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.
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.