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20th Century Pub featuredposts pubs

The Comet, Hatfield, 1936: streamline total design

A totally modern pub, unapologetically of the 1930s, designed to look like an Art Deco racing aeroplane? No wonder it keeps going viral.

We first encountered The Comet, a big inter-war hotel on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, when we began researching 20th Century Pub. Basil Oliver mentions it in his essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House and we found further information in this 2015 post by retro-vintage blogger Mark Amies.

Although we only had space for an overview of the ‘improved public house’ movement of the inter-war years, and a brief mention for The Comet, we actually gathered a fairly substantial amount of research material, and have collected more since.

Here, for example, is the opening of an article from the journal of the Royal Institue of British Architects (RIBA) from January 1937, about a month after The Comet opened:

This new hotel is of interest for the following principal reasons:

1. It represents a new type of hotel, namely, one that caters for the best class of traveller, yet is situated not in a large centre of population, but on an arterial road in rural surroundings. There is, however, an aerodrome, an aircraft factory and some house property nearby, the occupants of which will provide some local trade. Mainly, however, it will depend on visitors from London and travellers on the Great North Road.

2. The architect was given complete freedom not only in the general plan and design in all details. Such items as the lettered notices, the menu cards, most of the furniture and many of the textiles were designed by the architect. The ensemble, which is remarkably well carried out, has therefore unusual unity.

3. The plan is both simple and efficient. Its main element is the grouping of the public rooms round the service and kitchen. Yet so well is this done that the feeling of segregation of different classes of trade, commonly experienced in inns and public-houses having this plan, is absent. Each public room is a separate unit.

4. The general exterior form is novel, yet expresses the structure and plan exactly.

The Comet – full exterior view.
SOURCE: The Renaissance of the English Public House, Basil Oliver, 1947
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pubs

The best seat in the pub

The best seat in the Drapers Arms, our temporarily takeaway-only local pub, is at the table tucked away beside the front door.

That sounds as if it might be draughty. It’s not. It’s protected from the door by a short projecting wall, making a corner that keeps out the worst of the breeze.

It’s somehow private, too. Someone might sit to your left, but never to your right, so you can’t get too badly squeezed.

And from this little table you can see every other drinker in the pub. You can see what’s going on, hear the best bits of the conversation and avoid being taken by surprise. (The last thing you want in the pub is to have your fight-or-flight response triggered.)

So that’s why it’s the best seat, as far as we’re concerned, and we had assumed our criteria for judging this would be universal.

That’s why back in those BC days when we texted friends to say ‘We’ve got the best seat in the house and the Gorge Best is good’ we were surprised when they asked us which table we meant.

We’d thought it was obvious.

But then when we think of other regulars at the Drapers, it’s clear they have their favourite tables too, and that they’re different from ours.

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.

We wonder what psychological factors impact on where people like to sit. Proximity to the bar? The ease of inviting others to share their table? The appeal of nesting by the warmth of the radiator? Being able to see who’s entering in case you need to escape?

Beyond the psychological, there’s the physical: some people like hard seats, others soft ones, while some daren’t sit down at all for fear of seizing up. If you have to nip out for a cigarette every five minutes, that uncomfortable perch in bin corner might seem more appealing.

In our case, it’s probably that we’re used to going into a range of pubs and have got into the habit of finding the ‘safest’ spot – one where we’re least likely to draw attention to ourselves which gives us some control over interactions with staff and other customers. We’ll end up at a similar seat, at a similar table, almost anywhere.

Which is your favourite spot in your favourite pub, and why? (Any seat in any pub looks pretty good at this point, mind you.)

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pubs

Games people play: pub cricket

Maybe one of the reasons I can spot a pub a mile off is early training playing pub cricket on long car journeys as a child.

Pub cricket, as we used to play it in my family, is based on spotting pub signs and calculating runs based on the number of legs on the sign.

So for example, the Red Lion has four legs.

The Swan with Two Necks has two.

The Coach and Horses has… well, there’s a question. In our version we assumed that if no specific number was depicted in the image on the sign then there could only be two horses, and would therefore count eight legs by default. And then get into a row about whether the coach driver should also be counted, of course, which was half the fun.

There were further questions of interpretation around pubs with Heads and Arms in the name. If a pub is The Queen’s Head, is it fair to assume the Queen also has legs?

Wikipedia includes further variants, including ways of deciding whether a player is out or not.

As Wikipedia suggests, this game was actually much better suited to the network of British A-roads, before the development of motorways.

To account for this, in my family, we ended up adapting the game as motorway cricket, which had complex rules based on the number of wheels on passing lorries. It really wasn’t so much fun, because pubs are better than lorries.

Did you play pub cricket as a kid? What were your family’s rules?

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20th Century Pub beer and food pubs

A survey of a certain type of pub, 1963

In Egon Ronay’s 1964 Guide to 600 Pubs we have a snapshot of ‘nice’ boozers in London and the South of England as they were in 1963, from collections of tat to hot pasties.

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.

Guidebooks don’t endure, generally. They’re usually out of date by the time they go to print and generally all but useless within about two years of publication. When it comes to pubs, which can change from manager to manager and season to season, that’s especially true.

Ronay’s pub guides weren’t annual and the title varied, but the idea was always the same: to help well-to-do travellers find something to eat in a pub that wouldn’t offend their sensibilities.

They’re not as interesting as old editions of the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide – Ronay and his team weren’t especially interested in beer – and lack the entertainment value of those Batsford guides. Still, there are nuggets of gold to be found.

Let’s start with Ronay’s introduction, in which he sets out his belief that ‘atmosphere is, of course, the most important of the factors associated with the word “pub”’:

I insisted. ‘There must be a way,’ I said, ‘in which we can briefly define the atmosphere of pubs and inns.’

We were discussing, my five colleagues of ‘pub testers’ and I, the resume of months of vetting more than a thousand houses. And, as I pressed them and the highlights of their experience unfolded, stories beyond the mine of factual information they had gathered, i dawned on me that such a definition will always elude us. Our impressions were made up of so many factors: individual experiences, historical facts, intriguing figments of imagination, rare moments of warm human communication and, above all, of personalities. Looking back we find that it is the little things that make English pubs and inns inimitable.

It’s hard to argue with that and interesting to think that Ronay didn’t encounter the English pubs until he was in his thirties, having been born in Hungary in 1915 and only arriving in the UK after World War II.

There’s something tickling about the league of gentlemen Ronay assembled, whose blazers and nicotine-tinted moustaches one can’t help but picture: ‘A tobacco blender, a retired naval commander, a chartered accountant, an ex-RAF officer and a businessman…’

Agreeing certain standards and divvying the country up between them, they managed to visit 1,152 pubs, of which 552 had ‘nothing to commend them’. They found 280 pubs in London worth recommending and 320 ‘in the Provinces’ – that is, from Warwickshire to Cornwall. (Sorry, the North.)

The primary value in this relic is that it provides yet more evidence for an argument we’ve been making for years: though the Gastropub™ may have been invented in the 1990s, and Pub Grub™ in the late 1960s, pubs with decent food and ‘dining areas’ had been around for much longer.

Here’s the first entry proper, for The White Hart at Ampthill, Bedfordshire:

At more and more pubs it seems necessary to book a table in advance, particularly in the evening. As eating places, they are getting better and better, yet most of them are maintaining very reasonable prices.

That could have been written at any point in the past 60 years, couldn’t it?

Lots of the pubs listed, especially those further from London, weren’t serving full meals but pasties, rolls and other items of what we’d now recognise as traditional pub snacks. Others had an emphasis on cheese – 20 types here, 36 types there, chosen from cheese menus. Yes, this is due a comeback.

One of our favourite entries, because it rises above the blandness of most and tells a story, is this for The Barnstaple Inn at Burrington, Devon:

Burrington is one of the very few ‘undiscovered’ villages where your car will even excite comment as you park it under the massive oak near the church. One is amazed that such a rural atmosphere still exists. The landlord seemed surprised that we wanted something to eat – he was obviously unused to travelling customers – but his wife rose so nobly to the occasion that we were served with the most enormous plate of ham with a tomato and at least half a loaf of bread, all very nicely served on a tray. A perfect example, this – down to the helpings of ham – of an unspoilt country inn. Don’t spoil it.

Amongst all the talk of shellfish and steak, there are also plenty of dubious ‘it is said that’ stories of murderous landlords and amorous monks. We’ve heard most of these a million times, and generally assume them to have been invented in around 1955, but this one, from The White Lion at Farnborough, Kent, is new to us:

During recent renovations to the pub, the landlord discovered a woman’s skull under the floorboards complete with a bullet hole through the forehead and he has placed it in a niche in the bar, from where it gleams with macabre light!

Ho ho, what fun! The problem is (a) if you find a skull, even an old one, the police get involved, and it’s unlikely they’d let you keep it as a decoration; and (b) we can’t find any mention of this in any other book, newspaper or journal. Ronay and his writers must have known this but when it comes to country pub history bullshit, playing along is all part of the fun.

Historic pub crawl
One of a handful of pub crawls included in the book, illustrated by Michael Peyton.

In London, what’s clear is that the chain pub was beginning to emerge as a concept. For example, there are three Chef & Brewer pubs listed – a joint project between Grand Metropolitan and Levy & Franks. Here’s a description of one, at 60 Edgware Road, London W2:

A brand new pub like this one is a crying need in the Edgware Road. It is built into a new block of shops and offices, and with its clear plate glass window, it is barely distinguishable at first from the shops around it. The single bar is narrow but long, with a bar running the length of the room, and one wall is covered by a coloured mural depicting an aerial panorama of London. Canned music and plastic are inevitable in a modern pub it seems, but it is pleasant and comfortable here, although the roar of traffic is unceasing.

The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

We’re pleased to note, too, that Ronay and his team share our interest in The Samuel Whitbread, the big flagship pub on Leicester Square which is now Burger King:

One of the most fascinating of modern houses with its semi-circular shape and all-glass walls. Take your foreign friends to the basement bars where murals illustrate all the old London Cries, from flower girl to coalman, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere all the more surprising as this is a ‘contemporary’ pub.

We won’t go through every single entry in the book but here’s one more that leapt out, because it seems to describe a pub for mods:

This pub is at the centre of continental and American style clothes, of jazz instruments and the pop-music world. Needless to say, the pub fits like a glove. Modern, go-ahead and young. It is packed with the sort of people whose conversation revolves round pop and jazz, jazz and pop. In the capital of music publishing an ‘olde worlde’ pub would be quite incongruous. As it is, in the world of PVC, it provides the sort of quick lunch that serious talkers need to keep them at it.

We’ll finish with a couple of notes on terminology: in those days before the language of cask and keg firmed up, all sorts of terms were used. Here, we get ‘canister’ for keg and ‘wood bitters’ for cask. And – we sort of like this – ‘landlord’ as a gender neutral term: ‘The landlord is a woman.’

And a footnote: after all this, how did Ronay use the accumulated knowledge of 50 years of pub food? He became a consultant for the Wetherspoon chain, known to ‘turn up unannounced in a chauffeur-driven limousine to check the crispiness of the onion rings and fluffiness of the baked potatoes’.

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20th Century Pub featuredposts pubs

Women and young people in the pub, 1941

In 1941, A Monthly Bulletin, a publication sponsored by the British brewing industry, commissioned research into drinking habits in industrial towns with a particular focus on young people.

You might recall that we touched on something similar a few weeks ago, that time published by Mass Observation. At a guess – we haven’t got much info to go on – we’d guess this research was carried out by the same team.

It’s interesting because it’s about life in pubs during wartime and for its geographical reach. It covers Lancashire, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Newcastle, Plymouth and Sheffield. Not the usual suspects.

The introduction summarises the findings in amusingly of-its-time Mr Cholmondley-Warner language:

[The] chief point is the extension of drinking among women. This has been accelerated by the war but it is not fundamentally due to it. A change of convention in the habits of women has been visible for a long time; the sequel to their attainment of political rights, and freedom to enter the professions and innumerable occupations, was inevitably a movement towards a full sharing of men’s recreations. There is no cause for surprise when boys and girls who have money to spend become excited and noisy. Noise is not necessarily a sign of intoxication.

All the same, the latest development must be carefully watched. Women, and especially girls, are entering upon a testing time. They have it in their power to do much good or harm. Women can restrain and sweeten any human company. The character of the public house is going in the long run to depend appreciably upon them. They are fortunate in the occasion of their new fashion, because beer has become the universal drink and the popular beer to-day is barely intoxicating. Could they not think a little, plan a little, and definitely accept the duty of adding to public house life virtues proportionate to their own powers of inspiration?

The first report, from Lancashire, continues this theme:

The plain fact is that in the past twenty years a tremendous revolution has taken place in the attitude of the womenfolk of the English middle classes towards the public house. The daughters of women who, at the same age, would never have dreamt of resorting to a public house in the course of an evening for a drink and a talk with their men friends and other girls in thousands of cases now think no more of it than of a visit to the cinema or a game of tennis in the park. It marks a revolution in social habits comparable to the spread of smoking among women and the use of cosmetics which, in the middle classes, would once have been regarded as the public announcement of a reputation that was at least doubtful. Anyone who drew such deductions today would be laughed at.

In other words, a woman who wore makeup, smoked and was in the habit of going to the pub might once have been thought to be a prostitute, but by the 1940s, that was beginning to seem daft.

A Monthly Bulletin was tied to the improved public house movement and that’s a theme of this research. Again, from the Lancashire section:

The change in the case of the public house itself has been tremendous and in any properly conducted and designed establishment it has been thoroughly salutary in that it has made the place much less of an exclusively male sphere, particularly in the suburbs, and more of a social meeting place for all sides of a family.

But here’s a claim we don’t think we’ve heard before – that the emergence of the phrase ‘the local’, as applied to pubs, was a result of the changing face of pub clientele:

The very name of ‘the local’, which has arisen within the period of women’s invasion of it, points to a change in the tradition. Leaving out of account for the moment the nature of the refreshments there provided, ‘the pub’ was the gossip-shop for the male; ‘the local’ is the gossip-shop for both sexes, plus darts and other diversions.

The anonymous author of the report seems to have had mixed feelings about the changing balance between old and young drinkers:

It may be remarked in passing that, at any rate in the north-west of England, the first stages of the woman’s, and particularly of the young woman’s, invasion of the local inn was apt to be bitterly resented by its older male frequenters. By the elders who were accustomed to sit there long and, it must be admitted, somewhat glumly of an evening, the arrival of chattering young men and women, fresh from a tennis court or with their bicycles left at the front of the house, was regarded as an unforgivable intrusion. The elders retreated behind the warning announcement ‘NO LADIES SERVED IN THIS ROOM’. One remembers vigorous grumbles from the male habitues on that subject in a solid hostelry in a Manchester suburb on a summer evening of 1922. But the tide, then turning, has ever since swept too strongly in the direction ‘equal citizenship’ for patrons of the public house. The Old Guard may keep to its ‘snug’ but the Young Guard has the run of the rest of the house.

The notes on Liverpool have more of the same, including what sounds like the kind of story a modern-day anti-feminist controversy columnist might come out with:

One of the most marked changes is the greater patronage of public houses by women and the considerably increased drinking among adolescents, both boys and girls. Liverpool’s geographical position is largely responsible for what has reached the magnitude of a social evil. It is now a common sight to see women and girls of all classes in bars, standing each other drinks and occupying the stools formerly sacred to men. Indeed, in one well-known city bar the other day an old customer entering and seeing half a dozen or more young women seated by the counter said to the barman, ‘Excuse me, but is it alright for men to come in here?’

Echoing what the Mass Observers found in South London at around the same time, this report suggests that pubs in the port city were full of ‘vulturine’ young women on the hunt for sailors and servicemen.
We were, of course, especially interested to read about Bristol, where the biggest problem seems to have been capacity. As the city was overrun with war workers, the report says, pubs struggled to meet demand, both in terms of available space and the supply of beer:

[Pubs] which were quiet in peace time have become crowded night after night with customers who may be diplomatically called ‘outsiders’. The policy adopted by many publicans is to sell out and close down… Others open part of the day while the stock lasts. Matters have been improved by the tacit understanding that certain well-known houses will be entirely closed on certain days, but there is still excessive crowding at night as long as stocks are available. The tendency of customers is to go from house to house in the evenings in order to get better service or a reasonably quiet time. Many declare that the only way to have refreshment in comfort is to ‘stake your claim’ early in the evening and then remain as long as you want… There are also simmering grievances about preference being given to old customers but the argument can be applied the other way round, i.e. old customers being shouldered out by casual or ‘new’ customers. With the crowded conditions generally the existing service in the evenings is under severe strain.

Having not looked closely at Nottingham, we find ourselves intrigued to learn more about its inter-war improved pubs based on this note:

There is a general desire to make licensed premises brighter, cheerier and up to date. There could be no finder stimulus than the erection in the suburbs of smart and spacious houses, with gardens, herbaceous borders, nice and handy car parks, and all the amenities that make a ‘good’ house. Nottingham has a number of these satellite houses of the finest type, to which the motorists go and where they bring their friends, especially on summer evenings.

The section on Newcastle underlines this point while also suggesting that there was particular room for improvement in that city’s pubs which were formerly ‘not unlike pig troughs’.

We found this document via the University of Warwick’s excellent online archive – go and read the whole thing and maybe have a dig to see what else might be hiding in the stacks. And here’s the source of the main image.