Beer history pubs

A Night in a 1930s Pub

  • What’s Yours? T.E.B. Clarke, 1938 = TEBC
  • The Pub and the People, Mass Observation, 1943 = MO
  • The Local, Maurice Gorham & Edward Ardizzone, 1939 = MG
  • ‘Pubs’, William Cameron, Picture Post, 26 November 1938 = WC

[Pubs] are all different. Old and brand new, large and small, prosperous and neglected, smart and shabby; pubs in select neighbourhoods catering for a ‘nice class of people’, pubs in frowsy neighbourhoods frowned upon by the Licensing Bench. [MG 39]

The State, since it took over the liquor trade in certain areas in England and Scotland in 1916, has put the improvement of the public house in the forefront of its policy… Nevertheless, there are still large numbers of houses, particularly in industrial districts, which are poor and cramped in structure, gloomy, often insufficiently ventilated, and sometimes even deficient in standards of cleanliness. [Royal Commission on Licensing 1929-31, 1931.]

The pub isn’t much different from other houses in the block, except for the sign with its name and that of the brewing firm that owns it, but its lower windows are larger than those of the others, and enclosed with stucco fake columns that go down to the ground; and the door, on the corner, is set at an angle; it is old-looking, worn… The door opens with a brass latch, disclosing a worn and scrubbed floor, straight bar counter brown-painted with thick yellow imitation graining on the front panelling; at its base is a scattered fringe of sawdust, spit-littered, and strewn with match-end and crumbled cigarette packets. [MO]

Vault — Vault, Public Bar, Saloon Bar. [MO]

Like all Gaul, the English pub is divided into three parts: the Saloon bar, the Private bar and the Public. So that we shall not have to descend in the social scale, let us start by looking in at the last of the trio… The Public is, of course, just as much a bar as either of the others, but, in accordance with its inferior status, it lacks a double-barrelled name. It lacks, too, certain other refinements that may be found beyond its wooden partition, such as potted plants, padded seats and free lumps of cheese on Sundays. [TEBC]

Dartboard and price list on the wall of a Bolton pub, 1930s.
By Humphrey Spender, April 1938, from the Bolton Worktown archive.

Four yellowish white china handles, shiny brass on top, stand up from the bar counter. This is important, it is the beer engine, nerve-centre of the pub. Behind the bar, on shelves, reflecting themselves against mirrors… are rows of glasses and bottles, also stacked matches and Woodbine packets. Beer advertising cards and a notice against betting are fixed to the smoke-darkened yellowish wallpaper; and on the wall, beside the door, is a square of black glass… that has painted on it, in gilt, a clock face with Roman numerals, and the letters NO TICK. [MO]

In most vaults and taprooms, on week nights men wear caps, scarves knotted round the neck, and coat, trousers, and waistcoats, of dark materials, that often belong to different suits. Caps are a working class badge… [MO]

Every pub is somebody’s local, and every one has its regulars… You seem them ensconced in a corner by the partition, deep in conversation with the landlady when you come in. [MG]

…two old men in their corner at their usual seats, drinking pints of mild. Two young chaps, both missing front teeth, lean against the bar, very drunk indeed, but quietly so… regulars keep arriving. They all call the barmaid by her Christian name and she knows what they drink, serving them without having to be told. They are nearly all old men, pint drinkers. [MO]

At the end of the counter, segregated from the lesser leaners by a potted plant, you will perceive the Barmaid’s Special…. The B.S. never engages in backchat, is never the instigator of a cackle: and therein lies the secret of his popularity with Ruby. [TEBC]

A special type of pub-goer, who doesn’t seem to belong in any active sense, is the man who we call the ‘silent regular’… An old man in corduroys comes in very slowly, does not greet the others, advances to the bar and fumbles in pocket for money… [He] drinks his pint in three minutes, and walks out again very slowly, not having spoken a word to anyone the whole time. [MO]

The Pub Bore is pathetic… Aiming to make himself conspicuous, he stands a good three feet from the bar, thus giving himself a pretext for raising his voice… From there he maintains a flow of such laboured fatuities that even the Same Again Man is occasionally reduced to a froth-spilling shudder. No words sound sweeter… than the eventual request that he ‘put a sock in it’. [TEBC]

Dominoes in a Bolton Pub.
By Humphrey Spender, from the Bolton Worktown archive.

An ex-publican writes… Publican more of a spare time job, a means of adding to income from other sources… the good landlord is a type who would lead a pack. Birds of a feather. Person who has achieved notoriety in sport preferred… He along with his wife are in a position of importance… This has the inevitable effect on their characters, dress, and bearing… Grotesque in the lady, coming out with flashy dress and speech in the more choice specimens. [MO]

Guv’nors fall into three categories of importance. Should you ever hear a regular presuming to give the Guv’nor an order without waiting to be asked whether he is being served… you may assume that you have entered a tied house where the Guv’nor is merely a manager in the employ of the brewers who own it. If no such great liberties are being taken, yet Guv’nor is heard to strike up a conversation of his own account, you will know that the Guv’nor has taken it under a tenancy agreement from the brewers. If, however, you see a group of customers endeavouring to wrest opinions or comments from the Guv’nor with the eagerness of passengers currying favour from a ship’s captain, and the great man responding with an air of courteous tolerance but making no effort to advance any views unprompted, then you may take it that you have struck that on establishment in twenty, a free house, and that the Guv’nor before you is the tops in his calling, a tycoon dominated by none save the local licensing judges. [TEBC]

Beer is Best poster, 1937 (detail)

MILD ALE. The lightest and cheapest draught beer… It is the staple drink in Public Bars, where ‘a pint’ without qualification means a pint of mild. [MG]

The newcomer to Publand who has never had the benefit of an instructor will be almost certain to begin his career by asking for a glass of beer. That is the initiate’s commonest fault. Let me impress on the tyros among my readers that such an order should only be given if ale is required, and then it is more decorous to ask for ‘mild’. Or, if you want to sound really sophisticated, order ‘half a pint of wallop’. [TEBC]

WOMPO. A name for the best ale, used in the East End and around the docks. Origin uncertain — so far as I know. [MG]

Personal taste counts for so much that it would be foolish to given any opinion on drinks or brews. The facts are that pubs serve any or all of the following: mild ale, bitter, Burton, Scotch Ale, stout, strong ale or barley wine (apart from cider and lager, and sometimes draught spirits and wine). Sometimes they keep more than one quality of some of them — a special bitter or a special ale. [MG]

Assuming that you intend to start on beer, the safest drink for you to demand is ‘bitter’, for if you have chanced up on a house where the brew is poor, this fact will probably be concealed from your untried palate by the very quality after which your choice is named. Or you might try a Burton (alias ‘old’) if you have a taste for something a little less acrid. [TEBC]

As well as mild, there is ‘best mild’, penny a pint more, stronger, and… nicer than the common mild. It is light in colour, like bitter… Other draught beers are strong ale, IPA, stout. [MO]

Should you have discovered that you like Burton… except for its slightly metallic flavour… make B.B. your next order. This means, of course, ‘Burton and bitter’… [TEBC]

* * *

In London the gill [5 fl oz] is often called a ‘quartern’. In the North of England, half a pint is called a gill, and a true gill a ‘noggin’.  (Licensed Victualler’s Annual, 1937.)

There is, to my knowledge, no advanced synonym for Burton; but to command respect when ordering bitter, you will find nothing more effective than a request for a ‘stick o’ loose’… Regarding mild ale… to be really impressive, ask for ‘main line’… As an imposing alternative to ‘B.B.’ I can thoroughly recommend the order ‘mother-in-law’, originating from ‘old and bitter’, which you will recall is the same drink. [TEBC]

It is common practice for men to start off by drinking a pint, and then for the rest of the evening getting gills which they pour into the pint mug, usually before it is emptied. [MO]

The pubman buying the second round nearly always speaks of it as ‘The Other Half’. This term is derived from the custom among beer-drinkers of ordering rounds by the half-pint, yet recognising only pint units when referring to the number of drinks they have had. [TEBC]

* * *

A pub is a club. Men go there to talk, to play darts and shove ha’penny, and bagatelle and billiards. The drinking is merely incidental. [WC]

Writes a barman… Conversation. Typical — what’s in the news, sensational, sport main topic among men.  [MO]

9:15, Seven men have ten minutes free-for-all conversation on the nobility of dogs; then they start to discuss all-in wrestling, and the conversation continues steadily, both generalizations and personalities, and was still going on when the observer left at 9.45, a tough bulldog- faced chap repeating for at least the tenth time: ‘It’s awreet for them as likes it, but I wouldn’t let a lad of mine go,’ as observer walked out. [MO]

The last of the six outstanding regulars is a lady… [Her name] is Mrs Jeffreys… Over and over again I have heard it: from the barmaid as she sets about washing the glasses; from the potman waiting to bolt the door… ‘Good-night, Tom. Good-night, Harry. Good-night, George. Good-night, Fred. Good-night, Mrs Jeffreys…’ [TEBC]

And at this time, with beer soaking into your soul, people will know you for what you are: saint or savage, narrow snob, idle boaster, or open-handed friend of your own kind…. The last round… Drink up, gentlemen… Last order, please! … The play draws to a close. The actors begin to shuffle out, home to at least a bed, perhaps a supper… The lights fade, the comedy is ended… Time, gentlemen, please! [WC]

Featured photograph: The Malting House Public House, Felling, 1930, Mr Crinnion behind the bar, from the Gateshead Libraries image archive.

3 replies on “A Night in a 1930s Pub”

Some excellent social history here although the 30’s arch tone and snobbery can grate. And “Public” is, too, double-barreled, it is from Public Bar. I guess he meant that the expression is abbreviated while the other two in the trio mentioned are not.

Amusing comment that an excess of hops can conceal certain (brewing) sins, well to a point anyway: true then as now.

The stronger lighter mild was clearly the 1800’s original, before the colour darkened for much of it. Hence wallop, since mild was pretty strong one time, and whump, ditto kind of usage, probably from bomb or shell sounds from WW 1.

Finally, excellent image there at the top: but hope that 1047 OG from the wood wasn’t cloudy and sour: Ron’s peregrinations in 1920’s professional assessments of beer quality (see his current series of postings) have got me wondering. Hard to tell but some of the beer especially the lighter in colour, in the other images shown, look somewhat hazy. Maybe London Murky has an older history than I thought…


I think it’s widely accepted that in the pre-CAMRA era quite a lot of cask beer was hazy to some extent, but not in a good way. Holts are reputed to have lost a whole generation of customers in the 1960s through the lack of clarity of their beer.

We’ll have a trawl through the various books and articles we’ve got knocking about and put something about beer clarity through the years up on the blog.

We’ve found at least one bit of evidence to suggest that complete clarity was, for a time at least, associated with the corporate blandness of the new keg beers.

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