Beer history pubs Somerset

Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavistock last week we picked up a tatty copy of Exmoor Village, a 1947 book by W.J. Turner ‘based on factual information from Mass Observation’. It features a chapter on pubs and socialising called ‘Gardens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glorious detail on beer and boozers were shattered with the opening line:

There is no inn in Luccombe [in Somerset], nor anywhere on the Acland Estate. The nearest is at Wootton Courtney. There is virtually no social centre in Luccombe beyond the doorstep and the village street.

Some of the men in the village, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in nearby Wootton or Porlock ‘on Saturday or Sunday — seldom both’:

Mr Gould remembers brown ale at threepence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Wootton. To-day, on an old-age pension, his visits are rare. His son is a teetotaller, and Bill Tame is another… Although Somerset is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Partridge is the only Luccombe person who has it. Another farmer, Mr Staddon, prefers beer.

The true Mass Observation touch, more literary than objective in tone despite its scientific pretensions, comes through in a description of the men at their usual haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Wootton Courtney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The public bar like most country bars is small, with two tables, two benches, and not enough chairs… A visitor at about seven o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, looking tired and weather-beaten, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luccombe, sitting in a chair by the window; a man of forty-five not from Luccombe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, standing leaning on his cane. Talk centres on horses. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and conversation round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoniest one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in question is the Dunkery Beacon Hotel which fits the description — ‘a white building with a verandah’ — but it doesn’t seem likely the bar is still there in anything like its original form. The walk from Luccombe to Wootton Courtney (or Courtenay) is about 45 minutes according to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bailey recalls hearing people in Somerset genuinely, un-ironically saying ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger people had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Porlock, the threat of invasion, German airmen and the Home Guard, chocolate rationing and other then hot topics. (The observations on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Americans turn up (GIs, presumably) they dominate the conversation with talk of farming back home.

If the men were only occasional pub-goers, the women of Luccombe hardly ever went, and the young men of the village aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and wasn’t a frequent drinker because he couldn’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go anywhere else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clearly in various bits of post-WWII writing on pubs — the idea that men were abandoning the pub not because it was bad but because home, family, gardens and allotments had become so pleasant.

If you’re interested in country life more generally, Somerset in particular, or Mass Observation (this project was controversial), then this book is worth getting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white photos by John Hinde are also lovely to look at, as are the charmingly period charts and illustrations. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Amazon lists a couple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book showing distances from Luccombe to key amenities.

7 replies on “Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947”

If it’s 1944 you aren’t going to find many young men anywhere in rural Britain outside of uniform.

The Dunkery is still there but I think it’s just a hotel, it used to have a bar and featured in early issues of the GBG, Luccombe is I think too small to be called a parish, doesn’t have a church, there was a pub in the next village Timberscombe but it’s currently closed, apparently the landlord topped himself I was recently told.

The Dunk or Dunkery is still here and is now known as Dunkery Beacon Country House Hotel and also has a public restaurant within called The Coleridge Restaurant. Both are very popular with tourists and locals.
Although not sure if Luccumbe is a Parish, it definitely has a church which can be seen clearly from the flanks of Luccumbe Hill.
The Lion in Timberscombe is now under new ownership and presently being refurbished after that fateful day that brought an end to the much troubled landlord.

Actually, just wondering about how pubs managed during the war especially. Tax had increased hugely on beer and income tax took a huge hike. How much spare cash did the average man have to go down the pub at the time, or was everything else so rationed that it averaged out? Did pubs just survive because they were brewery owned?

Pubs struggled during WWII because of short supplies, lack of customers, etc., but there was an understanding in government that they were important for morale and national identity and brewers were encouraged to keep them trading. Generally, barring bomb damage, they survived pretty well. (Lots of T&Cs apply; we’ve looked into this a bit and there will be more in the book we’re working on.)

‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go anywhere else.’
This reminded me of the comedian Micky Flanagan bemoaning the fact that his wife insisted they go on holiday.
” Why do I want to pay money to go somewhere to see people doing pretty much what I do at home anyway. “

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