Pub Culture: The Lost Art of Spitting

One of the weirdest, grimmest things about our recent Big Project has been the amount of time we’ve spent reading about spitting.

We knew it used to be com­mon in pubs from the detailed cov­er­age in Mass Obser­va­tion’s The Pub and the Peo­ple but that’s noth­ing com­pared to what we found in Indus­tri­al Town: self-por­trait of St Helens in the 1920s by Charles For­man, pub­lished in 1978. The bulk of a small sec­tion on pubs is giv­en over to a woman in her six­ties recall­ing life as the teenage daugh­ter of a pub­li­can. Here’s what she had to say about spit­ting (look away now if you’re squea­mish):

My sis­ter and I used to do all the clean­ing when we left school, pol­ish­ing the floors… There were spit­toons, because they used to smoke a lot of pipes then, and they have had worse chests than we do now. They smoked long clay pipes and dipped the ends into the beer to keep them cool. The spit­toons were iron, and ter­ri­ble to clean out – you used to have to put saw­dust in. Imag­ine clean­ing what some­one had been spit­ting out! When the floors were car­pet­ed, they daren’t spit on them and went out­side to do it. They used to spit on the fire; you used to have to clean off what stuck on the grate after bad aim­ing. They always spat on the fire at home.

It seems weird to think this was ever accept­able, does­n’t it? We won­der (ner­vous to men­tion it because peo­ple do get narky on this sub­ject) if this is how peo­ple will think about smok­ing in pubs in a few years time. Or maybe this is anoth­er thing (tuber­cu­lo­sis risks aside) that ought to make a come­back, with a lit­tle sym­bol in the Good Beer Guide?

Pub Preservation: The Railway Hotel, Edgware

Railway Hotel in the rain.
‘Rail­way Hotel Unloved’ by Matt Brown, from Flickr, under Cre­ative Com­mons.

We don’t usually get involved in campaigns or promote petitions but this one struck a particular chord with us.

It was set up by Mark Amies (@superfast72) who blogs about his­to­ry and archi­tec­ture and has a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in inter-war pubs in the Greater Lon­don area. His piece on The Comet, Hat­field, is a par­tic­u­lar favourite of ours.

The Rail­way Hotel in Edg­ware, North Lon­don, the sub­ject of his peti­tion, is anoth­er pub from the same peri­od, so few of which are left that the remain­ing exam­ples have become pre­cious.

It’s a pub we know quite well even though we did­n’t make it there on our tour of out­er Lon­don’s inter-war pubs ear­li­er in the year. It is men­tioned in pass­ing in Basil Oliv­er’s essen­tial 1947 book The Renais­sance of the Eng­lish Pub­lic House as a notable exam­ple of the kind of ‘impos­ing inn… qua­si tim­ber-framed’ that Tru­man, Han­bury & Bux­ton were build­ing at the time. Now, Mark says:

It closed in the ear­ly 2000’s and has remained board­ed up and unloved since. Last month there was an arson attack which left a por­tion of the ground floor ruined, as yet no one has been pros­e­cut­ed for this to our knowl­edge. The Rail­way Hotel has has sev­er­al own­ers since last year.

These sit­u­a­tions can be turned around. A cou­ple of weeks back we vis­it­ed The Fel­low­ship Inn, a sim­i­lar premis­es in South Lon­don, which hav­ing been list­ed is now the focus of a well-fund­ed project which promis­es not only to restore the build­ing archi­tec­tural­ly but also to bring it back to life, giv­ing over the pub to expe­ri­enced chain oper­a­tors, installing a micro­brew­ery, and turn­ing the derelict dance hall into a cin­e­ma.

Microscope as Brewer’s Life Blood, 1924

1899 illustration of brewing yeast.

As far as the practical brewer is concerned, complete knowledge of the correct use of the microscope is as necessary as his life blood, for it will save him a host of troubles. Indeed, it passes my comprehension how some prefer to take their chance when you hear them say: ‘I never look at my yeast under the microscope. If it is of a certain solidity and smells all right, and is of a good colour, I never worry further about it!’ This kind of thing may not have led to disaster in former days, when the alcoholic content of beers was such that it was an efficient protection, but to trust to such rough and ready methods in these days must surely court disaster.”

The Train­ing of an Oper­a­tive Brew­er’, B.G.C. Wether­all, Jour­nal of the Oper­a­tive Brew­ers’ Guild, Octo­ber 1924

Pubs for ‘Men About Town’, 1920s

F.D. Ommanney’s 1966 autobiographical memoir The River Bank contains a fascinating account of how pubs fit into the London gay scene of the 1920s.

Fran­cis Downes Omman­ney was quite well-known in his day as an Antarc­tic explor­er and trav­el writer who served in the Roy­al Navy dur­ing World War II. This par­tic­u­lar book cov­ers in frank detail the peri­od when he realised, as (by his own admis­sion) a rather randy young man, that he was gay.

His account of var­i­ous cafes and clubs where gay men min­gled are enter­tain­ing, espe­cial­ly the descrip­tion of one sec­tion of an oth­er­wise bland tea room near Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus which was known as the ‘Lily Pond’, but we’re going to stick to his com­ments on pubs in this post. First, there is his gen­er­al view on how pubs had changed since his youth:

In those days pubs were not the ele­gant estab­lish­ments that many of them have now, rather deplorably, become with chan­de­liers, bro­cade wall­pa­pers, bursts of arti­fi­cial flow­ers and high-bust­ed ladies in arti­fi­cial pearls behind the bar. They were much more down to earth and util­i­tar­i­an, intend­ed strict­ly… for the sale and con­sump­tion of alco­holic liquors.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Pubs for ‘Men About Town’, 1920s”

Pub Entertainment, 1926

Looking for one thing, we found another: an essay by H.V. Morton entitled ‘Pub Crawlers’, published in The Nights of London in 1926.

In this con­text, the crawlers are not drinkers as in mod­ern usage but hawk­ers rely­ing on ‘human nature in its most expan­sive moments’, (i.e. pissed, in the pub) to earn a few pen­nies sell­ing boot laces, match­es, or per­for­mance art:

Most remark­able of all the bar vis­i­tors is the Young Man with the Paper Shapes… He slips into a bar silent­ly, and he stands by the door. Some­how the peo­ple become aware of him. Mrs Jones, with her veil on her nose, paus­es in mild alarm, with her sec­ond glass of stout poised above her ample bosom, as she says, sot­to voce:

Oo-er; look at ‘im! What’s he after?’

They see a pale young man gaz­ing round the bar from beneath the brim of an old felt hat. He is fum­bling with wads of fold­ed news­pa­pers con­tents bills, with which his clothes are padded. Quick­ly, he makes lit­tle tear­ing move­ment, he pinch­es ovals and oblongs and stripes from the fold­ed bill, he teas­es it and pulls it, and then opens it, dis­play­ing four per­fect­ly mod­elled fil­i­greed fig­ures cut in the paper.

A delight­ed mur­mum ris­es from the bar! Isn’t it clever? How does he do it? He ought to be on the halls!

From Houdini's book 'Paper Magic'.
Dia­gram from Hou­dini’s  ‘Paper Mag­ic’, 1922.

For his next trick, the Young Man extends a paper lad­der to the ceil­ing – per­haps learned from Har­ry Hou­dini’s 1922 book Paper Mag­ic?

When Mor­ton talks to him he dis­cov­ers that he is well-edu­cat­ed and well-spo­ken but has been work­ing at this trade for fif­teen years. He’s evi­dent­ly down on his luck, though his ‘wife’s peo­ple’ are pay­ing for his son to attend a top pub­lic school.

It’s not quite clear how much of this is truth and how much fic­tion, and Mor­ton does not seem to have been a nice bloke, but, still, it’s a love­ly vignette. If we ever get to com­pile that anthol­o­gy of writ­ing about beer and pubs we some­times dream about, this piece will be a shoo-in.

Main image: detail from ‘Posters in the Strand’ by Yoshio Marki­no from The Colour of Lon­don, 1907.