thought, being based in the West Country, was that there must be some connection with the Kennett and Avon Canal.

And, sure enough, here’s the entry from an 1835 topographical dictionary for the Wiltshire village from which the canal takes its name…

This place, in Domesday book called ‘Chenete,’ was anciently a distinct parish, and was held by the church of St. Mary at Winchester. The village, which is pleasantly situated on the road to Bath, is noted for the celebrated Kennett ale, which is brewed only at this place, not from the water of the river Kennett, as is generally supposed, but from a fine limpid spring on the premises, which is soft to the taste, and slightly impregnated with magnesia. This ale first came into repute in 1789, and many thousand barrels of it are sent annually to London and to all parts of the country.

Looking in the newspaper archives, we find a reference from 1848 to “The Crown Tavern, and noted Kennett Ale house” at Pentonville, which suggests that there were indeed multiple pubs in London famous for serving this particular country brew. (Morning Advertiser, 14 June.)

In fact, The Crown even inspired a ballad, quoted in an article in 1874 but described as being from the 18th century:

Will you travel with your Bill
To the Crown at Pentonville,
Bonnet-builder, O!
Where the cove sells Kennett ale,
Which, like you, looks very pale,
I like it best when stale,
Bonnet-builder, O!

From 1845, there are also adverts for ‘Allsop’s & Butler’s Kennett Ale in find condition’ – had it, by this point, become what we’d now call a beer style, divorced from its geographic roots, being brewed in the Midlands? Butler’s, which we assumed is the same brewery that later became part of Mitchells & Butlers, was still producing a Kennett as late as 1868.

The recipe

Right, let’s keep pulling this thread – can we find more detail of what Kennett Ale might have tasted like, or what made it distinctive other than the source water?

Well, here’s what purports to be a recipe, from 1853:

Take 1 quarter of good amber malt and 8 lbs. of brown hops. Three liquors to make two boilings. First boil for ½ an hour— second ¾ of an hour. Use in the first wort in the copper when boiling 1½ oz. of coriander seeds and ½ an oz. of chillies. First mash set at 170°, with a barrel and a half of liquor: the second at 182°, with the same quantity of liquor; the third at 156°, with 2 barrels of liquor. Set it to work at 64°, and cleanse it at 74° with a good head; this will make rather more than 2 barrels. This much resembles Burton ale, but is not so strong.

Coriander and chillies!? Now, let’s take this with a pinch of salt (figuratively speaking – we don’t want to make this recipe any more complicated) because these home recipe books are often a bit peculiar, being based on guesswork more than insight.

Let’s assume, though, that the author of this recipe was trying to capture a certain spiciness that the beer seemed to have.

The most useful nugget, in fact, is that bit at the end which gives us a sense of how Kennett might have fit into the scheme of things, being rich and sweet but not overwhelmingly boozy.

From Reading to Ohio

There’s more to the thread yet: the above recipe is actually billed as ‘Kennett/Reading Ale’. What’s the story there?

And then there’s the Cleveland connection:

“The beer style originated in the Kennett/Reading area in England and came over here with some immigrant brewers,” [brewer Andy] Tveekrem said. “It was brewed by a few local breweries in the Cleveland area but I have yet to find anything on it being brewed elsewhere in the U.S. … although I haven’t really tried too hard.”

Before we keep pulling and digging, do let us know what you know about Kennett or Reading Ale in the comments below.

The temptation of the gin palace door, 1844

An essay by Irish writer John Fisher Murray from 1844 gives us yet another portrait of the gin palace. And, as is often the case, through the veil of temperance disapproval, there are some evocative details to be enjoyed.

For example, haven’t we all come across inviting, tempting pub doors like this?

The doors are large, swinging easily upon patent hinges, and ever half-and-half—half open, half shut, so that the most undecided touch of the dram-drinker admits him. The windows are of plateglass, set in brass sashes, and are filled with flaming announcements, in large letters, ‘The Cheapest House In London,’— ‘Cream Of The Valley,’—‘Creaming Stout,’—‘Brilliant Ales,’—‘Old Tom, fourpence a quartern,’ — ‘Hodges’ Best, for mixing,’ and a variety of other entertainments for the men and beasts who make the gin-palace their home. At night splendid lights irradiate the surrounding gloom, and an illuminated clock serves to remind the toper of the time he throws away in throwing away his reason.

The other line that leaps out there is ‘Creaming Stout’ – a foreshadowing of the marketing that would arise around Guinness draught stout more than a hundred years later. It turns out this was a fairly common descriptor throughout the nineteenth century; here’s one example from 1855:

Creaming Ripe Porter, Treble Creaming Stout
SOURCE: Friend of India and Statesman, 20 September 1855, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Creaming Ripe Porter! Treble Creaming Stout! Bring these beer names back, somebody. (Not now, obviously.)

But let’s step back and look at the lie of the land – where would you find a gin palace? And what face does it present to the street?

Good eating deserves good drinking; and, if you have the wherewithal, you need assuredly not remain many minutes either hungry or dry. In London, the public-house is always either next door but two, or round the next corner, or over the way… The gin-palace… is generally at the corner of two intersecting streets, in a gin-drinking neighbourhood; it lowers, in all the majesty of stucco pilasters, in genuine cockney splendour, over the dingy mansions that support it, like a rapacious tyrant over his impoverished subjects.

Right, now it’s time to slip through that light-touch door and see what’s going on inside:

Within, the splendour is in keeping with the splendour without; counters fitted with zinc, and a long array of brass taps; fittings of the finest Spanish mahogany, beautifully polished; bottles containing cordials, and other drugs, gilded and labelled, as in the apothecaries’ shops. At one side is the bar-parlour, an apartment fitted up with congenial taste, and usually occupied by the family of the publican; in the distance are vistas, and sometimes galleries, formed altogether of huge vats of the various sorts of liquor dispensed in the establishment.

The intriguing detail here is the bar-parlour. We’ve only ever encountered one of these in real life, at the Bridge Inn in Topsham, Devon. That example is a cosy little domestic room with a fireplace and armchairs (we think, from memory) where the landlady occasionally invites favourite regulars to sit.

It’s funny to think of a family living in a gin palace, or at least the kind of den of debauchery depicted in Victorian literature and art.

Now we get a look at the customers and, of course, an obligatory glance towards the sexy barmaids:

Behind the counter, which is usually raised to a level with the breasts of the topers, stand men in their shirt-sleeves, well-dressed females, or both, dispensers of the ‘short’ and ‘heavy;’ the under-sized tipplers, raising themselves on tiptoe, deposit the three-halfpence for the ‘drop’ of gin, or whatever else they require, and receive their quantum of the poison in return; ragged women, with starveling children, match and ballad-vendors, fill up the foreground of the picture. There are no seats, nor any accommodation for the customers in the regular gin-palace; every exertion is used to make the place as uncomfortable to the consumers as possible, so that they shall only step in to drink, and pay; step out, and return to drink and pay again. No food of any kind is provided at the gin-palace, save a few biscuits, which are exhibited in a wire-cage, for protection against the furtive hand; drink, eternal, poisonous drink, is the sole provision of this whited sepulchre.

“Whited sepulchre!” we both cried, being of the generation that read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for GCSE English. It must be from the Bible or Shakespeare, then, we thought, and sure enough, it’s from Matthew 23:27:

Woe unto you… for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness…

Oof! The gin palace as Biblical symbol.

This theme is continued in the next passage which, judgemental or not, gives us some fascinating, vivid details:

There is not in all London a more melancholy and spirit-depressing sight than the area of one of the larger gin-palaces on a wet night. There, the homeless, houseless miserables of both sexes, whether they have money or not, resort in numbers for a temporary shelter; aged women selling ballads and matches, cripples, little beggar-boys and girls, slavering idiots, piemen, sandwich-men, apple and orange-women, shell-fishmongers, huddled pell-mell,in draggle-tailed confusion.

Pies, sandwiches, shellfish… Almost two centuries on, this is still the essence of pub grub. We can’t say we’ve ever had the urge to buy an apple or an orange down the boozer, though.

Well, fun as this brief visit has been, it’s probably time we pulled our lapels up and went out into that bloody awful weather…

The noises, too, of the assembled topers are hideous; appalling even when heard in an atmosphere of gin. Imprecations, execrations, objurgations, supplications, until at length the patience of the publican, and the last copper of his customers, are exhausted, when, rushing from behind his counter, assisted by his shopmen, he expels, vi et armis, the dilatory mob, dragging out by the heels or collars the dead drunkards, to nestle, as best they may, outside the inhospitable door.

You can read Mr Fisher Murray’s essay in full in various places including his own 1845 collection The World of London. The main image is adapted from an engraving from The Working Man’s Friend and Family Instructor, 25 Oct 1851.

News, nuggets and longreads 21 March 2020: the show must go on

Here’s all the news and commentary on pubs and beer that grabbed us in the past week, from takeaway beer to brewery-side blending.

First, sigh, some news: pubs, along with other hospitality businesses, have been commanded to close by the Government. The situation will be reviewed every month but even the most optimistic pundits seem to think we can expect them to be shut for three months.

In our view, this is sad, but necessary.

If you’re someone who relies on pubs for your social life, we’d recommend investigating the various virtual meet-up options, from Twitter drinkalongs to video conferencing.

And if you make your livelihood through the pub trade, we hope the various business support measures the Government has introduced will go some way to cushioning the blow.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 21 March 2020: the show must go on”