The Renaissance of the English Public House

A State Management house: The Apple Tree.

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.

15 thoughts on “The Renaissance of the English Public House”

    1. Some­where, we’ve got a great arti­cle about the ‘darts craze’ – 1930s onwards, I think. Must dig it out.

  1. A prob­lem with many of these “improved” pubs is that, while often designed with great care and archi­tec­tural­ly impres­sive, they nev­er real­ly “worked” as pubs and were not pop­u­lar with cus­tomers who pre­ferred some­thing more cosy and inti­mate.

    In the mod­ern era their large foot­print has made them attrac­tive for rede­vel­op­ment while in many places their small­er and old­er brethren are still in busi­ness.

    While it may not have been the case in Lon­don, in the pre-WW1 era there was a lot of new pub build­ing in the North-West, result­ing in edi­fices like this.

    1. Well, that’s it – he’s an archi­tect and is talk­ing in pure­ly ide­al­is­tic terms about ‘great build­ings’.

      There’s also some inter­est­ing stuff about refur­bish­ing small­er coun­try inns, often replac­ing bor­ing but authen­tic frontages with inau­then­tic Olde Worlde half-tim­ber­ing and oth­er such affect­ed archaisms. Has made us won­der how many ‘quaint old pubs’ actu­al­ly have frontages from c.1935.

  2. Do Whit­bread get a men­tion? One of the things Syd­ney Neville talks about in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy is the strug­gle to improve pubs against the objec­tions of pro­hi­bi­tion­ists.

    1. Yes, although they don’t fea­ture as promi­nent­ly as oth­ers. The King of Bohemia in Ham­sptead gets a shout out: “…a mod­el of eco­nom­ic plan­ning”.

    1. It’s an ‘open gallery or veran­dah’, so pre­sum­ably a way to enjoy the ter­race with­out going out in the rain.

  3. pre­sum­ably he did­nt much like Tol­ly Fol­lies either, but as he designed pubs for many brew­eries in the 1930s, I think Greene King com­mis­sioned a few & theres cer­tain­ly a her­itage pub in Cam­bridge he designed. But might his views then nec­es­sar­i­ly cham­pi­on his archi­tec­tur­al vision over and above and at the expense of his rivals, or dif­fer­ent approach­es?

  4. Pure­ly for info pur­pos­es …

    My copy of this book was orig­i­nal­ly priced at 25 shillings !
    I pur­chased a copy in 2013 for £20.00p from a Cardiff book shop.

    My copy was pub­lished in 1947, (not ’49 as stat­ed above).
    It has 114 B+W plates
    There are 52 pages of floor plans of some of the pubs men­tioned.

    1. Dave – you’re quite right, it was pub­lished in 1947. We can only blame a men­tal block on our part. Post cor­rect­ed!

  5. The Coun­ty Arms is in a very sor­ry state nowa­days. It’s actu­al­ly a rather uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly mod­ernist build­ing that on first impres­sion I would have said was post­war rather than 1930s.

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