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.
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’.
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.