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20th Century Pub pubs

The joy of Glasgow pubs in 1901

In 1901, James Hamilton Muir conducted a survey of life in Scotland’s biggest city, including notes on its pubs and the drinking habits of its citizens.

Now, Glasgow is well off our beat, though we very much enjoyed our stay there a couple of years ago. When we wrote 20th Century Pub, after a little hesitation, we decided to focus on England rather than wade into the complexities of cross-jurisdictional licencing law and drinking culture.

Still, every now and then, we stumble upon something interesting about Scotland and decide it’s worth flagging, more in the hope that someone with local knowledge will dig deeper.

This time, it’s Muir’s book Glasgow in 1901. Who was Muir? Apparently, he didn’t exist – it was a shared pseudonym for James Bone, a journalist, and churchman Archibald Charteris.

In a section entitled ‘His Howffs’, they describe the late-Victorian Glaswegian’s preferred haunts starting, perhaps surprisingly, with tea shops, or tea rooms:

It is not the accent of the people, nor the painted houses, nor yet the absence of Highland policemen that make the Glasgow man in London feel that he is in a foreign town and far from home. It is a simpler matter. It is the lack of tea shops. You  understand and sympathise with the question that he never fails to put to his southern friend, ‘A say, whit do you folk dae when ye want a good cuppa tea?’ And the Londoner, what can he answer? Barring gin palaces and restaurants (where tea is equally tabooed) he knows no middle between, let us say, Fuller’s on the one hand and a shop of the Aerated Bread Company on the other… Glasgow, in truth, is a very Tokio for tea rooms. Nowhere can one have so much for so little, and nowhere are such places more popular or frequented.

A while ago, we wrote about the erotic fixation on barmaids which marks much Victorian and Edwardian writing about pubs. Tea shops, it seems, had a similar appeal:

The girls who now are waitresses in tea shops would have been domestic servants fifteen years  ago… Once installed, she may discover that a covey of young gentlemen wait daily for her ministrations, and will even have the loyalty to follow her should she change her employer. This is the only point in which she resembles a barmaid, from whom in all others she must be carefully distinguished. She is less the Juno, and more the Cricket on the Hearth; less knowing, less familiar with the eccentricities of bibulous man, more quiet and domesticated… To other people she has a more human interest, and to a young man coming without  friends and introductions from the country, she may be a little tender. For it is not impossible that, his landlady apart, she is the only petticoated being with whom he can converse  without shame.

Some, ‘Muir’ tells us, saw tea shops as a newfangled distraction, luring young men from the pubs where, by rights, they ought to be:

It is said that the tea shops have done away with the daylight drinking which used to be common among Glasgow clerks a decade or two ago. Of these stirring times legends still exist in many offices, and the raw novice is told how, when the first of the month fell upon a Saturday, the whole staff, braving the ‘guvemors,’ would sally forth in the forenoon to a howff in Drury Street and leave the porter to keep the office; or how the process clerk of a lawyer’s firm would each morning, punctually at ten, leave his desk under the pretext of ‘business at court,’ and late in the afternoon return warm with liquor and less than steady of foot. These days have gone for good or bad, and the clerk of the period must, at least by day, be reckoned among the sober  people… And so perhaps there is something in the complaint of men who have come back from the hard drinking of their youth, that tea shops are a snare for the feet of the young. In the old days, they say, to frequent a public-house demanded of a man a certain inclination towards licence, a certain disregard for propriety ; in fact, a certain pronouncedness of character. Hence youths of rectitude passed by on the other side. Nowadays, the very innocence of the liquid purveyed in a tea shop is the devil’s own device for soothing the conscience of the strictly bred. They enter, thinking no evil, and at the end issue as tea-sodden wretches that are worse than drunkards. Moreover, they inhale the smoke of cheap cigarettes. 

Having read more than one recent elegy for the death of daytime drinking and the lunchtime pint, it’s amusing to think that this was written more than a hundred years ago.

Before we get to pubs, the next category of ‘howff’ is the club – ‘If the tea shops are meant for the coming man, clubs exist for the man who has arrived, and public-houses for him who is overdue.’ These were exclusive, ‘Muir’ suggests, but hardly impressive: ‘The New Club has a most imposing house in West George Street… [but] has rather the air of being about to fall into the street’.

The Old Burnt Barns, Hamilton Street, Glasgow, in 1898, via Virtual Mitchell.

So, finally, we get to the main event – Glasgow pubs at a time when it was the second city of a global empire. Surely something special, right?

You cannot say that in Glasgow they have a distinctive character. They are of the most ordinary kind — brilliant, garish places, with barrels behind the counter, sawdust on the floor, and the smell of fermented liquor in the air. They are purely shops for perpendicular drinking, for the Magistrates, in the interests of the young, have succeeded in making them places in which no man, from the fatigue of standing, will linger long.

Oh. That’s a disappointment.

An interesting side note provided at this point concerns Manchester pubs which ‘Muir’ tells us was famous for its ‘sing-songs’ and ‘cosies’. These ‘random gatherings’ of people singing together were, ‘Muir’ suspected, fundamentally ‘un-Scots’: ‘It offends one’s sense of reserve, even one’s self-respect, and perhaps it is incompatible with the drinking of whisky.’

The prevalence of whisky drinking, the lack of seating and the foul weather seem, in the jaundiced view of ‘Muir’, to have made a big night out in Glasgow something of an ordeal:

[The] public-houses of Glasgow are crowded, garish, inhuman, unmerry places, to which men come for  refuge from the rain. They have no provision for a continued sojourn. So rare are seats, that if there chance’s to be a sitting-room in the shop a ticket is placed in the window to announce the fact. Thereby they encourage drinking, if not in one particular public-house, at least in several. For, after a while standing grows wearisome, and the frozen stare of the barmen at your elbow makes you unwelcome if you do not drink up and have another, and so your idle person goes out in the wet street, and once more, when the desolation of the rainy night has seized upon him, enters another public-house, to find as before that the relief is short. Then out again, and in once more, and so on till the clock strikes eleven, and the devious direction is home. A natural instinct for comradeship and brightness has driven him from a squalid home into illuminated streets, and from these the weather drives him for shelter to the public-house. Tis his only refuge from discomfort and weariness, and if he goes home drunk, he never meant to, and you cannot blame him.

What’s really interesting is the conclusion to which this leads ‘Muir’: to tackle the problem of excessive drinking, make pubs nicer places to be. This is very much in line with the trend towards ‘improved public houses’ in England at around the same time:

And if that is a task too great for a municipality, or even for the State, then as a makeshift the publicans must be persuaded to change their shops into open as well as actual club-houses for the poor, in which not the only attraction shall be drinking. The drawings might shrink, but the publican must bear in mind that he is a social pariah only because he is a social parasite, and that the loss to his purse might be the price of his advancement to esteem. The wish is Utopian, of course, and the very hopelessness of realising it will give the advocate for municipal public-houses another argument for his cause.

This theme is hammered home later in a section on the personality and life of the typical Glaswegian working man, who is ‘not plump and genial like the Englishman, but a spare, reserved, sardonic person… [unwilling] to be seen with his wife in public’:

He could not, without offending a convention established among decent folk, take her into a public-house, and if he were to leave her outside he would hardly mend the matter. At a bar he might fall in with men he was ‘weel acquent wi,’ and might share in the round that was going; to withdraw then without returning the favour were the part of a sponge. And to say his wife waited for him on the pavement were worse than no excuse. The finger of scorn would rise and the sardonic chaff, for which he and his kind are famous, would play about him. ‘A merrit man, God help ‘um, a merrit man.’ And so his wife remains at home while he follows his own life. Partly the Magistrates are to blame. Their praiseworthy object has been to prevent the public-house from becoming what it is in England, the family sitting-room. They have made it an unlovely place, where the solitary person is not tempted to stay long after his liquor is over his throat. And women, except the poorest, do not frequent it. But the men by favouring the practice of ‘standing drinks round,’ have made it into their club, and so long as it is thus used, it works, together with overcrowded tenement houses, to make family life rather an impossible thing. 

This little dip into one view on one part of the history of Scotland’s pubs has made us think we need to read more. Anthony Cooke’s A History Of Drinking: The Scottish Pub Since 1700 looks like the obvious place to start.

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