We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.
We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.
Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.
The excellent Historic England publication The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Public House in Bristol by Rebecca Preston and Fiona Fisher, from 2015, provides a helpful summary of how things played out here:
Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.
However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. The Cambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.
The First World War brought significant disruption to the industry with restrictions on trading hours and shortages of beer, which became irrevocably weaker as a result. Immediately post war, it looked as if pubs might be given the cold shoulder altogether. New “homes fit for heroes” were built in new developments on the outskirts of most major cities, but initially they did not include any provision of licenced premises. The first four housing estates in Bristol were pointedly publess. Sea Mills, built in 1919, only got a pub in 1936, as the temperance instinct began to wane. Until then, as we’ve mentioned before, vans used to deliver beer to drink at home.
Brewers responded by leaning into the idea of the ‘improved public house’ – essentially embracing a lot of temperance ideas, hoping to head off prohibition. So, for example, you’d get tearooms and dining rooms in pubs; and waiter service; and shocking innovations such as ladies’ toilets.
George’s, Bristol’s biggest brewery, built a slew of new pubs in the early 20th century in the improved sschool – plain, neo-Georgian or mock Tudor. Many have unfortunately been demolished or turned into flats or supermarkets. Walk the length of Filton Avenue, for example, and you’ll find The Fellowship at one end, now a Tesco; and the King George VI, now a paint shop ironically called Brewers. Only The Bulldog, halfway between the two, is still trading.
Elsewhere in Bristol, other interwar George’s pubs are still in business but have been fatally refurbished, losing their original multi-room layouts and features. In our opinion, or experience, at least, the best-preserved interwar pub is probably The Eastfield in Henleaze. It has original windows, retains some of the original internal layout and has intact (but non-functioning) bell-pushes in the lounge – a classic feature of interwar improved pubs with waiter service. It’s even avoided the fate of most surviving interwar pubs which is to have shops and housing encroach into its space which means, if you look at it from the right angle, you can still recreate the picture from the Georges’ book. Look at all that lovely ‘drawing up’ space.
Bristol’s one example of streamline moderne in pubs can, for now, still be seen at the The Merchants Arms in Stapleton. It’s been closed since we moved to Bristol but plans to turn it into flats keep being refused. It’s probably a bit too big for anyone other than a large pub company to take on and the M32 blasting past and over it detracts significantly from the kerb appeal. We hope there’s some way this can be brought back to life as a pub.
After World War II, those huge interwar pubs went out of fashion. They were expensive to staff and maintain, for one thing; and could easily feel soulless and cold. George Orwell said it, as did Basil Oliver. Even improved pub pioneer Sir Sidney Neville reluctantly came to agree.
At the same time, many older pubs, inns and beerhouses were either destroyed in the Blitz or demolished as part of city-centre development schemes.
So, in Bristol as in other cities, new pubs had to be built. With a shortage of building materials and austerity still in the air, they tended to be smaller, plainer and look more like houses. They often seemed flimsy and certainly lacked the warmth and solidity of the Victorian ideal, or the high ideals and arts-and-crafts aspirations of the interwar improved pub. They are sometimes referred to as ‘estate pubs’ or ‘flat roof pubs’ for understandable reasons.
In Bristol, new estates such as Lockleaze were given pubs – but neither The Golden Bottle nor The Gainsborough survives. The former was suddenly demolished last year and the latter mostly burned down a couple of years before.
There is currently a battle to save the The Giant Goram in Lawrence Weston, the only survivor of (we believe) the six pubs that once served that estate.
However, a very accessible estate pub which is still trading is The Colosseum, about ten minutes walk from Temple Meads, on the edge of the large, complete post-war modernist development at Redcliffe.
We’ve got a few copies of 20th Century Pub for sale at £10 including postage and packing. We can sign them, too, if you want. And check out our Bristol pub guide for up-to-date advice on where to drink.