Portraits of pubs, perfect and imperfect

It’s rare to read a memoir, local history or folklore text without finding mention of beer and pubs. Here are some we collected recently.

First, let’s look at The Valley by Elizabeth Clarke, published in 1969. It’s a memoir of life in a Welsh valley between the wars and has a few interesting mentions of pubs and beer.

There’s a story told by Emrys, a shepherd, about poaching salmon:

One night, he told us, in the rough and ready days of his boyhood, when agility and boldness counted above prudence, they went to a pub by the river one night, and talked about what they were going to do to the water bailiffs if they came along.

The landlord was sitting by the fire.

“Tip he in head first, boys,” he said, before they went down to the river.

Emrys had held a stick with a bag wrapped round it, soaked in paraffin, and he sprinkled a few drops more… to make it flare. The rest had rabbit snares to tail the fish.

Soon they had four salmon on the bank. Then Emrys saw a policeman coming along the path.

“Look out, boys!” he shouted, and they grabbed two of the salmon and ran. He dropped his light, and they left two fish on the bank. When they went back those had gone. A day or two later they returned to the pub.

“How many salmons did you get, boys?” the landlord asked.

“Two more than we had, without you,” they said. For one of them had seen the policeman’s coat and helmet hanging in the passage, though the landlord said indeed he kept them there to scare away tramps.

The author also remembers carnival day in the local market town when small boys…

could earn a penny or two running errands such as fetching beer for the blacksmith, who gave them threepence a time and rewarded them further by letting them see him pour it down his throat in one swallow.

And the singing in pubs on funeral days:

While we climbed the hill for home, knots of men were already on their way to compensating for the day’s hardships in making a night of it. As the evening wore on in the pubs in town, one by one they would break into the music, not of massive choral hymns like Cwm Rhondda (for wherever they are, Welshmen sing as though they were in chapel) but the nostalgic tunes learnt at firesides – “Come home. Come home. Calling, Oh sinner! come home.”

We found our 1972 Faber paperback for £2 in a bookshop in Pembrokeshire but there’s also a modern reprint.

A 19th century sketch map of a pub bisected by a parish boundary.
A map used in court in the 19th century reproduced in The Pattern Under the Plough.

The Dolphin in two counties

We’ve mentioned George Ewart Evans here on the blog before in relation to workers migrating from Suffolk to Burton on Trent to work in the brewing industry.

Evans was a collector of folk traditions and oral histories. His 1966 book The Pattern Under the Plough records traditions in rural communities in East Anglia.

He includes the story of a legal dispute over The Burgate Dolphin, a pub in Suffolk which straddled parish boundaries.

As well as a 19th century court case which rested on determining whether a pauper lodging in the pub lived in one parish, or the other, Evans shares this local story:

There is a tradition in the villages of Wortham and Burgate that the ambiguous position of the Dolphin has been brought to notice on another occasion. Some years ago the Wortham constable was about to arrest a man who had gone to earth in the inn after a poaching or similar minor offence. As it happened the wrong-doer was in the Wortham part of the house when the constable approached; but receiving warning he quickly slipped into the bar on the Burgate side, thus putting himself outside the constable’s jurisdiction.

There’s a modern edition of this, too, from Little Toller.

A pen and ink drawing of a half-timbered village pub behind a gnarled old oak tree. Two men are talking, possible conspiratorially, next to the pub.
A detail from one of Joan Hassall’s illustrations for Portrait of a Village, 1937.

A portrait of a village pub

We buy almost any book like Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young, published in 1937, and now have quite a collection.

Portrait of a Village is actually a sort of novel set in Monk’s Norton, Worcestershire – a village the author insists is fictional, and based on no real village.

The fictional pub in the fictional village is The Sheldon Arms, run by three generations of the Perry family, of which the landlord, Fred Perry, is extremely proud:

If he no longer, as did his forbears, buys malt and hops and brews his own beer, the house is still free and no man is his master: when the brewers’ travellers arrive he is able to deal with these tyrants on equal terms and to speak his mind. In the conduct of the house he is no less independent. The door of the public bar opens and closes on time; no customer who has not proved himself able to carry his liquor is served, and none dare dispute the decision.

In other words, he was free to buy guest ales from whichever suppliers he liked – probably uncommon then, and certainly a dream for many publicans today.

As for the Sheldon Arms itself, though the house is old-fashioned-a rambling, low-ceiled building of warm brick and timber, with floors of foot-worn flags and surprising variations of level that trip an unsuspecting tread the interior is a paragon of order and cleanliness, permeated by vague alcoholic odours of beer and spirits and cider which give its air a faint antiseptic tang. The public bar, in which the commonalty sit, is as austere, with its table and benches of scrubbed oak, as a monastic refectory. The bar-parlour, behind whose mahogany counter Mrs. Perry sits sewing or knitting, and which communicates with the other by means of a hatch, is the cosiest room in Monk’s Norton. In Summer its open casements, commanding the ‘cross,’ admit wafts of cool air: in Winter a brisk fire burns perpetually on the hearth, its clear flames reflected in gleaming brass and dull pewter, in the coloured ranks of bottles of spirit and liqueurs that stand on the shelves, in the lustre jugs and in the polished glasses whose crystalline clearness is Mrs. Perry’s particular pride. The small room is panelled and furnished with shining black oak, and the walls are undecorated save by four coloured prints of cock-fighting scenes (“worth a mint of money”), a carbon photographic enlargement of Fred Perry throwing out his chest in his sergeant’s uniform, a chromo-lithographic seedsman’s-almanac portraying a Derby winner, auctioneers’ bills announcing current stock-sales, and a number of cards (which Mrs. Perry’s delicacy regret- fully tolerates) proclaiming the prowess and fees of shire-stallions at stud.

This strikes us a rural rival to Orwell’s The Moon Under Water. A composite, perhaps, of several pubs Brett Young knew, and which were maybe already gone at the time of writing.

There doesn’t seem to be a modern reprint of this one but original 1930s copies are affordable and have (a) lovely heavy pages and (b) beautiful illustrations by Joan Hassall.

3 replies on “Portraits of pubs, perfect and imperfect”

As the evening wore on in the pubs in town, one by one they would break into the music, not of massive choral hymns like Cwm Rhondda (for wherever they are, Welshmen sing as though they were in chapel) but the nostalgic tunes learnt at firesides – “Come home. Come home. Calling, Oh sinner! come home.”

This is an odd one. It turns out to be a hymn rather than a parlour song (the ‘Oh sinner!’ bit was a clue), by the name of “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling”. This page has the words and a MIDI of the tune, which I found surprisingly familiar – I’ve sung it, in fact, in folk clubs. Not with those words, though – I knew it as the tune of Henry Clay Work’s Temperance tearjerker “Come home, Father” (or “Father, dear father, come home”, as I knew it).

The odd part is that Will Lamartine Thompson the author of “Softly and tenderly” was born in 1847, while “Come home, Father” was published in 1864 (and is believed to have been written in 1858). So the tune – and the “come home!” chorus – can’t have migrated by what you might think of as the usual route of transmission, from heavy/serious (hymns and arias) to light/sentimental (show songs and parlour ballads); it must have been the other way round, with Thompson reclaiming a (worthy but) secular song for the Lord.

Was that an usual route of transmission, though? AIUI lots of hymn tunes take folk melodies, and e.g. Bach was happy to pinch popular tunes for his cantatas. (As anyone who’s sung in church choirs knows, it’s easier to bring a congregation along with you when they know the tune well…)

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