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.