20th Century Pub pubs

What were roadhouses and how were they different to pubs?

Roadhouses emerged in Britain in the 1930s and were large, out-of-town entertainment complexes, sometimes serving drinks – not pubs.

A few years ago Historic England published a report into inter-war pubs which described roadhouses as…

vast buildings… with facilities for dining, swimming, dancing, cabaret, overnight accommodation and often sports… typically situated on the major routes around and out of London.

The problem is, as time passes, the memory of the precise ways in which language is used gets hazy.

When we first came across the phrase ‘roadhouse’ it was being applied very broadly to cover roadside ‘improved pubs’ built in the same period.


The improved pubs of 1920s and 1930s were, like roadhouses, often both big and architecturally striking, like The Comet at Hatfield.

They were often by the side of major roads, too, with lots of “drawing up space” (car parks) and sometimes had facilities such as ballrooms, bowling greens and concert halls.

But as the preeminent academic historian of interwar pubs, David Gutzke, says:

Most interwar Britons, however, at least those who drank alcohol on licensed premises, knew better, and would not have mistaken either of them.

Here’s a helpful contemporary definition of the term ‘roadhouse’ from a report of the Dundee Licensing Court from 1937:

The roadhouse as he understood it was a house which supplied all the services of the hotel without sleeping accommodation… As in a hotel, the supply of drink was merely ancillary.

That Historic England report, though it makes a point of excluding roadhouses from its scope, helpfully lists the most famous examples:

  • The Ace of Spades on the Kingston bypass, Surrey, 1928
  • The Thatched Barn on the Barnet bypass, Hertfordshire, converted into a roadhouse in 1932
  • The Spider’s Web, Watford bypass, Hertfordshire, 1932
  • The Showboat,  Maidenhead, Berkshire, 1933

Although it was designed by E.B. Musman, who also designed pubs, The Ace of Spades was described in a 1933 article in The Architectural Review as a “Cafe Restaurant” and a “private club”.

Strikingly decorated it looked more like a Las Vegas casino than a Home Counties inn.

The entrance to the building with black and white stone, glass, and a design resembling the ace from a pack of cards.
The interior of the Ace of Spades, Architectural Review, May 1933.
A large roadside building with garage, car park, pool and multiple pavilions.
An aerial view of The Ace of Spades, from an advertisement in The Sketch, 31 May 1933. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

Here’s how The Ace of Spades and The Spider’s Web were described in a newspaper article from 1932:

Here there is a swim 100 feet in length with fresh, ever-changing water. From dawn to dusk Londoners swim, sunbathe and play deck tennis, or golf beside the pool. From dusk to midnight the pool becomes a blue lagoon, floodlit from beneath the waters – while fairylights twinkle In the encircling trees. There is a terrace where you may dine. Ace of Spades on the Kingston by-pass and at Beaconsfield are among other modern roadhouses which boast attractive swimming pools with diving boards, medicine balls and strange rubber beasts on which to ride.

It also refers to them as “roadside lidos”, identifying them as part of the increasing popularity of recreational swimming among the British public.

An art deco advertisement
An advertisement for The Ace of Spades from The Bystander, 15 June 1938. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

None of those famous roadhouses listed above were owned by breweries and many roadhouses were never licensed to sell drink. The Ace of Spades was also open 24 hours a day – distinctly un-pub-like.

However, some breweries did open establishments that blurred the line. For example, The Myllet Arms in Perivale, West London, still trading as a Premier Inn. This was commissioned by the brewer Benskins, designed by Musman, and described in 1936 as an “inn-cum-roadhouse”. 

There’s a very detailed piece by West Middlesex CAMRA on The Myllet Arms if you want to know more.

In Inside the Pub, published in 1950, Maurice Gorham recalls that the roadhouse…

owed something to the tradition of the Gin Palace and quite a lot to the transitory spirit of their age. They were often characterised by chromium and plastics, bright colours and display lighting, but missed the decorative possibilities of their own stock-in-trade.

In terms of numbers, David Gutzke reckons there were about 200 genuine roadhouses compared with around 6,000 ‘improved pubs’.

The roadhouse essentially disappeared with World War II, the coming of post-war austerity and the creation of the motorway network.

Writing in The Tatler in 1961 Douglas Sutherland said:

Before the war the roadhouse ranked high with the younger set. The essential equipment was a red M.G., a golfing cap and a pretty girl –and heigh-ho for the open road… Today the roadhouse era seems ended. Surprisingly, this is not because people are no longer willing to tangle with the traffic after a hard day at the office, but because they are tending to go farther and farther afield to get away from it all.

28 June 1961

Surbiton, it seemed, just wouldn’t cut it.

Main image by ‘Mel’ for The Sketch, 31 May 1933, © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library.

Further reading

Beer history london

What on earth is a ‘public wharfinger’?

We know London has numerous reminders of the paternalistic empire building of its breweries, from suburban sports grounds to social housing, but it had never occurred to us that they might also have their own wharves.

“The above title may occasion some surprise to many in the employ of the Company. They may have heard of a Wharf somewhere on the riverside where some of our beer was shipped or malt landed. But “Public Wharfingers” ??? As a matter of fact the Company have been members of The Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London for many years, and have carried on a considerable business as such, for a very long period.”

Truman’s Black Eagle No 2, July 1930, pp.27-29

We recently obtained some editions of The Black Eagle Magazine, the annual publication of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., which consisted of an eclectic mix of sporting reports; reminisces from various Chairmen about their holidays; jokes, mottos and wise words; and occasionally a nice picture and profile of an improved pub.

In amongst the filler, there are also some genuinely interesting insights into the many avenues and alleyways explored by the Truman enterprise.

In the July 1930 edition there is a piece on Trumans as “Public Wharfingers” – that is, as members of the Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London.

The piece itself is more colourful than informative, being somewhat vague about when this area of the business started or what exactly was traded on a day-to-day basis.

There is a picture of the wharf in Wapping and another of a boat called The Ben Truman loaded with barrels, but no significant information to go with it.

Towards the end we find out that…

“Besides performing useful services for the Brewery, for which of course it primarily exists, many thousands of tons are landed annually for storage and distribution, and in some years rubber to the value of not less than two-and-a-half millions sterling has passed over the wharf and been shipped into craft en route to New York and other places abroad… There are other Breweries who own or use waterside premises in the course of their business, but Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. are alone, so far as the writer is aware, in carrying on also the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT OF LONDON.”

This sent us down a bit of a rabbithole looking for evidence of other breweries setting up as wharfingers – a word we didn’t even know until we read this article.

To be clear, this isn’t just a case of using vessels for transport – this is a separate business landing and storing a whole range of goods.

Just two years later, there was another article on the same subject in The Black Eagle.

This gave a purchase date for the wharf – 1841 – and provides a little more detail:

About 1889 HOYS began to make their appearance. These were usually sailing barges, and they undertook to sail regularly from an advertised Receiving Wharf in London, and deliver a general cargo to places round about the mouth of the Thames – as far as Dover on the one hand and Aldeburgh on the other”. 

Truman’s Black Eagle No 4, July 1932

The piece then goes on to talk about competition from the railways and motor transport, and the winding up of the wharf:

“About 1923, however, motor transport began to make itself felt, and by the end of 1924 it had become such a severe competitor that one by one the Hoys had to give up for want of support, and none are now in existence.”

Unfortunately motor transport not only killed the old Hoys, it very soon began to threaten The Ben Truman also.

Soon after the war, doubts began to exist as to the wisdom of continuing to send our beer to Chatham by water. Would not motors do the work quicker, and – with so much less handling – cheaper? Opinions as to this differed for a time.

There was a very natural disinclination to break the intimate link nearly a century old-between Brick Lane and Old Father Thames; but ultimately, as it was bound to do sooner or later, sentiment had to give way to modern methods, and the change from Chatham to Gravesend put an end finally to any doubts which may have still existed. It was by now quite apparent that the wharf had outlived its usefulness, at any rate so far as the Company’s business was concerned, and by the time this is in print, to the very great regret of all those who have been associated with for so many years, Black Eagle Wharf will have passed into other hands, and TRUMAN, HANBURY, BUXTON & Co., Ltd., will no longer be carrying on the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT of LONDON.”

We found it interesting that there was no mention in 1930 of any doubts about its viability.

Perhaps even the management didn’t even have this part of the business on their radar.

There were clearly plenty of Brewery Wharves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each of which now seems to be the site of a “stunning collections of 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments”.

But we haven’t yet found much information about how those wharfing operations, including Truman’s, actually worked.

If anyone knows anything further about this interesting chapter of Truman’s history, or indeed anything similar at other breweries, we’d love to hear it.

And can anyone work out if any of the buildings in the pic above are still there on Wapping High Street? It’s not immediately obvious to us from Google Street View.

Beer history london

Cask ale in the 1930s: bugs, smellers and Baltic oak

“Casks are a great source of spoiling well-brewed beer…” That’s the judgement of J.A. Pryor, Chairman of the London brewery Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, writing in The Black Eagle in July 1930.

It’s interesting to see casks presented, first and foremost, as a problem to be solved.

At the same time, the brewery went to a lot of trouble to make sure its casks were as good as could be.

First, there’s the matter of material:

[No] expense or care is spared by T. H. B. & Co., to ensure first of all the purchase of the very best timber, which it may surprise some of you to know comes entirely from the Baltic. This is the only suitable wood in the world for making our casks. English oak is, alas, unsuitable, and only during the War years, when it was impossible to get Russian oak, did we have to use American and a small proportion of Austrian oak. Very unsuitable materials both, and I am glad to say we have none in use to-day.

Ron Pattinson has written about the use of Russian vs. American oak in British and Irish brewing as has Gary Gillman: “The disliked American taste was, evidently, the bright vanillin and coconut flavours familiar to anyone who knows bourbon whiskey or Chardonnay wine.”

Next, Mr Pryor talks about the cleaning of casks – going into some surprisingly squicky detail:

The cleaning of casks is vastly important, and each one as it comes into our London Cooperage is first of all “run in,” i.e., filled with boiling water, and allowed to stand for as long as possible. This is to soften any yeasty deposit there may be, and makes the subsequent washing easier.

Then he introduces an interesting bit of technology:

[The casks] are then taken to the “Goliath” machines, where they are subjected to eight separate processes of either raw steam or boiling liquor under pressure, and the outsides also scrubbed in water and brushed… By the way, it is well worth your while, if you can find time, to go and look at these machines in operation as they are uncannily human. We have a fine battery of them in London, and also at Burton.

Goliath cask-washing machine, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

It’s easy to think of the past – even ten years ago – as a kind of barbarous dark age. This article is a helpful reminder that even in the 1930s Truman’s was brewing scientifically:

After the casks leave the machine they are each placed on drying and cooling nozzles, and pure filtered air is driven into them under pressure. Great care is exercised over the Pure Air Filter, and the two plates following show air before and after filtration.

Unfiltered air and air after filtration, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

Except at the end of the process, of course, things suddenly get very ‘craft’, with the human nose coming into play:

Each cask is then “smelt” and “pricked,” i.e., any remaining pieces of broken shive, etc., are removed from the interior, before they are passed as fit to go into the cellar.

“Cask smeller” was a real, very skilled job and we can actually see cask smellers in action at another London brewery, Whitbread, in this film from 1959:

Pryor concludes with what might be read as a shot across the bows, or as encouragement to do the right thing, depending on your point of view:

This last work is of very real importance, and is entrusted to some of you, who make it a pride not to pass a suspicious cask. If you should by chance miss one you are pretty certain to hear of it, as each cask is again examined in the cellar before filling.

20th Century Pub bristol pubs

20th Century pubs in 21st Century Bristol

We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.

We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.

Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.

The excellent Historic England publication The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Public House in Bristol by Rebecca Preston and Fiona Fisher, from 2015, provides a helpful summary of how things played out here:

Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.

A Victorian-Edwardian pub.
The Cambridge Arms, Redland, by Edward Gabriel, 1900.

However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. The Cambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.

20th Century Pub pubs

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.