When did jukeboxes arrive in British pubs?

Ask people to list the characteristic features of a great pub and they’ll eventually mention the jukebox – but when did this association begin?

This turns out to be surprisingly easy to pin down thanks to the novelty value of these electronic music boxes which guaranteed them press coverage. We can say, with some certainty, that the first pub jukeboxes arrived in Britain in the late 1940s.

Even before that date, though, the term ‘jukebox’ or ‘juke-box’ was familiar to British people through reportage from the US.

Jukeboxes, it was said, had led to a remarkable boom in sales of gramophone records. The film Juke Box Jenny was released in Britain in 1942 and American musicians were described as being “famous from the juke-boxes”.

In 1944, a writer for The Scotsman attempted to explain jukeboxes in terms British readers could understand:

“A juke-box is a mechanical contrivance to be found in most American drug-stores which supplies music on the insertion of an appropriate coin.” (10/07/1944)

It was in that year that the first widely accessible jukeboxes arrived in Britain, appearing in amusement arcades alongside other such ‘mechanical contrivances’.

A hint of things to come – of the jukebox in social settings – can be found in the presence of an imported machine at ‘Dunker’s Den’, the teetotal cafe-bar at the American serviceman’s club on Shaftesbury Avenue in London.

A sketch of American servicemen round a jukebox.

Terence Cuneo/British Newspaper Archive.

This particular jukebox, as befits its cultural importance, got an official portrait by Terence Cuneo, accompanying a note in the Illustrated London News for 31 March 1945:

“Music never ceases In Dunker’s Den, one of the most popular places at the American Red Cross Club, Rainbow Corner, for the members start the Juke-box early in the morning and play it continuously until 3 a.m. or until it is cut off because of some special programme going on. The Juke-box is a radiogram with a stock of twenty-four records, and by pressing a chosen button the American soldier is able to listen to his favourite tune for one penny a time. The men enjoy the records because they are a definite link with home.”

Then, in 1946, band leader Jack Hylton launched what was said to be the first British made jukebox, capable of holding 16 records, and built with pubs in mind as a possible target.

In April 1947 a fascinating article called ‘Whither the English Inn’ by Russell Warren Howe for The Sketch provided this detail in passing:

“I fear modernism will overrun everything… In Shakespeare’s Stratford, one of the best inns already has a juke-box.”

Throughout 1948, newspapers reported on the spread of jukeboxes much as they reported on outbreaks of coronavirus back in March this year – “Two already in Nottingham”; “Juke-box experiment for Hull”; “Juke-box music application fails” (Dewsbury). But these were generally confined to amusement arcades and cafes.

In February 1949, a pub landlady in Liverpool, Eileen Jones of a ‘local’ on Griffiths Street, asked local licencing magistrates permission to install a jukebox. After much deliberation – would it cause noise? Bring down the tone? Prompt fighting over the choice of music? – they turned down the application. (Liverpool Echo, 08/02/1949.)

An advertisement for Bal-Ami jukeboxes.

SOURCE: The Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette, February 1961.

By 1956, though, the Guardian was observing the gradual creep of the jukebox into pubs nationwide:

“[The] most unlikely places have surrendered their immunity. A London journalist reports finding a little inn in a North Country market town full of pewter and sporting prints, which seemed just the place to take his ease early after a long day’s driving. His head had barely touched the pillow when the notes of the latest Rock ‘n’ Roll tune floated up from the bar – the prelude to a performance which lasted till closing time. The morning disclosed a juke-box standing unashamedly beneath the polished horse-brasses, and lunch-time brought its best customers, two local youths, back for more music.”

So, to summarise:

  • Invented in the 1920s
  • Limited presence in the UK in the 1930s
  • Surge in interest in the 1940s
  • First pub jukebox installed c.1947
  • Spread throughout the 1950s
  • Part of the scenery by the 1960s

3 replies on “When did jukeboxes arrive in British pubs?”

You missed one angle: the first 45 rpm jukebox was only manufactured in 1950. (It may well have been another couple of years before they reached the UK, but that doesn’t affect your chronology.) The 45-rpm machines we’re familiar with will have been the ones that were spreading all over the country in the late 50s, but the early adopters, from Dunker’s Den to the unnamed inn in Stratford, must have had machines that played, and automatically changed, 78s – fairly gently, I assume. (The article on the Jack Hylton jukebox only refers to “ten-inch records”, so it could conceivably have been set up to play the whole side of a 33 rpm LP – probably not, though, at a penny a go.)

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