The lesser-spotted underage drinker in 2024

When did you last see underage drinkers even try to get served in a pub? It’s what you might call a dying tradition.

Ray’s dad says he started drinking in a pub on the Somerset Levels when he was 12, surrounded by adults who made sure he and his brothers (mostly) behaved themselves.

And in the mid-1990s, Jess went to East London pubs from 16 hiding behind her tall friend, though nobody ever got asked for ID.

She’d sit in the darkest corner of the back room with all the other juvenile boozers, tolerated by management on the understanding that they behaved. 

(Teenage Jess’s drinks of choice, in case you were wondering: snakebite and black, or Newcastle Brown Ale.)

It sounds sort of cute and nostalgic but there are good reasons why you might not want actual children to drink. Pubs have quite rightly been put under pressure to apply the law, check for ID, and refuse service if they’re in doubt.

Still, the other day, we saw what looked to us like a group of adolescents getting served in a pub without too much trouble.

We say “what looked to us like” because we’ve reached a point where people under, say, 25 all look about the same age to us. What we think is a schoolboy turns out to be a bloke on his way to the office or, worse, a teacher. That kind of thing.

Anyway, these lads definitely looked young, and the bar staff thought so too, because they asked for ID. One of them produced a document which, even from a distance, looked unconvincing. After a bit of conversation, the person behind the bar was convinced, or gave up, and agreed they could have their drinks.

They ordered, nervously, three pints of lager, without specifying which one.

As they made their way to a table they all but gave each other fist bumps. Their conspiratorial manner and excitement were obvious.

“Alright lads, play it cool, play it cool,” said Jess.

At which point, they took out their phones and started recording videos of themselves with their beers, pouting and posing for, we suppose, Tik-Tok or something similar.

The middle-aged group on the table next to them asked, amused, what they were up to. The phones went away and some polite, good-natured conversation ensued.

There’s no astonishing twist to this story. The lads drank their pints, slowly and a bit weirdly, as if they’d never held a glass before, or tasted beer. They made quiet conversation. And after a while, they left, with a round of shy waves and goodbyes to their neighbours and the pub staff.

Legally, they probably shouldn’t have been served – one ID, even if it is legit, doesn’t cover three people. But it was hard to find the whole business anything less than rather sweet.

And we need them to develop the pub habit, don’t we, if we want these places to exist at all in 20 years time?

Back in the 1990s and 00s there were conversations about lowering the legal age for drinking in pubs so that this could be a safe, supervised activity. It was tied into various moral panics over kids ‘hanging around’ on the streets, alcopops, and lager loutism.

Which politician would bother arguing for that now?

There are some additional thoughts on youthful drinking habits and the avocado toast paradox for subscribers to our Patreon.


An unscientific approach to Brighton

Its a sign of a good drinking town that you can find multiple decent pubs without doing much research.

In Brighton last weekend, on a trip with Ray’s parents, we weren’t sure how much time we’d have for the pub.

So, we didn’t bother studying the books or blogs, or scouring Google.

The only thing we had in the back of our minds was that it might be nice to revisit The Evening Star after 15 years, on the other side of the Dark-Star-Fuller’s-Asahi situation.

As it happened, we did get a couple of hours free on Saturday afternoon and went straight there.

We caught it between lunchtime and the post-football-match rush and so had our pick of scrubbed wooden tables. It felt like a country pub, with solitary readers and groups of older men in wax jackets and battered hats.

On the bar were cask ales from Burning Sky and others. There were also interesting keg beers such as Saison Dupont.

Everything we drank was in excellent condition, served with distinct pride, but we got stuck on Evening Star (Downlands) Revival at 4.8%. It’s the kind of clear, clean, citrusy pale ale that briefly bloomed for a decade at the start of the century. You know, the kind of thing for which Dark Star became famous.

“…the cashless thing is about complete control of the population…” “…used to brew at Partridge Green…” “…these hoppy IPAs gripe my guts…”

When the football fans began to turn up, the atmosphere changed, but not for the worse.

This remains an utterly great pub.

A wall at The Brick with a vintage German poster from 1954 with a stylised stag's head. There are dangling lamps and simple wooden tables with candles.
European signifiers at The Brick.

We heard about The Brick when The Brick followed us on Instagram two days before our unannounced visit. Spooky.

Its branding and proposition appealed to us immediately: warm minimalism, Czech and German beer.

On a rainy Sunday evening, in the wake of the half marathon, it was a little quiet. But that’s not a bad test of the fundamental fitness of a pub.

With its dark green walls, vintage furniture and antler-themed greebling, even with six customers, it felt alive.

One of the owners was pottering about tidying up and stock taking; two lads were chatting in, we think, Italian; and a group at the bar were exchanging horror stories from working in commercial kitchens.

The highlight of the visit was Vinohradský 11, a Czech pale lager with a delightful flowery aroma, a hint of butter, and a heavy layer of pure zing.

When we ordered, the loitering owner intervened to tell the person behind the bar: “I think we’ve got a nice little Vinohradský glass for that one…” They did, and it enhanced the pleasure enormously.

Squint and, with that handled mug to your mouth, you could convince yourself you were in some eastern bloc bar in 1983. In a good way.

The interior of a modern pub with tiled back bar, keg taps, bunting, chalkboards, and very bright lights.
Craft beer signifiers at The Maris & Otter.

Much as we enjoyed this modern bar, and its continental beer, we then had an itch to drink Harvey’s somewhat on its home turf. A 6-minute walk away we found The Maris & Otter, which we’d clocked on an earlier walk.

Again, it’s tough to judge a pub on a rainy Sunday evening, but this felt inherently bland. It’s an attempt by a trad brewery to do ‘contemporary’ which means:

  • bare brick and concrete walls
  • prints of otters in Peaky Blinders hats
  • the words ‘craft beer’ in random places
  • bright lights
  • pop music

If it hadn’t been for the line up on the bar, we’d have walked, but when you offer us Harvey’s best bitter, mild, porter and old ale, you’ve got us hooked.

The porter was wonderful, we might even say magical, with everything you get from something like Fuller’s London Porter plus that distinctive funky yeast character. The best bitter was in wonderful condition, too, but served in a highball type glass which did it no favours.

The door of a pub toilet with signs warning that drugs are not allowed on the premises, and that only one person at a time is allowed in the cubicle.
Normal pub signifiers at The Waggon & Horses.

As a footnote, Ray also enjoyed Sussex Best at The Waggon & Horses, a city centre pub chosen by his dad because (a) it was handy and (b) looked down-to-earth.

It wasn’t anything special, as a pub, except, somehow, it was. Extraordinarily ordinary. Buttered white toast. A Rich Tea biscuit.

The staff weren’t obsequiously friendly but seemed to have the knack for treating customers like human beings.

The other customers were damp shoppers, lads on crawls, and a trio of older fellers, evidently from London, who made welcoming chat with Dad while Ray was at the bar.

And the beer was… excellent.

Dark Star Hophead, that 3.8% wonder, as good as it’s ever tasted, and Harvey’s Sussex Best in similarly shimmering form.

It seemed to bring Dad, not long out of hospital, and still not quite himself, back to life, as only a really good pint can do.

Beer history pubs

The Iron Duke and the battle for a union for bar staff

For an ambitious politician in 1930s Liverpool, wealthy brewers were a tempting target, and underpaid bar staff a potential source of power.

When we’re trying to understand what life was like in pubs and breweries in the past local working class histories can be an excellent source.

For example, there’s My Liverpool by Frank Shaw, published in 1971. It contains a hundred or so individual entries, each under their own headings, reflecting the author’s memories and impressions of life in the city during the 20th century.

On a recent dip into this book, which has no index and no real structure, we came across a passage about a local Labour politician and later Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Luke Hogan.

If we measure it by 21st century standards, Hogan is something of a forgotten figure: his Wikipedia page is barely more than a stub. That makes Shaw’s rambling, personal, first-hand observations all the more interesting.

First, he tells us, Hogan was known as ‘The Iron Duke’ not because of his aristocratic bearing, though he was apparently lordly, despite his upbringing in the slums, but simply because it rhymes with ‘Luke’.

He then goes onto say:

When I first met him in the Thirties he was working on the marvellous but hopeless task of organising barmen and barmaids in a union.

Shaw then rambles away from this intriguing point for a while, giving us a broader portrait of Hogan as a sharp political operator with street smarts – like a character from The Wire or, dare we say it, Peaky Blinders.

He then loops back to explain Hogan’s particular interest in pubs:

The licensee [of The Maid of Erin] was the brother of Luke who was a powerful man on the local Watch Committee, well liked by all policemen… Yes, Luke’s defunct school of politicians never missed anything. We could drink after hours because Luke was a magistrate and on the licensing committee. Police, pubs and schools he saw from the outset to be the sources of power and personal repute.

The battle for a barmen’s union

For more detail on Hogan’s campaign to establish a union for bar staff we have to dig around in the newspaper archives. A piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 8 October 1935 has Hogan speaking at a joint meeting of the National Union of Distribute and Allied Workers (NUDAW) and the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (Barmen’s Branch):

Alderman Luke Hogan… described the distributive trade as the biggest sweated industry in the British Isles. Since the year 1922, the workers in this class of industry had increased by over 50 per cent, and of the total number more than 50 per cent were under the age of 21. The industries were expanding, and every big firm, combine and trust was making profits of a phenomenal character. But despite those features, the tenure of employment was shorter, for it was a “blind” occupation into which thousands were brought in at 14 and discarded when they became 18… In a reference to the men and women engaged in public houses, Alderman Hogan, said that if they had barmen as strong as the liquor they sold was weak it would not be long before they took a great step forward in bettering their conditions.

In 1944, Shaw mentions in passing, Hogan angered members of the local Brewers’ Society by surveying NUDAW members employed in their pubs. There’s more on this incident in the newspapers, too: they took Hogan to court.

The questionnaire asked pub managers for details of wages, living conditions, weekly sales, and the number of staff. As far as the brewers were concerned, this was commercially sensitive information, and confidential.

At a hearing in April 1945 Hogan’s defence counsel said:

It is simply an attempt… to uphold and maintain the policy of the brewers to oppose the formation of a trade union. It has been an effective step, and has resulted in the temporary obstruction of the union, and they may feel some justification in that. But I submit this action has no legal foundation. This is the kind of action against which the unions are protected by the Trade Disputes Act.

Hogan’s own testimony (Liverpool Daily Post, 27 April 1945) helpfully fills in some gaps in the story:

[He] said at various times he had attempted to build up an organisation among the workers in the brewing industry. Other unions had made similar efforts, but all got tired of wasting money… Dealing with the effort to establish a Joint Industrial Council, witness said the suggestion was that machinery should be set up to deal exclusively with the on-licensed trade, covering all employees in the trade. The invitation to join in the effort was sent to the plaintiff companies, with the exception of Bent’s, who had always been hostile to organisation in the trade, and it was thought it would be a waste of time to trouble with them. Nothing developed in the way of forming an Industrial Council. In November 1940, there was a largely attended meeting of public-house managers and barmen and others to interest them in the formation of a trade union.

In May 1945, the court declared that Hogan was wrong to ask for information about turnover and staff costs, and shouldn’t do it again. If he did, the brewers could come back to court for an injunction. But he was free to continue to ask individuals about their pay and conditions. (Liverpool Echo, 16 May 1945.)

Bobbing about (we’ve put this in clearer order than it appears in the book) Shaw tells us that after World War II, and after his stint as Lord Mayor, Hogan continued his association with pubs and booze:

I was in Luke’s company in the Forties with other heavy drinkers in the home of a prominent Liverpool businessman. The businessman was temporarily out of the room. His wife, much younger than he, clearly resented his generosity to us, though she must have known, as we did, that he wouldn’t give anything to anyone for nothing. She said: ‘I think you gentlemen should pay for your drinks.’… Luke, elegant as ever, carefully put his drink down and looked down at her, murmuring softly: ‘Madam, you forget. I am a magistrate. If you charge one penny for a drink in this unlicensed room I shall have to summon the police.’

In 1971, Shaw had this to say about the long-term effects of Hogan’s campaign on behalf of bar staff:

[They], especially the barmaids, in Liverpool, remain among the poorest paid workers.

Half a century later again, there are unions bar staff can join, and an active campaign to encourage them to do so. But it remains an ongoing battle.

Beer history bristol pubs

Pubs and breweries in Bristol Archives

After almost seven years in this city, we finally made it to the Bristol Archives in January 2024, to see what they had on pubs and beer.

When we were researching 20th Century Pub in particular we visited archives in a number of cities, looking in particular for information about the construction of pubs and social housing in the interwar and post war periods. 

Sometimes, we’d also stumble across other interesting titbits, particularly in brewery minutes.

Once, Jess even found an ancestor of hers mentioned in the board minutes of Barclay Perkins, although the story wasn’t particularly relevant to the book.

We knew from some pre-visit enquiries that the Bristol Archives does not hold brewery records for Georges (Courage) or any of its predecessor breweries.

There were some bits and pieces relating to Smiles brewery, which will add to our incomplete but growing history.

We also enjoyed looking at huge rolled-up plans for post-war council estates indicating the locations of pubs, and there’s perhaps a story to be told sometime about the pubs that were planned but didn’t get built.

It looks as if there was a fourth pub planned for Southmead, for example, but we don’t know anything more about it at this stage.

Possibly the most colourful material we found were various police and licensing records.

There’s a lot there and the organisation of the material is a little confusing. This is not the Archive’s fault but a result of the police divisions in Bristol seeming to switch about and alter their systems of recordkeeping every five minutes.

Even so, we found lots of interesting nuggets around investigating licence complaints, including quite a few records of the police dropping in, just in case.

When were you last in a pub when a constable turned up on his rounds?

We were also reminded that the police also took notice if you were not open during your licensed hours, recording instances of pubs being slow to open in the morning:

“Sergeant Edward Midwinter… reports that at 11:10 am 22nd December 1913, he observed that the Pilgrim [public house] New Thomas Street, Saint Philips, was closed for the sale of intoxicating liquor.”

What we’re not clear on is why.

Nothing we’ve read so far suggests that pubs could get in trouble for being late to open. Generally, the emphasis is on them staying open after they’re meant to be shut, or opening earlier than their permitted hours.

Paul Jennings’s article ‘Policing Public Houses in Victorian England’ from 2013 is a good piece on this.

From our brief glance over the Bristol records, though, we got a faint impression that being late to open was perhaps an indicator of a generally unruly house.

Why might they be late to open? Perhaps because they’d been late to close the night before.

Anyway, we’d be all for the police keeping notes on pubs that fail to open when their Google profile says they will. Throw the book at ‘em! (Because this is the internet: we are obviously joking.)

Most frustrating was confirmation that the Courage records do exist but were withdrawn from the Archive in the 1990s. We contacted the person who withdrew them (their contact details are in the catalogue) and they confirmed that these papers are in “deep storage” and inaccessible to researchers.

We feel pleased that we finally made it to the archive and found it very friendly and helpful, and might make a return visit sometime with more focus.

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20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs versus cafes in 1927 and 2024

What is it about pubs that makes them particularly suitable for socialising and ‘hanging out’, compared to cafes and restaurants?

Earlier this week we wrote about a board game cafe which seemed to have many of the characteristics of a pub.

Most crucially, it was busy (it had atmosphere) and relaxed, with no particular pressure to buy anything once you’d taken a table.

We found an echo of this – including a mention of games – in Ernest Selley’s 1927 book The English Public House As It Is:

The public house is a place where people tarry for social intercourse as well as for refreshment. There are, of course, other shops which sell refreshment, i.e., dairies and tea-shops, but one rarely sees a crowd of people congregate in a dairy or tea-shop in quite the same way as people meet in public houses. It is true that people meet in tea-shops and take refreshment and enjoy social intercourse, and also at times play games such as draughts, and dominoes; but the number of people who, for instance, make a habit of spending a whole evening in a tea-shop is small enough to be left out of account. Besides, tea-shops are not nearly so ubiquitous as public houses, except perhaps in the office areas of some of our larger towns and cities.

On that point of ubiquity, things have changed, at least if we substitute ‘coffee’ for ‘tea’.

In 20th Century Pub we wrote in passing about the arrival of the espresso machine in Britain in the 1950s and the threat it was seen to pose to the traditional pub.

Zooming forward half a century, and just picking one chain, there were 41 branches of Costa Coffee in 1995. Now there are more than 2,000.

And the number of pubs has, of course, severely declined since 1927.

But, still, if you wanted to meet a friend, hang out for a couple of hours, without eating a full meal, wouldn’t you still default to a pub?

Well, of course you would – but would a majority of people?

We think the answer is still “Yes” but with a shift definitely underway.

As well as the aforementioned board game cafes, we’ve also noticed in Bristol a growing number of (a) video game bars or grown-up amusement arcades and (b) dessert cafes.

The video game places are interesting. In both of those we’ve visited there was draught beer but you were absolutely free to ignore it. You were paying your way by paying to play games with drinks as an additional amenity.

And the desert cafes will sell you a disgustingly huge plate of ice cream and waffles, or whatever, and then let you and several friends spend hours picking at it. In Bristol, they’re notably popular with young Asian people, who perhaps feel less comfortable hanging out around booze.

Much as we love pubs and enjoy drinking beer, the prospect of a hospitality landscape that includes hangover-free options doesn’t displease us.

As we hinted in our previous post, perhaps what pub operators need to focus on is how they can make people who don’t want to drink feel welcome, and welcome to stay. And think about what they can sell them other than alcoholic drinks.

Of course, you can file that under “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that”.

From pub grub to coffee to cinemas to ballrooms, pubs have been trying to diversify for more than a century. Why doesn’t it ever quite seem to take?