20th Century Pub pubs

A Texan in England, 1943-44: pub trivia and pints of bitter

In 1943, American writer J. Frank Dobie was offered a post at Cambridge University. He used the opportunity to observe English life, including the central role of beer and pubs.

We mentioned Dobie’s 1946 memoir A Texan in England in our recent post about Ray Oldenburg. We then managed to track down a copy, printed in 1946 on thin austerity paper, for just shy of £6, delivered. It has no dust jacket but on the upside, it is signed by Jack Barrett, landlord of The Anchor Hotel, of whom more later.

The material on pubs is primarily confined to a single chapter, although they’re mentioned in passing at various points. Beer also makes a cameo early on in the book in a description of the culture of university societies:

I went to the monthly meeting of a historical society presided over by a genial tutor. Only about a dozen men belong to it. After coffee one of them began reading a paper on Punch. As soon as he opened his mouth there was a bolt of all other members to a case of brown bottles I had observed in a corner of the room. It is a part of the formalism of the society that beer shall be drunk while the programme is in progress but that nobody shall touch beer until the speaker begins… Most of the men drank two or three bottles apiece during the course of the evening. A large proportion of University men drink beer, and think no more of it than of drinking coffee. I have not seen any undergraduate intoxicated beyond gaiety.

This perhaps explains why there are so few mentions of beer or pubs in writing from before about 1960 – because it was utterly and literally unremarkable.

J. Frank Dobie
J. Frank Dobie from the US National Portrait Gallery.

The chapter on pubs is actually about one specific pub, The Anchor on Silver Street, overlooking the river where the punts park. It opens, however, with a quick rundown of others in the city:

The Baron of Beef, out of bounds for American soldiers; The Angel, where soldiers are too thick for anybody else to get in bounds; The Castle, where the matured barmaid combines dignity with easy welcome; The Jug and Bottle, where citizens take their pitchers to be filled; The Red Cow, too cavelike for cheer; The Bun Shop, often in stock when other pubs have run out but too garrulous for conversation; The Hat and Feathers, too far away; The Little Rose, just what is should be.

As you’ll know if you’ve read 20th Century Pub, Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell or any number of other sources, beer wasn’t rationed during World War II but was in short supply, hence the comment on The Bun Shop.

Dobie’s poetic introductory description of The Anchor is lovely, and one in which you might want to wallow in these pub-deprived times:

The time I began finding it a refuge was when darkness came early and black curtains shut off the view from the river, but the ingle fire was ‘bleezing finely’. Then the days lengthened, and from the seat by the window that I always seemed to find – by being prompt at the six o’clock opening – I could see the mallard duck with her little ones, which grew up and practised skimming. In the elm trees beyond the river and a bit of fen, the rooks talked about their nests, their eggs, their young ones and other things until they all went away.

Jack Barrett, Dobie tells us, had a sideline renting boats from the wharf attached to the pub. After hours were restricted by the Government, he let regulars continue sneaking in at the usual time by the back door, pulling their own pints of bitter on the way. ‘Jack is a philosopher,’ writes Dobie, ‘kind of partridge-built, quick as a cat on his feet, light always dancing in his eyes.’

Per the quote that appeared in the previous post, Dobie was fascinated by the British innkeeper’s attitude to money:

The good English publican is certainly not averse to making money, but he is content with making a living. His pub has likely been a pub for generations without appreciable growth. The pictures on its walls go back sometimes as far as the walls themselves. They are quiet, inclining to landscapes, coaches, cheerful faces… This is the very opposite of the American bar pictures, which are designed to inflame all the lusts. The absence of silence-murdering noises from radios, nickelodeons and slot machines harmonizes with the pictures. In all the pubs you can play darts free. The proprietor is not trying to peddle sidelines…

We can’t help but wonder if Dobie ever came back to Britain and thought, oh, that didn’t last, as radios, TVs, fruit machines, jukeboxes and so on began to appear with greater regularity during the 1950s and 60s.

His idealising of the pub continues with a passage on attitudes to alcohol, which seem rather at odds with the notes taken by the Mass Observation crew in Bolton only a few years before:

These pubs do not try to make drinking ‘attractive’. Ideally, they are just homey spots among a very settled and not at all Bohemian population. They are more cheerful than merry… Neither ale nor beer – they are the same thing – taken moderately is highly potent as ‘conversation juice’. I have watched a labourer sip at his pint for an hour without saying a word, just sitting and thinking or maybe just sitting.

The bulk of the chapter is given over to a record of the pub conversation between Dobie and his cronies, the underlying point being the extent to which trivia rules. One, for example, has a list of Assyrian names for girls in his pocket to prompt a discussion about which is the prettiest. They touch on politics, but lightly, and there are competitive bouts of did-you-know about Henry VIII, the burial practices of Burmese priests, jellied eels and judicial wigs.

As one perspective among many, it’s a useful thing to have, but Dobie is clearly a romantic, writing about a particular type of pub, in a very peculiar city.

20th Century Pub pubs

The Blarney Stone, Kilburn, 1984

Here we are going on about Minder again – that wonderful record of the pubs of London in the 1980s. This time, what grabbed our attention was the appearance of an Irish theme pub too early in the timestream.

In the twelfth episode of series four, originally broadcast on ITV on 24 March 1984, one of the two intertwined plots involves Terry McCann (Dennis Waterman) working as a bouncer at a pub called The Blarney Stone, in Kilburn, North London.

We’re introduced to the pub when Terry’s friend Kevin O’Hara (Gerard Murphy) calls Terry to discuss the job mid-refurb. “Mind them harps – they’re only polystyrene!” he yells at a workman, and then, “Oh, no, not plastic leprechauns…”

Kevin O'Hara


So what? you might ask but here’s why we sat up and took notice: in our book 20th Century Pub, after much research and inquiry, we declared Flanagan’s Apple in Liverpool to be the first Irish theme pub in the UK. It opened in 1984.

To clarify, there are Irish pubs (pubs in Ireland) and Irish pubs (pubs in other countries frequented by Irish people) but we’re talking about (fiddle music plays, party poppers go off) Irish Pubs, providing a kind of Disneyland Irish experience.

Now, The Blarney Stone is fictional, but why would the writers make this joke if Irish theme pub makeovers weren’t something in the popular imagination, that ITV viewers might recognise as ‘a thing’?

We began to worry, in short, that we’d got it wrong – a perennial problem when you come off the fence and state what you are 99% confident is a fact in print.

As the episode winds on, the politics of this particular pub are explored in a little more detail: Kevin tells Terry that the makeover has been imposed by the brewery that owns the pub.

The Shamrocks.

“Forget the spit and sawdust days, all this is going to be a bit choice, nobody gets in without a collar and tie.. The brewers make me smile. They’ve got about as much idea of Irishmen as you have. Not content with outing the disco, and stacking the jukebox with Jim Reeves records, they have to bring this lot in for opening night.”

“Who are they?”

“The Shamrocks.”

“Most of the punters in here are Irish anyway, aren’t they?”

“That’s right, and they’re not amused.”

When some burly Irish labourers turn up and start a fight any pretence at gentility is forgotten, and the polystyrene harps are indeed smashed to pieces.

By the end of the episode, we felt reassured: this wasn’t a portrait of the emerging Irish theme pub, it was an attempt to lampoon the theme pub trend more generally, then at the tail-end of a three-decade history.

The joke is that the brewery, recognising this Kilburn pub’s Irish clientele, imposed an insensitive makeover intended to pander to them, just as it might have painted scenes of cotton mill life on the wall of a pub in Lancashire, or covered a pub in Scotland in tartan.

But if you know otherwise – if you recall Irish Pubs as we know them now emerging before 1984 – we’d like to know more.


Wodehouse in America, thinking of the English pub

The English writer P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his stories of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves but also invented a pub, The Angler’s Rest, which was the setting for his Mr Mulliner stories.

The story ‘The Truth About George’, first published in the Strand in 1926, opens the 1927 collection Meet Mr Mulliner and gives us our first taste of this ideal small town inn:

Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest as I entered it; and one of them, I gathered from his low, excited voice and wide gestures, was telling the other a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional “Biggest I ever saw in my life!” and “Fully as large as that!” but in such a place it was not difficult to imagine the rest; and when the second man, catching my eye, winked at me with a sort of humorous misery, I smiled sympathetically back at him.

These stories are not about the pub but, like Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, exploit the pub’s reputation as a place where stories get told.

So, in the course of forty pieces, most written in the 1920s and 30s, we get a series of mere glimpses into The Angler’s Rest, adding up, just about, to a portrait.

In the second story, ‘A Slice of Life’, we meet a recurring character, the barmaid Miss Postlethwaite. We don’t learn much about her in this brief first appearance other than that she likes going to the pictures to see films on their first night of release and that she is ‘courteous and efficient’. Elsewhere, she is ‘able and vigilant’, ‘gifted and popular’ and ‘a girl of exquisite sensibility and devoutness’.

The landlord, Ernest Biggs, is also introduced. He opens the 1933 story ‘The Juice of an Orange’ by kicking the pub cat, to everyone’s astonishment, ‘For Ernest had always been known for the kindness of his disposition.’

Eventually, the regulars are brought in, too, with a convention emerging in the second batch of stories collected as Mr Mulliner Speaking that each of them is named for the drink they usually consume: ‘Small Bass’, ‘A Tankard of Stout’, ‘A Pint of Half-and-half’, ‘Rum and Milk’, and so on.

In ‘Something Squishy’, 1929, a point of etiquette is spelled out: ‘A tactless Mild-and-Bitter, who was a newcomer to the bar-parlour and so should not have spoken at all, said that…’

Wodehouse captures the tone of the conversation between these barroom acquaintances in ‘The Man Who Gave Up Smoking’ from 1929:

In a mixed assemblage like the little group of serious thinkers which gathers nightly in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest it is hardly to be expected that there will invariably prevail an unbroken harmony. We are all men of spirit: and when men of spirit, with opinions of their own, get together, disputes are bound to arise. Frequently, therefore, even in this peaceful haven, you will hear voices raised, tables banged, and tenor Permit-me-to-inform-you-sir’s competing with baritone And-jolly- well-permit -me- to-inform-yous. I have known fists to be shaken and on one occasion the word ‘fat-head’ to be used.

The space gets filled out, bit by bit, as Mr Mulliner and his loquacious drinking companions move around the bar from one story to the next. Here’s the window seat, for example, from ‘Mulliner’s Buck-u-uppo’:

The village Choral Society had been giving a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Sorcerer’ in aid of the Church Organ Fund; and, as we sat in the window of the Anglers’ Rest, smoking our pipes, the audience came streaming past us down the little street. Snatches of song floated to our ears, and Mr. Mulliner began to croon in unison…

As for Mr Mulliner himself, he is a portrait of the long-winded pub bore, or would be if his stories were less entertaining and outlandish. Here’s a brilliant description of him, and by extension of his type, from the 1927 story ‘Those in Peril on the Tee’:

I think the two young men in the chess-board knickerbockers were a little surprised when they looked up and perceived Mr. Mulliner brooding over their table like an affable Slave of the Lamp. Absorbed in their conversation, they had not noticed his approach. It was their first visit to the Anglers’ Rest, and their first meeting with the sage of its bar-parlour, and they were not yet aware that to Mr. Mulliner any assemblage of his fellow-men over and above the number of one constitutes an audience.

It’s telling, we reckon, that Wodehouse wrote these stories while he was working primarily in New York and Hollywood – pining, perhaps, for this most English of institutions.

If you find yourself craving a bit of escapism for, oh, any reason at all, you could certainly do worse than spend some time in The Angler’s Rest yourself.


The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.


When the first, second and third place are all the same

The third place isn’t work and isn’t home; it is somewhere you mingle with others; and it is vital to the healthy functioning of communities.

The concept was developed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, to which we were pointed by Stan Hieronymus while working on our own book 20th Century Pub.

Though primarily focused on social life in America, and especially on the 20th century tendency to build vast new suburban settlements without cafes, coffee shops or bars, its arguments are universal.

For example, there’s this on the value of the neighbourhood bar as pressure valve:

My suspicion is that a good tavern keeps ‘steam’ from building up more than it provides a means to ‘blow it off’… The ethnologist is likely to argue that there is a need to ‘let off steam’ and to do so collectively. Attention to the world’s many cultures soon reveals the prevalence of all manner of wanton reveling. Celebrations are institutionalized in the form of feasts, festivals, junkets, religious holidays, saturnalian binges, organized drinking bouts… It is characteristic of such events that everyday norms and decorum are ignored; that the spirit of revelry affects all and not just the few; that the madness is manifest in public and not privately, and not casually, but with a serious intensity.

It’s been on our minds a lot lately as we find ourselves denied access to not only the third place (pubs) but also to the second place, commuting from one room in the house to another for work each morning, and back again in the evening.

Ordering people not to go out, not to gather, might seem reasonable and easily managed if you’re not someone for whom gathering is important. But if, like most of us, stopping off at the third place is how you cope with the struggles of the first and second places, it’s easier said than done.

Some handle it by scrambling around for synthetic substitutes for maintenance therapy. In our experience, virtual drinks with friends or family over video aren’t anything like as much fun as the pub. But it does soften the withdrawal symptoms.

New rituals are emerging, too: the can or bottle held up to the webcam so that others on the call can see for themselves what you’re drinking; the unspoken agreement that someone must ‘chair’, inviting others to speak when the babble gets too much; and the calling of ‘time, please, ladies and gentleman’ as peering at the screen begins to fatigue.

Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect.

Other people (though less, perhaps, than press and social media would have you believe) can’t cope, so they break the rules.

Upsetting as it can be to hear that this is happening, it’s not surprising.

For those who live alone, or in unhappy households, removing the option to meet friends on neutral ground is necessary but no less brutal.

As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.