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 🙂

    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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