Women and young people in the pub, 1941

Birmingham in 1942.

In 1941, A Monthly Bulletin, a publication sponsored by the British brewing industry, commissioned research into drinking habits in industrial towns with a particular focus on young people.

You might recall that we touched on something similar a few weeks ago, that time published by Mass Observation. At a guess – we haven’t got much info to go on – we’d guess this research was carried out by the same team.

It’s interesting because it’s about life in pubs during wartime and for its geographical reach. It covers Lancashire, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Newcastle, Plymouth and Sheffield. Not the usual suspects.

The introduction summarises the findings in amusingly of-its-time Mr Cholmondley-Warner language:

[The] chief point is the extension of drinking among women. This has been accelerated by the war but it is not fundamentally due to it. A change of convention in the habits of women has been visible for a long time; the sequel to their attainment of political rights, and freedom to enter the professions and innumerable occupations, was inevitably a movement towards a full sharing of men’s recreations. There is no cause for surprise when boys and girls who have money to spend become excited and noisy. Noise is not necessarily a sign of intoxication.

All the same, the latest development must be carefully watched. Women, and especially girls, are entering upon a testing time. They have it in their power to do much good or harm. Women can restrain and sweeten any human company. The character of the public house is going in the long run to depend appreciably upon them. They are fortunate in the occasion of their new fashion, because beer has become the universal drink and the popular beer to-day is barely intoxicating. Could they not think a little, plan a little, and definitely accept the duty of adding to public house life virtues proportionate to their own powers of inspiration?

The first report, from Lancashire, continues this theme:

The plain fact is that in the past twenty years a tremendous revolution has taken place in the attitude of the womenfolk of the English middle classes towards the public house. The daughters of women who, at the same age, would never have dreamt of resorting to a public house in the course of an evening for a drink and a talk with their men friends and other girls in thousands of cases now think no more of it than of a visit to the cinema or a game of tennis in the park. It marks a revolution in social habits comparable to the spread of smoking among women and the use of cosmetics which, in the middle classes, would once have been regarded as the public announcement of a reputation that was at least doubtful. Anyone who drew such deductions today would be laughed at.

In other words, a woman who wore makeup, smoked and was in the habit of going to the pub might once have been thought to be a prostitute, but by the 1940s, that was beginning to seem daft.

A Monthly Bulletin was tied to the improved public house movement and that’s a theme of this research. Again, from the Lancashire section:

The change in the case of the public house itself has been tremendous and in any properly conducted and designed establishment it has been thoroughly salutary in that it has made the place much less of an exclusively male sphere, particularly in the suburbs, and more of a social meeting place for all sides of a family.

But here’s a claim we don’t think we’ve heard before – that the emergence of the phrase ‘the local’, as applied to pubs, was a result of the changing face of pub clientele:

The very name of ‘the local’, which has arisen within the period of women’s invasion of it, points to a change in the tradition. Leaving out of account for the moment the nature of the refreshments there provided, ‘the pub’ was the gossip-shop for the male; ‘the local’ is the gossip-shop for both sexes, plus darts and other diversions.

The anonymous author of the report seems to have had mixed feelings about the changing balance between old and young drinkers:

It may be remarked in passing that, at any rate in the north-west of England, the first stages of the woman’s, and particularly of the young woman’s, invasion of the local inn was apt to be bitterly resented by its older male frequenters. By the elders who were accustomed to sit there long and, it must be admitted, somewhat glumly of an evening, the arrival of chattering young men and women, fresh from a tennis court or with their bicycles left at the front of the house, was regarded as an unforgivable intrusion. The elders retreated behind the warning announcement ‘NO LADIES SERVED IN THIS ROOM’. One remembers vigorous grumbles from the male habitues on that subject in a solid hostelry in a Manchester suburb on a summer evening of 1922. But the tide, then turning, has ever since swept too strongly in the direction ‘equal citizenship’ for patrons of the public house. The Old Guard may keep to its ‘snug’ but the Young Guard has the run of the rest of the house.

The notes on Liverpool have more of the same, including what sounds like the kind of story a modern-day anti-feminist controversy columnist might come out with:

One of the most marked changes is the greater patronage of public houses by women and the considerably increased drinking among adolescents, both boys and girls. Liverpool’s geographical position is largely responsible for what has reached the magnitude of a social evil. It is now a common sight to see women and girls of all classes in bars, standing each other drinks and occupying the stools formerly sacred to men. Indeed, in one well-known city bar the other day an old customer entering and seeing half a dozen or more young women seated by the counter said to the barman, ‘Excuse me, but is it alright for men to come in here?’

Echoing what the Mass Observers found in South London at around the same time, this report suggests that pubs in the port city were full of ‘vulturine’ young women on the hunt for sailors and servicemen.
We were, of course, especially interested to read about Bristol, where the biggest problem seems to have been capacity. As the city was overrun with war workers, the report says, pubs struggled to meet demand, both in terms of available space and the supply of beer:

[Pubs] which were quiet in peace time have become crowded night after night with customers who may be diplomatically called ‘outsiders’. The policy adopted by many publicans is to sell out and close down… Others open part of the day while the stock lasts. Matters have been improved by the tacit understanding that certain well-known houses will be entirely closed on certain days, but there is still excessive crowding at night as long as stocks are available. The tendency of customers is to go from house to house in the evenings in order to get better service or a reasonably quiet time. Many declare that the only way to have refreshment in comfort is to ‘stake your claim’ early in the evening and then remain as long as you want… There are also simmering grievances about preference being given to old customers but the argument can be applied the other way round, i.e. old customers being shouldered out by casual or ‘new’ customers. With the crowded conditions generally the existing service in the evenings is under severe strain.

Having not looked closely at Nottingham, we find ourselves intrigued to learn more about its inter-war improved pubs based on this note:

There is a general desire to make licensed premises brighter, cheerier and up to date. There could be no finder stimulus than the erection in the suburbs of smart and spacious houses, with gardens, herbaceous borders, nice and handy car parks, and all the amenities that make a ‘good’ house. Nottingham has a number of these satellite houses of the finest type, to which the motorists go and where they bring their friends, especially on summer evenings.

The section on Newcastle underlines this point while also suggesting that there was particular room for improvement in that city’s pubs which were formerly ‘not unlike pig troughs’.

We found this document via the University of Warwick’s excellent online archive – go and read the whole thing and maybe have a dig to see what else might be hiding in the stacks. And here’s the source of the main image.

3 thoughts on “Women and young people in the pub, 1941”

  1. a woman who wore makeup, smoked and was in the habit of going to the pub might once have been thought to be a prostitute, but by the 1940s, that was beginning to seem daft.

    I don’t think it’s drawing those inferences about drinking and smoking – just the makeup. Curious connection to make, though – one change that accentuated the gender gap (while eroding class distinctions) and another two that meant that (young) women were acting more like men. Perhaps all they have in common is that they all represent change, dammit, and they mean things aren’t like they were in our younger days.

    Could they not think a little, plan a little, and definitely accept the duty of adding to public house life virtues proportionate to their own powers of inspiration?

    The double standard is almost charming, it’s so automatic. What were women meant to do when they got to the pub – dust it?

    1. something something changing ways of Performing Gender obviously should have thought of that (an academic writes)

  2. Some of the remaining working mens clubs near me still operate a tacit no women policy in their bars. Concert room or lounge only for them and any accompanying males. You never hear of any complaints.

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