20th Century Pub london pubs

V.S. Pritchett on the changing London pub, 1962

The writer and critic V.S. Pritchett was born in 1900 and saw the pub evolve over the course of the 20th century. In 1962, he wrote about it, in his book London Perceived.

“I am old enough to have known three distinctive periods of London life”, he writes. “I have ridden in a horse tram. I have been run over by a hansom cab…”

He gets on to pubs fairly promptly in the first chapter of the book. The  introductory observation in this passage is that…

the influences of mass life are changing us, so that even the London public house is becoming public.

What does he mean by that? It’s a hint, we think, of the beginning of ‘chainification’ – of pubs centrally managed, in line with central policy.

It’s also a literal reference to the more open layout of post-war pubs, as the following paragraph makes clear:

But most pubs are still divided into bars, screened and provided with quiet mahogany corners where the like-minded can protect themselves against those of different mind.

Later on, in the final chapter, he returns to the theme:

Many of the new ‘democratic’ pubs where the separate bars have been abolished are dolled up with arty iron and glass work, coloured glasses, artificial flowers, fake Toby jugs, plushy wall-papers, and chains of coloured lights. Thank heaven there are plenty of simple places, in the old varnish and mahogany, some with the beautifully etched Victorian glass and lettering, where one meets the old mild pomposities, where one can be reassured by an aspidistra and a stout barmaid who calls you “love” or “dear” and overfeeds her dog.

There’s a sense here of a crossing point – of the slow passage from one era into another, but with the old clinging onto existence.

We wonder if the specific pub he had in mind when talking about “dolled up” ironwork might be The Nags Head in Covent Garden, arguably the first theme pub, overhauled by Whitbread in the 1950s. But it could be any number of others.

Pritchett also observed changes in how pubs reflected class hierarchies:

Clearly, between the saloon bar and the public bar there is, or was, a class division; nowadays, the public bar is where men play darts. In the public bar, there being the thirsty tradition of manual work, you drink your beer by the pint; in the saloon, in the private, you drink it in half-pints; occasionally there is a ladies’ bar, and there ladies – always in need of fortifying, for they have been on their “poor feet” – commonly order stout or “take” a little gin in a refined medicinal way.

We’ve never heard the phrase “ladies’ bar” before but guess he’s referring to the pub lounge.

Jumping back to this theme in the final chapter, he notes the then new tendency for well-to-do young people to frequent pubs instead of gentlemen’s clubs, “being careful to put on their pullovers”.

Of the atmosphere of the pub, along with his observation about “mild pomposities”, Pritchett seems to find it pleasingly bleak:

The London publican cultivates a note of moneyed despondency and the art of avoiding “argument” by discussing the weather… There are pubs where the same people always meet, where they tell the same stories, where they glance up at the changing London sky and sink into mournful happiness or fatten and redden with natural bawdy – I do not mean dirty-stories but with licence of their own invention. One is reminded that this is the city of the riper passages of Shakespeare and the sexy London papers… There is a touch of ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’ in all of them…

Where Pritchett sounds most Edwardian is when he talks about Empire and immigration. There are numerous passages that no doubt sounded fairly liberal-minded when published but which, to a modern reader, exhibit a distinct colonialist attitude.

That overlaps with his commentary on pubs when he touches on London’s large and historic Irish community:

The pubs catering for the Irish are rather different; the Irish like to swarm in public melancholy, their ideal being, I suppose, a tiled bar resembling a public lavatory and a mile long, and with barmen who, as they draw your draught stout, keep an eye on you, show their muscles, and tacitly offer to throw you out by collar and coat-tail. This is not the London English fashion, which is livelier, yet more judicious, sentimental, and moralizing.

Rude though those cultural generalisations might be, this remains an evocative description of a particular type of London pub.

We’d recommend reading the snippets above in context, along with many other interesting observations about London. Pritchett’s London Perceived is available as a paperback from Daunt Publishing at £10.99. Our copy was £2.50 from a branch of Oxfam Books.

One reply on “V.S. Pritchett on the changing London pub, 1962”

Ladies’ bars appeared in some London pubs at the end of the 19th century. I suspect it was a result of the influence of the Temperance movement – whilst respectable women were not supposed to drink in pubs, the ‘Coffee Taverns’ which sprang up across the country from the late 1870s onwards were much more inclusive, with all but the smallest containing specific rooms for ladies as well as female toilets (also something of a rarity in pubs until the end of the 19th century).

The Mitre in Bayswater still has ‘Ladies Only’ etched glass in one of its doors. Geoff Brandwood, Mick Slaughter and I included a photograph of it in our book ‘Licensed to Sell’ (English Heritage 2004).

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