Our pubs are becoming too posh, 1964

The January 1965 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a publication about beer and pubs sponsored by the brewing industry, contained a letter which  seems to capture the exact moment the pub ceased to be a working class institution.

Writ­ten by one A. Bev­er­ley of 55 Har­ring­ton Avenue, Black­pool, the let­ter is actu­al­ly a response to anoth­er item of cor­re­spon­dence that appeared in “a nation­al news­pa­per”. Though they quote large chunks, Bev­er­ley does­n’t give the spe­cif­ic source and we can’t find a match in the GuardianTimes or Mir­ror.

Here’s Bev­er­ley’s sum­ma­ry, though:

In com­plain­ing that “our pubs are becom­ing too posh” [they assert] that it is “vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for a man in over­alls to get a hot din­ner in the cen­tre of many a big city”. He mourns, too, because many coun­try pub­lic hous­es are attract­ing cus­tomers from towns at mid-day, offer­ing “busi­ness lunch­es” and pro­vid­ing plen­ty of space for park­ing motor cars. Where is the work­ing man in his work­ing clothes to go? Will nobody cater for him?

This line might seem sur­pris­ing if you’ve bought into the idea that food in pubs is an inven­tion of the 1990s, or are of the view that food in pubs is some­how inher­ent­ly un-work­ing-class. But if you’ve read the chap­ter on gas­trop­ubs in 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, you’ll know oth­er­wise.

But, any­way, Bev­er­ley is hav­ing none of it:

This type of com­ment ignores the real­i­ties of 1964 cater­ing. If the char­ac­ter of our pubs is chang­ing with the times, it is rea­son­able to assume, too, that the same can be said of the cus­tomers. The num­ber of cus­tomers who go into bars in over­alls at any time is dwin­dling. But the num­ber of cus­tomers who, after work­ing hours, change into well-cut suits to go into pub­lic hous­es with their wives or girl friends is increas­ing. These female com­pan­ions not unnat­u­ral­ly pre­fer the com­fort and ameni­ties of a mod­ern, taste­ful­ly appoint­ed bar rather than sur­round­ings that are drea­ry and out­mod­ed.

(Isn’t CAM­RA’s nation­al inven­to­ry essen­tial­ly the Drea­ry and Out­mod­ed Pub Guide?)

Bev­er­ley’s argu­ment is not only that “men in over­alls” in the pub are a dying breed but also that their suc­ces­sors, “who wear… pro­tec­tive cloth­ing at work”, prob­a­bly earned as much as, or more than, white-col­lar work­ers.

With the growth of automa­tion and the short­en­ing of the work­ing week, the over­all and boil­er suit may dis­ap­pear entire­ly, and the well-appoint­ed, well-warmed pub or inn, pro­vid­ing tasty meals and cor­rect­ly served drinks, should estab­lish itself yet more firm­ly in the design for a life offer­ing greater peri­od of leisure.

The punch­line to all this is, we think, quite fun­ny: the real prob­lem, Bev­er­ley writes, isn’t that pubs are being poshed-up but that, as of the end of 1964, the new aspi­ra­tional work­ing class­es had­n’t quite learned how to behave.

It is only hoped that, as high­er stan­dards are called for and met, appro­pri­ate improve­ments in human behav­iour also will devel­op. Licensees, proud of their “poshed-up” pubs, have dif­fi­cul­ty in believ­ing that change is for the good when expen­sive car­pets and table-tops are dam­aged by cig­a­rette burns. To be tru­ly ben­e­fi­cial, the winds of change… must blow some instinct of respon­si­bil­i­ty and sense of val­ues into the minds of those who are usu­al­ly the most insis­tent and vocal in their demands for lux­u­ry in the “local”.

It’s inter­est­ing to read this along­side those 1960s Bats­ford guides with all their talk of mut­ton cur­ry and beef fon­due, and oth­er accounts of the com­ing pub car­pets at around the same time. The mid-1960s were in pubs, as they were in art, music, lit­er­a­ture, film, some­thing of a moment as the tra­di­tion­al indi­ca­tors of class got jum­bled up or messed around with.

Fifty plus years on, peo­ple are still com­plain­ing about pubs being “poshed-up”, although these days the dis­ap­pear­ance of the car­pet in favour of bare boards is a key indi­ca­tor of com­ing posh­ness.

And the objec­tion seems to be less about class than atti­tude: pubs should be infor­mal, unguard­ed, live­ly and spon­ta­neous, not com­posed, curat­ed or man­nered.

We got our col­lec­tion of edi­tions of A Month­ly Bul­letin from Mar­tyn Cor­nell who kind­ly gave us his spares a few years ago. Thanks again, MC.

J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dip­ping in and out of this book, with H.V. Mor­ton’s In Search of Eng­land as a com­pan­ion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dip­ping, each chap­ter cov­er­ing a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try and com­plete as stand­alone essays.

In ‘To the West Rid­ing’, Priest­ley lands in Brad­ford on Sun­day evening as heavy driz­zle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town cen­tre: ‘“But there isn’t any­thing,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warn­ing accu­rate: there’s a Sal­va­tion Army band play­ing, a cou­ple of cafés shut­ting up, and some shop win­dow dis­plays to look at, while young peo­ple ‘prom­e­nade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remem­ber, elder­ly cit­i­zens have been protest­ing against this prac­tice of prom­e­nad­ing on Sun­day nights. They have always been dis­gust­ed by the sight of young peo­ple mon­key-parad­ing in this fash­ion. It is, how­ev­er, the same elder­ly cit­i­zens who have seen to it that near­ly all doors lead­ing out of the street shall be locked against these young peo­ple. They can­not lis­ten to plays or music, can­not see films, can­not even sit in big pleas­ant rooms and look at one anoth­er; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mat­ing, what­ev­er elder­ly per­sons may think…

Priest­ley’s pub crawl is depress­ing. He finds the first one he vis­its very qui­et with ‘five or six hob­blede­hoys drink­ing glass­es of bit­ter’ and both­er­ing the bar­maid. ‘Noth­ing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stu­pid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] can­not see why play­go­ing, lis­ten­ing to music, watch­ing films, even danc­ing, should be con­sid­ered so much worse – or at least more sec­u­lar – than booz­ing with pros­ti­tutes.

The third pub is the liveli­est, large and crowd­ed, with some ‘lit­tle coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; noth­ing else, not even rea­son­able com­fort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was tak­en. Fif­teen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gai­ety, this was life; and so the place was sell­ing beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sex­es. I do not think any of these peo­ple – and they were most­ly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an old­er cou­ple – could real­ly be said to be real­ly enjoy­ing them­selves; but at least they could look at one anoth­er, gig­gle a bit, talk when they found some­thing to say, and admire the car­ni­val splen­dour of the coloured elec­tric lights.

Priest­ley’s con­clu­sion is that it would be bet­ter for sup­pos­ed­ly reli­gious towns to per­mit the break­ing of the Sab­bath if it meant ‘a choice between mon­key-parad­ing and dubi­ous pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has land­ed on, in analysing one Sun­day night in one town, is a diag­no­sis of the whole prob­lem with pubs: they were the default for many peo­ple not nec­es­sar­i­ly because they were love­ly, but for lack of any alter­na­tive.

As hous­es got bet­ter and big­ger, more peo­ple stayed at home. As open­ing hours relaxed and the range of busi­ness­es in towns broad­ened (cof­fee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monop­oly came to an end.

For more on pubs, includ­ing pros­ti­tu­tion, fight­ing, spit­ting and riots, do check out our book 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub. For more on Brad­ford pubs in par­tic­u­lar hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Pub­lic House in Brad­ford 1770–1970, pub­lished in 1995. Main image above adapt­ed from one sup­plied by Brad­ford Libraries on Flickr.

Wetherspoons as public forum

We think about Wetherspoon pubs a lot. You can’t be British and do otherwise, really – they’re an institution, on almost every high street.

Late­ly, we’ve been con­sis­tent­ly dis­ap­point­ed by the expe­ri­ence of drink­ing in them. They seem tat­ty, the qual­i­ty of the offer declin­ing, pre­sum­ably as they strug­gle to retain the all impor­tant bar­gain prices as the cost of prod­ucts go up.

But every now and then we’re remind­ed why they’re so pop­u­lar: as tru­ly pub­lic spaces, ordi­nary pubs and work­ing class cafés dis­ap­pear, Spoons fills the gap.

A week to so ago we found our­selves in a branch in east Lon­don with a few hours to kill, begin­ning at break­fast time.

It was qui­et, you might almost say tran­quil, full of nat­ur­al light and the smell of ground cof­fee.

One man was there before us, and left after, lean­ing on a pos­ing table, steadi­ly down­ing pints of lager, con­duct­ing busi­ness on his phone: “I got a box of them Fred Per­ry’s com­ing in next week, and anoth­er load of them sum­mer shirts – yeah, yeah, per­fect for out and about in the day, nice fit for an old­er bloke.”

Anoth­er man came in, ordered cof­fee and a bacon roll, and then worked his way around the pub show­ing off a watch in cel­lo­phane, part of a new line. We could­n’t hear his pat­ter, just the respons­es: “Love­ly. How much? How many can you do? Alright, mate, I’ll give you a call Tues­day.”

An elder­ly man ordered his break­fast and a mug of tea using the phone app and when a mem­ber of staff brought it over, adopt­ed a mock-posh accent to say, “I say, what what, jol­ly good, Jeeves! Any mes­sages for me with the porter?” The wait­er-bar­man laughed polite­ly.

A gang of con­struc­tion work­ers arrived, head to toe in orange, and appar­ent­ly exhaust­ed. They ordered full Eng­lish break­fasts, teas and ener­gy drinks, and colonised a cor­ner.

A stu­dent bought a fruit tea and took an hour to drink it as she worked on her lap­top.

A par­ty in suits came in just before lunch, ordered lagers and wines, and rehearsed a sales pitch com­plete with slide deck.

Peo­ple charged their phones, read news­pa­pers and books, used the toi­let, and gen­er­al­ly treat­ed the place as if it were a library or com­mu­ni­ty cen­tre.

The man­ag­er didn’t seem to object to the rel­a­tive­ly small amount of mon­ey going over the counter. In fact, they made a point of remind­ing us that a £1.60 cup of cof­fee was bot­tom­less.

What’s the idea here? To send a mes­sage, we sup­pose: if in doubt, go to Spoons. What­ev­er the occa­sion, what­ev­er you want to eat or drink, what­ev­er the time of day, wher­ev­er in the coun­try you are, go to Spoons. You won’t be has­sled or judged or, indeed, paid much atten­tion at all.

It’s clever, that. Oth­er pubs – prop­er pubs – might learn some­thing from that.

Geoffrey Fletcher on Victorian Pubs, 1962

Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) wrote and illustrated a lot of books – observations of the unglamorous end of London life, from pie shops to street markets.

His most famous book is The Lon­don Nobody Knows, pub­lished in 1962 and the basis of a cult doc­u­men­tary from 1969.

We’d pre­vi­ous­ly only read it in libraries but final­ly got our own copy last week­end – a 1965 Pen­guin edi­tion that cost £2.50.

Though most of Fletcher’s books men­tion pubs in pass­ing – we quot­ed a cou­ple in 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub – it’s in chap­ter eight of The Lon­don Nobody Knows that he real­ly sets out his man­i­festo:

One of the strik­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Lon­don pubs is the way in which dif­fer­ent pubs have an appeal to dif­fer­ent kinds of patrons.

To under­line his point he goes on to list var­i­ous types of pub, from legal pubs to “homo­sex­u­als’ pubs… where queers meet queers”.

Like Bet­je­man, Osbert Lan­cast­er, Rod­dy Gra­didge and oth­er con­tem­po­raries, Fletch­er believed that Vic­to­ri­an pubs were the pin­na­cle of the form:

Lon­don pubs are rich in the trap­pings of the Vic­to­ri­an age, which knew exact­ly how a town pub should appear. A fine one is illus­trat­ed here – the King and Queen in the Har­row Road. This is nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Baroque at its most florid. Grey mar­ble columns ris­er from a mosa­ic floor, raised a step above the pave­ment. There is splen­did iron­work – iron let­ters and wrought iron – over the door. The words ‘Saloon Bar’ have a bucol­ic aban­don… The archi­tects of the late Vic­to­ri­an pubs and music-halls knew exact­ly what the sit­u­a­tion demand­ed – extrav­a­gance, exu­ber­ance, and plen­ty of dec­o­ra­tion for its own sake.

The King and Queen
The King and Queen, Har­row Road, as drawn by Geof­frey Fletch­er.

Oth­er pubs Fletch­er men­tions by name as good exam­ples include the Lamb in Lead­en­hall mar­ket (still worth stop­ping to look at today), the Black Fri­ar at Black­fri­ars, and the Crown on Cun­ning­ham Place, St John’s Wood/Maida Vale. The lat­ter is still there, appar­ent­ly with a nice­ly pre­served inte­ri­or, but as a gastropub/bistro called, for some rea­son, ‘Crocker’s Fol­ly’. Fletch­er also pro­vides draw­ings of The Lamb and The Black Fri­ar.

Beyond fix­tures and fit­tings, Fletch­er has views on pub cul­ture, too:

Although… the East End is los­ing some of its strong­ly focal char­ac­ter, the old life of the pubs in those parts of Lon­don still per­sists. A week­end pub crawl in such places as Shored­itch, Step­ney, and Hack­ney is the way to see it at first hand. Here the East End ‘ma’ con­tin­ues to flour­ish, the large sized, per­haps even pneu­mat­ic spec­i­men who was no stranger to Phil May and Albert Cheva­lier, joins in the cho­rus, sup­port­ed at the bar by a but­toned horse­hair seat and at the front by a large Guin­ness. Such peri­od char­ac­ters must dis­ap­pear some­time – that is where the funer­al par­lour comes in; if so, how­ev­er, they are at once replaced by repli­cas, pre­sum­ably on a sys­tem known only to the East End.

That’s yet more evi­dence of the link between women and stout, by the way, which we’ll file away for future ref­er­ence.

You can find copies of The Lon­don Nobody Knows knock­ing around in sec­ond-hand book shops or online, or there’s a fair­ly recent reprint and eBook edi­tion from the His­to­ry Press, with a fore­word by Dan Cruik­shank.

Osbert Lancaster on Pubs, 1938

Osbert Lancaster, 1908–1986, was an influential cartoonist and cultural commentator who specialised in explaining architecture to the layman.

His work isn’t all that easy to come by and, in fact, a col­lec­tion of his work pub­lished in 1959, reprint­ed by the Read­ers’ Union in 1960, enti­tled Here, of All Places, is the first of his books we’ve ever actu­al­ly come across for sale.

It’s fun stuff, each dou­ble-page spread includ­ing a pithy note on some facet of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry and a car­toon to bring it to life. For exam­ple, ‘By-Pass Var­ie­gat­ed’ is his name for a par­tic­u­lar type of semi-detached sub­ur­ban house, while he sum­maris­es post-war Amer­i­can cityscapes, blight­ed by adver­tis­ing, as ‘Coca-Colo­nial’.

The entry that grabbed our atten­tion was, of course, ‘Pub­lic-House Clas­sic’, which first appeared in his 1938 book Pil­lar to Post.

A drawing of a Victorian pub.
Osbert Lan­cast­er’s draw­ing of a typ­i­cal Vic­to­ri­an pub.

That’s a love­ly image – we have a strong urge to tear it out and frame it, but don’t wor­ry, we won’t – and the prose that goes with it is almost as good. Here’s how it opens:

In the ear­li­er part of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry it was assumed, and right­ly, that a lit­tle healthy vul­gar­i­ty and full-blood­ed osten­ta­tion were not out of place in the archi­tec­ture and dec­o­ra­tion of a pub­lic-house, and it was dur­ing this peri­od that the tra­di­tion gov­ern­ing the appear­ance of the Eng­lish pub was evolved. While the main body of the build­ing con­formed to the rules gov­ern­ing South Kens­ing­ton Ital­ianate, it was always enlivened by the addi­tion of a num­ber of dec­o­ra­tive adjuncts which, though sim­i­lar in gen­er­al form, dis­played an end­less and fas­ci­nat­ing vari­ety of treat­ment.

He goes on to praise the engraved win­dows, giant lanterns and beau­ti­ful­ly paint­ed signs that char­ac­terised Vic­to­ri­an pubs at their best, and exam­ples of which you can still (just about) see around in 2019.

The sec­ond half of the entry, how­ev­er, is a lament for this style. First, he says, it was replaced in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry by a self-con­scious­ly cul­tured facade of elab­o­rate brick­work and ‘encaus­tic tiling’; and then, in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, by…

a poi­so­nous refine­ment which found expres­sion in olde worlde half-tim­ber­ing and a gen­er­al atmos­phere of cot­tagey cheer­i­ness. For­tu­nate­ly a num­ber of the old-fash­ioned pubs still sur­vive in the less fash­ion­able quar­ters, but the major­i­ty of them are doubt­less doomed and will be short­ly replaced by taste­ful erec­tions in By-Pass Eliz­a­bethan or Brew­ers’ Geor­gian styles.

In 1938, big improved pubs were still being built, though the war stopped that in its tracks. We won­der what he made of post-war pubs – plain, small, point­ed­ly mod­ern. He was cer­tain­ly snarky about mod­ernist archi­tec­ture in gen­er­al, call­ing it ‘Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Func­tion­al’:

[The] style which now emerged was one of the utmost aus­ter­i­ty, rely­ing for its effect on plan­ning and pro­por­tion alone, and faith­ful­ly ful­fill­ing the one con­di­tion to which every impor­tance was attached, of ‘fit­ness for pur­pose.’ Admirable as were the results in the case of fac­to­ries, air­ports, hos­pi­tals and oth­er util­i­tar­i­an build­ings, when the same prin­ci­ple was applied to domes­tic archi­tec­ture, the suc­cess was not always so marked.

And there’s an inter­est­ing point: pubs are, or ought to be, con­sid­ered domes­tic, not util­i­tar­i­an, vital as they are, right? Which is what all this talk of Prop­er Pubs is real­ly get­ting at.

And odd post­script to Lan­cast­er’s brief note on pub archi­tec­ture is that thir­ty years lat­er, he revis­it­ed the con­cept for the cov­er of a book, Pub, edit­ed by Angus McGill and spon­sored by the Brew­ers’ Soci­ety.

The cover of 'Pub', 1969.

At first, we thought it was the same draw­ing but, no, it’s a dif­fer­ent piece alto­geth­er, even if the same street trum­peter makes a cameo, stand­ing under a famil­iar wrought-iron lantern.

You can buy sec­ond­hand copies of From Pil­lar to Post and Here, of All Places at quite rea­son­able prices online; and there’s a nice-look­ing reprint from Pim­per­nel Press.