Book Review: The Pub and the People

Is this post a good idea? Our review is late by either four years (the edition we have was published by Faber in 2009) or seventy (it was first published in 1943). The thing is, it’s made us so giddy with excitement and amusement that we’ve got to tell someone, and you, loyal reader, are in the frame.

The Pub and the People: a Worktown Study by Mass Observation.
The Pub and the Peo­ple: a Work­town Study by Mass Obser­va­tion.

Mass Obser­va­tion’ was a social research group found­ed in 1936 found­ed by an anthro­pol­o­gist called Tom Har­ris­son, along with film­mak­er Humphrey Jen­nings and poet Charles Madge. It ran, in its first incar­na­tion, until the nine­teen-six­ties, and the ‘Work­town’ study was its first major piece of work. It saw Har­ris­son and a team of observers (some locals, oth­ers from acad­e­mia) descend on the Lan­cashire town and, for three years from 1937, watch and record every­thing, how­ev­er appar­ent­ly incon­se­quen­tial.

Time trav­el

If you were to attempt to recre­ate the expe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing a pub in Bolton in 1937, this book would give you every­thing you could pos­si­bly need. Pub archi­tec­ture, the drinks on offer, the cloth­ing and man­ners of the cus­tomers, the behav­iour of the bar staff, and the nature of con­ver­sa­tions in the saloon, lounge and tap­room are all recount­ed. Graphs and tables tell you how much peo­ple of each ‘type’ drank in a ses­sion, on each day of the week, in what mea­sures, and at what pace. (63.8 per cent of drinks were con­sumed in between 6 and 10 min­utes on a Sun­day.)

There is also infor­ma­tion on how much they smoked, and what they did with the fag ends; as well as how often they spat, where, and to what reac­tion from their friends – ‘He is called a “filthy bug­ger”’.

The var­i­ous pubs are analysed and mapped – what’s the dif­fer­ence between the saloon, lounge and tap­room? How many pubs have music rooms? What’s a ‘vault’? There are even sta­tis­tics giv­en for the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pot plants.

Though at first it seems absurd – where will the obses­sion with minu­ti­ae end? – it even­tu­al­ly leads to an almost hyp­not­ic sense of ‘vir­tu­al real­i­ty’.


Mass Obser­va­tion had some of the trap­pings of a sci­en­tif­ic study and had pre­ten­sions of objec­tiv­i­ty. The fact is, though, that the per­son­al­i­ties and prej­u­dices of the edi­tors, writ­ers and observers comes through quite clear­ly. This often results in fun­ny lines, either inten­tion­al or oth­er­wise. This ‘obser­va­tion’ (anec­dote) is not only amus­ing in itself, but also because the writer is so coy about it:

Navvy type of per­son aged about 35, says ‘If I get three pints down me I can…’ (What he said is the sort of thing con­sid­ered ‘unprint­able’. It amount­ed to the fact that when he went home he was able to have sex­u­al inter­course with his wife with the max­i­mum of effi­cien­cy, and when he woke up in the morn­ing he was able to repeat the process with the utmost sat­is­fac­tion.)

Those under obser­va­tion also often express them­selves wit­ti­ly or at least pith­ily: ‘You can do almost any­thing you bloody well like in the vault, short of shit­ting on the place.’ Entire pages are giv­en over to illus­tra­tions of stream-of-con­scious­ness, ram­bling ban­ter, full of free asso­ci­a­tions and Pythonesque silli­ness which we recog­nise from pubs with ‘reg­u­lars’ who know each oth­er well.

At one point, in an attempt to mea­sure the social make­up of clien­tele in cer­tain pubs, the authors use head­wear as a proxy, and thus invent ‘the bowler hat index’. That real­ly tick­led us. What’s the mod­ern equiv­a­lent?

Assume noth­ing

The pint, as we all know, is the one true mea­sure – the only prop­er way to drink beer – and it has ever been thus. Except that’s not true, and The Pub and the Peo­ple in fact devotes quite a bit of time to the strange phe­nom­e­non of those few odd­balls who drinks pints, espe­cial­ly Irish navvies in their dirty, spit-and-saw­dust, near-seg­re­gat­ed pubs. Most Bolto­ni­ans in 1937, espe­cial­ly the man­li­est of men, in fact drank ‘gills’.

Binge drink­ing and town cen­tre ‘no go’ areas are a new thing, too, right? Part of the col­lapse of our soci­ety? We already know about 1958 and 1927, but the lengthy descrip­tion in The Pub and the Peo­ple of a week­end in Bolton reads like an episode of Cops With Cam­eras in a peri­od set­ting. (Bob­bies with Cin­e­matographs?)

Pass­ing down the street observ­er saw a man of 30 run­ning across the road, through the entrance of this pub, up the steps and shout­ing. The next sec­ond the sound of break­ing glass. The man then comes tum­bling down the steps with anoth­er man on top of him. They begin to fight in the mid­dle of the street… [Lat­er] a sergeant with a stick and  P.C. came up… ‘What’s the mat­ter? What’s it all about? Now then, come on there, get out of it, get out of it!’.

The pre­ten­tious bit

(OK – the more pre­ten­tious bit.) There are times when the observers’ prose reflects the poet­ry of its time. Some pas­sages could pass for a lost bit of T.S. Eliot, such as this list of ‘things peo­ple do in pubs’:

A passage from the text illustrating its resemblance to poetry.

There are lots of moments where an oth­er­wise clin­i­cal descrip­tion is enlivened by a star­tling piece of imagery or turn of phrase, which per­haps deval­ue the text as ‘obser­va­tion’, but make it much more pleas­ant to read.


We’re not sure why this book isn’t talked about more. Any­one with an inter­est in the his­to­ry of beer and pubs in Britain ought to read it, but don’t let that ‘ought’ make you think it’s an ordeal: it’s engross­ing, com­pelling and amus­ing, despite the aca­d­e­m­ic fram­ing.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Pub and the People”

  1. Years ago I bought a col­lec­tion of 1930s Pen­guin and Pel­i­can paper­back that includ­ed Mass Obser­va­tion social sci­ence texts. They remind me of the pub­lic health stud­ies of the sec­ond half of the 1800s but not sure they drilled down to this sort of gran­u­lar­i­ty. I recall a very long study of the spread of the dance, the Lamp­ton Walk in on MO book.

    1. It’s real­ly remark­ably detailed, and this is the digest – three years worth of notes, unedit­ed, are sit­ting in the archive at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex.

  2. Bears out what I’ve pre­vi­ous­ly said that men drink­ing halves used to be very com­mon­place, and it was only the “rougher” sort who drank pints.

    In this con­text a “gill” is sure­ly a half-pint, though, not a quar­ter.

    1. Odd­ly, for a book that is oth­er­wise so detailed, they omit to say which def­i­n­i­tion of gill they’re employ­ing. (As far as we can see.) We’d assumed that, as they didn’t say oth­er­wise, they meant the offi­cial def­i­n­i­tion, but you might well be right.

  3. If I had anoth­er pen­ny I would have anoth­er gill” – first line of “Byk­er Hill and Walk­er Shore”, an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry north-east­ern min­ers’ song. I always assumed it was an impe­r­i­al gill of some­thing stronger, per­haps gin & water, but a half of beer would work.

    Mass Obser­va­tion was an amaz­ing project, and this sounds like a fas­ci­nat­ing book – I’ll look out for it.

  4. It’s a won­der­ful book. Espe­cial­ly the bits where the drinkers seem to be tak­ing the piss out of the observers. I’d love to see more of the con­ver­sa­tions they record­ed.

    1. Ha, yes – we meant to men­tion in the review that the pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic tone is mas­sive­ly under­cut by the fact that the observees usu­al­ly knew they were being watched by a bespec­ta­cled weirdo in Oxford bags drink­ing a small sher­ry at one end of the bar, and behaved accord­ing­ly.

  5. Excel­lent report. I first learned of MO many years ago when read­ing accounts of Lon­don­ers’ respons­es to the Blitz. The clipped, clin­i­cal tone, only part­ly sci­en­tif­ic and which makes to be sure for its read­abil­i­ty and human inter­est as you’ve not­ed, has large­ly dis­ap­peared from pub­lic inves­tiga­tive projects.

    Today, the tone is much more sub­jec­tive, often with a frankly expressed sym­pa­thy for the con­di­tions or sub­ject mat­ter dis­cussed. There is a char­ac­ter­is­tic sound or “feel” for exam­ple to many BBC, CBC and PBS doc­u­men­taries that is quite alien to the impar­tial-sound­ing, social sci­ence tone of much of MO’s work.

    You can still hear an echo of the MO approach occa­sion­al­ly, a good exam­ple is the mar­vel­lous 7 Up doc­u­men­tary series, espe­cial­ly the ear­li­est ones but the updates still have that essen­tial feel to them. 7 Up, for those not aware, chron­i­cles the lives and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of a dis­parate group of Lon­don­ers every 7 years, the series start­ed in the ear­ly 1960’s The first episodes were in black-and-white are a strong visu­al coun­ter­part to the MO style of inquiry, IMO.


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