J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dipping in and out of this book, with H.V. Morton’s In Search of England as a companion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dipping, each chapter covering a different part of the country and complete as standalone essays.

In ‘To the West Riding’, Priestley lands in Bradford on Sunday evening as heavy drizzle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town centre: ‘“But there isn’t anything,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warning accurate: there’s a Salvation Army band playing, a couple of cafés shutting up, and some shop window displays to look at, while young people ‘promenade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remember, elderly citizens have been protesting against this practice of promenading on Sunday nights. They have always been disgusted by the sight of young people monkey-parading in this fashion. It is, however, the same elderly citizens who have seen to it that nearly all doors leading out of the street shall be locked against these young people. They cannot listen to plays or music, cannot see films, cannot even sit in big pleasant rooms and look at one another; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mating, whatever elderly persons may think…

Priestley’s pub crawl is depressing. He finds the first one he visits very quiet with ‘five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter’ and bothering the barmaid. ‘Nothing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stupid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] cannot see why playgoing, listening to music, watching films, even dancing, should be considered so much worse – or at least more secular – than boozing with prostitutes.

The third pub is the liveliest, large and crowded, with some ‘little coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; nothing else, not even reasonable comfort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was taken. Fifteen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gaiety, this was life; and so the place was selling beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sexes. I do not think any of these people – and they were mostly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an older couple – could really be said to be really enjoying themselves; but at least they could look at one another, giggle a bit, talk when they found something to say, and admire the carnival splendour of the coloured electric lights.

Priestley’s conclusion is that it would be better for supposedly religious towns to permit the breaking of the Sabbath if it meant ‘a choice between monkey-parading and dubious pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has landed on, in analysing one Sunday night in one town, is a diagnosis of the whole problem with pubs: they were the default for many people not necessarily because they were lovely, but for lack of any alternative.

As houses got better and bigger, more people stayed at home. As opening hours relaxed and the range of businesses in towns broadened (coffee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monopoly came to an end.

For more on pubs, including prostitution, fighting, spitting and riots, do check out our book 20th Century Pub. For more on Bradford pubs in particular hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Public House in Bradford 1770-1970, published in 1995. Main image above adapted from one supplied by Bradford Libraries on Flickr.

Osbert Lancaster on Pubs, 1938

Osbert Lancaster, 1908-1986, was an influential cartoonist and cultural commentator who specialised in explaining architecture to the layman.

His work isn’t all that easy to come by and, in fact, a collection of his work published in 1959, reprinted by the Readers’ Union in 1960, entitled Here, of All Places, is the first of his books we’ve ever actually come across for sale.

It’s fun stuff, each double-page spread including a pithy note on some facet of architectural history and a cartoon to bring it to life. For example, ‘By-Pass Variegated’ is his name for a particular type of semi-detached suburban house, while he summarises post-war American cityscapes, blighted by advertising, as ‘Coca-Colonial’.

The entry that grabbed our attention was, of course, ‘Public-House Classic’, which first appeared in his 1938 book Pillar to Post.

A drawing of a Victorian pub.
Osbert Lancaster’s drawing of a typical Victorian pub.

That’s a lovely image – we have a strong urge to tear it out and frame it, but don’t worry, we won’t – and the prose that goes with it is almost as good. Here’s how it opens:

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century it was assumed, and rightly, that a little healthy vulgarity and full-blooded ostentation were not out of place in the architecture and decoration of a public-house, and it was during this period that the tradition governing the appearance of the English pub was evolved. While the main body of the building conformed to the rules governing South Kensington Italianate, it was always enlivened by the addition of a number of decorative adjuncts which, though similar in general form, displayed an endless and fascinating variety of treatment.

He goes on to praise the engraved windows, giant lanterns and beautifully painted signs that characterised Victorian pubs at their best, and examples of which you can still (just about) see around in 2019.

The second half of the entry, however, is a lament for this style. First, he says, it was replaced in the late nineteenth century by a self-consciously cultured facade of elaborate brickwork and ‘encaustic tiling’; and then, in the twentieth century, by…

a poisonous refinement which found expression in olde worlde half-timbering and a general atmosphere of cottagey cheeriness. Fortunately a number of the old-fashioned pubs still survive in the less fashionable quarters, but the majority of them are doubtless doomed and will be shortly replaced by tasteful erections in By-Pass Elizabethan or Brewers’ Georgian styles.

In 1938, big improved pubs were still being built, though the war stopped that in its tracks. We wonder what he made of post-war pubs – plain, small, pointedly modern. He was certainly snarky about modernist architecture in general, calling it ‘Twentieth-Century Functional’:

[The] style which now emerged was one of the utmost austerity, relying for its effect on planning and proportion alone, and faithfully fulfilling the one condition to which every importance was attached, of ‘fitness for purpose.’ Admirable as were the results in the case of factories, airports, hospitals and other utilitarian buildings, when the same principle was applied to domestic architecture, the success was not always so marked.

And there’s an interesting point: pubs are, or ought to be, considered domestic, not utilitarian, vital as they are, right? Which is what all this talk of Proper Pubs is really getting at.

And odd postscript to Lancaster’s brief note on pub architecture is that thirty years later, he revisited the concept for the cover of a book, Pub, edited by Angus McGill and sponsored by the Brewers’ Society.

The cover of 'Pub', 1969.

At first, we thought it was the same drawing but, no, it’s a different piece altogether, even if the same street trumpeter makes a cameo, standing under a familiar wrought-iron lantern.

You can buy secondhand copies of From Pillar to Post and Here, of All Places at quite reasonable prices online; and there’s a nice-looking reprint from Pimpernel Press.

The Magic Guinness Blend c.1939

Cover of the Guinness brewing manual.

When a colleague of mine told me that her father had been head brewer at Guinness’s London brewery and wondered if I might be interested in seeing his papers, I got a bit excited.

Finally, months later, we got round to visiting to check out what was in her collection. Based on a quick audit the answer is: everything.

We’ve agreed to take possession of the whole lot, catalogue it, copy bits we might be able to use for our own research, and then help with arrangements to have the important bits taken into appropriate archives.

For now, though, here’s a nugget from the handful of documents we brought away with us on Wednesday night: insider info on how Guinness gained its once legendary complexity at the blending stage.

This comes from a typed document in a plain brown wrapper written in 1939 and updated to take account of wartime brewing restrictions. The copy we have seems to come from around 1943 but was in apparently still in circulation in the 1950s.

The first page bears the title ‘The Process of Brewing Guinness’ and the 46 pages that follow offer detailed notes on the basics of beer making (how hops are dried, for example) as well as specifics about Guinness.

Section header: "making up".

Here’s the section on ‘Making Up’:

Beer in storage vats [after fermentation] is quite flat and is cloudy and bitter and uninteresting to taste. Before it is ready for sale it must be ‘Made up’… Beer from say six different brews forms the basis. These are chosen in such proportions that when mixed with unfermented beer (i.e. wort that has been pitched but not allowed to ferment) known as gyle, their residues added to the fermentable matter of the gyle will give a suitable ‘Prime’. ‘Prime’ is the fermentable matter in beer after making up just as ‘Residue’ is the fermentable matter as the beer enters the storage vat. It is measured as the difference between the present gravity of the beer and its perfect primary.

In addition to these beers there are added:–

  1. Barm beer: this is the beer which is skimmed off from the skimmers with the yeast and is separated from the yeast in a filter press. It is intensely bitter but adds very materially to the flavour of the flat, uninteresting storage vat beer.
  2. O.B.S.: old beer storage is old acid beer that, like barm beer, improves the flavour of the finished beer although it is itself very unpleasant.
  3. Drawing: these are residues of made up beer which was not bright enough to put into the trade without further treatment. It is exactly similar in composition to made up beer.
  4. Finings: this is a solution of isinglass in storage vat beer. Only minute traces of isinglass are required but it brings about the very rapid sedimentation of all the floating particles which make the beer cloudy.

All the constituents of the make up are pumped into a ‘Racking Vat’ together and there allowed to stand for 24-48 hours.

So, there you have it. We sort of knew the gist of this but this is the most explicit explanation of the process we’ve seen in writing from a primary source, we think.