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Afraid to go to the pub, 1974

Some pubs in the city centre had to restrict services when bar staff were too frightened to report for duty. Bars and lounges normally packed on Friday night were almost deserted. Doors were guarded and people were searched before they went in.

Mr John Hill, manager of The Parisian – an underground bar in Cannon Street, was only able to open one bar because of lack of staff. “Their mothers or their husbands have asked them not to come and they haven’t,” he said.

His normally crowded bar was almost deserted.

Wendy Hughes, Birmingham Daily Post, 23 November 1974

In times of crisis there’s a certain comfort in looking back on previous crunchpoints and realising that we got through them.

In the mid-1970s, the IRA launched a bombing campaign in England which targeted city centres in particular. In November 1974 they planted bombs in two pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people.

There’s been plenty written about the awful immediate effects of the bombing and of the miscarriage of justice that ensued but we want to focus on something else: the fact that these attacks made people afraid to go into town and to go to the pub.

If, as some argue, the point of terrorism is to spread fear and disrupt the economy, the Birmingham bombings were apparently effective.

In the run up to Christmas 1974, England’s second city was unusually, worryingly quiet, as reported in the first instance two days after the bombings, in the article from which the quote that opens this post is taken.

On 26 November, almost a week after the bombings, the same paper had the headline ‘Stores hit as fear keeps away shoppers’:

People were still staying clear of Birmingham city centre yesterday and business was ‘very quiet’ for the third trading day since Thursday’s bombs… Many managers thought trade would pick up by the weekend if the city centre remained quiet… Mr S.N. Hancock, general manager of Rackhams, said: “Trade is much slower than it should be. We are down by about 25 per cent. Perhaps it will pick up by the weekend, provided nothing else happens.”

A quiet Christmas can be hard for a hospitality business to recover from, can’t it?

Ongoing anxiety in the wake of the bombings also prompted other risky behaviour: in December 1974, English fire brigades were forced to issue warnings to publicans against resorting to the locking of rear fire exits as a supposed security measure. (Belfast Telegraph, 30 December 1974.)

It’s worth putting some of this in a broader context.

Throughout 1973, Coventry, another Midlands city, had been in a state of permanent anxiety as a series of bomb hoaxes caused panic, eventually culminating in James McDade’s failed and suicidally fatal attack on the telephone exchange in November that year.

In Birmingham itself, a bomb disposal officer was killed in Edgbaston in September 1973 and there were also constant bomb hoaxes keeping people on edge.

Pubs in particular were targeted at Guildford in September 1974 – another tragedy, another miscarriage of justice – and earlier in November 1974, in London, a bomb thrown into a “pub frequented mainly by soldiers” (name obscured for security reasons, presumably) killed two, including the barman.

We’ve only found one instance so far of a pub operator citing the IRA bombing campaign as the reason for the failure of their business, from the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 3 January 1976:

Coventry’s German-style Bier Keller is to close next week – in the backlash of the terrorist bombings of more than a year ago…. Trade was booming in the Hertford Street underground club until November 1974… “It seems as if the public have been scared off going in places like this,” said Mr David Jones, a director of EMI Cinemas and Leisure, who own the Bier Keller. “This was one of our more profitable establishments until the bomb explosion. Trade did pick up for a short time at one stage for it fell off again.”

It would be interesting to look into local archives documents – licensed victuallers’ meetings, council minutes – to find out if it was generally felt that the bombing campaign had reduced trade in pubs in Midlands cities in the later 1970s.

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