20th Century Pub pubs

The weekend barman con, 1949

The Weekend Barmen was apparently a classic scam designed to target pubs. We wonder if it still goes on?

We’ve been collecting notes on cons and fraud in pubs for a while now.

Stories tend to crop up in how-to manuals for publicans and in newspaper reports.

We found this particular story in a 1949 edition of the gentleman’s periodical Lilliput.

A curious small-format magazine bordering on pornographic – each issue has one or two oblique nude portraits – Lilliput is easy to find in secondhand bookshops for a couple of quid a copy.

We always flick through having found gold in the past.

Pubs and beer weren’t much written about at this time, being regarded as about on a par with toilet business as suitable subjects for polite conversation.

But Lilliput, being somewhat earthy and irreverent, often had a piece touching on this subject so close to many gentlemen’s hearts.

In this case, our attention was grabbed by a story entitled ‘Gulliver and the Week-end Barmen’, credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ (Macdonald Hastings). It opens like this:

“All right, Joe,” said the over-dressed young man, reaching for the telephone in the corner of the shoddy little café where we were having a coffee with one of our less reputable friends, “that’ll be for me.” And picking up the receiver, he said:

“Cock and Magpie, Soho. Speaking. Bert Copley? That’s right. He’s worked for me nearly two years. Yes; he’s a very good lad. I was sorry to lose him, but he said he wanted to be nearer his mother that’s been took ill. Walworth, I think he said. Oh, you’re speaking from Walworth? Well, he’s a good lad. Glad to be of service. I suppose he’ll be along for his kit sometime. Good morning. Don’t mention it.”

This fraudulent reference is just one small con trick played on publicans, as ‘Gulliver’ finds out when he invites the young man, Corkey, to join him. Corkey explains that this is a standard wheeze:

“You see, mister, this pal of mine, Copley, is working the pubs… just talking his way into a job, making what he can from the till, and that, and moving on somewhere else in a few days. It’s not a bad racket – you can make ten or twenty quid easy…”

What if they don’t accept phone references? Corkey has headed notepaper from the Cock and Magpie he can use in an emergency. What if they want to see a stamped National Insurance card? You just say “It’s on its way” for long enough to finish the job.

Corkey then outlines a few other angles that can be worked:

  • A babyfaced con man can pretend he’s never worked in a pub before and pass as “nice innocent young man”. He just has to remember to be bad at pulling pints, even though he’s actually very experienced. Then, of course, skim from the till.
  • End-of-shift wallet inspections can be dodged by passing stolen money to a pal in the gents toilet, or leaving it stuffed behind a pipe to be picked up.
  • You can use the classic ‘convincer’ – be overly honest for the first day or two, insisting on handing “the boss half a quid” insisting you must have put it in your pocket by mistake.
A cartoon showing dodgy barmen at work.
One of the cartoons illustrating the article. Note the ‘Beer is Best’ sign in the background.

The con we found most interesting, because it is most elaborate, involves two men working together:

“Why, I knew two blokes who used to keep themselves at the seaside all summer by doing good turns to pub managers… Well, let’s call them Jim and Joe… Jim goes to Margate and gets himself a job and, for a few days, he does very nicely, handing out the stuff to Joe, like I said. Come Friday, when the week-end rush is just blowing up, Joe, who is now rated a good customer, hauls the boss aside and says he’s been watching Jim short-changing customers all week.”

What next? Joe, casually mentioning that he’s an experienced barman himself, steps into help out when Jim is fired:

“He steps out next Monday with three quid special wages and twenty more that he’s fiddled, and moves along the coast to get Jim the sack from the new job he’s just got at Southend.”

Gulliver gives some final notes on a con that actually involves beer. A temporary barman in a large busy pub, Corkey says, is perfectly placed to dilute the beer with water: “So if you water five or six barrels out of the 12 that a big pub’ll sell in a day you can make quite a bit by deducting the difference out of the till.”

If the manager notices, he says, the chances are he won’t do anything about it, as long as the stock-take adds up. “And, besides,” says Corkey, “he does not want the talk to go round that his beer’s been watered.”

It’s possible, of course, that ‘Gulliver’ made all this up. He’s certainly not presenting it as journalism. But the essence of it rings true to us.

2 replies on “The weekend barman con, 1949”

I’m not sure what the tipping situation is in Britain, but in the States it’s as simple as tipping the bartender generously in cash and getting free rounds. It amounts to the same thing but it has better deniability as it is the kind of thing that can happen innocently in smaller quantities. The dose makes the poison. Unfortunately this makes me uncomfortable every time the bartender gives me a free round even though I’m a good enough customer that the owner would surely approve.

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