Charabanc Fever

A charabanc in Preston.

Main image above: ‘Sebastopol Inn, Ladies Out­ing, Pre­ston’, from Pre­ston Dig­i­tal Archive on Flickr.

A few weeks ago Doreen (@londondear) made us pause and think when she said she had been puzzled by the mention of ‘charabancs’ in our recent book, 20th Century Pub, and had to look up what it meant.

Some­how, we’ve always known about chara­bancs, though they’ve been effec­tive­ly extinct for more than half a cen­tu­ry and the word is now only used as a delib­er­ate archaism. While research­ing the book chara­bancs became a kind of run­ning joke for us as try­ing to find his­toric pho­tographs of pubs with­out chara­bancs parked in front of them was often a chal­lenge.

But Doreen is quite right – we prob­a­bly ought to have giv­en a few words of expla­na­tion, but now those few words have turned into this rather long blog post. We’re grate­ful to Patre­on sub­scribers like Harley Gold­smith and Peter Sid­well for giv­ing us an excuse to spend quite so much time on it.

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Vintage illustration.
A wag­onette. (SOURCE: The Book of the Horse, 1880, via the Inter­net Archive.)

The word chara­banc comes from the French char-à-bancs (lit­er­al­ly a car­riage with bench­es) and became attached in Britain to large six- or eight-seater car­riages pre­vi­ous­ly known as wag­onettes, prob­a­bly because it sound­ed fanci­er.

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of chara­bancs among work­ing class peo­ple arose along­side the very con­cept of leisure time. An account from 1872 describes how shop assis­tants in Devon cel­e­brat­ed the intro­duc­tion of ear­ly clos­ing on Thurs­day after­noons by tak­ing a chara­banc trip to Bab­ba­combe. [1]

Hir­ing a chara­banc was an indul­gence but an afford­able one and club­bing togeth­er to pay for it, then trav­el­ling in a mer­ry group, was half the fun. By the 1880s there were chara­bancs pulled by four hors­es capa­ble of car­ry­ing 21 pas­sen­gers, or even 35. [2]

Pubs were nat­ur­al hubs for clubs, soci­eties and teams, and an equal­ly obvi­ous cen­tre for the organ­i­sa­tion of chara­banc trips, and for the pick-up and drop of daytrip­pers. Thus chara­bancs came to be strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with pubs. (But not exclu­sive­ly – church groups were also big chara­banc fans.)

A horse-drawn charabanc outside a pub.
A horse-drawn chara­banc out­side the Two Brew­ers. (SOURCE: Find My Past.)
Charabancs outside a pub in Birchington on Sea.
A c.1913 post­card of chara­bancs, both motorised and horse-drawn, out­side a pub in Birch­ing­ton-on-Sea.  (SOURCE: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.)
Charabanc outside an unknown pub.
A chara­banc out­side an unknown pub in an unknown year. (SOURCE: clement­gled­hill on Flickr.)
Charabanc outside hotel
A chara­banc out­side The Plough Hotel, Shot­ton, Flintshire. (SOURCE: Flintshire Archives on Flickr.)

Many firms that had been run­ning horse-drawn chara­bancs acquired motorised vehi­cles in the 1910s – hand­some, open-topped vehi­cles that look not unlike mod­ern bus­es or coach­es. Those were even bet­ter for pub-crawl­ing – faster and (slight­ly) more com­fort­able.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a sto­ry about a chara­banc trip for the BBC in 1953, now known under the title ‘The Out­ing’. It is avail­able in Col­lect­ed Sto­ries by Dylan Thomas but our copy is a stand­alone book­let with illus­tra­tions by Meg Stevens pub­lished in 1971. It is a rem­i­nis­cence of his child­hood and pri­mar­i­ly con­cerns Thomas’s ‘steam­ing hulk of an uncle’ who, along with his friends from the local pub, hires a chara­banc for a trip to Porth­cawl. Despite the protest of Thomas’s aunt – “It’s me or the out­ing, Mr Thomas.”; “Well, then, Sarah, it’s the out­ing, my love.” – the chara­banc is loaded up with twen­ty cas­es of pale ale and hit the road. They get leg­less drunk in the first pub but keep going:

The Blue Bull, the Drag­on, the Star of Wales, the Twll in the Wall, the Sour Grapes, the Shepherd’s Arms, the Bells of Aber­dovey: I had noth­ing to do in the whole, wild August world but remem­ber the names where the out­ing stopped and keep an eye on the chara­banc.

They nev­er make it to Porth­cawl, of course, end­ing up drink­ing bot­tled pale ale in a field as they cook sausages on a gas stove. At one point the chara­banc is referred to ‘my char­ra’ – appar­ent­ly a com­mon abbre­vi­a­tion.

Postcard of a charabanc full of red-nosed drinkers dismayed to be passing a pub.
An inter-war post­card.

Drunk­en chara­banc out­ings even­tu­al­ly became a focus for con­cern dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s, as recount­ed in this report from the Wells Jour­nal:

Cer­tain joy-rid­ers in chara­bancs have earned for the many thou­sands who for out­ings by these coach­es an unen­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion for dis­or­der­li­ness. In some instances… this dis­or­der­li­ness is accom­pa­nied by drunk­en­ness on the part of some of the joy-rid­ers.… Drunk­en­ness has become so unusu­al a phe­nom­e­non that these ine­bri­at­ed day-trip­pers occa­sion more com­ment than they would have done had intem­per­ance remained a more usu­al pro­ce­dure than it is. Not all row­di­ness must be attrib­uted to an unwise indul­gence in those bev­er­ages that the organ­is­ers of some out­ings have the fore­sight to load on the coach­es before the start of the day.… [3]

The arti­cle goes on to explain how author­i­ties in Sus­sex had met to con­sid­er actions to reduce such dis­gust­ing behav­iour as singing ‘The Lam­beth Walk’ out of tune, their con­clu­sion being that restrict­ed pub open­ing hours only made things worse by encour­ag­ing the drink­ing of bot­tled beer instead.

Men in front of a charabanc.
Mr Patrick Glynn, man­ag­er of the Star & Garter, Put­ney, on a trip to South­sea with a group of his reg­u­lars. (SOURCE: The Hopleaf Gazette, Novem­ber 1928.)
Patrick Glynn and friends.
Mr Glynn’s mer­ry band of chara­banc trip­pers. (SOURCE: The Hopleaf Gazette, Novem­ber 1928.)

In 1920, author­i­ties in North­wich, Cheshire, threat­ened to ban all the town’s pubs from open­ing on Sun­days because of ‘the increas­ing nui­sance of…. chara­banc trips’ [4] and in 1930 the drunk­en­ness of chara­banc trip­pers was giv­en as an argu­ment against allow­ing pubs in Hurst Green, East Sus­sex, to open until 10:30 pm dur­ing the sum­mer months. (This objec­tion was over­ruled.) [5] There were debates about how to reduce drunk­en­ness (close more pubs, of course) and how to penalise chara­banc firms that rou­tine­ly car­ried drink­ing par­ties.

There was a lot of snob­bery in all this moral pan­ic, of course: “There seems to be a gen­er­al agree­ment that it would be a good thing for the town if this class of vis­i­tors were exclud­ed…” [6] One let­ter to the Edin­burgh Evening News was head­ed ‘Chara­banc Hooli­gans’ and referred to them as “road ver­min”, the author hav­ing found him­self tail­ing a par­ty of 20 chara­bancs out­side Glas­gow from which bot­tles were thrown at his car. [7]

In his 1922 book The Art of Innkeep­ing Alexan­der Part, one of the dri­ving forces behind the improved pub­lic house move­ment of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, drew a clear dis­tinc­tion between the desir­able chara­banc trade (“peo­ple [who] show a greater inter­est in the fea­tures of our own coun­try”) and “a class of bean­feast­ing cus­tomers who go out for the day”:

With this class you must take the great­est care in see­ing that they do not drink too much, and that they do not, thought­less­ly or oth­er­wise, take away your glass­es as sou­venirs.

Anoth­er wor­ry was the safe­ty record of chara­bancs – there were lots of fatal crash­es – and espe­cial­ly the habit of crude­ly con­vert­ing lor­ries into tem­po­rary chara­bancs like some­thing from Wacky Races, as report­ed in The Times in the sum­mer of 1920:

The seats in such con­veyance may be any­thing from deck chairs to wood­en box­es. Gen­er­al­ly they are over­laden, and the more ambi­tious types car­ry a pair of domes­tic steps tied to the tail­board.… Between Lon­don and Croy­don a pair of them were pulled into the kerb yes­ter­day morn­ing while a cask of beer in the leader was tapped. [8]

This even got as far as being debat­ed in Par­lia­mentPunch found chara­banc par­ties and their inva­sion of well-to-do sea­side and spa towns hilar­i­ous, par­o­dy­ing the reac­tion in, for exam­ple, this bit of Onion-style fake news from 18 August 1920:

Grog­town. – All avail­able accom­mo­da­tion has been monop­o­lised by Glas­bor­ough vis­i­tors, among whom this resort is becom­ing more alarm­ing­ly pop­u­lar every year. Six­ty chara­bancs arrived on Mon­day and the Riot Act was read sev­er­al times before the pas­sen­gers could be induced to desist from their bad­i­nage of the res­i­dents, most of whom have since retired behind the wire-entan­gle­ments at Kel­rose. The munic­i­pal orches­tra was sub­ject­ed to a brisk fusil­lade of rock-cakes on Sat­ur­day night; the con­duc­tor and sev­er­al of the instru­men­tal­ists suf­fered con­tu­sions, and their per­for­mances have since been dis­con­tin­ued. This has not unnat­u­ral­ly giv­en rise to a cer­tain amount of dis­sat­is­fac­tion amongst the vis­i­tors, but oth­er­wise there has been no recrude­s­cence of riot­ing. A com­pa­ny of the Caith­ness High­landers, with machine-guns, are now encamped on the links, and sun­shine is all that is need­ed to com­plete the suc­cess of the sea­son.

A pub surrounded by charabancs.
The Black Swan, Pease Pot­tage, Sus­sex, sur­round­ed by chara­bancs. (SOURCE: The Slaugh­am Archive – do go and check out the full size, hi-res image.)

While all this was going on, peo­ple con­tin­ued to pile into chara­bancs and have tremen­dous amounts of fun. The Mass Obser­va­tion book The Pub and the Peo­ple: a work­town study, pub­lished in 1943 but based on stud­ies car­ried out in Bolton in the late 1930s, includes a whole sec­tion on out­ings, on pages 270–74 of our Faber Finds reprint. A long account of one chara­banc trip is giv­en in full; here’s just a bit:

A local pub arranged a pic­nic to South­port. The mem­bers, all who fre­quent­ed the pub reg­u­lar­ly and knew each oth­er well by sight, had paid a small sum per week to pay for the dri­ve and tea…. The coach was due to start from the pub at 1.30, but the mem­bers agreed to arrive at one and have a drink before start­ing…. They had a great big meal halfway to South­port at a large pub that caters for such par­ties. They had, of course, stopped at a few pubs along the way. Arriv­ing at South­port, after a great tea, the par­ty broke up into small groups and went in dif­fer­ent direc­tions…. but all met at dif­fer­ent pubs dur­ing the evening…. Much drink was had by most peo­ple… On the way back the coach stopped at sev­er­al pubs, and at one some of the elder woman had cups of tea. At this place some male mem­ber of the par­ty had a fight with some­one.… and want­ed to go back and fight some more. But his elder­ly moth­er-in-law qui­etened him, she gave him a crack with her umbrel­la, and said be qui­et.

Cock­neys in par­tic­u­lar called these out­ings ‘bean­feasts’ or ‘beanos’ and con­tin­ued to enjoy them long after World War II. Joyce Choat, land­la­dy of a pub in Beth­nal Green in the East End of Lon­don in the 1950s, was record­ed in 1997 talk­ing about the chara­banc trips she organ­ised for her cus­tomers and is quot­ed in the won­der­ful free oral his­to­ry book Behind the Bar:

You’d all pull up on the side of the road, get the crates out, get a big bowl of jel­lied eels out and.… Crisps used to be in tins then, and I used to line the tins with grease­proof paper, and I’ve got that stacked with sand­wich­es and box­es of hard-boiled eggs and pies and pick­les.… You’d be half drunk before you got to Southend.

But by this time chara­bancs were going out of fash­ion. More and more peo­ple had cars of their own and leisure had evolved fur­ther into actu­al hol­i­days – entire weeks or even fort­nights off work, rather than snatched days here and there. Nuclear fam­i­lies were emerg­ing and men were spend­ing more time with their wives and chil­dren. Peo­ple in pubs con­tin­ued to organ­ise occa­sion­al coach and minibus trips, of course – Richard Boston tells the tale of one such drunk­en expe­di­tion with the reg­u­lars from Becky’s Dive Bar in his ‘Boston on Beer’ col­umn in the Guardian for 18 May 1974 – but the days of coun­try roads all over the UK being choked with saloon bars on wheels were over.

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[1] ‘New­ton’, West­ern Times, 7 June 1872, p.7.

[2] ‘A Dart­moor Dri­ve’, West­ern Morn­ing News, 20 June 1885, p.8; ‘Con­ser­v­a­tive Out­ing’, Exeter and Ply­mouth Gazette, 30 August 1886, p.4.

[3] ‘Row­dy Trip­pers’, 18 August 1939, p.4.

[4] ‘Threat to Close Pub­lic House’, Shields Dai­ly News, 25 August, p.2.

[5] ‘Longer Hours for Pub­lic Hous­es’, Kent & Sus­sex Couri­er, 14 March, p.4.

[6] ‘The Drunk­en Trip­per Ques­tion’, Hast­ing & St Leonard’s Observ­er, 1 August 1931, p.7.

[7] 19 Octo­ber 1920, p.4.

[8] 26 July, p.11.

8 thoughts on “Charabanc Fever”

  1. Com­ing from Ire­land, I’d nev­er heard of this before hear­ing the Stran­glers song Peach­es, where they men­tion it, and I had to google it.

    Although they seem to spell and pro­nounce it chara­bang. Which seems to be fair­ly com­mon

  2. Hav­ing just left a nice craft beer bar on a pop­u­lar stu­dent pub crawl route (licence for the place bans pub crawls and fan­cy dress) the moral out­rage may be more a desire for a qui­et pint. Call it a stu­dent pub crawl, real ale trail for train users, or a coach full of pub reg­u­lars on a trip to Black­pool the behav­iour is famil­iar. The mode of trans­port changes. Though Otley run for hip­sters any­one with a cou­ple of hors­es and decent sized cart this could be a right mon­ey mak­er

  3. The Pow­ell Arms is still there in Birch­ing­ton but like­ly tar­get­ing a rather demo­graph­ic nowa­days 🙂
    https://whatpub.com/pubs/THA/069/powell-birchington-on-sea

    Michael John Law’s book 1938: Mod­ern Britain (Blooms­bury Aca­d­e­m­ic 2018) has a case study (chap­ter 7 Cars, coach­es and chara­bancs at the Prospect Inn) which exam­ines increased work­ing class mobil­i­ty, the begin­nings of the democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of leisure, and the con­struc­tion of a mod­erne pub, the Prospect Inn, Min­ster, that went out of its way to attract chara­banc trip­pers.

  4. Sure­ly coach trips to pubs were a major fea­ture of the scene long after the open “chara­banc” prop­er dis­ap­peared from the scene, and remained very pop­u­lar in the 50s and 60s. In that era, there was a clear hier­ar­chy in the signs dis­played by pubs along main roads:

    * Coach­es wel­come
    * Coach­es by appoint­ment only
    * Stricly no coach­es

    Mys­tery tours” – invari­ably end­ing up at a pub – were com­mon­ly run by coach com­pa­nies.

    Even if peo­ple didn’t tend to go on coach trips from their home town, they would often do so when on hol­i­day in Llan­dud­no or Torquay.

  5. One of the major areas of chara­banc out­ings was Works Trips. Our fam­i­ly has sev­er­al pic­tures of our old fam­i­ly busi­ness all off on such out­ings, and they were appar­ent­ly every bit as boozy as any of the pub ones. As Cur­mud­geon says, these last­ed into the 50s and 60s with coach­es, and crates of Light Ale to keep peo­ple going between pubs.
    These char­ra out­ings were sort of team build­ing exer­cis­es, rewards for hard work, and just social affairs all rolled into one. It’s notable that all lev­els of the busi­ness took part and drank togeth­er, male and female; for­mal­i­ty seems to have been for­got­ten from the moment peo­ple got on the vehi­cle.

  6. Not sur­prised to hear that the safe­ty record of chara­bancs wasn’t that great. Even the pur­pose-built ones look like mass-fatal­i­ty acci­dents wait­ing to hap­pen – all those peo­ple perched hap­pi­ly on uphol­stered bench­es on the back of a lor­ry…!

  7. When I was a kid liv­ing in Man­ches­ter we used to go on hols to Black­pool in a (pho­net­ics, sort of) shar­ra, well that’s how the grown ups said it!! It was only many years lat­er that its true full form became known to me!

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