J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

Duckett Lane, Bradford, in the mid-20th century.

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dip­ping in and out of this book, with H.V. Mor­ton’s In Search of Eng­land as a com­pan­ion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dip­ping, each chap­ter cov­er­ing a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try and com­plete as stand­alone essays.

In ‘To the West Rid­ing’, Priest­ley lands in Brad­ford on Sun­day evening as heavy driz­zle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town cen­tre: ‘“But there isn’t any­thing,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warn­ing accu­rate: there’s a Sal­va­tion Army band play­ing, a cou­ple of cafés shut­ting up, and some shop win­dow dis­plays to look at, while young peo­ple ‘prom­e­nade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remem­ber, elder­ly cit­i­zens have been protest­ing against this prac­tice of prom­e­nad­ing on Sun­day nights. They have always been dis­gust­ed by the sight of young peo­ple mon­key-parad­ing in this fash­ion. It is, how­ev­er, the same elder­ly cit­i­zens who have seen to it that near­ly all doors lead­ing out of the street shall be locked against these young peo­ple. They can­not lis­ten to plays or music, can­not see films, can­not even sit in big pleas­ant rooms and look at one anoth­er; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mat­ing, what­ev­er elder­ly per­sons may think…

Priest­ley’s pub crawl is depress­ing. He finds the first one he vis­its very qui­et with ‘five or six hob­blede­hoys drink­ing glass­es of bit­ter’ and both­er­ing the bar­maid. ‘Noth­ing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stu­pid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] can­not see why play­go­ing, lis­ten­ing to music, watch­ing films, even danc­ing, should be con­sid­ered so much worse – or at least more sec­u­lar – than booz­ing with pros­ti­tutes.

The third pub is the liveli­est, large and crowd­ed, with some ‘lit­tle coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; noth­ing else, not even rea­son­able com­fort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was tak­en. Fif­teen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gai­ety, this was life; and so the place was sell­ing beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sex­es. I do not think any of these peo­ple – and they were most­ly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an old­er cou­ple – could real­ly be said to be real­ly enjoy­ing them­selves; but at least they could look at one anoth­er, gig­gle a bit, talk when they found some­thing to say, and admire the car­ni­val splen­dour of the coloured elec­tric lights.

Priest­ley’s con­clu­sion is that it would be bet­ter for sup­pos­ed­ly reli­gious towns to per­mit the break­ing of the Sab­bath if it meant ‘a choice between mon­key-parad­ing and dubi­ous pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has land­ed on, in analysing one Sun­day night in one town, is a diag­no­sis of the whole prob­lem with pubs: they were the default for many peo­ple not nec­es­sar­i­ly because they were love­ly, but for lack of any alter­na­tive.

As hous­es got bet­ter and big­ger, more peo­ple stayed at home. As open­ing hours relaxed and the range of busi­ness­es in towns broad­ened (cof­fee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monop­oly came to an end.

For more on pubs, includ­ing pros­ti­tu­tion, fight­ing, spit­ting and riots, do check out our book 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub. For more on Brad­ford pubs in par­tic­u­lar hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Pub­lic House in Brad­ford 1770–1970, pub­lished in 1995. Main image above adapt­ed from one sup­plied by Brad­ford Libraries on Flickr.

One thought on “J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain”

  1. Quite some years ago, my wife and I were walk­ing the Dales Way with some friends of ours. We reached the George at Hub­ber­holme, where we were going to camp on a bit of land with agree­ment of the farmer.
    The pub was packed, but we man­aged to get a seat, have a meal and a cou­ple of pints. My friend then pro­duced a copy of Priest­ley’s book and start­ed to read from it about the George. With­in 10 min­utes, he had cleared the pub, tes­ta­ment more to his read­ing style than Priest­ley’s prose, I think.

    I’ve always liked HV Mor­ton, a very evoca­tive writer who con­jures very vivid images in my head. “I Saw Two Eng­lands” is well worth adding to your read­ing list. And between Mor­ton and Priest­ley, you’ve got a lot of angles cov­ered off.

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