Mass Observation Revisited, 1961

Did you know about Tom Harrisson’s follow-up to 1943’s Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, entitled Britain Revisited and published in 1961?

We certainly hadn’t registered its existence until the other week when a Google Books search turned up a reference. We ordered it from Amazon for £7 delivered — a lovely looking edition in a bright yellow Gollancz dust-jacket.

Book cover: Britain Revisited.

The pub chapter runs to 27 pages and draws on the original Mass Observation work from the 1930s; a commercial follow-up project comissioned by Guinness in the late 1940s; and a new set of observations carried out by one of the original team in 1960. If you’re interested in pub history you won’t need much more than that to persuade you to get hold of your own copy.

We’re going to be referring to it substantially in product of The Big Project but here are a couple of interesting nuggets to be getting on with. First, here’s Harrisson on a substantial change in drinking habits:

[There] is an increase in midday drinking, including a smattering of reeling drunks around town in the early afternoon — something not seen at all in the thirties. This affected locally by the new system of shift work in the cotton mills, by which no one there works all day, as they did before… Affluence has enabled drinking to be more extended and produced the occasional midday drunk as a new phenomenon in the North.

This is a point he also picks up while summarising the difference between a typical young man of 1960 and his father:

You may wear a tie instead of a scarf, your second best suit instead of the working clothes that had once been your only best suit, drink ‘best mild’ instead of ordinary, twenty-two pints a week instead of twenty, and maybe put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford.

Well, we think he’s picking up the same point anyway, assuming he’s using ‘dinner-time’ here to refer to the middle meal of the day, as in school dinners, as in breakfast-dinner-tea-supper.

So can we conclude that the lunchtime drinking culture it sometimes feels we’ve lost — The Pub Curmudgeon often mentions it — was another of those things we didn’t really have for long in the first place?

A photo spread from Britain Revisited feat. a shot of a pub.

That section quoted above also starts us on another trail: which beers were people drinking in 1937, 1947 and 1960? The 1947 Guinness project notes, quoted in big chunks by Harrisson, record that:

About half of pubgoers usually drink mild or bitter or mild-and-bitter. Of the remainder about a third drink Guinness or stout. One drinker in the thirteen — even after prompting — can give no details about his usual drink beyond that it is ‘beer’.

But by 1960 a shift was underway:

[More] expensive beers are being drunk. More bitter (the rather costlier beer) and more bottled in the pubs.

Harrisson argues that this was part of a general narrative of what he calls ‘up-affluencing’ — a drift towards the better bars, away from the barebones vault or public; and a growing taste for Babycham, Cherry B, ‘a drop of gin dressed up’, and even cocktails among younger female drinkers, where their mothers would have been happy with stout. This quote from a pub landlord on the subject of flashy young men with money to burn contains a lot of meaning for a few words and might well apply to the craft beer scene of today:

[Lads] have always liked a drop of the best.

9 thoughts on “Mass Observation Revisited, 1961”

  1. If there were all these young blades who would put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time in 1960, I think we can assume that lunchtime drinking hadn’t just started that year; let’s say we date it back to the mid-50s. And three pints of a lunchtime was still pretty standard, at least for some of us, when I left my last office job, which was 1998; again, that won’t have stopped overnight after that. So that’s somewhere between 40 and 50 years; two generations of drinkers. Also, note the rest of the sentence – put in an hour in the boozer dinner-time, which your dad in 1937 couldn’t afford. That suggests that your Dad in 1937 would have been in the pub at lunchtime if he’d had the money to spare – which in turn suggests that lunchtime drinking probably did go on, but less often and/or slightly higher up the social scale. It’s nothing like today’s situation where people actually don’t want to have a drink during the day (and their employers definitely don’t want them to).

    1. It suggests to me that the original study caught the end of the Depression, possibly a survey of 1927 would give a different result? After all, if there was no trade, presumably pubs wouldn’t be open at all during the daytime?

      1. Good points.

        Maybe it’s that lunchtime drinking is something that happens when people (a) have spare cash and (b) there are more jobs than skilled workers and so its harder to get sacked? My parents are always telling me about how easy it was for them back in the 1960s to leave a job they didn’t like and walk into a new one the same day.

  2. Unless you could get a time machine back into the 20s and 30s, it’s very hard to say exactly who would have been drinking in pubs at dinnertimes, but I think it’s a fair assumption that they weren’t in general shut. In towns and cities, of course, many office workers would have eaten their dinner in pubs. It’s largely beyond living memory now.

    As I said in the article you linked to, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else’s life falls into a similar pattern to your own.

    1. Here, though, we do have the 1930s Mass Observation notes, and Tom Harrissson’s analysis in this 1961 book is based on multiple surveys conducted in different parts of the country over decades. MO isn’t perfect but it’s not bloody bad as far as hard information goes. We have actually got a couple of other books with observations from the 1920s and 1910s — we’ll try to find time to see if there’s any hard data there on lunchtime drinking.

  3. A bit of an aside, but I keep wondering whether we could get the British Lunchtime Pint listed and protected by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

  4. Bolton,where the Mass Observation survey was carried out in approximately 1938 was not typical of large parts of Britain which had experienced sustained economic growth for several years and were therefore more prosperous. Bolton’s economy relying to a large degree on the export of textiles was depressed. The 1930’s saw a sustained amount of pub building in the more prosperous parts of Britain which points to a more vibrant pub economy with probably a considerable amount of consumption of food and drink at lunchtime.

    1. Nowhere’s typical!

      But they did also carry out surveys in Blackpool, Liverpool, London and other places and the conclusions Harrisson draws in this book aren’t entirely based on the Bolton material.

  5. He’s wrong about the son drinking best mild rather than the ordinary mild the father drank. The statistics show clearly that 1960 was the year bitter drinking took off and mild drinking of any kind started to dive

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