20th Century Pub pubs

The weekend barman con, 1949

The Weekend Barmen was apparently a classic scam designed to target pubs. We wonder if it still goes on?

We’ve been collecting notes on cons and fraud in pubs for a while now.

Stories tend to crop up in how-to manuals for publicans and in newspaper reports.

We found this particular story in a 1949 edition of the gentleman’s periodical Lilliput.

A curious small-format magazine bordering on pornographic – each issue has one or two oblique nude portraits – Lilliput is easy to find in secondhand bookshops for a couple of quid a copy.

We always flick through having found gold in the past.

Pubs and beer weren’t much written about at this time, being regarded as about on a par with toilet business as suitable subjects for polite conversation.

But Lilliput, being somewhat earthy and irreverent, often had a piece touching on this subject so close to many gentlemen’s hearts.

In this case, our attention was grabbed by a story entitled ‘Gulliver and the Week-end Barmen’, credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ (Macdonald Hastings). It opens like this:

“All right, Joe,” said the over-dressed young man, reaching for the telephone in the corner of the shoddy little café where we were having a coffee with one of our less reputable friends, “that’ll be for me.” And picking up the receiver, he said:

“Cock and Magpie, Soho. Speaking. Bert Copley? That’s right. He’s worked for me nearly two years. Yes; he’s a very good lad. I was sorry to lose him, but he said he wanted to be nearer his mother that’s been took ill. Walworth, I think he said. Oh, you’re speaking from Walworth? Well, he’s a good lad. Glad to be of service. I suppose he’ll be along for his kit sometime. Good morning. Don’t mention it.”

This fraudulent reference is just one small con trick played on publicans, as ‘Gulliver’ finds out when he invites the young man, Corkey, to join him. Corkey explains that this is a standard wheeze:

“You see, mister, this pal of mine, Copley, is working the pubs… just talking his way into a job, making what he can from the till, and that, and moving on somewhere else in a few days. It’s not a bad racket – you can make ten or twenty quid easy…”

What if they don’t accept phone references? Corkey has headed notepaper from the Cock and Magpie he can use in an emergency. What if they want to see a stamped National Insurance card? You just say “It’s on its way” for long enough to finish the job.

Corkey then outlines a few other angles that can be worked:

  • A babyfaced con man can pretend he’s never worked in a pub before and pass as “nice innocent young man”. He just has to remember to be bad at pulling pints, even though he’s actually very experienced. Then, of course, skim from the till.
  • End-of-shift wallet inspections can be dodged by passing stolen money to a pal in the gents toilet, or leaving it stuffed behind a pipe to be picked up.
  • You can use the classic ‘convincer’ – be overly honest for the first day or two, insisting on handing “the boss half a quid” insisting you must have put it in your pocket by mistake.
A cartoon showing dodgy barmen at work.
One of the cartoons illustrating the article. Note the ‘Beer is Best’ sign in the background.

The con we found most interesting, because it is most elaborate, involves two men working together:

“Why, I knew two blokes who used to keep themselves at the seaside all summer by doing good turns to pub managers… Well, let’s call them Jim and Joe… Jim goes to Margate and gets himself a job and, for a few days, he does very nicely, handing out the stuff to Joe, like I said. Come Friday, when the week-end rush is just blowing up, Joe, who is now rated a good customer, hauls the boss aside and says he’s been watching Jim short-changing customers all week.”

What next? Joe, casually mentioning that he’s an experienced barman himself, steps into help out when Jim is fired:

“He steps out next Monday with three quid special wages and twenty more that he’s fiddled, and moves along the coast to get Jim the sack from the new job he’s just got at Southend.”

Gulliver gives some final notes on a con that actually involves beer. A temporary barman in a large busy pub, Corkey says, is perfectly placed to dilute the beer with water: “So if you water five or six barrels out of the 12 that a big pub’ll sell in a day you can make quite a bit by deducting the difference out of the till.”

If the manager notices, he says, the chances are he won’t do anything about it, as long as the stock-take adds up. “And, besides,” says Corkey, “he does not want the talk to go round that his beer’s been watered.”

It’s possible, of course, that ‘Gulliver’ made all this up. He’s certainly not presenting it as journalism. But the essence of it rings true to us.

20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs of England in the winter of 1963

In 1963 writer Nicholas Wollaston toured England, visiting cities and towns such as Blyth and Burnley. He was naturally drawn to pubs.

We acquired our copy of Winter in England, published in 1966, when Ray saw a copy in a charity shop and fell in love with the cover.

It wasn’t until we sat down (in a pub, of course) and really looked at it that we realised why that might have been: it depicts the quayside in his hometown, Bridgwater, in Somerset, including a Starkey, Knight & Ford pub.

Wollaston’s idea was not especially original.

We’ve got quite a collection of similar books in which a university-educated writer, academic or journalist hits the road to take the temperature of the nation.

The spines of various old books about England on a shelf.

There’s sometimes an angle, such as a focus on a particular region, or on small towns, or social problems.

More often than not, though, they feel quite random and organic – the record of a kind of purposeful drifting.

And because they’re supposed to record reality, taking middle and upper class readers to places they perhaps wouldn’t go themselves, pubs feature more frequently than in other types of writing.

When we were writing 20th Century Pub we found ourselves quoting them often.

There’s Orwell on inter-war pubs in The Road to Wigan Pier, for example: “As for the pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor…”

Or J.B. Priestley in Bradford where he finds a pub that has “five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter” and annoying the barmaid. “Nothing wrong with the place”, he writes, “except that it was dull and stupid.”

Winter in England, written 30 years on from Priestley and Orwell, is sharply observed, a little sour (“dyspepsia benumbed my appreciation”), and does not flatter its subjects.

There’s a portrait of a Lowestoft herring boat skipper, for example, that might have got Wollaston duffed up if he dared to go back after the book came out.

The book is worth tracking down if you’re at all interested in how Britain felt at this time (through a privileged lens, at least) and not just in the corridors of power. But let’s look at the notes on pubs and beer in particular, that being our beat.

First, at Ramsgill in “Yorkshire’s Little Switzerland”, Wollaston found that the pubs had “fallen to outsiders” – that is, become gentrified:

The Yorke Arms… is probably less of a pub, more of a hotel, than it used to be, with more copper and brass about the place, and a breathtaking upper-class waitress on holiday from a domestic science college… Though some of the beer is still kept in wooden barrels, most of it comes from steel casks or bottles, and I suppose that the customers are not quite what they used to be, either.

A touch of the SPBW tendency there, perhaps.

At Blyth, in the North East of England, Wollaston found winter in late summer:

Although it was still August coal fires had been lit in the pubs. Men were standing at the bars speaking an unknown language. It might have been better if I could have spoken it too. I asked for a Scotch and the girl gave me an Edinburgh beer… “Oh, you mean a whisky,” she said when I complained. These were foreign parts.

The front of a pub with a brewery sign.
The Fountain, Bridgwater, in 2007.

As hinted at by the cover, there is, in fact, an entire chapter about Bridgwater – a sign that Wollaston was serious in his intent to go to places other writers might have overlooked. Growing up, Ray had the impression that Bridgwater was an unusually well-pubbed and boozy town. Wollaston’s observations support this:

[In one pub] a middle-aged couple was hopping among the tables, while a man punched away at a husky piano. ‘Somebody stole my girl’, they all sang, and the darts were flying wild. When a pint glass crashed to the ground the pianist switched into ‘Marching through Georgia’. A pearly-coloured woman with a bronchial cough, ageless and rather tight, came in; she had been to the pictures, Tom Jones, which was partly filmed in Bridgwater, but nothing had impressed her except the actresses: “They’ve got wonderful bosoms on them, right up here,” and she demonstrated with her own.

His notes on Bridgwater also provide one of those useful reminders that pub culture can be as much about excluding people as making people welcome:

To me the only jarring note in such a genial town was the notice, stuck in the window of almost every pub, “No gipsies served here.” It showed a vehemence quite out of character, and nobody could really explain the reason. “The gipsies, you see,” one man told me cryptically, “come down from the Quantocks,” as though that explained it all; while another man said, “The gipsies, you see, come down from the Mendips.” A third said, “They come for the pea-picking,” and a fourth said, more plausibly, “They get a skinful of cider.”

On cider, he gives an account of a conversation with an old man in the pub next to the town hall (probably The Mansion House) who complains about the decline of cider drinking.

At the age of 14, he says, he was drinking cider with breakfast, throughout the day, and all evening. “One night, for a bet,” Wollaston writes, “he had drunk fourteen pints in an hour and a half, and then bicycled three miles home…”

His own cider was improved by the addition of hunks of raw meat which dissolved off the bone in the vat.

Wollaston seems to have found Liverpool, the only big city on his itinerary, rather depressing, with soot-stained buildings, murky air and everyone exhibiting “the bronchial Liverpool cough”. It’s stuck in the past, he suggests:

This feeling of solid out-of-dateness is reflected in some of the pubs round Dale Street; in the men in bowler hats tucking into shrimps and mussels and plates of red roast beef; in the photos of tall-funnelled steamers on their first voyage through the Panama Canal; in the stout waitress leaning over a balcony and shouting, “Any oysters left, John?”; in the notice, “Gentlemen are re- quested not to smoke before 2.30 pm.”; and in the clusters of plasterwork on the ceilings and marble-topped bars and engraved mirrors, not deliberately preserved as they would be in London, but simply still going strong.

Those with an interest in the history of pop music might also enjoy his account of a city obsessed with The Beatles – and his assumption that they’re a flash in the pan.

Exterior view of a modern pub; interior view of the same.
The exterior of the Kingfisher and a view of its lounge bar.

Arguably the most interesting passage in the whole book (unless you’re from Bridgwater) is a lengthy depiction of a post-war estate pub at the new town in Corby, Northamptonshire. These pubs weren’t often written about because they weren’t regarded as romantic, historic or symptomatic. But Wollaston rightly spotted that they meant something, even though they were “huge and quite un-memorable, like canteens”:

In the bar of the Hazel Tree, a modern pub in a housing estate called Beanfield, I found myself next to an Ulsterman. He had been a policeman in the colonial service and was now a security officer at the Corby steelworks. He was wearing his uniform trousers and heavy black boots, but had slipped on a tweed coat to come out to the pub.

This individual, an open racist, has a particularly strong hatred for a group of migrants that had come to dominate Corby: Scottish people, whom he refers to as “a lot of bloody savages”, who “brought out their bagpipes at any excuse”. He had also observed their drinking habits: “Six or seven pints a night, he said, was almost a rule.”

Despite the blandness of these new pubs, they were busy. Once again, Wollaston’s detailed, pithily expressed observations would have been handy when we were writing our book:

The bar was packed full. There were people playing dominoes and darts, and young Scotch steelworkers smoking cigars with girls drinking Italian apéritifs. The divisions were not by class but by age-groups; one generation of men wore cloth caps and bicycle clips, another wore belted raincoats and trilbies, a third wore Beatle jackets and winkle-pickers. At a table in the middle were two thin boys in skin-tight jeans, with pale hunted faces and long cavalier ringlets, dirty copper-colour… “The C.N.D. brigade,” said the Cockney. “I bet there’s many a girl’d like that hair.”

In Chertsey in the London commuter belt, he finds a pub that sounds much like you might expect to find there today: food led, rather middle class, “teacups and muzak everywhere, and china ducks in flight across the cream embossed wallpaper”.

Beyond pubs, there are also glimpses of other drinking places and cultures, such as the Viennese Beer Garden at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness, and its twin, Ye Olde Pig and Whistle. We might have found space for this quote in the chapter on theme pubs in our book:

In the Tudor Bar elderly campers yawned under a gigantic plaster tree, or giggled at the plight of a real pigeon that had flown in and was battering itself among the saucy little lattice windows above them. Even the indoor swimming-pool lay under a jungle of synthetic greenery. This obsession with the bogus and the dangling may have served to disguise the architecture of the buildings, and certainly the rain that in places dripped through the roof added authenticity to the picturesque settings, but it was disappointing to find that so few modern ideas of design had been adopted.

There are portraits of working men’s clubs, too. In Blyth it was The Coronation Club:

Clubs, with their bingo evenings and old-time dancing, are more important than pubs in Blyth, and one of the reasons may be that beer costs a shilling and a penny a pint; even ‘cellar’, a stronger brew, is only one-and-fivepence. At Ashington, a mining town a few miles inland with a population of thirty thousand, there are only three pubs, but more than twenty clubs… Each club still had its leek show, and many of the pubs. There were to be prizes of six hundred pounds in one of them.

It’s interesting to read these notes on drinking culture with contemporary novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in mind:

Booze, at any rate round the tables in the Coronation Club lounge where women were allowed, was the main topic, as it was also the main preoccupation. The universal aim of the club’s members… was more drink at less cost. The men drank pints of ‘cellar’ – pints and pints of – and the women drank Advokaat, or alternate cherry brandies and tomato juice. When the men had to go to the lavatory they stopped at the bar, where the women were not allowed, for a large whisky or a liqueur before going back to join the women at the tables…

Our overall impression is that what’s changed most is the density of pub life. They were everywhere, and everyone went to them, when they weren’t drinking somewhere else.

What do you think? Would it be fun to go for a night out in the winter of 1963 – or would it be an ordeal?

Your answer might well depend on whether you’re a man or woman, and which box you ticked under ethnicity on the 2021 Census.

20th Century Pub pubs

The Venetian Coffee Bar at The Royal Oak, 1955

In December 1955 Whitbread opened an espresso bar in a pub in Paddington, London. We wrote about this in a post last year but now we’ve found more details, and photos.

The Venetian Coffee Bar got an entire feature in Whitbread’s in-house magazine, The House of Whitbread, in spring 1956.

The article gives us a few details that weren’t in the newspaper reports, including the specific date of the launch party – 6 December 1955.

The photos of the launch party are slightly more interesting than usual, too. They show the famously hammy British horror actor Tod Slaughter in attendance, dressed in fine Victorian style, shortly before his death in February 1956.

A group of people in formal wear drinking from stemmed glasses.
Tod Slaughter is the man in this picture who looks as if he would be called Tod Slaughter.

The article tells us that Whitbread only acquired the pub in February 1955, having supplied it for years.

It goes on to fill in some details of the artists and architects involved in the renovation:

Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates were commissioned to carry out the interior decoration in accordance with the company’s policy of establishing distinctive houses with an individual atmosphere. The murals were painted by Mr Peter Stebbing.

If you’ve followed us for a while, or read 20th Century Pub, you’ll know that we’re a bit obsessed with theme pubs but it hadn’t occurred to us that this might count as one.

Lonsdale-Hands was involved in several high-profile projects for Whitbread including interior design for its flagship post-war project in Leicester Square, The Samuel Whitbread. He also put together a collection of cricketing memorabilia for The Yorker on Piccadilly, which also opened in 1955.

Stebbing is an interesting character, too, from what little concrete information we can find. He was well-known in his day and his wedding was reported in Tatler.

His particular area of expertise was painting trompe l’oeil murals – a useful trick in theme pubs when you need to add scale and ‘production value’ without additional construction.

His involvement also says something, we think, about:

  1. the amount of money Whitbread was throwing at these projects
  2. the meeting of art and commerce in the ‘new Elizabethan age’

Another pleasing detail in the article is an explanation of why Paddington was chosen as the location for this particular experiment:

In a neighbourhood where many Continentals live who enjoy a coffee and liqueur, and were born boulevardiers, The Venetian meets an evident need. It should have a particular appeal to the ‘under twenties’.

And, of course, Paddington does have those lovely canals. Little Venice, in fact, they call it.

20th Century Pub beer and food

When did coffee in the pub become a thing?

Here’s a gripe of traditionalists and pub staff alike: people ordering hot drinks, especially when there’s a queue at the bar.

Of course pub companies and breweries like offering hot drinks:

  1. It enables them to compete with Costa and Nero.
  2. The markup is good.

And, as drinkers, we’ve often found it handy when we’re with a designated drinker or teetotaler.

But only the Wetherspoon chain seems to have worked out how to handle it without disrupting everything else.

That is, by selling customers an empty mug and making them self-serve from that machine over there… no, further… keep going… Bit further…

We’ve been wondering about when coffee in pubs first became an option.

Our guess is that it started in earnest in the 1950s and became more common in the 1960s – but no doubt with odd outliers long before then.

Let’s test that assumption.

Espresso in pubs in the 1950s and 60s

We know from the research we did for 20th Century Pub that Italian-style coffee, and coffee bars, came to London from 1952 onward.

There’s even an entire episode of Hancock’s Half Hour built around this trend – ‘Fred’s Pie Stall’ from 1959.

But how early were pubs in getting in on the game?

Dipping into the marvellous British Newspaper Archive we instantly found an answer of sorts, in an article from the West London Observer for 6 June 1956:

“A coffee bar attached to a pub is something new in London life. But the Venetian (that’s the coffee bar) opened at the Royal Oak in Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington, seems, after only a few weeks, to be firmly established… There you can have just espresso coffee, a chocolate, a light ale or whatever ‘yours’ may be. They pass the drinks which are a bit stronger than coffee or chocolate through a hatch which connects Venice (the decor is so realistic) with London… When I dropped in there the other day I heard a queer round ordered: a coffee, a coffee and brandy, a chocolate and a glass of stout.”

Going back a little further we can find notice of the opening of this coffee bar in December 1955. It replaced what had been the ‘ladies’ bar’.

The moaning started early, too. On 7 August 1957 Arthur Eperon wrote a piece for the Daily Herald in which he mentioned The Royal Oak and a nameless pub in Cambridge as signs of the grim future of the pub: “They are going to make us sup our pints elbow-to-elbow with addicts of sundaes and coffee…”

In 1961 Maurice Gibbs, consultant surveyor to the Brewers’ Society, predicted there would be more coffee in pubs, as reported the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 5 July that year:

“Because of the high cost of building new houses. brewers are likely to seek ancillary sources of attraction and profit. It is more rewarding to sell either a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup or a sandwich than a glass of beer. and possibly a hairdressing shop in a pub would be popular if customers could enjoy any of these things while they waited their turn.”

But was he right? Did it take?

Well, not really. Scouring our collection of pub guides from the 1960s and 70s, we can’t find many examples of pubs with coffee as a selling point.

The Tiger at East Dean in Sussex, mentioned in Sussex Pubs from 1966 is an exception: “The house purveys… morning coffee freshly distilled from ground beans and not out of a tin…”

Green and White’s London pub guide, in its 1973 edition, lists all sorts of features of pubs, from drag acts to wine menus, but doesn’t mention coffee.

Pub Catering is a very boring but extremely useful book from 1986, edited by John Fuller. Among pages and pages of advice about spuds and gateaux it has two paragraphs on coffee:

“A number of pubs are now serving coffee, both as a separate service outside licensing hours and as an after-dinner drink. The publican must assess how this affects his sale of liquor…”

And, of course, we’ve got the evidence of our own memories to rely on here.

As recently as the mid-2000s, it seemed remarkable to us to see an espresso machine in a pub.

We also know that Wetherspoon pubs started selling coffee nationwide in 2000 and that St Austell launched its Brewer & Bean sub-brand in 2014.

So we can probably say it’s really a 21st century phenomenon – and almost certainly a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks et al from the late 1990s onward.

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.