J.B. Priestley on Improved Pubs in the Midlands, 1934

The passage below appears in English Journey by J.B. Priestley, published in 1934, and just reprinted in hardback by Great Northern Books, though we found our copy for £4 in the local Amnesty bookshop.

A hundred pages in, it’s a fascinating, rather sour view of a land of cheap raincoats and glum hotel bars, but it’s impossible to write about England without at least acknowledging pubs, and the 1930s were an especially interesting time.

We’ve taken the liberty of inserting some extra paragraph breaks for reading on a screen:

Half-shaved, disillusioned once more, I caught the bus that runs between Coventry and Birmingham… We trundled along at no great pace down pleasant roads, decorated here and there by the presence of new gaudy pubs. These pubs are a marked feature of this Midlands landscape.

Some of them are admirably designed and built; others have been inspired by the idea of Merrie England, popular in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But whether comely or hideous, they must all have cost a pot of money, proving that the brewers… still have great confidence in their products.

At every place, however, I noticed that some attempt had been made to enlarge the usual attractions of the beer-house; some had bowling greens, some advertised their food, others their music. No doubt even more ambitious plans for amusement would have been put into force  if there had been no opposition from the teetotallers, those people who say they object to public-houses because you can do nothing in them but drink, but at the same time strenuously oppose the publicans who offer to give their customers anything but drink.

The trick is – and long has been – to make or keep the beer-house dull or disreputable, and then to point out how dull or disreputable it is. Is is rather as if the rest of us should compel teetotallers to wear their hair long and unwashed, and then should write pamphlets complaining of their dirty habits: “Look at their hair,” we should cry.

For more on inter-war improved pubs, with their bowling greens and tearooms, see chapter 2 of our 20th Century Pub.

Hilltop, “a new venture in public houses”, 1959

All pictures and text from Guinness Time, Autumn 1959.

“Guinness have, in the past four years, been privileged to take part in a project which has now resulted in the opening of a new public house which, both in its physical layout and in the method of its planning, exhibits several new features.”

Modern pub windows.
The exterior of Hilltop.

“The new pub is called Hilltop , and is in the South End neighbourhood of Hatfield New Town. It is owned and operated by Messrs. McMullens of Hertford, and it came into being after a most unusual piece of co-operation.”

A crowd around the ale garland.
“Once the ale was pronounced good the Ale Garland was hoisted.”

“It began when we found that the Hatfield Development Corporation had no public funds available to provide the meeting place it had planned for the new population of this rapidly growing neighbourhood. The central site which had been reserved for this community centre would remain empty and the only social building would be a small public house which could not be expected to meet all the needs of the locality. We thought this situation offered a wonderful opportunity for an experiment.”

1950s pubgoers.
“The busy scene in the Saloon Bar after the official opening.”

“We approached the Corporation and asked them if they would consider permitting a brewer to provide the amenities they had planned to include in their community centre. They agreed. We asked Messrs. McMullens if they would consider expanding the plans of the public house they were to build in the neighbourhood to provide these amenities, and they readily agreed.”

A bland looking modern cafe.
The cafe.
A group of families and children.
“The children, too, had free drinks (and buns) on opening night.”

Hilltop offers the usual facilities of a pub, three bars and an off-licence where alcoholic refreshment is available during licensing hours. It also has an unlicensed cafe where soft drinks and light meals are served. Then there is a large hall for use as a theatre or for dancing or dinners, and three committee rooms. All these rooms may be attached either to the licensed or unlicensed part of the building… by locking the necessary doors. In additional the Hertfordshire Health Authorities have two rooms allotted to them in which they run a local Health Clinic.”

Cool looking young men with guitars and cowboy hats.
“A local skiffle group entertains customers on opening night.”

Notes: Hilltop was designed by Lionel Brett, opened on 11 August 1959, and is still trading as a pub under McMullen’s, albeit renamed The Harrier. Here’s how it looks today:

A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968

“The typical English pub, sought after by the foreign tourist, is an established part of the British way of life. But like everything else it is changing. What was it, what is it and what will it be?”

That’s the question John Merilion asks at the opening of a substantial article published in the arts supplement of the Birmingham Post for Saturday 30 November 1968.

Merilion was a design consultant working in the Midlands and a lecturer at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, and was apparently still around as recently as 2014. He was professionally involved in pub design as in the case of the Red Admiral on the Sutton Hill estate at the new town of Madeley in Shropshire.

The Red Admiral, Madeley.
John Merilion’s butterfly for The Red Admiral, Madeley. SOURCE: Madeley Matters.

His article for the Post offers a summary of the development of the design of the English pub with a strong line of argument: Victorian town pubs were beautiful, offering a bold, glittering contrast to the slum houses around them; but when breweries began to own large estates of their own pubs and then, after World War I, to set up their own architects’ departments, it all went wrong. They became too clean, lacking atmosphere and distinction, as homes came up in quality to meet them.

What’s really interesting to us about this piece, though, is that Merilion offers a considered, balanced, occasionally surprising view of where pubs were at in 1968, at the height of the theme pub craze:

Ask most people and they seem to want atmosphere – the only universal plea – with comfort running a close second. There are of course a few chaps who say that all they want is well-kept beer!

(Note there more evidence of the CAMRA tendency well before CAMRA.)

Nobody actually says they desperately want to drink in a hunting lodge in Harborne, or beer cellar in Bearwood, or a galleon on the Ringway. However, most people do not actively dislike these surroundings, and no doubt a strong case can be made out for their existence. They are surely preferable to the pseudo-traditional Georgian or Tudor chintz tea-room versions.

Despite seeming to stick up for theme pubs to a degree, Merilion goes on to stick the knife in:

This extension of the name of the pub setting the theme for the entire interior decor is a comparatively recent innovation and is being employed extensively where new urban pubs are concerned. Any why should the brewers neglect such a sure-fire idea which is obviously popular with the customers? After all, the opportunities are fantastic – why not a Dr Who space-fiction set, or the labyrinth from Barbarella… Only that all these things are sheer gimmickry, equally suitable for coffee bars, restaurants, night clubs and boutiques. They represent lost opportunities for the daring and exciting use of contemporary methods and materials to maintain the specifically public house atmosphere.

Too many theme pubs were excessively literal, working the theme throughout the whole pub, literally “turning the building into a fake castle, paddock or barn”. This pressure, according to architects and designers he spoke to, came from the breweries, and the over-the-top, over-literal theme elements were sometimes applied to the pub after the fact, rather against the designer’s intent.

None of the new pubs in Birmingham were any good, in his opinion,  failing to achieve a state of “friendly but not freaky”, though he does have a couple of kind words to say about The Outrigger in the city centre where “a good atmosphere exists in the pseudo-galleon (complete with sea-sounds)”.

The Outrigger.
The Outrigger, Birmingham, posted online by ‘Zak’. SOURCE: Birmingham Forum.

Merilion’s argument hereafter is a smart one: putting aside specific Victorian style and method, why shouldn’t a modern pub designer seek to achieve the same essential effects of light, reflection and “glitter” using up-to-date materials? Suburban pubs in the 1960s, he says, have bad lighting — “an all-embracing orange gloom” which fails to provide highs and lows — why not take advantage of modern technology to vary the colour and intensity throughout a pub?

It’s at this point that he comes out with something we could have used a couple of years ago when we were writing 20th Century Pub: a defence of the Chelsea Drugstore.

The Drugstore, as you might know, was Bass Charrington’s trendiest, most self-consciously modern pub, which opened in West London in 1968, and famously appears in A Clockwork Orange as the futuristic hall-of-mirrors shopping boutique where Alex the Droog hangs out.

The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968
The Chelsea Drugstore. SOURCE: RIBA.

Merilion says:

One could dismiss its decor as trendy and fashionable… but nevertheless is has much of the traditional atmosphere, with its glittering air of excitement, vibrant clientele and robust self-expression.

Returning to Birmingham, then under heavy redevelopment, he makes a final plea:

Let us hope that the breweries give the right architects and designers a freer hand to produce exciting and appropriate solutions. Please, not Ye Olde Meate Shoppe, The Town Gaol, and The Sinking Barge.

If you wan to read the entire article it’s available via the British Newspaper Archive here.

In general, the BNA is a service we highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history, nostalgia or British culture; it’s about £80 a year, or alternatively, you can probably access it at your local library or archive.

Bits We Underlined In… A Year at the Peacock, 1964

BOOK COVER: A Year at the Peacock

There was a rash of memoirs by publicans in the mid-20th century and Tommy Layton’s A Year at the Peacock is a classic example, full of detail, riven with snobbery, and ending in unhappiness.

Paul Bailey (no relation) tipped us off to this one a few years ago but we only recently acquired a copy and set about it with the highlighter pen.

Layton (born in 1910) was a restaurateur, wine merchant and drinks writer generally described using words such as “irascible”, “eccentric” or “quirky”. His self-portrayal in this book conveys that bad-tempered eccentricity, exhibiting a remarkably objective view of his own rather sour personality.

The book tells the story of how he came to take on a pub in Kent, having first noticed its potential while passing through on the way to France on a wine-related mission. In his first conversation with the incumbent publican Layton gleans some interesting nuggets of information about beer,  a subject about which he is initially quite ignorant:

“Whose beer do you take?” I continued.

“Fremlins. The hop-pickers like it far the best,” he said.

“Hop-pickers?” I replied. “I thought they were all in Kent.”

“You are in Kent here,” he said. “The boundary is a bit funny round here.”

Then he loosened up a bit and gave me a fat, pleasant smile. “Cor! You should have seen the crowds here on the lawns before they started installing the hop-picking machinery. Hundred upon hundreds of them, all drinking pints as fast as you could pour it out. Why, we had to take over a huge shed which has been specially licensed as an overflow service.”

Layton eventually bought the pub, despite grim warnings from Mr Christopher, the outgoing publican (“You take practically nothing here in the winter, and precious little more in the summer.”) and set about rejuvenating the old inn.

Tommy Layton
Tommy Layton

A string of odd discoveries follow: the pub sold foul-smelling vinegar and paraffin by the jug from casks stored in the cellar next to the beer; there was no bar, only  a hatch, so the person serving had to stand for their entire shift; and the cellar froze in winter, but became a furnace in summer.

As in the fictionalised memoir We Keep a Pub a large part of Layton’s book is taken up with portraits of publicans — in this case, the temporary managers he hires to do the actual day-to-day work of running the pub, via an agency. Shepherd is his clear favourite:

[He was] a thin middle-aged man who to the inn at once, and the inn seemed to fit him to perfection. Beer was to him what wine is to me; a hobby, a livelihood, and a darned good drink. Before inquiring about his accommodation, or food arrangements, and quite unaffectedly and in such a way one could not take offence, he went straight to the beer casks, pulled out the spigots, pulled himself a glass of beer, held it up to the light and savoured it. An extraordinarily pleasant smile lit up his face as the bitter got his approval. He then did the same with the mild , and again he was happy.

Shepherd patiently corrects all of Layton’s mistakes, such as using optics designed for dispensing fruit cordials to hop-pickers’ children for spirits so that every measure was by default a double. He also educates Layton on the benefits of different methods of dispense, starting with a dissection of “Beer from the Wood” served direct from casks on the bar:

“It tastes much flatter, and the beer doesn’t retain its head,” said Shepherd.

Actually, the nauseating white froth which appears on the top of a glass of ale is supposed to appeal to the beer-drinking populace and professional brewers talk about ‘collar retention’.

By and large Shepherd was right; the advantages of below-ground cellars for beer in wooden casks, in contradistinction to the trouble-free beer dispensers in metal drums under pressure, are irrefutable…

Among the advantages Layton mentions is that “There is no contamination due to pipe smoke” — not something we’d ever considered given the smoke-free days we live in.

If further confirmation was required that cask ale could sometimes be a grotty product, Layton provides it in his account of the overspill bowl which catches drippings from reused glasses that customers insist must be filled right to the brim ever time:

[Overspilled] beer from fifty different mouths… is more often than note left in the bar all night and goes back into the casks for consumption the next day. I do not exaggerate: this is what is happening all over Britain, and is a practice that the Ministry of Health… is trying to stop by forcing publicans to adopt a lined measure so that the beer does not come up to the rim of the glass.

When he later has a falling out with Shepherd it is over his mishandling of a recently treated cask: “I’d just topped that cask up with yesterday’s spillings… and they would have settled down nicely. Now they are all churned up.”

Layton, hygienically minded and no lover of cask ale, is fairly warm towards convenient, clean keg bitters:

The beer in these containers is brewed to appeal to the younger generation; it is crisper and less oily than the cask stuff, and there are some who disapprove of it strongly. My friend Brian Fox, of the Victory Inn, Arundel, fumes with indignation at the thought of any free Mine Host stocking such swipes. But he is wrong; tastes change.

Elsewhere in the book you can enjoy Layton expressing his disdain for northerners and their disgusting cooking — “It may be all right up north… but down here we wouldn’t throw it to the pigs” — and revolutionising the pancake; if we’d read it sooner we might have cited it in the section of 20th Century Pub on the development of the gastropub.

After snottily ordering around a succession of managers, treating them more like his personal servants than skilled agency staff, and ending up with worse and weirder characters each time.

Eventually, he has something of a breakdown:

The truth was that the Peacock Inn, Iden Green was wearing my nerves raw. I became aware of this when I drove up to the inn and realized that I had been sitting in the driving-seat for some minutes summoning up the willpower to get out and enter the house.

Seemingly out of nowhere, but perhaps an oblique reflection of his mental state, one of the final chapters is an account of a tour of the sites of Nazi concentration camps on the Continent.

It isn’t a great book. Layton isn’t a great writer. The structure is episodic, digressive, and repetitive. But, still, if you want a snapshot of life in a country pub in the early 1960s, here it is, from bottles of brown ale to “segments of gherkin” on the bar on Sunday afternoon.

Our copy cost a fiver and will no doubt prove a useful addition to the Arthur Millard Memorial Library.

Ted Ray on Pubs: Wet Bars, Sodden Jackets, Dry Throats

My Turn Next, published in 1963, is an unreliable memoir of the life of a variety comedian viewed through the bottom of a beer glass.

Ted Ray was born as Charles Olden in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1905, but was brought up in Liverpool. His father was a comedian, also called Charles Olden, and Ray entered the family business in 1927. He was performing in London by 1930 and by 1949 was a big enough name to have his own radio show, Ray’s a Laugh, which ran until 1961.

Like many comedians of this era, Ray has all but disappeared from the public consciousness, though the BBC run occasional repeats of the radio shows on 4 Extra. Here’s a snippet of him in performance, giving what we gather was his trademark violin schtick:

The book conveys a sense of whimsy, the gift of the gab, drifting here and there into Wodehousian wit. We think it’s supposed to be obvious that the biographical information is false or exaggerated, and there’s certainly no mention of Aunt Lucy in any of the other sources we’ve seen:

I lived with Aunt Lucy because my father and mother couldn’t stand children. I nearly said mother couldn’t bear children, but that wouldn’t be true because she had six before she realised she didn’t like them. Some of the others lived in other parts of the country, and I didn’t see them again. They were constantly in my mind, however, and I wondered if their pub doorways were as draughty as mine.

And with that bit of dark humour (ha ha, child neglect!) we get to what drew us to this book: its focus on beer and pubs. Ray’s Wikipedia entry refers to “golfing and alcohol, two of his passions” and My Turn Next certainly conveys his interest in the latter.

For a throwaway book, perhaps designed to give Dad for Christmas, the writing about booze is startlingly evocative, almost intoxicating in its own right. He has a particular talent for conveying the physical aspect of beer — it spills, it gets you wet, it stains your clothes, infuses your kisses.

Uncle Reuben
One of the many George Houghton illustrations from the book.

Early in the book Ray describes learning about pubs from Aunt Lucy’s husband:

My Uncle Reuben was a magnificent drinker. He would remain perpendicular from opening time until just before he was slung out three minutes after they closed. His left elbow on the wet counter, his feet in the sawdust, he would shift twenty-five or thirty pints without a stagger… My Aunt Lucy didn’t drink and I never told her where Uncle Reuben spent his time when he was supposed to be taking me for a walk. Some walk. I was left in the pub doorway with an outsize biscuit while Uncle joined the other Sons of Suction in “The Grapes”.

Sons of Suction! Marvellous.

He goes on to tell the unlikely story of how he, after Uncle Reuben’s death, kept returning to the pub out of habit, like an abandoned dog, before finally plucking up the nerve to enter:

I remember forcing my way past a very smelly cornet player, attempting a liquid version of ‘Nirvana’. The bell of his green and gold instrument was squashed — probably as a result of pushing it too far into the pub as somebody slammed the door… I entered the bar and stopped. The smoke was deep purple and the perspiring people all seemed to be talking at once.

Sweat, smells, beer-soaked whiskers everywhere.

Two men at a pub bar.
By George Houghton.

It’s hard to tell without forensic study whether the beer-based gags Ray rolls out were hackneyed when he used them or if he originated some or all of them. Suffice to say the story of his first pint of beer elicits a roll of the eyes in 2018:

Slowly I raised the glass to my lips. My palate revolted at the earthy bitterness. But it went down, and I kept on sucking until I saw through the bottom of the glass. I put the glass down, filled my lungs again, and returned the Major’s stare.

“Well, my boy?” he wheezed. “How’s that?”

“Horrible,” I said. “Can I have another?”

Which brings us to another nugget that grabbed our attention: the ubiquity of The Major. The earliest version of this bit of pub wisdom we know is from T.E.B. Clarke’s 1938 book What’s Yours? but Ray attributes it to fellow comedian (and famous moustache wearer) Jimmy Edwards:

Jimmy Edwards has a theory that you can walk into any pub in Britain and say “Has the Major been in?” and the bartender will say “yes” or “no”. In other words Jimmy believes that there is at least one Major to every pub.

With a friend I tried this out. We entered a pub in Finchley and inquired of the chap behind the bar if he had recently seen the ‘Major’. The man gave me a blank look. “Major?” he replied. “I don’t know no ruddy major.”

I was disappointed, but five minutes later the barman reappeared with the lounge barman.

“Here,” he said, “Charlie knows the Major. He’ll tell you.”

Ray’s descriptions of the sad, desperate characters who hung around theatrical pubs cadging free drinks, boozing themselves to death, are played both for laughs and sentiment:

There were times when Cyril found himself short of cash, and sometimes the landlords of the pubs he frequented had to close credit. But if nothing else, he was resourceful. Once he went into the Gents, removed the light bulb from the its socket, inserted a halfpenny, and replaced the bulb. The first person to switch on the light produced a short circuit and plunged the whole house into darkness. It was the easiest thing for Cyril to grope a bit and gobble up someones else’s pint.

Probably the most quotable chunk of the book comes when Ray attempts to sum up the character of the British pub by giving a brilliantly specific description in lieu of vague generalising:

Every pub, I mean when they’re comfortably full, has nine men in suits, or sports jackets — six are bald, but they all keep their heads covered; and ten woman — eight fairly homely, two ravishing.

There’s nearly always an old man in a long overcoat, a cloth cap, and a cigarette (nearly all ash) that never leaves his mouth, even when he coughs. His name is Bert and he can get you anything. Then there are two men in trilbies and raincoats who look like TV detectives, and are detectives.

Often you’ll find a raddled bejewelled blonde who says she used to be an actress. She carries a sniffling pekinese that must be kept away from a black tomcat sleeping at the end of the bar…

Most regulars support the bar as if they are afraid it will fall down. They like to be near the drink source. Other customers shout their order over “the front line”, pass cash, and take ale as it is handed over, like water buckets at a fire.

Counter drinkers are easily spotted. The shoulders of their jackets are yellow from dripping of beer on the overhead route.

Is all this perhaps a joke at the expense of Mass Observation? Maybe.

There’s lots more to dig out but we can’t quote the whole book. Let’s just have one more line, though:

The best description I know of an English pub is a place where you get wet change.

How’s that for pithy?