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20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs of England in the winter of 1963

In 1963 writer Nicholas Wollaston toured England, visiting cities and towns such as Blyth and Burnley. He was naturally drawn to pubs.

We acquired our copy of Winter in England, published in 1966, when Ray saw a copy in a charity shop and fell in love with the cover.

It wasn’t until we sat down (in a pub, of course) and really looked at it that we realised why that might have been: it depicts the quayside in his hometown, Bridgwater, in Somerset, including a Starkey, Knight & Ford pub.

Wollaston’s idea was not especially original.

We’ve got quite a collection of similar books in which a university-educated writer, academic or journalist hits the road to take the temperature of the nation.

The spines of various old books about England on a shelf.

There’s sometimes an angle, such as a focus on a particular region, or on small towns, or social problems.

More often than not, though, they feel quite random and organic – the record of a kind of purposeful drifting.

And because they’re supposed to record reality, taking middle and upper class readers to places they perhaps wouldn’t go themselves, pubs feature more frequently than in other types of writing.

When we were writing 20th Century Pub we found ourselves quoting them often.

There’s Orwell on inter-war pubs in The Road to Wigan Pier, for example: “As for the pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor…”

Or J.B. Priestley in Bradford where he finds a pub that has “five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter” and annoying the barmaid. “Nothing wrong with the place”, he writes, “except that it was dull and stupid.”

Winter in England, written 30 years on from Priestley and Orwell, is sharply observed, a little sour (“dyspepsia benumbed my appreciation”), and does not flatter its subjects.

There’s a portrait of a Lowestoft herring boat skipper, for example, that might have got Wollaston duffed up if he dared to go back after the book came out.

The book is worth tracking down if you’re at all interested in how Britain felt at this time (through a privileged lens, at least) and not just in the corridors of power. But let’s look at the notes on pubs and beer in particular, that being our beat.

First, at Ramsgill in “Yorkshire’s Little Switzerland”, Wollaston found that the pubs had “fallen to outsiders” – that is, become gentrified:

The Yorke Arms… is probably less of a pub, more of a hotel, than it used to be, with more copper and brass about the place, and a breathtaking upper-class waitress on holiday from a domestic science college… Though some of the beer is still kept in wooden barrels, most of it comes from steel casks or bottles, and I suppose that the customers are not quite what they used to be, either.

A touch of the SPBW tendency there, perhaps.

At Blyth, in the North East of England, Wollaston found winter in late summer:

Although it was still August coal fires had been lit in the pubs. Men were standing at the bars speaking an unknown language. It might have been better if I could have spoken it too. I asked for a Scotch and the girl gave me an Edinburgh beer… “Oh, you mean a whisky,” she said when I complained. These were foreign parts.

The front of a pub with a brewery sign.
The Fountain, Bridgwater, in 2007.

As hinted at by the cover, there is, in fact, an entire chapter about Bridgwater – a sign that Wollaston was serious in his intent to go to places other writers might have overlooked. Growing up, Ray had the impression that Bridgwater was an unusually well-pubbed and boozy town. Wollaston’s observations support this:

[In one pub] a middle-aged couple was hopping among the tables, while a man punched away at a husky piano. ‘Somebody stole my girl’, they all sang, and the darts were flying wild. When a pint glass crashed to the ground the pianist switched into ‘Marching through Georgia’. A pearly-coloured woman with a bronchial cough, ageless and rather tight, came in; she had been to the pictures, Tom Jones, which was partly filmed in Bridgwater, but nothing had impressed her except the actresses: “They’ve got wonderful bosoms on them, right up here,” and she demonstrated with her own.

His notes on Bridgwater also provide one of those useful reminders that pub culture can be as much about excluding people as making people welcome:

To me the only jarring note in such a genial town was the notice, stuck in the window of almost every pub, “No gipsies served here.” It showed a vehemence quite out of character, and nobody could really explain the reason. “The gipsies, you see,” one man told me cryptically, “come down from the Quantocks,” as though that explained it all; while another man said, “The gipsies, you see, come down from the Mendips.” A third said, “They come for the pea-picking,” and a fourth said, more plausibly, “They get a skinful of cider.”

On cider, he gives an account of a conversation with an old man in the pub next to the town hall (probably The Mansion House) who complains about the decline of cider drinking.

At the age of 14, he says, he was drinking cider with breakfast, throughout the day, and all evening. “One night, for a bet,” Wollaston writes, “he had drunk fourteen pints in an hour and a half, and then bicycled three miles home…”

His own cider was improved by the addition of hunks of raw meat which dissolved off the bone in the vat.

Wollaston seems to have found Liverpool, the only big city on his itinerary, rather depressing, with soot-stained buildings, murky air and everyone exhibiting “the bronchial Liverpool cough”. It’s stuck in the past, he suggests:

This feeling of solid out-of-dateness is reflected in some of the pubs round Dale Street; in the men in bowler hats tucking into shrimps and mussels and plates of red roast beef; in the photos of tall-funnelled steamers on their first voyage through the Panama Canal; in the stout waitress leaning over a balcony and shouting, “Any oysters left, John?”; in the notice, “Gentlemen are re- quested not to smoke before 2.30 pm.”; and in the clusters of plasterwork on the ceilings and marble-topped bars and engraved mirrors, not deliberately preserved as they would be in London, but simply still going strong.

Those with an interest in the history of pop music might also enjoy his account of a city obsessed with The Beatles – and his assumption that they’re a flash in the pan.

Exterior view of a modern pub; interior view of the same.
The exterior of the Kingfisher and a view of its lounge bar.

Arguably the most interesting passage in the whole book (unless you’re from Bridgwater) is a lengthy depiction of a post-war estate pub at the new town in Corby, Northamptonshire. These pubs weren’t often written about because they weren’t regarded as romantic, historic or symptomatic. But Wollaston rightly spotted that they meant something, even though they were “huge and quite un-memorable, like canteens”:

In the bar of the Hazel Tree, a modern pub in a housing estate called Beanfield, I found myself next to an Ulsterman. He had been a policeman in the colonial service and was now a security officer at the Corby steelworks. He was wearing his uniform trousers and heavy black boots, but had slipped on a tweed coat to come out to the pub.

This individual, an open racist, has a particularly strong hatred for a group of migrants that had come to dominate Corby: Scottish people, whom he refers to as “a lot of bloody savages”, who “brought out their bagpipes at any excuse”. He had also observed their drinking habits: “Six or seven pints a night, he said, was almost a rule.”

Despite the blandness of these new pubs, they were busy. Once again, Wollaston’s detailed, pithily expressed observations would have been handy when we were writing our book:

The bar was packed full. There were people playing dominoes and darts, and young Scotch steelworkers smoking cigars with girls drinking Italian apéritifs. The divisions were not by class but by age-groups; one generation of men wore cloth caps and bicycle clips, another wore belted raincoats and trilbies, a third wore Beatle jackets and winkle-pickers. At a table in the middle were two thin boys in skin-tight jeans, with pale hunted faces and long cavalier ringlets, dirty copper-colour… “The C.N.D. brigade,” said the Cockney. “I bet there’s many a girl’d like that hair.”

In Chertsey in the London commuter belt, he finds a pub that sounds much like you might expect to find there today: food led, rather middle class, “teacups and muzak everywhere, and china ducks in flight across the cream embossed wallpaper”.

Beyond pubs, there are also glimpses of other drinking places and cultures, such as the Viennese Beer Garden at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness, and its twin, Ye Olde Pig and Whistle. We might have found space for this quote in the chapter on theme pubs in our book:

In the Tudor Bar elderly campers yawned under a gigantic plaster tree, or giggled at the plight of a real pigeon that had flown in and was battering itself among the saucy little lattice windows above them. Even the indoor swimming-pool lay under a jungle of synthetic greenery. This obsession with the bogus and the dangling may have served to disguise the architecture of the buildings, and certainly the rain that in places dripped through the roof added authenticity to the picturesque settings, but it was disappointing to find that so few modern ideas of design had been adopted.

There are portraits of working men’s clubs, too. In Blyth it was The Coronation Club:

Clubs, with their bingo evenings and old-time dancing, are more important than pubs in Blyth, and one of the reasons may be that beer costs a shilling and a penny a pint; even ‘cellar’, a stronger brew, is only one-and-fivepence. At Ashington, a mining town a few miles inland with a population of thirty thousand, there are only three pubs, but more than twenty clubs… Each club still had its leek show, and many of the pubs. There were to be prizes of six hundred pounds in one of them.

It’s interesting to read these notes on drinking culture with contemporary novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in mind:

Booze, at any rate round the tables in the Coronation Club lounge where women were allowed, was the main topic, as it was also the main preoccupation. The universal aim of the club’s members… was more drink at less cost. The men drank pints of ‘cellar’ – pints and pints of – and the women drank Advokaat, or alternate cherry brandies and tomato juice. When the men had to go to the lavatory they stopped at the bar, where the women were not allowed, for a large whisky or a liqueur before going back to join the women at the tables…

Our overall impression is that what’s changed most is the density of pub life. They were everywhere, and everyone went to them, when they weren’t drinking somewhere else.

What do you think? Would it be fun to go for a night out in the winter of 1963 – or would it be an ordeal?

Your answer might well depend on whether you’re a man or woman, and which box you ticked under ethnicity on the 2021 Census.

3 replies on “Pubs of England in the winter of 1963”

That cover is great. 1963 was the ‘big freeze’ wasn’t it? So he did well to travel so extensively.
Coincidentally I walked past the Yorke Arms yesterday, and it’s gone even more upmarket, as a ‘private event venue’.

That was the winter of 1962-63. He makes a point if saying that, actually, he chose quite a boring winter to explore! Kennedy’s assassination does get a mention, though.

Well I was just a year too young, but remember the roadsides piled high with frozen grimy snow fron christmas to mid March.
By ’65 I can remember ordering a pint of best for one and ten, I think. The pub closed years ago and is now my old school health centre.

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