Beer history

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 replies on “Book Review: The Pub and the People”

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.


[…] bog-standard. We didn’t care — we were in love with the pub which seemed right out of Mass Observation, with piano, status symbol pot plants in the saloon, and a lounge that seemed too good for the […]

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