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20th Century Pub pubs

What were roadhouses and how were they different to pubs?

Roadhouses emerged in Britain in the 1930s and were large, out-of-town entertainment complexes, sometimes serving drinks – not pubs.

A few years ago Historic England published a report into inter-war pubs which described roadhouses as…

vast buildings… with facilities for dining, swimming, dancing, cabaret, overnight accommodation and often sports… typically situated on the major routes around and out of London.

The problem is, as time passes, the memory of the precise ways in which language is used gets hazy.

When we first came across the phrase ‘roadhouse’ it was being applied very broadly to cover roadside ‘improved pubs’ built in the same period.

Understandable.

The improved pubs of 1920s and 1930s were, like roadhouses, often both big and architecturally striking, like The Comet at Hatfield.

They were often by the side of major roads, too, with lots of “drawing up space” (car parks) and sometimes had facilities such as ballrooms, bowling greens and concert halls.

But as the preeminent academic historian of interwar pubs, David Gutzke, says:

Most interwar Britons, however, at least those who drank alcohol on licensed premises, knew better, and would not have mistaken either of them.

Here’s a helpful contemporary definition of the term ‘roadhouse’ from a report of the Dundee Licensing Court from 1937:

The roadhouse as he understood it was a house which supplied all the services of the hotel without sleeping accommodation… As in a hotel, the supply of drink was merely ancillary.

That Historic England report, though it makes a point of excluding roadhouses from its scope, helpfully lists the most famous examples:

  • The Ace of Spades on the Kingston bypass, Surrey, 1928
  • The Thatched Barn on the Barnet bypass, Hertfordshire, converted into a roadhouse in 1932
  • The Spider’s Web, Watford bypass, Hertfordshire, 1932
  • The Showboat,  Maidenhead, Berkshire, 1933

Although it was designed by E.B. Musman, who also designed pubs, The Ace of Spades was described in a 1933 article in The Architectural Review as a “Cafe Restaurant” and a “private club”.

Strikingly decorated it looked more like a Las Vegas casino than a Home Counties inn.

The entrance to the building with black and white stone, glass, and a design resembling the ace from a pack of cards.
The interior of the Ace of Spades, Architectural Review, May 1933.
A large roadside building with garage, car park, pool and multiple pavilions.
An aerial view of The Ace of Spades, from an advertisement in The Sketch, 31 May 1933. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

Here’s how The Ace of Spades and The Spider’s Web were described in a newspaper article from 1932:

Here there is a swim 100 feet in length with fresh, ever-changing water. From dawn to dusk Londoners swim, sunbathe and play deck tennis, or golf beside the pool. From dusk to midnight the pool becomes a blue lagoon, floodlit from beneath the waters – while fairylights twinkle In the encircling trees. There is a terrace where you may dine. Ace of Spades on the Kingston by-pass and at Beaconsfield are among other modern roadhouses which boast attractive swimming pools with diving boards, medicine balls and strange rubber beasts on which to ride.

It also refers to them as “roadside lidos”, identifying them as part of the increasing popularity of recreational swimming among the British public.

An art deco advertisement
An advertisement for The Ace of Spades from The Bystander, 15 June 1938. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

None of those famous roadhouses listed above were owned by breweries and many roadhouses were never licensed to sell drink. The Ace of Spades was also open 24 hours a day – distinctly un-pub-like.

However, some breweries did open establishments that blurred the line. For example, The Myllet Arms in Perivale, West London, still trading as a Premier Inn. This was commissioned by the brewer Benskins, designed by Musman, and described in 1936 as an “inn-cum-roadhouse”. 

There’s a very detailed piece by West Middlesex CAMRA on The Myllet Arms if you want to know more.

In Inside the Pub, published in 1950, Maurice Gorham recalls that the roadhouse…

owed something to the tradition of the Gin Palace and quite a lot to the transitory spirit of their age. They were often characterised by chromium and plastics, bright colours and display lighting, but missed the decorative possibilities of their own stock-in-trade.

In terms of numbers, David Gutzke reckons there were about 200 genuine roadhouses compared with around 6,000 ‘improved pubs’.

The roadhouse essentially disappeared with World War II, the coming of post-war austerity and the creation of the motorway network.

Writing in The Tatler in 1961 Douglas Sutherland said:

Before the war the roadhouse ranked high with the younger set. The essential equipment was a red M.G., a golfing cap and a pretty girl –and heigh-ho for the open road… Today the roadhouse era seems ended. Surprisingly, this is not because people are no longer willing to tangle with the traffic after a hard day at the office, but because they are tending to go farther and farther afield to get away from it all.

28 June 1961

Surbiton, it seemed, just wouldn’t cut it.

Main image by ‘Mel’ for The Sketch, 31 May 1933, © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library.

Further reading

3 replies on “What were roadhouses and how were they different to pubs?”

it is surprising how many roadhouses endure despite their key functionality losing relevance. Where they have been swallowed by suburbs, the footprint of the site is staggering – when The Stewpony near Stourbridge was developed for housing it was replaced by an extensive housing estate. I often drive past a few roadhouses on the Hagley Road in Birmingham between 10 and 11 at night – they are bereft of customers, maybe because the huge spaces offer none of the community of a “proper” pub

I think you’re exaggerating this distinction. Yes, there was a specific category of non-pub establishments that grew up in the inter-war period but were largely extinguished by the war.

But it was common at the time to refer to large improved pubs built on arterial roads as “roadhouses”. See, for example, John Moore in Portrait of Elmbury, published in 1946: “promising to build a roadhouse, with large commodious bars and every modern amenity”.

And the Stewponey to which the previous commenter refers was certainly a pub.

We’ve set out our case with evidence above and feel pretty confident about it. But, yes, the edges were fuzzy (Myllett Arms) and the term roadhouse was being used a bit more broadly from quite early on. The 1933 Sketch article from which we sourced some of the pics is supposedly about roadhouses… But slightly apologetically also includes some large well-established out-of-town hotels on the list, too.

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