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The death of the pub function room

It’s only when you find yourself trying to organise a wake that you realise the extent to which pub function rooms have all but disappeared.

Growing up in Walthamstow, East London, I think pretty much every pub had a function room – and that’s where we ended up after a lot of funerals, weddings, or christenings.

Pubs in Walthamstow tend to be pretty large, as is typical for suburbs, and, until recently, were invariably undersubscribed. You’d rattle about The Bell or The Duke’s Head.

Now, a lot of the pubs I knew as a kid have either disappeared (farewell, The Plough) or ceased trading (The Lord Brooke).

Many of those that remain have changed substantially, catering to the kind of people who can afford to buy houses or flats in the area.

Those big, empty back-rooms have become dining spaces, or permanent, busy extensions to the main bar.

Although the loss of what were effectively community facilities is bad news for people like me, right now, for pubs, I guess it’s good news. It means they’re too busy to justify a blank space.

And I know from a previous job that offering space for wakes is a really tricky business.

You’re dealing with customers who are struggling emotionally and can’t or don’t want to have boring conversations about logistics. Undertakers are trained to deal with this; publicans not so much.

And they can’t be sure about how many people are going to turn up – “No, we’re surprised too, we didn’t think he had any friends!” – and so fixing a price that works for both parties is a challenge.

Because of a general trend towards hosting weddings in posher places (country hotels, stately homes, the Maldives) it’s also harder to justify holding a room that only does any business when someone dies.

And of course this isn’t specific to pubs. Where real estate is at a premium, it’s hardly surprising that fewer and fewer businesses are prepared to maintain, clean and heat a dead space.

In a different context, the West Country council estate where Ray grew up, the function rooms have also gone. That’s because both The Pig & Whistle and The Withycutter have been demolished, leaving the estate publess. There’s a community centre but that’s one degree more utilitarian again.

One final point, though, to undercut the general “Fings ain’t wot they used to be in my old manor” tone: useful as pubs were, my parents and grandparents hardly ever visited them between big family events.

Researching 20th Century Pub, I asked my practically teetotal late grandfather if he remembered anything about The Lord Raglan in its prefab phase after World War II. Despite having lived around the corner for most of his life, he barely knew which pub I was talking about.

Nowadays, though, my family, and families like it, are more more likely to choose a pub as the venue for a casual social get-together. We use them all year round, not just when we need somewhere to set up a trestle table covered in sausage rolls.

Main image: The Chequers in 2016. I think it might be one of the few remaining pubs that does have a function room.

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