Further Reading #2: RIBA Wonderland

Shelving at the RIBA library.

Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. This is the second in a series of blog posts intended to highlight great resources you can go and look up yourself.

We had assumed that the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) might be difficult to get into but, no, it’s a doddle. You just turn up at the gorgeous building on Portland Place, London W1, and sign yourself in with the requirement to show some sort of photo ID the only hurdle to jump.

The library itself is small but tranquil with plenty of quiet bays, balconies and corners to work in. There are lots of desks and plenty of power points, and the library has a liberal policy with regard to the use of cameras and smartphones, as long as you obey the usual rules of copyright and redistribution. (Which, of course, we have slightly bent by using some of the images below, but only at low-res, mostly grainy and out of focus at that, and purely by way of commentary on the library itself.)

Open Access

There’s a huge amount of stuff relevant to the interests of pub geeks available on open access before you even start bothering the stacks. There’s a comprehensive collection of books on pub architecture, for example, including standard works by people such as Ben Davis and Mark Girouard as well as more niche publications. Lynn Pearson’s 1989 book The Northumbrian Pub: an architectural history was nice to stumble across, for example.

There are also bound volumes of various architecture and building magazines dating back to the Victorian period that you are free to take from the shelf and browse. Some are indexed better than others and references to pubs in particular can be hard to track down, listed as they might be under public houses, taverns, inns, pubs, drinking establishments, hotels depending on the customs of each year and the prejudices of the indexer.

We found lots to enjoy in particular in The Architect and Building News, The Architects’ JournalThe Brick Builder and Building. Pubs didn’t come up all that often beyond bouts of bickering on the letters pages but when they did it tended to be in substantial features with lots of pictures and plans. The issue of ABN for 23 October 1936, for example, had a big, lavishly illustrated feature on the Myllet Arms at Perivale, with credits for every detail of the decor and building: “Carving to Sign: Gertrude Hermes”. The AJ for 24 November 1938 had an epic article by the architect of the Myllet Arms, E.B. Musman, called ‘Public Houses: Design and Construction’, with descriptions, maps and photographs of tons of pubs, and 1930s Art Deco examples in particular.

Hand-drawn plan.
A diagram from Musman’s 1938 article.

Another article of particular note — do go and look it up if you get chance — is ‘The Post-War Pub’ from the Architects’ Journal Information Library for 20 May 1964. It is based on a survey of post-war pubs commissioned by the Brewers’ Society and led by architect Geoffrey Salmon who we assume also wrote the article. If you’re interested, as we are, in estate pubs, flat-roofed pubs, booze bunkers, or whatever else you want to call them, this is the motherlode, crammed with acute observations, photographs and statistics — this is where we found the estimate of the number of pubs built in the post-war period cited in 20th Century Pub.

Title page: The Post-War Pub.

At this point we should mention the staff who could not have been more helpful on our multiple visits. At one point, having explained what we were researching, one of the librarians got a bit animated trying to recall some nugget of information. He turned up at the desk where we were working half an hour later with an early 20th century article about pubs that was confusingly indexed anywhere but that he remembered having come across years before. Now that’s above and beyond.

Title page: The Modern Public House.

Into the Stacks

There’s also a huge amount of material kept under lock and key but no less accessible for that. As it’s a small, fairly quiet library nothing takes long to emerge once a slip has been submitted — ten minutes, perhaps? It was through this route that we were finally able to get our hands on Basil Oliver’s 1934 book The Modern Public House. As it happened it contained most of the same material as his later must-read The Renaissance of the English Public House but it was good to verify that with our own eyes, and also to read the short introduction by the great Imperial architect and occasional pub designer Edwin Lutyens:

The Public House represents what should be the hub of our wheel of Life, essential to our material need and second only to the Church that stands and represents our spiritual necessity. The Church is to the spirit as the Inn is to the flesh and, if good and well designed, they baulk the Devil himself.

Of less interest, perhaps, are the various government publications on planning, housing and public health, most of which mention pubs only in passing. Still, we found them useful, in lieu of easy to access online versions. (Which, seriously, there ought to be.) The same might be said for obscure architectural guidebooks such as Hugh Casson’s New Sights of London from 1938 which has notes on a few pubs and includes this particularly lovely illustration:

The Comet, Hatfield, as illustrated in 1938.

So, there you have it: perhaps our favourite library of all of those we explored in the last year or two. You can search the catalogue online — try ‘pubs’ for starters and if the mile-long list of results doesn’t give you the urge to visit then nothing will.

One thought on “Further Reading #2: RIBA Wonderland”

  1. Thanks. That was fascinating.

    But surely the point of you two doing all the research and writing the book is so that we don’t have to do the research ourselves, we just have to buy the book.

    Thanks also for the illustration of the Comet at Hatfield, which rang a bell with me as I used to live in Hertfordshire (though never had a drink there). It’s not clear that it’s still a pub, or even still open. (See https://whatpub.com/pubs/SHE/332/comet-hatfield.)

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