20th Century Pub pubs

Watering the Mild and Other Wheezes, 1955

Running a pub has always been a matter of margins which can encourage dodgy behaviour, from watering the beer to serving up slops.

Tom Berkley’s 1955 comic memoir We Keep a Pub is either a goldmine or completely useless depending on your view of the semi-fictional James Herriot school of writing.

It tells the story of Bill and Irene Day, apparently stand-ins for Berkley and his own wife, who return to Britain from colonial work in Malaya and decide to run a pub. The brewery they approach sends them out on a series of placements to learn the trade and the book is an account of the characters they meet and customs they observe in a string of London pubs.

For example, in one pub, Bill and Irene become fascinated by the snack counter which offers two items: veal-and-ham loaf and Melton Mowbray pie. What is the difference between the two? They look identical. Irene decides to find out by ordering a slice of each, and Bill observes that “the snack girl gave her a nasty look”. It is only when they see a customer order Melton Mowbray (premium) but receive veal-and-ham (cheap) that this gentle fiddle becomes clear.

The behaviour in the cellar of the landlord of this pub, a Mr Lawson, also goes some way to explaining the decline of mild in the 1950s. He explains to Bill that mild ale, being unfined, is easier to adulterate: “You can’t put nothing back into the bitter.”

[He told me] that if waste beer were put into fined beer it turned it cloudy, but that a reasonable amount did not harm to bright beer…. [All] beer collected in drip cans was invariably poured into the mild ale, and not, as I had naively imagined, thrown away, or even returned to the brewery as ullage as so many people think. And at the Gorget Hotel the same was done with the filtered dregs from barrels of fined beers, and the lees of bottled beer and used glasses. It did not matter to Mr Lawson what kind of beer it was: bitter beer, light ale, brown ale, Burton: according to him it was all fit to go into the ale.

Bill wonders if anyone ever notices this jiggery-pokery:

“Mild-ale drinkers never notice nothing — not if you don’t overdo it; and that reminds me: when you was pulling up mild-and-bitters last night I see you giving ’em half-and-half. That’s no good. All you want is a drop o’ bitter at the bottom o’ the glass and fill up with mild. Mild’s cheaper than bitter. See? You got to watch the stocks.”

As well as the unofficial methods of recirculating waste beer there is also the brewery’s own preferred approach, the utilizer, “a sort of china bucket that hung from a hook in the ceiling”:

[Waste] beer from the various bars drained into the utilizer, whence it was sucked into the public bar by a little auxiliary pump on the beer engine at a rate of about a spoonful per glass…

(Further reading on p.112 of this 1923 paper on pub cellars.)

The next pub, the Block & Anchor in the East End, is a similarly grotty, penny-pinching place. The staff pay for their own drinks by short-changing customers. When Rosie the barmaid’s cigarette ash drops into a customer’s beer she apologises, tips it into a drip can, replaces the pint, and then serves someone else the beer from the drip can later in the shift. The manager, Mr Grainger, tips three buckets of slops into a half-empty cask of mild. Perce the Potman is supposed to clean the lines every Saturday but evidently never does.

I noticed that the bottles had been put on the shelves straight from the boxes without being polished; that the shelves were dirty; that the pewter was tarnished a dull dark-grey colour. There were puddles of beer on the counter; glasses were cloudy and smeared with finger marks. The electric-light bulbs were spattered with fly spots.

Pouring slops into the mild is bad; is letting down beer with water better, or worse? We suppose it depends on whether you prioritise hygiene or intoxication. One of the best passages in the book concerns Mr Grainger’s furtiveness over this illicit activity:

“I’d better do the cellar today,” he muttered, with a sidelong glance at the clock. “You ain’t got time to go down there today. See?”

Of course Bill forgets and does go into the cellar where he discovers a funnel jammed into the top of a cask of mild, half full of water, with two more buckets of water at its side. Fearing he has been rumbled, Grainger becomes tense and knocks back several gins.

Mr Grainger worries
Cartoon by ‘Starke’.

Eventually, he confronts Bill.

“You know, a man can’t be honest in this line,” he blurted out, giggling foolishly to cover his embarrassment.

I decided to help him.

“No, I suppose he can’t,” I mumbled commiseratingly, “not with his staff guzzling all the profits.”

“No,” he said sadly… After a silence lasting several seconds he he glanced up at me, and I saw tears in his eyes.

He cleared his throat.

“A man’s got to try and make it up somehow, or else get the sack,” he mumbled.

Later, discussing the business with Irene, Bill makes two further observations:

  1. It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”.
  2. Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?

The pub that features in the third act, the White Lark, is a respectable place with decent managers, the Handens. Mr Handen is proud of his beer and holds the view that it is better to sell two casks of good clean beer than one of the dirty stuff:

I’m proud o’ my bitter; that’s what makes your name — and you don’t want to muck around with your mild too much, either. All mild-ale drinkers ain’t dumb, though there’s many as thinks they are.

But even they are winkingly dishonest in various small ways. For example, Mrs Handen always accepts a drink when offered by customers; if they’re poor, she takes a Guinness, and drinks it; but if they’re well off, she accepts a neat gin, takes a sip, and hides what remains beneath the bar to be sold to a customer later, thus being paid twice for the same drink.

The dirty tricks aren’t all on the publicans’ side, though, and Mr Handen clues Bill in on one of the brewery’s bits of slyness: they send in spies (Slimy Grimes, one is nicknamed; the other Mephistopheles) to check that staff aren’t drinking to excess, that things are being run properly, and that opening times are being observed. You’d call these mystery shoppers now, we suppose.

And then, worse, there is Mr Green, the brewery’s inspector, who turns up with shaking hands, accepts a run of free and discounted drinks, asks for the loan of some money (a bribe) and leaves having decided that there’s no need to actually go down into the cellar, up to the kitchen, or look at the books.

Of course all of the above has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with other of these We Ran a Pub memoirs there’s a streak of class disdain running through the whole thing. The authors are generally of the officer class, regard working class people as filthy brutes, and the publicans as worse again because they have the nerve to believe themselves respectable.

Being fictionalised, there’s no way to know what really happened, whether it happened to Berkley himself, or whether this amounts to a collection of trade mythology.

But, anyway, it’s worth a read.

Now, when is the first We Ran a Craft Beer Bar memoir due?

7 replies on “Watering the Mild and Other Wheezes, 1955”

The 1923 paper is fascinating. They reckon 14.5C for beer in the cellar. Bit lower these days. His preference for bright/tank beer is also extremely interesting. I didn’t even know it was available or common at that time.

Lots of great stuff there.

Always risky extrapolating generalisations from singular experience, but believe the Mild example has a ring of truth. Worked in a number of pubs in the Eighties. Mild was already a dying beer in the South by then, but a Worthing pub (long gone, now a shop, but better remain nameless in case any concerned still alive) remained one of few in town centre still stocking it – Watney’s XX if recalling correctly. Then landlord had a purpose built home made tool for opening keg barrels, which he intimated were common through the trade. All Guinness slops in particular went back into the Mild keg; but not completely averse to ‘recycling’ other drip tray contents into it on occasion either.
To be fair, the locals and some tourists, completely unware of the practice, swore by it, insisting he served the best Mild around. I do wonder whether this suggests other landlords were even less fussy as to what went back into their Mild.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, kind of sums it up. In many ways the British didn’t deserve their gastronomic heritage, hence the beer portion coming almost to a standstill in the 1970s (along with good bread, real sausage, custard sans packet, etc.).

Most countries are similar though, for the same or different reasons. Even France has changed greatly in a generation under influences of the information revolution and globality.


Yeah, when I started drinking the standard comment about Mild was always that that’s where the slops went. One reason why canny West Riding drinkers generally preferred Light Mild… 😉
But everyone, even lager drinkers, knew where the mild was safe and where it was likely to be slopridden. And where they watered the beer…
But mild only really lost its stigma for me when I moved to the West Midlands, where the mild almost always tasted decent, but the bitter tasted like slops…

The local free paper in Wandsworth, when I lived there in the early 80s, had an article in one issue on the device that Huish mentions along with a picture. I don’t think they named any pubs using them or who made it, but obviously there was enough sales potential for someone to put them into production.
Short measure is a scandal that the British seem inured to and I don’t know of anywhere outside the British Isles where customers are treated in this way – where else uses brim measure glasses? CAMRA commendably sells full pints at festivals but I would say that the use of lined glasses elsewhere has if anything gone sharply down over the last 40 years – presumably matching the unfortunate decline in the use of metered electric pumps.
I remember talking to someone who was a pub manager for a large London-based chain in the 80s and he said that company policy was to obtain a cash ‘yield’ of 75 pints per firkin. Their pubs sold several beers but including Boddingtons at the time and he advised drinking that beer as the straw colour discouraged pouring back slops.

[…] missing is the sense of melancholy. We don’t, as it happens, believe in the Good Old Days. Slops in the mild, buckets of sawdust and phlegm, and ladies only in the lounge, if at all? Fascinating, but hardly […]

My first pub job was in a popular Newcastle pub in the early 80’s. It served Sam Smiths OBB and the almost black Youngers No.3. The latter was the recipient of all of the pulled-through cask and keg beer and lager from line cleaning and sometimes whatever was in the drip trays at the end of the night. One of the regulars was a brewer from the Tyne Brewery who thought his colleagues from Edinburgh and the landlord produced the finest No.3. Filtering back was standard practice and serving cask just made it much easier than degassing kegs to open them up.

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