20th Century Pub pubs

Watered-down beer in Oldham, 1960

In 1960, a mysterious man slid into pubs in and around Oldham and secretly tested the strength of the beer. What he found was criminal.

We first came across a version of this story back in 2016 when we filleted a 1969 book called How To Run a Pub by Tony White.

His version goes like this:

In 1965, fourteen Manchester licensees, all in roughly the same area of the town, were fined a total of £557 (the highest fine £37) for this very offence. It is interesting to note that these prosecutions were successfully brought as the result of a tip-off from a mystery man, whose identity has never been revealed and who never explained how he came to his conclusions, though the accuracy of his findings suggests that he had some special knowledge or know-how (some say he was an employee of a rival brewery).

This Mr X seems to have gone round his locals, sampled their beer and sent in a report on twelve of them to the police. The Customs and Excise boys immediately went into action and swooped down on about twenty pubs in the area including those mentioned by their anonymous informant. To their astonishment, they discovered that in ten cases out of twelve Mr X was proved right, though in only one case did the landlord actually admit to watering his beer.

Having done our usual checks in the archive, we can’t find any reference to such an event in 1965.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that his dates are wrong – only that if it did, and his dates are right, then either:

  • it didn’t get a write-up in the papers
  • or those papers haven’t been digitised yet

What we did find, however, was a remarkably similar story, from the same part of the world, from 1960.

Here’s how it was reported in the Birmingham Daily Post for 14 April that year:

Twenty-five Oldham and district publicans appeared at Oldham yesterday as a result, it was stated, of a sampling drive carried out by officers of the Customs and Excise Department. All pleaded guilty to being in possession of beer that had been diluted with water, three admitting that they had diluted the beer. A fine of £15 plus 1 guinea costs was imposed on each summons. Mr. W. S. Hill, for the Customs and Excise, said that in 22 cases they could not prove that a deliberate fraud had been committed by the licensees.

The excuses given by publicans for why there was water in their beer are funny, a little embarrassing, but also illuminating:

Mrs. Emma Lees of the Old Post Office Public House, Manchester Road, Oldham, Clifford Pybus of the Wagon and Horses, Manchester Road, Oldham, and Donald Jinks of the Church Inn, Middleton Road, Royton, admitted having diluted the beer.

Mr. Hill said that Jinks had written stating that he had accidentally knocked over a bucket of beer, and had added some water to the beer.

We’re not sure we quite follow this one. Why was the beer was in a bucket? Possibly because it was about to be returned to the cask from… wherever it had been before that. Then he trips over it, or whatever, spills some, and tops it up? This sounds exactly like an excuse made up on the fly.

Mr. J. Lord, for Mrs. Lees, said that she had been under the impression that when beer was muddy on being pumped she was entitled to add some lemonade to it. This she had done. The lemonade cost more than the mild beer.

That she thought this was legal, or claims as much, suggests that it was a reasonably common practice, doesn’t it? We might quite like to try (unmuddy) mild with a lemonade top.

Mr. Harold Riches, for Pybul, said there had not been a deliberate attempt to defraud the customers. but Pybus had carried out injudicious piece of manipulation. He had put a quantity of bitter beer that was rather clouded into the mild beer. Other explanations were that water must have got into the beer while the pumps were being cleaned.

This practice of dumping bad bitter into mild, where it wouldn’t be noticed, has come up before. Maybe that would interfere with gravity readings.

But it does feel more likely, despite all this wriggling, that he put a bit of water into the cask to stretch it further. Especially as we know (same link as above) that this was standard practice:

It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”… Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?

If you know anything about Tony White’s 1965 Manchester Excise swoop, do let us know, especially if you have clippings or the like.

Main picture: The Cranberry, which happened to be the only 1960s Oldham pub of which we had a handy photo.

20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv

The 1950s pub captured in a 1980s film

Distant Voices, Still Lives from 1988 is Terence Davies’ attempt to capture working class Liverpool life of the 1940s and 50s on film. His evocation of pub life is particularly powerful.

Perhaps a fifth or a quarter of the whole film takes place in or outside the pub.

Cosmetically, most of the details are right. We see etched glass bearing the name of Higson’s, bottles of Mackeson Stout, ten-sided pint glasses, and bell pushes on the benches where the ladies sit.

It’s run-down and plain, this pub, but that doesn’t matter because the people bring it to life.

It is where families and friends get together, crowding every space.

In a repeated shot, from the lounge or saloon into the public bar, we see men ordering rounds of drinks:

“Nora! Hey, Nora! Can I have two ‘alves of shandy, a Mackies, a Double Diamond, a pale ale and lime, a black-and-tan, a pint of mix, a rum and pep, a rum and blackcurrant, and a Guinness?”

“Rum and pep” is rum with peppermint cordial; “mix”, also known as half-and-half, is 50/50 mild and bitter.

Another reason this pub feels so vibrant is the constant singing.

Eileen (Angela Walsh, second left) sings in the pub in Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Singing is how the women in the film express their feelings, from sadness to joy.

Taking it in turns to perform, or harmonising together, they sway with their glasses:

“When that old gang of mine get together… On the corner of my home town… We were friends in the past… And our friendship will last… ’Til the curtain of dreams comes down!”

Would people put up with it these days? You’d probably end up in a snarky video on social media.

There’s also a strong implication that men who don’t like the pub – who don’t go, or complain about having to go – are the most likely to be unhappy:

“Come on, Les, just one drink.”

“Alright, just one, to wet the baby’s head, but we’re not staying here all fucking night.”

They simply don’t have what it takes to rub along with other people.

There are plenty of pubs on film but this portrayal seems, somehow, more real than most. Perhaps its because it isn’t treated as special – just part of everyday life, like the back yard or the kitchen.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is available via the BFI.

The trailer for the recent rerelease of the film in a restored version.
20th Century Pub pubs

Evidence of Brickwoods vs. United in Portsmouth

In Portsmouth, the Victorian and Edwardian pubs built by two competing breweries offer an interesting way of understanding and navigating the city.

We were tipped off to this by an architectural guide by Alan Balfour published in 1970.

In his three-page introduction, Mr Balfour dedicates a good chunk of text to pubs:

Later 19th century pubs, such as The Northcote Hotel and The Eastfield Hotel, are almost over-pretentious in contrast to their surroundings. This pretentiousness goes deeper than the street elevations – it confirms the separate identities of the two major brewers in the area at the end of the 19th century, Brickwoods and Portsmouth United Ales… The brewers’ house styles emerged towards the end of the century, United pubs being clad in a deep green tile on the ground floor, with arched openings, and light green glazed bricks above… Brickwoods developed an extravagant ‘Tudorbethan’ style, with endless variations in the pseudo-timber framing and decoration.

The letters P, B and U intertwined, in cream and green ceramics
An Edwardian logo for Portsmouth United Breweries from the former Egremont Arms.
A wrought-iron sign with elaborate curls and decoration.
A Brickwood & Co Ltd sign on the former White Swan, now a branch of Brewhouse & Kitchen.

On our first wander through town, we spotted examples of both. Some were trading, others were derelict, and still others had become nurseries or shops.

20th Century Pub pubs

What were roadhouses and how were they different to pubs?

Roadhouses emerged in Britain in the 1930s and were large, out-of-town entertainment complexes, sometimes serving drinks – not pubs.

A few years ago Historic England published a report into inter-war pubs which described roadhouses as…

vast buildings… with facilities for dining, swimming, dancing, cabaret, overnight accommodation and often sports… typically situated on the major routes around and out of London.

The problem is, as time passes, the memory of the precise ways in which language is used gets hazy.

When we first came across the phrase ‘roadhouse’ it was being applied very broadly to cover roadside ‘improved pubs’ built in the same period.


The improved pubs of 1920s and 1930s were, like roadhouses, often both big and architecturally striking, like The Comet at Hatfield.

They were often by the side of major roads, too, with lots of “drawing up space” (car parks) and sometimes had facilities such as ballrooms, bowling greens and concert halls.

But as the preeminent academic historian of interwar pubs, David Gutzke, says:

Most interwar Britons, however, at least those who drank alcohol on licensed premises, knew better, and would not have mistaken either of them.

Here’s a helpful contemporary definition of the term ‘roadhouse’ from a report of the Dundee Licensing Court from 1937:

The roadhouse as he understood it was a house which supplied all the services of the hotel without sleeping accommodation… As in a hotel, the supply of drink was merely ancillary.

That Historic England report, though it makes a point of excluding roadhouses from its scope, helpfully lists the most famous examples:

  • The Ace of Spades on the Kingston bypass, Surrey, 1928
  • The Thatched Barn on the Barnet bypass, Hertfordshire, converted into a roadhouse in 1932
  • The Spider’s Web, Watford bypass, Hertfordshire, 1932
  • The Showboat,  Maidenhead, Berkshire, 1933

Although it was designed by E.B. Musman, who also designed pubs, The Ace of Spades was described in a 1933 article in The Architectural Review as a “Cafe Restaurant” and a “private club”.

Strikingly decorated it looked more like a Las Vegas casino than a Home Counties inn.

The entrance to the building with black and white stone, glass, and a design resembling the ace from a pack of cards.
The interior of the Ace of Spades, Architectural Review, May 1933.
A large roadside building with garage, car park, pool and multiple pavilions.
An aerial view of The Ace of Spades, from an advertisement in The Sketch, 31 May 1933. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

Here’s how The Ace of Spades and The Spider’s Web were described in a newspaper article from 1932:

Here there is a swim 100 feet in length with fresh, ever-changing water. From dawn to dusk Londoners swim, sunbathe and play deck tennis, or golf beside the pool. From dusk to midnight the pool becomes a blue lagoon, floodlit from beneath the waters – while fairylights twinkle In the encircling trees. There is a terrace where you may dine. Ace of Spades on the Kingston by-pass and at Beaconsfield are among other modern roadhouses which boast attractive swimming pools with diving boards, medicine balls and strange rubber beasts on which to ride.

It also refers to them as “roadside lidos”, identifying them as part of the increasing popularity of recreational swimming among the British public.

An art deco advertisement
An advertisement for The Ace of Spades from The Bystander, 15 June 1938. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

None of those famous roadhouses listed above were owned by breweries and many roadhouses were never licensed to sell drink. The Ace of Spades was also open 24 hours a day – distinctly un-pub-like.

However, some breweries did open establishments that blurred the line. For example, The Myllet Arms in Perivale, West London, still trading as a Premier Inn. This was commissioned by the brewer Benskins, designed by Musman, and described in 1936 as an “inn-cum-roadhouse”. 

There’s a very detailed piece by West Middlesex CAMRA on The Myllet Arms if you want to know more.

In Inside the Pub, published in 1950, Maurice Gorham recalls that the roadhouse…

owed something to the tradition of the Gin Palace and quite a lot to the transitory spirit of their age. They were often characterised by chromium and plastics, bright colours and display lighting, but missed the decorative possibilities of their own stock-in-trade.

In terms of numbers, David Gutzke reckons there were about 200 genuine roadhouses compared with around 6,000 ‘improved pubs’.

The roadhouse essentially disappeared with World War II, the coming of post-war austerity and the creation of the motorway network.

Writing in The Tatler in 1961 Douglas Sutherland said:

Before the war the roadhouse ranked high with the younger set. The essential equipment was a red M.G., a golfing cap and a pretty girl –and heigh-ho for the open road… Today the roadhouse era seems ended. Surprisingly, this is not because people are no longer willing to tangle with the traffic after a hard day at the office, but because they are tending to go farther and farther afield to get away from it all.

28 June 1961

Surbiton, it seemed, just wouldn’t cut it.

Main image by ‘Mel’ for The Sketch, 31 May 1933, © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library.

Further reading

20th Century Pub pubs

Keith Waterhouse on ‘The Pubs we Deserve?’, 1974

In 1974, everyone was talking about beer and pubs – or, at least, a lot of middle-aged male writers. Like Keith Waterhouse, for example, who expressed his passionate views in a piece for Punch in July that year.

Before we get into that, though, let’s think about 1974.

This was the year of the first publication of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide and when membership of the organisation reached around 10,000 people.

Richard Boston’s column in The Guardian was in full swing, having started in the summer of 1973. Ian Nairn’s influential piece, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, appeared in the Sunday Times on 30 June 1974.

This was, in other words, a pivotal year.

But Keith Waterhouse was no bandwagon jumper. He’d threaded a commentary on pubs through his 1959 comic novel Billy Liar, suggesting this was something he thought about a lot:

The New House was an enormous drinking barracks that had been built to serve Cherry Row and the streets around it. The New House was not its proper title. According to the floodlit inn-sign stuck on a post in the middle of the empty car park, the pub was called the Who’d A Thought It. There had been a lot of speculation about how this name had come about, but whatever the legend was it had fallen completely flat in Clogiron Lane. Nobody called the pub anything but the New House.

His piece for Punch picks up this thread more than a decade later, on the other side of the invention of the theme pub and the ‘bird’s nest’, and the coming of Watney’s Red.

It opens, as essays about pubs often seem to do, with a reference to George Orwell’s ‘The Moon Under Water’ (now a successful podcast), before providing an update on the imaginary pub’s fortunes since the 1960s:

The Moon was originally owned by Buggins’s Brewery, a family concern so tiny that its entire output could be distributed throughout London by three teams of drayhorses. Buggins sold out to Duggins’s Draught, Duggins in turn merged with Coggins’s Keg, and finally the whole mini-conglomerate was taken over by Consolidated Piss.

This echoes CAMRA’s line of attack against Watney’s et al (their beer was full of chemicals) and gives us a taste of the anti-lager rhetoric to come (it looks like urine). It also reminds us of Bill Tidy’s longrunning ‘Keg Buster’ comic strip for CAMRA and its fictional brewery ‘Crudgington’s’.

It’s also a neat summary of what happened to many small local breweries during the period of post-war consolidation in British brewing.

Next, Waterhouse tells us, Consolidated Piss played its part in the revolutionising of the pub industry as a whole, being “as interested in commercial property, bingo halls, hamburger-dromes and roofing felt as they are in beer”. Each “independent corner pub”, he writes, “became one of a chain of 15,000 ‘outlets’.”

Again, this is an accurate reflection of the language of firms like Bass Charrington and Whitbread in this period, opening everything from shopping malls to motels.

Waterhouse argues that The Moon Under Water took the wrong course at around the time of the Festival of Britain when its then landlord, “Len” decided to give it a facelift: “What the class of people we get in her wants… is more of your modern”:

So down came the ornamental mirrors and the stuffed bull’s head over the nally mantelpiece. The cast-iron fireplaces went to the scrapyard. New plastic tables, which could be wiped over with a cloth for all the world as if they were topped with marble like the ones that had graced the saloon bar for nigh on a century, were installed. And very pretty they were, if a bit rocky…

Len was succeeded by Ken who took things further yet in pursuit of his ambition to “get rid of the public bar trade and start a Sunday morning darts league among the cravat-wearers and ladies in trouser suits”.

Ken’s successor, Ben, installed “a juke box, a fruit machine, a television set, a pin-table, and later an ingenious electronic tennis game costing ten pence a go”.

It’s interesting reading this in 2022 when darts, juke boxes, ploughman’s lunches and, we guess, (non-craft) keg beer, are all considered markers of a pubs down-to-earth ‘properness’. It only takes a generation or so for the new-fangled to harden into tradition.

Through the course of the article, Waterhouse hits all the main notes of CAMRA rhetoric in this period, including that:

  • pubs aren’t about food
  • consumers are being sold worse and weaker keg beer with ever more ludicrous claims of ‘authenticity’
  • the inevitable conclusion is demolition and reconstruction in glass and metal

At the end of the piece, though, he observes, albeit sourly, a turning of the tide:

Nowadays there seems to be a demand for traditional pubs, to compete with the craze for Edwardian wine bars. Their clever young designer knows where he can get his hands on some ornamental mirrors, marble tables, cast-iron fire places and various knick-knacks such as a stuffed bull’s head. He can also get hold of some original Victorian ceiling-moulds and there is a chemical process by which a ceiling can be stained dark yellow as if by tobacco-smoke. But of course all this stuff comes expensive, and it must inevitably be reflected in the price of beer.

And he was right – see chapter 6 of our book 20th Century Pub for more on that trend.

Does anyone know if Waterhouse was a CAMRA member? We’d be a bit surprised if not.

If, like us, you like to gather stray examples of beer writing from newspapers and magazines, it’s well worth hunting down a copy of this particular issue of Punch. Besides Waterhouse’s entertaining article there are various supporting features such as a collection of ‘New Pub Songs’…

The English Pub in Singapore
Is filled with Finns from door to door.
Skol! Gezondheid! Sante! Cheers!
Pleece, you gif me six warm beers.

…and a special spread of (not very funny) cartoons on the subject of pubs and wine bars. This one is the best:

Cartoon: a man stands at the bar in a huge empty pub. The landlord says to his partner: "God, here's another one -- where the hell are they all coming from?"
SOURCE: Ken Taylor/Punch, 3 July 1974.

The cover illustration, by Geoffrey Dickinson, is arguably the most eloquent statement of all.