Beer history bristol pubs

Pubs and breweries in Bristol Archives

After almost seven years in this city, we finally made it to the Bristol Archives in January 2024, to see what they had on pubs and beer.

When we were researching 20th Century Pub in particular we visited archives in a number of cities, looking in particular for information about the construction of pubs and social housing in the interwar and post war periods. 

Sometimes, we’d also stumble across other interesting titbits, particularly in brewery minutes.

Once, Jess even found an ancestor of hers mentioned in the board minutes of Barclay Perkins, although the story wasn’t particularly relevant to the book.

We knew from some pre-visit enquiries that the Bristol Archives does not hold brewery records for Georges (Courage) or any of its predecessor breweries.

There were some bits and pieces relating to Smiles brewery, which will add to our incomplete but growing history.

We also enjoyed looking at huge rolled-up plans for post-war council estates indicating the locations of pubs, and there’s perhaps a story to be told sometime about the pubs that were planned but didn’t get built.

It looks as if there was a fourth pub planned for Southmead, for example, but we don’t know anything more about it at this stage.

Possibly the most colourful material we found were various police and licensing records.

There’s a lot there and the organisation of the material is a little confusing. This is not the Archive’s fault but a result of the police divisions in Bristol seeming to switch about and alter their systems of recordkeeping every five minutes.

Even so, we found lots of interesting nuggets around investigating licence complaints, including quite a few records of the police dropping in, just in case.

When were you last in a pub when a constable turned up on his rounds?

We were also reminded that the police also took notice if you were not open during your licensed hours, recording instances of pubs being slow to open in the morning:

“Sergeant Edward Midwinter… reports that at 11:10 am 22nd December 1913, he observed that the Pilgrim [public house] New Thomas Street, Saint Philips, was closed for the sale of intoxicating liquor.”

What we’re not clear on is why.

Nothing we’ve read so far suggests that pubs could get in trouble for being late to open. Generally, the emphasis is on them staying open after they’re meant to be shut, or opening earlier than their permitted hours.

Paul Jennings’s article ‘Policing Public Houses in Victorian England’ from 2013 is a good piece on this.

From our brief glance over the Bristol records, though, we got a faint impression that being late to open was perhaps an indicator of a generally unruly house.

Why might they be late to open? Perhaps because they’d been late to close the night before.

Anyway, we’d be all for the police keeping notes on pubs that fail to open when their Google profile says they will. Throw the book at ‘em! (Because this is the internet: we are obviously joking.)

Most frustrating was confirmation that the Courage records do exist but were withdrawn from the Archive in the 1990s. We contacted the person who withdrew them (their contact details are in the catalogue) and they confirmed that these papers are in “deep storage” and inaccessible to researchers.

We feel pleased that we finally made it to the archive and found it very friendly and helpful, and might make a return visit sometime with more focus.

We’ve got copies of 20th Century Pub for sale at £12 including UK postage and packing. And you get a free Pierre van Klomp zine with each one, too. Email us to sort out payment, inscriptions, and so on.

5 replies on “Pubs and breweries in Bristol Archives”

I wonder when the police stopped checking up on pubs that didn’t open on time. (1913 is a long time ago!)

As to why they did it, I think there are two answers, one short and one long. The short answer is that, then as now (or even more than now), PCs weren’t paid to think – the job of beat bobbies in particular was to do the rounds, see that everything was in order and move on. A pub that was regularly opening late might just have a lazy landlord and tolerant regulars, or it might signal trouble in a number of ways – apart from anything else, it might suggest that the landlord was starting to get lazier (or drunker), and that their licence shouldn’t be renewed. And the only way to establish that a pub was regularly opening late was to note down every time that it opened late, along with every other little thing that got noted down.

The long answer (yikes) is that we had very different ideas about what we owe one another back then (which is why I’m interested in how long ago ‘back then’ was!). These days businesses are seen as putting out their ‘offerings’ on the market for consumers to take or reject as they want, and succeeding or failing accordingly. That core relationship between business and consumer is sacrosanct – we all believe in consumers’ freedom of choice and businesses’ right to serve it in whatever way makes them money (and the police are no different). Back then – certainly in 1913, and I think for another 50 years after that – the public sphere was much more actively policed; what was sacrosanct was private life, which begins at your front gate. People expected that to be honoured horizontally (among themselves) as well as vertically (by the authorities): the idea of calling the police because you’ve seen “something suspicious”, for example, was seen as alien to the British way of life (see the 1957 film Town on Trial, in which a rural murder investigation is shaken up by the arrival of big city detective Simon P- ahem- John Mills). Businesses, on the other hand, were providing a service to the public, under licenses granted by the public (through their representatives), and if they weren’t going to perform that service properly and to the terms of those licenses, well (takes out notebook, licks pencil) we shall just have to see about that, shan’t we?

According to the National Archives’ ‘Discovery’ website ( the Bristol Brewery George’s archives are still held by Courage Ltd. Discovery gives an address and contact details which suggest they are held on an industrial estate on the SW side of Bristol, with a phone number and email address for enquiries which looks a little unlikely, to be honest.

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