Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944

Gulliver in a pub by Victoria Davidson (?)

The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about – or maybe an exposé of – bar staff in London pubs.

It’s cred­it­ed to ‘Lemuel Gul­liv­er’ and is enti­tled Gul­liv­er Peeps Behind the Bar imply­ing a con­nec­tion to the satir­i­cal tra­di­tion of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s per­haps not the stuff foot­notes are made of, unless care­ful­ly word­ed. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plen­ty of cre­ative licence in writ­ing up mate­r­i­al from var­i­ous sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:

You’ll get thir­ty-five bob a week,’ said the bar­maid duck­ing through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her per­ox­ide head popped up again in the frame of the orna­men­tal bot­tles and frost­ed glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morn­ing til eleven at night.’

She went on to detail the var­i­ous ways bar­maids in Lon­don pubs com­pen­sate them­selves for their mis­er­able lot, name­ly ‘fid­dling’.

Go on with you,’ said the bar­maid. ‘You know what fid­dling is, mak­ing a bit on the side.’ She gave a mas­cara wink.

First, there was the bar­maid who took addi­tion­al com­pen­sa­tion in the form of drink, ‘a bot­tle of gin before break­fast’, the emp­ty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sher­ry’ to cov­er her tracks. The cus­tomers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.

The cover of Lilliput, December 1944.

Then there was a bar­man who was in the habit of slip­ping coins into his waist­coat but was found out because his pock­et was wet: ‘Don’t you know that mon­ey tak­en over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the preva­lence of this kind of thing, accord­ing to Gulliver’s infor­mant, most pubs banned bar staff from hav­ing any mon­ey in their pock­ets at all.

There were var­i­ous meth­ods for fid­dling the till. First, there’s the sim­ple wheeze of tak­ing orders for mul­ti­ple rounds but only ring­ing up the price of one – easy, but risky. Alter­na­tive­ly, they might work with a friend pos­ing as a cus­tomer on the oth­er side of the bar: ‘Every time the accom­plice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elab­o­rate approach sounds pos­i­tive­ly inge­nious:

Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The peo­ple in the bar used to drop the mon­ey on the floor, shuf­fle it down the hole and the cel­lar­man used to catch it in a beer fil­ter.

She explained that such dis­hon­est bar staff worked in gangs, mov­ing around to avoid the police, and alter­nat­ing so that some worked while oth­ers laid low. They found new jobs using forged ref­er­ences, ‘six­pence each’.

The arti­cle con­cludes with details of a clever cus­tomer-side con trick that’s new to us:

The most famous trick is called ‘Ring­ing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Imme­di­ate­ly after, the accom­plice goes into the pub­lic bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the num­ber. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accom­plice had just hand­ed in. Well, when that hap­pens, the land­lord has to pay up.

Can any­one who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still hap­pens today, or have CCTV and the death of the mul­ti-bar lay­out out done for this (ahem) fine old tra­di­tion?

The main illus­tra­tion above is signed ‘Vic­to­ria’ which we think means it’s by Vic­to­ria David­son, 1915–1999.

12 thoughts on “Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944”

  1. Some­where I have a 1960s guide to work­ing as a bar­man. It warns you of strangers with umbrel­las. They’ll ask you to bring them an item from a far cor­ner of the bar. As you turn your back they’ll spear them­selves a free pack­et of cig­a­rettes from the back bar with the pre-sharp­ened end of their brol­ly. Scams had more style back then

  2. Pret­ty sure plen­ty of this sort of stuff went on. Charles Booth’s reports men­tion bar­maids over­fill­ing glass­es of their “favourites”.

  3. Gul­liv­er’ might just be to go with Lil­liput – was it a wide­ly-used pseu­do­nym?

    I’ve nev­er seen a copy of Lil­liput, but I con­fess to a mild fas­ci­na­tion – it & its kind were the orig­i­nal ‘mag­a­zines for men’, in the days before that just meant pr0n (and when the lat­ter would have been effec­tive­ly ille­gal any­way). Does it read as par­tic­u­lar­ly blokey now?

    1. Blokey wouldn’t be the word; ‘chap­pish’, maybe. Lots of full-page pho­tos, two of which might be classed as tit­il­lat­ing – there’s a sin­gle nip­ple vis­i­ble in one! Else­where it’s humor­ous sto­ries about the war, James Mason on the pub­lic per­cep­tion that he was an insane woman-hater, and lots of ads for Y-fronts, socks, razors…

  4. When I worked in a pub we weren’t allowed to have mon­ey on us. All our stuff was locked away at the start of each shift. We weren’t allowed a drink either oth­er than water. It was a good pol­i­cy actu­al­ly.

  5. I think the guide referred to by Mark is “Bar Ser­vice (a non-tech­ni­cal man­u­al for male and female bar staff)” by James H Coombs, first pub­lished in 1965 by Bar­rie and Rock­liff. It men­tions a num­ber of ploys by shady cus­tomers, includ­ing the “Ring­ing the Changes” trick men­tioned above (though the pound note has become a fiv­er). Derek Cooper’s “The Bev­er­age Report” (Rout­ledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) includes a chap­ter (“A lit­tle gold mine”) which describes var­i­ous meth­ods of fid­dling by bar staff, includ­ing the sim­ple one where­by a bar­man “may draw a half of bit­ter and then point­ed­ly raise his glass to a group of cus­tomers with a mer­ry ‘Cheers then’, and short of ask­ing the group point blank the land­lord has no way of check­ing whether his bar­man has been bought a drink or has just helped him­self”.

    Lil­liput did, of course, pub­lish “The Lil­liput Beer Book” in 1956, com­piled by Andrew Camp­bell of “The Book of Beer” fame. I sus­pect it has been men­tioned already here; but, if not, it is worth a look, par­tic­u­lar­ly for its (not whol­ly accu­rate) map of brew­eries in Eng­land and Wales and its table of bot­tled beers brewed by a selec­tion of UK brew­eries.

      1. I enjoyed your com­ments on the Lil­liput guide – includ­ing your sug­ges­tion that it deals with beer as “part of an aspi­ra­tional man­ly lifestyle, along with table ten­nis, rock climb­ing, MG cars, Tery­lene™ socks, pipe tobac­co and Amer­i­can foun­tain pens”. With a lim­it­ed inter­est in any of these oth­er than beer, I am clear­ly fail­ing to achieve that man­ly lifestyle – very dis­ap­point­ing!

        1. If you’re in the mar­ket for Amer­i­can foun­tain pens, check out a Chi­nese brand called Hero. These come from a fac­to­ry which was orig­i­nal­ly a Park­er fac­to­ry. When Chair­man Mao took over and nation­alised them, they con­tin­ued mak­ing pens with the same equip­ment, but with the slow speed of inno­va­tion typ­i­cal of state-direct­ed economies, so you are effec­tive­ly get­ting a 1940s Park­er.

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