Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

Duchess of Kent, North London.

The pubs we’ve lost in greatest numbers aren’t the big ones on main roads – they’re the often smaller, more intimate establishments on back streets and estates, where people actually live.

Fur­ther evi­dence to sup­port this view arrived in our Twit­ter time­line ear­li­er this week:

And this sum­ma­ry struck home with par­tic­u­lar impact:

The map ref­er­enced (irri­tat­ing­ly uncred­it­ed at first, though they’ve since apol­o­gised and giv­en him a shout out) is from Ewan’s incred­i­bly com­pre­hen­sive Lon­don pub blog Pub­ol­o­gy. Do go and explore it, and book­mark it, if you haven’t already. There are maps for many oth­er post­codes (e.g.) many of which show a broad­ly sim­i­lar pic­ture – red and yel­low dots in the back­streets, green on the arter­ies.

In the new book we give a bit of thought to how many pubs are clos­ing, and which ones, con­clud­ing that it’s easy for mid­dle class com­men­ta­tors to shrug clo­sures off because it’s not their pubs that are dis­ap­pear­ing. This is anoth­er angle on the same issue.

We know @urbanpastoral is right from our own com­pul­sive wan­der­ing: if you stick to main roads in Lon­don, or any oth­er major city, there are plen­ty of pubs. But cut back a block and the sto­ry can be quite dif­fer­ent. We’ve seen it with our own eyes – walked miles on the sec­ondary route with­out see­ing a sin­gle oper­at­ing pub, even if the build­ings remain, con­vert­ed for res­i­den­tial, retail or some oth­er use.

Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, on the same day, we came across a note of a par­lia­men­tary debate from 1961 in which one MP, William Rees-Davies, saw this com­ing:

I do not think that alco­hol is evil in itself. I find that drink­ing with meals is more ben­e­fi­cial than drink­ing with­out a meal. I do not want ‘pub’ crawl­ing to con­tin­ue. That is why I coined the word—I thought it was quite attrac­tive at the time—the ‘prub’. I believe that we shall see a social change in our time and the ‘pubs’ will become all-pur­pose restau­rants. I believe that we shall see the larg­er ‘pubs’ tak­ing over and the small­er ‘pubs’ grad­u­al­ly turn­ing in their licences.

(He was MP for Thanet, by the way, which just hap­pens to be microp­ub cen­tral.)

It all makes sense in com­mer­cial terms of course and big pubs on main roads have many advan­tages. Back­street pubs don’t get as much pass­ing trade, obvi­ous­ly. They can be a nui­sance for those who live near them, and are hard­er to police. (More on this com­ing up.) And small­er pubs espe­cial­ly, with­out room for kitchens, wait­ers, gar­dens, pushchairs, and so on, are at a par­tic­u­lar dis­ad­van­tage in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Of course there are many, many excep­tions – Bai­ley wrote about one ear­li­er this week; and our old Waltham­stow local The Nags Head is anoth­er. It’s fun­ny, now we think of it, that those lin­ger­ing back­street pubs are often (to indulge in wishy-washy feel­ings for a moment) the nicest, being all the bet­ter for their seclu­sion and semi-secrecy.‘D

As it hap­pens in our new neigh­bour­hood, along with quite a few food-heavy ‘prubs’ on the A road, we’ve got a cou­ple of sur­viv­ing back street pubs. We’ll have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, drink in them as often as we can man­age.

30 thoughts on “Death of the Backstreet Boozer’”

  1. A large rea­son for the decline in the back­street local I’ve always thought was nobody quite know­ing what their pur­pose is any­more. Back 50 years or so, these would be gen­er­al­ly work­ing class and the trade was either going to be the work­ers from a large employ­er of some sort (fac­to­ry, mine, etc) or set amongst a work­ing class com­mu­ni­ty. The for­mer have more or less gone as the that type of emply­ment has gone, and how many mod­ern indus­tri­al estates have any sort of licensed premis­es? Not many, and usu­al­ly hotels if any­thing – and no drinkers from the work­places and vir­tu­al­ly all will be dri­ving.
    For the hous­ing estates, well just take a look at six­ties TV, say Cor­rie or Al Gar­nett. The local booz­er was usu­al­ly at least as nice as the hous­ing for the locals. Nowa­days, the vast major­i­ty of the work­ing class will have enough com­fort to make going out an effort. Why both­er if you have more com­fort­able fur­ni­ture, a TV where you can watch what­ev­er you want and if you want a drink you can get it much cheap­er from a super­mar­ket. What is bet­ter about the expe­ri­ence you get in the small local the would draw most peo­ple in, espe­cial­ly in times of ongo­ing aus­ter­i­ty where there is very lit­tle dis­cre­tionary cash for day to day life and you would save that up for spe­cial occa­sions?

    1. What is bet­ter about the expe­ri­ence you get in the small local the would draw most peo­ple in ?”

      The bet­ter com­pa­ny, Scott. Read what you like into that.

  2. A few years ago, I wrote a blog­post about the dif­fer­en­tial pat­tern of pub clo­sures enti­tled Try­ing to make sense of it all. This backs up your point that pubs in res­i­den­tial areas have suf­fered much more than those in town or sub­ur­ban cen­tres, where there is often some­thing of a clus­ter­ing effect. A lot of pub vis­its are tagged on to some oth­er activ­i­ty rather than specif­i­cal­ly being a case of “going out to the pub”.

  3. Look­ing at the map, I think its got less to do with the size of the road, and more to do with a clus­ter­ing effect.

    Going to the pub is less of an every­day habit and more of a delib­er­ate act nowa­days, and peo­ple are will­ing to go a lit­tle fur­ther in order to get what they want – be it bet­ter beer, bet­ter food, more live­ly com­pa­ny, music, sports, pool tables etc, rather than just sit in their local for con­ve­nience.

    The mini-pub crawl, where friends from dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hoods con­verge via foot/bike/bus/drive to a spe­cif­ic area, go around 2–3 pubs, and then indi­vid­u­al­ly walk/bike/bus/drive home again, also sup­ports clus­ters of pubs out­side of the city cen­tre.

    You see it in Not­ting­ham – peo­ple might meet up in Bee­ston, or Bridg­ford, or Hock­ley, or Can­ning Cir­cus, or Mans­field Road, or Map­per­ley Top where there are clus­ters of decent pubs.

    Its also obvi­ous in Cam­bridge: out­side of the city cen­tre, the Kite, Mill road, Cas­tle hill, Chester­ton road, all have their own clus­ters of pubs, where peo­ple might viably say “lets not go to town tonight, lets just go for a few pints in…”.

  4. As Py said Cambs does­n’t seem to fall in line with this descrip­tion. I am very def­i­nite­ly on a back street, there is anoth­er pub just across the road a third one about 50 yards away and a fourth just down the alley­way – in fact here it is the back street booz­ers that are doing well and the pubs on the main roads that have closed.…

    1. In Cam­bridge Mill Road thrives, but Cher­ry Hin­ton, Kings Hedges and Arbury, with much greater pop­u­la­tions, have suf­fered far greater loss­es.

    2. My tilt at this is that peo­ple increas­ing­ly want to go for a drink with their friends from all over town rather than with their neigh­bours, hence will tend to end up going some­where that’s easy for every­one to get to, which in turn gen­er­al­ly means some­where fair­ly cen­tral and handy for busses, taxis etc. Cam­bridge is a bit of an excep­tion because a) it’s inher­ent­ly weird in all sorts of ways and b) enough peo­ple cycle that it does­n’t make much odds whether you meet up on Mill Road or Cas­tle Hill so long as the peo­ple are hap­py with the pub.

      1. Cen­tral Cam­bridge is just a tourist and upper-class twit write-off that all sen­si­ble peo­ple avoid like the plague.

        1. This is main­ly true. Going to Cam­bridge and stick­ing to the gener­ic cen­tral GK pubs (Eagle/Granta/Anchor) would be a mas­sive mis­take. The only place real­ly worth vis­it­ing in the city cen­tre is the Pint Shop, but they’ve def­i­nite­ly pitched their prices towards the inac­ces­si­ble end of the scale.

      2. I think there’s def­i­nite­ly some­thing in this idea of friend­ship groups being more dis­persed – part­ly through wider car own­er­ship mean­ing peo­ple work fur­ther from home, and women work­ing mean­ing that a cou­ple ends up com­pro­mis­ing and liv­ing between two work­places rather than on the doorstep of one. Also more inter­net friend­ships.

        But there’s also the mid­mar­ket squeeze that you see in oth­er fields – peo­ple either go for the cheap option from Lidl/Primark etc, or the pre­mi­um option (farmer’s mar­kets, bou­tique clothes), but cut out the mid­mar­ket option (Tesco/M&S). In this world the back­street local is the mid­mar­ket option – more expen­sive than cans from the super­mar­ket at home or Spoons but not as good a choice (of drinks or the oppo­site sex) as the pre­mi­um town cen­tre bars.

        Some peo­ple are drawn to the local for the social aspect. But you also get gangs of pen­sion­ers who have no loy­al­ty – they like the pub but only go to the “local” one which has the best deal on that day (the White Lion on Tues­days, the Swan on Wednes­days etc), fail­ing that they end up at Spoons as they would­n’t go to any oth­er pub in the cen­tre. I still don’t get CAM­RA’s enthu­si­asm for Spoons, they are the biggest killer of pubs in the coun­try. You might want to iden­ti­fy where the Spoons are on the map.

    3. I don’t think its just Cam­bridge – there are sim­i­lar spa­tial dis­tri­b­u­tions of pubs in most cities.

    4. Cam­bridge is so weird though – it’s got dense res­i­den­tial areas right in the city cen­tre, of a sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­na­tion­al crowd with a strong drink­ing cul­ture who don’t mind a bit of row­di­ness at night even when they’re not part of it. The weird­est thing about it is that a large pro­por­tion of that crowd are banned from keep­ing a motor vehi­cle with­in 10 miles of Great St Mary’s. That dri­ves peo­ple from cars onto bike and foot, which in turn takes them away from traf­fic arter­ies and into the “cap­il­lar­ies”.

      You can’t real­ly deduce any­thing from Cam­bridge.

      Look­ing at the Lon­don map – we all think about the “push” fac­tors of pub decline, but it’s also true that build­ings in qui­et back streets are much more desir­able to con­vert into res­i­den­tial than build­ings on main roads.

      Size is impor­tant – it’s not just the lack of space for kitchens and beer gar­dens, but just the num­ber of cov­ers in a typ­i­cal back­street pub when the fixed costs of run­ning a pub have been spi­ral­ing.

      Licens­ing is also impor­tant – there’s been a def­i­nite strat­e­gy of mov­ing drink­ing into small zones and away from res­i­den­tial areas, aside from any grass­roots com­plaints. But I know one pub that could open anoth­er 30–60 min­utes on a Friday/Saturday night and would prob­a­bly add 10–15% to its week­ly turnover in that time, if it was­n’t for one neigh­bour who has a prob­lem. Since the mar­gin­al costs of open­ing that extra length of time are min­i­mal, it would make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to the prof­itabil­i­ty of the pub.

      It’s unfash­ion­able to say so, but crap pub­li­cans are part of the prob­lem. The afore­men­tioned pub was run by an old-school pub­li­can who had just got to that time of life where he just did­n’t care any more – the fags weren’t tidied up, was­n’t inter­est­ed in putting new stuff on the bar, that kind of thing. He moved on and was replaced by some­one younger and female. Sud­den­ly all the details were being attend­ed to, which meant that all the old boys who were drink­ing Car­ling through the week, were bring­ing their mis­sus on a Friday/Saturday night, who in turn when offered fan­cy gins and the like were buy­ing them instead of cheap pinot gri­gio. The pub becomes a real social cen­tre, which means it’s busier, and by not expect­ing the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor it’s mak­ing bet­ter mar­gins.

  5. Sor­ry, did­n’t mean to turn this into a dis­cus­sion about Cam­bridge. Not­ting­ham has sim­i­lar dis­tri­b­u­tions of clus­ters of pubs out­side the city cen­tre.

    1. Cam­bridge is an inter­est­ing exam­ple though and as the orig­i­nal arti­cle is also loca­tion based, I won­der whether Lon­don and oth­er big cities have a dif­fer­ent pat­tern to the small­er towns and cities – think­ing back to the places I’ve worked over the years there has been no short­ages in busy back street pubs…

      1. Cam­bridge has expe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion, employ­ment and wage growth over the past 10 years, at a time when oth­er areas of the coun­try have been strug­gling.

        So the fact that it “bucks the trend” in terms of there being ~ about as many new pubs open­ing as shut­ting in that time peri­od is hard­ly sur­pris­ing. There are sim­ply more peo­ple here, who have more mon­ey to spend in pubs.

        1. I agree with you com­plete­ly, but as you point­ed out Not­ting­ham has a sim­i­lar pro­file, and while it may have changed since I left, I would say both Read­ing and to a cer­tain extent Exeter also have plen­ty of back street pubs.

          1. Anec­do­tal­ly, Win­ches­ter still has some good back street booz­ers, though I guess its demo­graph­ic is sim­i­lar to Cam­bridge. High wages, weird peo­ple.

      2. The exam­ples you list are still pret­ty mid­dle-class, it’s work­ing-class pubs that have tak­en the hit. I can think of north­ern towns where half the pubs have closed down in a gen­er­a­tion – helped in part by pub­cos try­ing to take more mon­ey out of them than is real­is­tic, but even so. Near­by towns with a slight­ly more mid­dle-class demo­graph­ic (but far from “posh”) have sim­i­lar pubs just about cling­ing on. If you want to be real­ly depressed, take the Old­ham road out from Man­ches­ter cen­tre out to the M60 – there’s a closed pub every cou­ple of blocks, I don’t know any­where quite like it.

        1. By coin­ci­dence, I men­tioned the Old­ham Road in this blog­post yes­ter­day. It’s prob­a­bly the most extreme exam­ple, but you’ll see some­thing sim­i­lar along many of the main radi­al routes in our big cities. And con­tin­ue along the A62 over the tops to Hud­der­s­field and you’ll see a sim­i­lar pat­tern of pub dev­as­ta­tion extend­ing out into the coun­try­side.

  6. Demo­graph­ic that has­n’t been men­tioned here of course, is the reli­gious change of inner city pop­u­la­tions. A back street local with 90% mus­lim in the neigh­bour­hood is always going to strug­gle.

    1. We looked into this a bit when we were research­ing the book because it often comes up in these con­ver­sa­tions.

      The total UK Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion is less than 5 per cent; the absolute high­est con­cen­tra­tion (if I remem­ber right­ly) is in Tow­er Ham­lets, Lon­don at some­thing like 45 per cent; but Tow­er Ham­lets actu­al­ly has a rel­a­tive­ly high num­ber of licensed premis­es per head. They might not all be pubs, but there’s cer­tain­ly no evi­dence the bor­ough’s gone dry.

      I seem to recall we found a sim­i­lar pat­tern for oth­er areas with rel­a­tive­ly high Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions based on the avail­able cen­sus data.

      It’s one of those things peo­ple feel in their guts but invari­ably they’re (a) over-esti­mat­ing the ‘demo­graph­ic change’ and (b) assum­ing a con­nec­tion between that and pubs clo­sures for which there is no evi­dence.

      Which is why we did­n’t both­er dis­cussing it in the book in the end.

      1. I can well under­stand why you steered clear of it, as it’s a poten­tial mine­field. How­ev­er, Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions tend to be con­cen­trat­ed in spe­cif­ic areas with­in wider local gov­ern­ment dis­tricts, and sure­ly it should be an uncon­tro­ver­sial state­ment of fact that, if most peo­ple in a giv­en area don’t drink for reli­gious or cul­tur­al rea­sons, then the demand for pubs will plum­met.

        For exam­ple, the Glod­wick dis­trict of Old­ham has lost pret­ty much all its pubs, and in Rusholme in Man­ches­ter, loca­tion of the famous “cur­ry mile”, which was once a heav­i­ly Irish area, vir­tu­al­ly all the back­street pubs and most of those along the main drag have gone.

        1. Well, we steered clear because we could­n’t find any evi­dence, not because we were chick­en.

          It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly *con­tro­ver­sial* but it’s over-reach­ing with­out evi­dence that what’s hap­pened in Rusholme is any dif­fer­ent to what’s hap­pened in sim­i­lar areas with a dif­fer­ent, more alco­hol friend­ly religious/ethnic make-up.

          That back­street pubs seem to be dis­ap­pear­ing *every­where*, to my mind, rather under­cuts this argu­ment. I’d guess that any area where peo­ple on rel­a­tive­ly low incomes are try­ing to raise fam­i­lies, and which has had par­tic­u­lar prob­lems with crime and dis­or­der in the last 30 years or so, will strug­gle to retain pubs for one rea­son or anoth­er even if every­one liv­ing near­by is a rag­ing pis­shead.

          (I also think, from per­son­al expe­ri­ence, that peo­ple rather over-esti­mate the ten­den­cy of British Mus­lims to stay strict­ly tee­to­tal and avoid pubs, in Lon­don at least. As long as their mums don’t find out etc.)

          1. There are a cou­ple of halal pubs in Not­ting­ham. Every­thing you would expect to find in a pub. A bar, tables, sky sports on the tv, a pool table, except they don’t serve alco­hol.

  7. A while ago I tried to open a microp­ub in a back­street. Ter­raced hous­ing, cor­ner build­ing. Used to be an off licence (prop­er old school, with sher­ry from the wood). Plan­ning recieved 2 objec­tions and a dozen com­ments in sup­port. Plan­ning com­mit­tee reject­ed it on the grounds it was too res­i­den­tial.

    What i think is sad is that it seems most new hous­ing devel­ope­ments are built with­out a pub.

    1. What is also sad is that new hous­ing devel­op­ments that do have a pub are often awful Marstons/GK/Hungry Horse-type hell holes.

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