Publicans often find themselves at the mercy of the aggressive business practices of breweries, pubcos and landlords – and that’s apparently been the case more-or-less since the modern pub came into being.
Continuing to dig around in the archives for information on 19th century gin palaces we came across a wonderful letter to the editor of the London Weekly Dispatch from 6 May 1838. It is entitled ‘On Buying A Gin Palace’ and opens like this:
An advertisement appeared in a Morning Journal a few days since, and if you will permit me to make a few observations upon it, you may perhaps save many inexperienced persons from being victimised.
The author, ‘S.J.M., late Mincing Lane’, goes on to quote the advertisement in full:
A first-rate gin-shop to be sold for £3,500, situated in a leading thoroughfare. It was fitted up regardless of expense, three years ago, and is held on lease for an unexpired term of 25 years. Trade, wholesale and retail, £4,500 per annum at a profit of 23 per cent. Any person unacquainted with the trade may be initiated by the party quitting. A person with £1,300, his own money, may be accommodated with the rest. Apply by letter, to A. B.
We tried to find the original of this advertisement but it doesn’t seem to be available online. We did, however, find quite a few from the same period using very similar language. Here are a couple:
S.J.M. wanted to blow the lid on some of the tricks and tactics behind these ads which they called a “barefaced attempt at swindling”:
I do say, and with the experience of more than a quarter of a century, that a more shameful robbery could not be planned than is meditated by the unknown authors of this advertisement. The highwayman that robs at noon-day, or the burglar at night, is less culpable than these swindling rascals, who plunder the unwary by wholesale with impunity, under the mask of being principal houses in the trade. A robber risks his life or liberty, and if even he escapes detection, the parties robbed have still other resources left them wherewith to replenish; but this motorious tribe of plunderers commonly effect the total destruction of their victim.
Their analysis of the advertisement breaks it down in detail; we’ve added a few line breaks to make it easier to digest:
“A first-rate gin-shop situated in a leading thoroughfare.” Now if all that is meant were honest, as the house is not described, why not name the street? I will give the true reason: because if the street were named, the house most probably would be known, and some of its former victims would soon spread the fame of its swindling owners and occupiers…
“Fitted up regardless of expense,” as if all the outlay were not included in the amount demanded for the lease. Fudge! But the reader will see through this as he proceeds. Next, “trade wholesale and retail, £4,500 per annum.” Note the words “wholesale and retail,” as if gin shops generally had a shadow of what is in reality a wholesale trade, particularly when considered with the next allegation, “at a profit of 23 per cent.”
Now, to all that have more money than understanding (for it is to such alone this advertisement is addressed, and all others must see through the villainy at the first glance), the reason the wholesale department is coupled with the retail, is to prevent the fresh-caught victim from complaining; for if he should not in the first ten months realize over the counter £500, instead of £4,500, he could not proceed by action to recover his outlay for the false representation by which he has been deluded, as the rogue could say, he had not remained a year in the house, and perhaps the last month or two would have brought the wholesale connexion to town.
The really juicy stuff is around the buying price, however, where S.J.M argues a particularly nasty trick is being played.
First, that value of £3,500 is established – out of the reach of most people. And, S.J.M. suggests, basically a fiction.
But then, when the seller suggests that, actually, you only need £1,300 to buy your way in, it sounds like a bargain. They, or someone, will then cover the rest of the purchase price. “So then”, S.J.M. says, “the novice, male or female, widow or orphan, is invited by these heartless villains, if they have but £1,300 in the world…”
This suddenly sounds a lot like Charles Dickens explaining the London waste trade in Our Mutual Friend, or the operation of the legal system in Bleak House, and makes us wish he’d tackled brewing, breweries and pubs in the same depth.
It also echoes the conversation around pubs in the 21st century – that rents are kept enticingly low to lure people who can then be exploited in other ways.
From the 1830s, to the 1980s, to today, does anything ever change?
Main image: illustration by George Cruikshank from 1833 via the British Museum.