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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