The 1858 book The Night Side of London by James Ewing Ritchie offers an overview of places of entertainment in the capital, from music halls to proto-nightclubs. Most were built around pubs and all seem to have been permanently soaked with booze.
Ostensibly, this is a moralising tract: alcohol ruins lives, Ritchie argues, and nobody out at night is on the path to righteousness.
At the same time, like Mondo Cane and other ‘documentary’ films of the 1960s, its disapproving tone is at odds with the titillating nature of the content. In fact, it almost amounts to a guidebook for visitors seeking London’s naughtiest neighbourhoods.
It’s probably also worth saying at this point that in places, it’s an uncomfortable read: Ritchie is blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish people for everything from running sweat-shops to pimping to clip-joints. And just in case there’s any doubt, he even throws in a few references to the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’. This seems to be at the root of his objective to alcohol, in fact – that it is weakening the mighty master race, and so on and so forth. Anyway…
The single most interesting thread is its perfect capturing of the moment when pubs and music halls began to branch apart from their common roots.
There’s an extended description of Canterbury Hall, for example, which grew out of the Canterbury Tavern on the Upper Marsh, built on the site of the old skittle alley, and is generally reckoned to have been the first purpose built music hall.
It sat in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by railway lines and “monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas… full of ragged children, hideous old woman, and drunken men”. The Canterbury Music Hall, though still boozy, the author reluctantly admits, was relatively more sober than the alternatives:
A well-lighted entrance attached to a public-house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and nine- pence if we do the lobby and ascend into the balcony.We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a very handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding fifteen hundred persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse shoe. At the opposite end to which we enter is the platform, on which is placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage… Let us look round us; evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics, or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts there. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen, who confidentially inform each other that there is “no end of talent here,” and that Miss “is a doosed fine gal;” and here, as elsewhere, we see a few of the class of unfortunates, whose staring eyes would fain extort an admiration which their persons do not justify. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of the ladies has also a beneficial effect…
The book concludes with a detailed portrait of The Eagle Tavern, famous for its pleasure gardens, and another nascent music hall, where people sat “eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer”.
For more on the birth of the music hall, read Lee Jackson’s excellent book Palaces of Pleasure, published earlier this year.
The roughest pubs in London get looked at, too – those on Ratcliffe Highway, which ran out of London through the East End to Limehouse. We are told that this notoriously dangerous stretch of road smelled worse than Cologne, or even Bristol. (Cheeky bastard.) Here, sailors would go wild spending their earnings from the last voyage, lured into clip joints by prostitutes who would drink water while the sailors downed gin.
One victim, James Hall, spent a month staying at a pub on Clive Street run by a Mr Glover, where he burned through £30 by drinking:
20 pints of rum… 20 quarts of beer… 8 glasses of rum… 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale… 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy… 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum… 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer…
…and so on.
Another interesting observation, in a chapter on ‘Discussion clubs’, is that pubs in crowded markets have always resorted to novelty and spectacle to draw in custom:
It is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirees Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief — actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer.
Discussion clubs were one such entertainment:
Now, in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville ; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers’ Hall, and another large room in Shoe Lane. These are [free but] you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals.
It’s hard to imagine live debating being much of a draw these days but back then, before television panel shows and daily news programmes, it might have seemed fun.
Doctor Johnson’s Tavern, which we think is The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, gets a pen portrait, too:
[There] are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present… They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beery. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to “Islin’ton” tonight. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about ‘Lovely Spring’ but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I cannot tell.
That last line is fairly typical of the author: even if a bloke looks to be having fun, he must be inwardly tortured.
As well as music halls, clubs and pubs, there were also boxing pubs…
We enter, we will say, Bang Up’s hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening ; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worthwhile to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up’s bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money… [We] find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits — imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom’s lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then — for the room is a complete Walhalla — we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villainous foreheads, all “vacant of our glorious gains,” heavy eyes, thick bull necks…
…and 600 or so pubs with billiards rooms attached to pubs, as well as standalone billiard rooms with their own bars.
The most interesting bit of the whole book, given our recent pondering on gentrification and the research we did into the rise of the ‘improved public house’ for 20th Century Pub, is a chapter on the ‘Respectable public house’, which is…
…situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier- glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare… Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly’s, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of show is cultivated to an alarming extent. “Let us be genteel or die,” said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropolis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers’ flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.
This, from the 1850s, could almost be a description of a genteel London pub of today – one of those posh Fuller’s joints, maybe. The clientele according to Ritchie’s account was bank directors, railway officials and City boys. This type of pub, he says, was their equivalent of the working class beerhouse or gin shop and, of course, is sure to spell doom for them and their impressive careers in the long run.
The single most effective portrait of an individual pub is of one frequented by costermongers, “in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house”. Costermongers were street traders who wandered around selling cheap food and were famous for their ‘backslang’, such as ‘top of reeb’ for ‘pot of beer’. Here’s the scene:
Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives… The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character… [As] the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten… the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious…
Our edits above remove a lot of judgemental asides. Let’s be clear – the author does not approve of this kind of thing at all. It’s just the truth can’t help shining through: these people had hard lives and found happiness and companionship in the pub.
There are also a few stray beer-related nuggets and facts scattered throughout the text:
- London consumed 43,200,000 gallons of porter and ale each year.
- In London, “according to Sir R. Mayne”, there were 3,613 beer shops, 5,279 public houses, 13 wine rooms.
- People were accompanying oysters with pale ale – not stout.
And, finally, there’s this piece of temperance-flavoured philosophy:
The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun.
In other words, it’s the socialising that makes you merry, not the booze. And, temperance propaganda aside, there might be something in that.
You can find the full text of The Night Side of London via the Hathi Trust and no doubt elsewhere, too.