Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900–1959 – The Rise of Mild

A pub in Whitechapel c.1902.

While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.

It’s absence was the result of hav­ing only 80,000 words to play with, and hav­ing already writ­ten an entire book focus­ing on beer and brew­ing cov­er­ing a big chunk of the same peri­od.

Also, we rather defer to Mar­tyn Cor­nell and Ron Pat­tin­son in this ter­ri­to­ry. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be sur­prised if one or both of them don’t pop up with cor­rec­tions in the com­ments below.)

Still, there’s some­thing fun about the idea of map­ping one project against the oth­er, espe­cial­ly if it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to try some­thing cre­ative.


At this point we’d like to thank  Patre­on sup­port­ers like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tuck­er for giv­ing us the impe­tus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entire­ly sen­si­ble work­ing on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!


This piece gen­er­alis­es by neces­si­ty: of course there were region­al vari­a­tions, and indi­vid­ual pubs which didn’t fol­low the pat­tern, and brew­eries that bucked trends. Hav­ing said that, by the turn of the cen­tu­ry, region­al dif­fer­ences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of stan­dard-set­ting nation­al brands such as Bass and Guin­ness, Ter­ry Gourvish and Richard Wil­son have argued, so gen­er­al­is­ing about this peri­od isn’t entire­ly inap­pro­pri­ate.

So, here it is: a time­line of beer in Eng­lish pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quo­ta­tions, facts and num­bers along the way.

1900

At the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry most Eng­lish pubs sold what we would now call cask ale, with bot­tled beers just begin­ning to become seri­ous­ly pop­u­lar.

The vari­eties of beers brewed at the present day are exceed­ing­ly numer­ous. Rough­ly speak­ing, they may be divid­ed into strong, medi­um and light. In the strong, we may include stock or old ales, and the heav­ier stouts. The medi­um com­pris­es the lighter stouts, supe­ri­or bit­ter beers, mild or four-ale, which lat­ter is still the bev­er­age of the work­ing class­es, and porter.” – Julian Bak­er, The Brew­ing Indus­try, 1905

In his 1909 Style Guide, 2010, Ron Pat­tin­son gives the fol­low­ing typ­i­cal line-up of draught beers for a Lon­don pub in the Edwar­dian peri­od:

  • X Ale (Mild) at 5% ABV
  • Porter, 5%
  • PA (pale ale, AKA bit­ter) at 6%
  • KK (Bur­ton), 7%
  • Stout, 7%

The same book also tells us that a lit­tle more than 30 per cent of all the beer pro­duced by the big Lon­don brew­er Whit­bread in 1910 was basic mild, with pale ales of var­i­ous types mak­ing up around 25 per cent, porter about 12, and stouts the remain­ing 30 or so. In oth­er words, there was a pret­ty even bal­ance, and no sin­gle style was over­whelm­ing­ly dom­i­nant.

Beer Saving Appliance.

The ales have chiefly a vinous char­ac­ter and pos­sess a good per­cent­age of alco­hol and extract, strong­ly marked hop fla­vor and bit­ter taste, and are rich in car­bon­ic acid… Porter, with a rich and very heavy foam, was in for­mer years a very heavy bev­er­age, but at present is brewed lighter, and has, as a result of its com­po­si­tion, a char­ac­ter­is­tic bit­ter and dry taste.” – One Hun­dred Years of Brew­ing, 1901

Nation­wide, though, mild was already dom­i­nant, with about three quar­ters of the mar­ket accord­ing to one con­tem­po­rary writer. In this peri­od, the same source tells us, mild was char­ac­terised by “full­ness and sweet­ness of flavour… [with] no flavour of age upon it”, and min­i­mal hop bit­ter­ness.

Small­er, less fan­cy pubs – basic beer-hous­es on back streets, or in vil­lages – were less like­ly to have cel­lars, beer engines and hand-pumps, instead dis­pens­ing beer direct­ly from the cask.

You might drink your beer from pewter tankards (still hang­ing on, but old-fash­ioned), ceram­ic mugs (pop­u­lar) or glass (on the rise).

Detail from an Edwardian image of people in a London pub.

WAR !!!

As the First World War pro­gressed, it came to be regard­ed as an unqual­i­fied mis­for­tune for Britain’s brew­ers… inten­si­fy­ing the exist­ing trend towards low­er lev­els of beer con­sump­tion.” – Gourvish & Wil­son

The com­ing of war saw both a dri­ve to reduce harm­ful drink­ing among vital indus­tri­al work­ers and a squeeze on mate­ri­als, so beer became more scarce, weak­er and less var­ied in style, while pubs had their open­ing hours reduced.

The price of beer dou­bled between 1914–16, too, so that the kind of draught beer that had once cost 4d per quart cost 4d per pint, and kept creep­ing up until ordi­nary mild cost 7d a pint by 1917.

Government Ale postcard c.1917.

From 1917 so-called ‘Gov­ern­ment Ale’ was intro­duced, with brew­ers giv­en per­mis­sion to pro­duce more beer (there was indus­tri­al unrest dri­ven by short­ages) as long as half of what was brewed had an orig­i­nal grav­i­ty low­er than 1036°. That mean mild (X ale) had an ABV of about 3.5% – aston­ish­ing­ly weak com­pared to what pre-War drinkers had been used to. A report from The Times for 20 July 1917 sug­gests pub-goers were not con­vinced:

‘Watered Mild’ and ‘Wash’ were among the descrip­tions applied to it by those who sam­pled a glass on Thurs­day, though many work­ing men said that it was ‘not so bad’, or that they had ‘tast­ed worse’.”

British beer nev­er ful­ly recov­ered from this shock, even when restric­tions were loos­ened or lift­ed in the years fol­low­ing WWI.

1920

In his 1922 book The Art of Innkeep­ing Alexan­der Part, one of the key play­ers in the improved pub move­ment of the inter-war years, gave details of the kinds of draught beer pubs might stock, depend­ing on what the brew­ery to which they were tied pro­vid­ed:

Black beers (treble stout, double stout, stout, or porter); Beers (Strong Ale, Burton, Bitter, Light Bitter, Mild, Lager)

Almost every house stocks [bot­tled] Bass, Wor­thing­ton, and Guin­ness. Whitbread’s and Watney’s Stout and Ale, which are of a low­er grav­i­ty and price, are also pop­u­lar. Pints and half-pints are the most usu­al sizes.” – Alexan­der Part, 1922

That might look quite sim­i­lar to a line-up from the 1900s but the bal­ance had shift­ed. Porter was on its last legs, both in terms of qual­i­ty and avail­abil­i­ty, brewed in token amounts by those brew­eries that hadn’t giv­en up on it alto­geth­er. In 1923 Man­ches­ter brew­ery Boddington’s was pro­duc­ing only four dif­fer­ent beers, down from eight in 1914. What most brew­eries were pro­duc­ing, and the vast major­i­ty of pub drinkers were con­sum­ing, was mild.

Mild in the 1920s was strong by mod­ern stan­dards, nudg­ing into 4+% ABV ter­ri­to­ry, but still much weak­er than before WWI. Odd­ly, it had also begun to get dark­er through the addi­tion of brew­ing sug­ars and caramel, per­haps because peo­ple asso­ci­at­ed high colour with high strength, and stronger flavours.

By this time, bit­ter was the most com­mon word used to describe draught pale ales, which were rel­a­tive­ly weak by pre-WWI stan­dards, but also expen­sive, and thus con­sid­ered the classi­est of the draught ales.

Barclay's Lager advertisement by Tom Purvis.

There was also a new push on lager, both Eng­lish brewed and import­ed, pick­ing up the thread of the embry­on­ic lager boom that stalled with the advent of WWI. It rep­re­sent­ed a tiny part of the mar­ket, and was large­ly con­fined to the posh­est bars and pubs, but was much talked about and adver­tised. We’d imag­ine that some­one drink­ing lager in the 1920s would be mak­ing quite a state­ment, much as craft beer drinkers were in 2008.

Tetley's Mild & Bitter Ales.
Leeds Mer­cury, Sep­tem­ber 1929, via the British News­pa­per Archive.

There was a reduc­tion in the num­ber of the small­est, tat­ti­est pubs in slum areas, and they were replaced with larg­er, smarter, pur­pose-built mod­ern pubs. Many old­er pubs that sur­vived were refur­bished to mod­ern stan­dards. As a result draught beer stored in cel­lars and served using hand-pumps became the “pre­vail­ing sys­tem”.

Most peo­ple were drink­ing out of glass­es, the mass-pro­duc­tion of which had been per­fect­ed.

1930

The 1930s is when infor­ma­tion about what peo­ple were drink­ing in pubs starts to become eas­i­er to lay hands on. In Bolton, Lan­cashire, when the Mass Obser­va­tion project came to town in the late 1930s they found that mild was by far the most pop­u­lar type of beer, sold at 5d a pint. There was also best mild (“light in colour, like bit­ter”) which cost a pen­ny more per pint. Draught stout was all but extinct with draught IPA strange­ly more com­mon, though still rarely seen.

It’s a good appe­tis­er – but I wouldn’t like to have a lot of it.” – a Bolton bar­man on draught IPA

The reduc­tion in avail­able draught styles seems to to have con­tin­ued. The aver­age Bolton pubs, MO tells us, had three or four pumps which once served mild, best mild and stout. By the late 1930s, though, one or two were usu­al­ly either dis­con­nect­ed or being used as back­up mild pumps.

Dartboard and price list on the wall of a Bolton pub, 1930s.
Source: Bolton Work­town archive.

Though the brew­eries wouldn’t divulge sales infor­ma­tion the MO crew did man­age to get an esti­mate of week­ly sales from a loose-tongued bar­man:

  • 2.5 bar­rels of mild
  • 16 doz. of bot­tled ale
  • 12 doz. of Guin­ness
  • 4 doz. small bot­tles stout

There was prac­ti­cal­ly no demand for bit­ter, appar­ent­ly, and indi­vid­ual land­lords, when asked, esti­mat­ed that draught mild made up around 90 per cent of their total sales. Of the remain­ing 10 per cent, a sub­stan­tial part was made up by women drink­ing bot­tled beer, espe­cial­ly stout, which was some­how seen as more respectable than draught mild. (But it’s worth say­ing that the boom in bot­tled beer was pri­mar­i­ly down to peo­ple drink­ing more at home, not in the pub.)

A man drinking beer from a tankard.
Mr Robert Neve in a Wat­ford pub. SOURCE: LIFE mag­a­zine, 24 April 1939.

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a Lon­don pub, and the bar­maid will say, ‘Oth­er side, please,’ jerk­ing her wet thumb in the direc­tion of the pub­lic, or four-ale bar; for ale in Lon­don is a vul­gar word. The mid­dle-class­es there drink bit­ter, a pale, gold­en beer so sharply hop-fla­vored that for­eign­ers find it undrink­able.” – H.W. Sea­man, 1933

In Lon­don, mild was also the default, accord­ing to T.E.B. Clarke in his What’s Yours? of 1938, to the extent that ask­ing a non-spe­cif­ic order for “a glass of beer” was tak­en to mean that you want­ed mild. He also record­ed that some Lon­don pubs still had porter (“a low­ly brand of draught stout”); that bit­ter was the safest thing to order, being a high-class drink; and men­tions Bur­ton, AKA Old. So that’s four beer styles com­mon enough on draught to be worth men­tion­ing. He does not men­tion bot­tled beers but, by way of adding vari­ety, gives a list of sug­gest­ed mix­es, from mild and bit­ter to “BB” – Bur­ton and bit­ter.

WAR (II)

World War II was dif­fi­cult for brew­ers but noth­ing like as dif­fi­cult as World War I in that there was none of Lloyd George’s moral objec­tion to drink­ing wrapped up in restric­tions on mate­ri­als. Beer got ter­ri­bly weak but there was plen­ty of it. Gourvish and Wil­son put for­ward an inter­est­ing the­o­ry in The British Brew­ing Indus­try, 1830–1980:

The qual­i­ty and strength of draught beers left con­sid­er­able room for improve­ment, and may well have stim­u­lat­ed a dis­trust of the dark­er draught beers (such as mild) and a cor­re­spond­ing pref­er­ence for bot­tled beers after the war.

The idea that World War II did for mild is tempt­ing­ly neat. We know that before the war Cor­nish brew­ery St Austell was pro­duc­ing a stan­dard range of beers includ­ing mul­ti­ple takes on mild. Then from 1942–44 their pro­duc­tion was restrict­ed to a sin­gle pale ale at around 3% ABV. We don’t know why – per­haps because they couldn’t get the sug­ars they required? – but it’s an inter­est­ing presage of things to come.

Optics and a piece of paper with beer prices.
The price list at The Crick­eters, Brighton, in 1944. © IWM (D 18494)

So, if you’d walked into a pub in Eng­land dur­ing World War II, you would prob­a­bly have found beer (although there were short­ages lat­er on); prob­a­bly a choice of beers, just about; but they would prob­a­bly have been weak – 3% or less – and brewed to a com­pro­mised recipe, with few­er hops. This state of affairs car­ried on, and indeed wors­ened, in the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the war.

Men in a pub.
Bel­gian fish­er­man in Brix­ham, Devon, 1944. © IWM (PD 220)

1950

As things began to nor­malise, with rationing on the way out and recon­struc­tion slow­ly get­ting under­way, the beer in pubs not only began to regain its vari­ety but also under­went some big changes.

How often he hears a licensee say, ‘Oh, yes, they call for that mixed with with half-a-pint of bit­ter.’ “That” is prob­a­bly one of the bot­tled beers the brew­er has brewed with extreme trou­ble to be drunk on its own.” – Pleas­ing All Palates, The Times, 1958

First, there was an unex­pect­ed surge in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of bot­tled beer. Pubs which had been built with cask ale in mind sud­den­ly had cus­tomers who wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole. Hammond’s of Brad­ford report­ed that in 1939 they were sell­ing 75% draught beer to 25% bot­tled, but that by 1951 the split had shift­ed to 70/30. By 1958 Ind Coope was report­ing that about half the beer it brewed was end­ing up in bot­tles, com­pared to less than 10 per cent before WWII. You might have seen peo­ple (espe­cial­ly women) drink­ing Mack­e­son milk stout, or brown ale; would-be sophis­ti­cates drink­ing lager; and peo­ple mix­ing bot­tled ales with draught bit­ter to give the lat­ter a lift.

Three people drinking in a pub.
“Two bit­ters and a bot­tle of brown.” From What’s Brew­ing, Leeds Cam­era Club,1959.

There was much spec­u­la­tion over this change: it was because peo­ple had become obsessed with hygiene, or because of TV adver­tis­ing, or because bot­tles offered more oppor­tu­ni­ty for colour­ful pack­ag­ing and brand­ing, or because young peo­ple were reject­ing “what Dad drinks”, or because men want­ed to keep their best suits clean in the pub, or because more women were drink­ing in the pub, or… All of the above, to some degree, were prob­a­bly true.

NEWSPAPER HEADLINE: Roll out the Bottle
Dai­ly Her­ald, 28 April 1958, via The British News­pa­per Archive.

Then there was a slow growth in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of bit­ter. By the end of the decade mild was still far and away the biggest sell­ing draught beer over­all with 65 per cent of sales in 1959 (FT, 12/63) but bit­ter had made sig­nif­i­cant head­way, espe­cial­ly in in cities like Lon­don and Birm­ing­ham, to take the remain­ing 35 per cent.

Low­er income groups pre­fer dark, mild beer – and brew­ers put colour­ing in to suit them. The more mon­ey you earn, the paler the beer you drink.” – Dai­ly Her­ald, 28/04/58

[Most] of our peo­ple have nev­er had it so good.” – Prime Min­is­ter Harold Macmil­lan, 1957

This decade also saw the emer­gence of keg bit­ter in earnest, hav­ing been invent­ed as we know it in the 1930s. It made up a tiny per­cent­age of sales in pubs dur­ing the 1950s but was being heav­i­ly mar­ket­ed, and this was the decade when many brew­eries first began to brew their own answers to Flower’s Keg and Watney’s Red Bar­rel.

The Lil­liput Beer Book, a pam­phlet giv­en away with a men’s mag­a­zine in 1956 and writ­ten by Andrew Camp­bell, offers a help­ful snap­shot:

Mild – usu­al­ly about 3% alco­hol by vol­ume, light­ly hopped, brewed from a mix­ture of pale and amber malts with some sug­ar. The pop­u­lar drink of the pub­lic bar. Mild beer, chilled and fil­tered, is bot­tled as brown ale.… There are two stouts, nation­al­ly dis­trib­uted: Guin­ness Extra Stout… and Mackeson’s… Draught pale ale – Bit­ter – 1030º or a lit­tle stronger, is the pop­u­lar drink of the saloon bar, smooth, dry, refresh­ing. Fil­tered, chilled to 33º it becomes the very pop­u­lar Light Ale… Strong draught beers go by the name of Best Bit­ter and sell for a few pence more than the ordi­nary bit­ters… Brew­ers are intro­duc­ing more and more strong pale ales in bot­tle. They go by name [and] are well known local­ly…

In Part 2, Coming Soon:

Bit­ter takes over but has a short reign before it is usurped by lager, before vari­ety begins to once again creep into the diet of the British pub-goer.

Main Sources

  • BBPA Sta­tis­ti­cal Hand­book 2018
  • Ron Pat­tin­son: 1909 Style Guide; blog.
  • Mar­tyn Cor­nell: Amber, Gold & Black; Beer – the sto­ry of the pint; blog, espe­cial­ly ‘The 1900 Pub’, April 2011.
  • Wil­son & Gourvish, The British Brew­ing Indus­try 1830–1980.

6 thoughts on “Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900–1959 – The Rise of Mild”

  1. I’d like to see more Milds now. Too many ghast­ly but fash­ion­able “amer­i­can style” IPAs.

  2. This is a good approach to what could be a beer chap­ter in anoth­er edi­tion of your inter­est­ing and cer­tain­ly worth­while book (it has many strong points). It’s true oth­er writ­ers have cov­ered many aspects of the the top­ic but not all the ground of course, no one ever cov­ers it all and the idea to present sec­ondary and pri­ma­ry sources from the per­spec­tive always of the pub pro­vides a shape to it all.

    The Aus­tralian war cor­re­spon­dent Geof­frey Blunden’s remarks on the 1945 pub, extend­ing to beer qual­i­ty and issues of morale, may be of inter­est as well, among oth­er pieces I did on the wartime pub: http://www.beeretseq.com/the-english-pub-then-and-now/

    Gary

  3. it’s inter­est­ing read­ing this along­side the What’s Brew­ing arti­cle on “new” pubs of the 1950s. So many of my pre­con­cep­tions need tweak­ing, aban­don­ing or revers­ing. It shows how valu­able an accu­rate archive is

  4. Pre­sum­ably part of the enthu­si­asm for bot­tles was because peo­ple want­ed to be sure their beer hadn’t been tam­pered with in some way?

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