20th Century Pub pubs

When did pub quizzes become a thing?

We had a vague idea that the pub quiz was a product of the 1980s or 90s and so were surprised to come across the headline above in a newspaper from the early 1960s.

Here’s the opening of the story which appeared in the Daily Mirror for 7 July 1961:

BIG Jim Traynor, a pint of beer at his elbow, settled down in a corner of a Liverpool tap-room, opened a packet of crisps, and began to study an encyclopaedia. Across the table, Charlie Vipond, from the local gasworks, eagerly flicked through the pages of Whitaker’s Almanack. ‘Hey, mate,’ he shouted, ‘what year did Henry VIII lop off Anne Boleyn’s head?’ No one batted an eyelid. It was just part of the latest pub craze… QUIZ MANIA.

The article mentions ‘J. Robinson’ as one of the organiser of the Merseyside quiz league and mentions a ‘big hotel in Bootle’ as a nexus of quizzing activity.

Another piece from a little later (Liverpool Echo, 30 October 1963) provides more detail, including pinpointing the year of origin to 1959:

There’s no business on Merseyside, it would seem, quite like quiz business… For since it all started in a public house in Bootle four years ago there are estimated to be at least 4,000 people involved in the Merseyside Quiz Leagues… These consist of four leagues organising general knowledge quizzes in pubs, clubs and factory canteens.

‘It’s a jolly good way of enjoying yourself – and learning at the same time,’ said one of the men who has been on the Merseyside quiz scene since it started – Mr Jack Robinson [of] 108 Galsworthy Avenue, Bootle… ‘We’ve been on television,’ he told me proudly, ‘and radio too.’

It all started because of a chance remark, he says, made by a Mr. Eric Powell, 106 Gloucester Road, Bootle, one night at the Mount Hotel, Bootle… ‘We had been having a lot of friendly quizzes among ourselves,’ said Mr Robinson, ‘but when Mr. Powell suggested that it could be operated on a wider scale everyone seemed to think it was a good idea.’

So the first Merseyside Quiz League was formed, and a list of rules compiled. It was not long before there were four leagues – ‘stretching from Southport to Speke’.

It also gives us the names of some key personnel: Bill Brady, licensee of The Mount, was the quiz league’s chairman; Jim Howard was the quizmaster, also of Bootle; and the secretary was Harry Jackson, ‘an administrative railway officer from Garston’.

Now, this could just be a case of people, probably quite innocently, taking credit for a spontaneously emerging phenomenon, so we won’t quite go as far as to say Eric Powell invented the pub quiz, or that the Mount Hotel was where it was born.

But, still, all the earliest mentions in the newspapers do point to Merseyside/Lancashire and, in lieu of any other claims, let’s say this is the best origin story we have for the moment.

Arthur Taylor, author of the essential reference on pub games, Played at the Pub, seems to agree with the idea that Bootle was ground zero.

He also suggests that the emergence of pub quizzes was tied to the increasing popularity of TV, and especially American-inspired commercial television. He points out that both Double Your Money and Take Your Pick first aired on ITV in 1955.

An additional twist, though, is that among the small trickle of 1960s television programmes that sought to evoke the spirit of the pub there was one inspired by pub quizzing specifically.

Quiz Time Gentlemen Please first aired in March 1968, with a team from The St. Helier’s Arms, Carshalton battling against a crew from The Elm Park Hotel, Hornchurch.

It was hosted by Keith Fordyce, and featured a mix of darts and quiz questions – so, Bullseye, basically, 20 years before Bully was a twinkle in Jim Bowen’s eye.

It goes without saying that if you’re related to any of the Bootle blokes mentioned above and can tell us more about the origins of the pub quiz, we’d love to hear from you. Or if you have memories of pub quizzing from the 1960s or 70s.

8 replies on “When did pub quizzes become a thing?”

Hmm, looks at date…

However, seriously, wasn’t the Guinness Book of Records created with the objective of settling pub arguments?

So the first Merseyside Quiz League was formed, and a list of rules compiled. It was not long before there were four leagues

Something I’ve wondered about is the relationship between the Quiz League – with seasons and ladders and team captains and vice-captains, and basically a lot of admin – and the Quiz Night, where you turn up on the nigh, think of a silly name for your team and have a go. (Although you do get recurring teams in QN quizzing – at the one I usually go to, our team is unusual in having the same personnel but still choosing different names every time* – so it’s not a black and white division.) I’ve only ever experienced the QN variety, and had always vaguely assumed that the more organised version grew out of it – but if this Merseyside story was the Origin of the Pub Quiz, it sounds as if it was the other way round.

*The original plan was to keep choosing new names until we won and then stick to the winning name. Unfortunately, the first night we won we were Nin Huugen and the Huugen Notes, and the quizmaster thought it was too silly and refused to read it out.

Thinking about other potential influences, University Challenge first aired in 1962, but College Bowl (UC’s US progenitor) first aired on TV in the late 1950s, and was on US radio from the early 50s. IIRC College Bowl’s inventor was involved with US forces’ entertainment during the Second World War, and had run quizzes then. Certainly radio quiz shows were around in the UK from the late 40s/early 50s; ‘The Round Britain Quiz’ is from 1947, and ‘Brain of Britain’ started as a segment on another (quiz?) show in 1953. Did anyone listen to these in the pub and get inspired?

Definitely in my experience the organised league came first and the informal pub quiz night came later. The pub quiz night was best, you got a modest cash prize for winning and a ‘meat tray’ if you got the jackpot question.

About the same time there were quiz machines, a bit like fruit machines but with quiz questions. If you were lucky and the gangs of professional quiz machine players hadn’t paid a visit, you could clean up on these and get a free night on the ale.

The Lancaster City Quiz League was formed a few years after Mersyside. I played in a team for several years and was secretary for a couple of years in the late 70s/early 80s. I think we had four divisions at that time, but now I believe it is three. We had a yearly game against the nearby Kendal Quiz League. I don’t know if that one is still going, but Lancaster was on course to celebrate 50 years (until all the pubs were shut down).

The Airedale Quiz league began in the mid 1970’s, so far as I know after Jack Simpson, the landlord of the Ferrands Arms in Bingley had been to Liverpool and been impressed by the quiz scene there. I was a participant in the early years, before moving away from the area.

Anyway, what I remember, and it has nothing to do with the quiz league – the Ferrands Arms had a one armed barman. He worked the small tap room where the quiz games took place. I say one armed, but he did have about an inch of forearm below the elbow which enabled him to pull on the hand pump while he held the glass in his one good hand. Quite an impressive sight!

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