20th Century Pub pubs

The weekend barman con, 1949

The Weekend Barmen was apparently a classic scam designed to target pubs. We wonder if it still goes on?

We’ve been collecting notes on cons and fraud in pubs for a while now.

Stories tend to crop up in how-to manuals for publicans and in newspaper reports.

We found this particular story in a 1949 edition of the gentleman’s periodical Lilliput.

A curious small-format magazine bordering on pornographic – each issue has one or two oblique nude portraits – Lilliput is easy to find in secondhand bookshops for a couple of quid a copy.

We always flick through having found gold in the past.

Pubs and beer weren’t much written about at this time, being regarded as about on a par with toilet business as suitable subjects for polite conversation.

But Lilliput, being somewhat earthy and irreverent, often had a piece touching on this subject so close to many gentlemen’s hearts.

In this case, our attention was grabbed by a story entitled ‘Gulliver and the Week-end Barmen’, credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ (Macdonald Hastings). It opens like this:

“All right, Joe,” said the over-dressed young man, reaching for the telephone in the corner of the shoddy little café where we were having a coffee with one of our less reputable friends, “that’ll be for me.” And picking up the receiver, he said:

“Cock and Magpie, Soho. Speaking. Bert Copley? That’s right. He’s worked for me nearly two years. Yes; he’s a very good lad. I was sorry to lose him, but he said he wanted to be nearer his mother that’s been took ill. Walworth, I think he said. Oh, you’re speaking from Walworth? Well, he’s a good lad. Glad to be of service. I suppose he’ll be along for his kit sometime. Good morning. Don’t mention it.”

This fraudulent reference is just one small con trick played on publicans, as ‘Gulliver’ finds out when he invites the young man, Corkey, to join him. Corkey explains that this is a standard wheeze:

“You see, mister, this pal of mine, Copley, is working the pubs… just talking his way into a job, making what he can from the till, and that, and moving on somewhere else in a few days. It’s not a bad racket – you can make ten or twenty quid easy…”

What if they don’t accept phone references? Corkey has headed notepaper from the Cock and Magpie he can use in an emergency. What if they want to see a stamped National Insurance card? You just say “It’s on its way” for long enough to finish the job.

Corkey then outlines a few other angles that can be worked:

  • A babyfaced con man can pretend he’s never worked in a pub before and pass as “nice innocent young man”. He just has to remember to be bad at pulling pints, even though he’s actually very experienced. Then, of course, skim from the till.
  • End-of-shift wallet inspections can be dodged by passing stolen money to a pal in the gents toilet, or leaving it stuffed behind a pipe to be picked up.
  • You can use the classic ‘convincer’ – be overly honest for the first day or two, insisting on handing “the boss half a quid” insisting you must have put it in your pocket by mistake.
A cartoon showing dodgy barmen at work.
One of the cartoons illustrating the article. Note the ‘Beer is Best’ sign in the background.

The con we found most interesting, because it is most elaborate, involves two men working together:

“Why, I knew two blokes who used to keep themselves at the seaside all summer by doing good turns to pub managers… Well, let’s call them Jim and Joe… Jim goes to Margate and gets himself a job and, for a few days, he does very nicely, handing out the stuff to Joe, like I said. Come Friday, when the week-end rush is just blowing up, Joe, who is now rated a good customer, hauls the boss aside and says he’s been watching Jim short-changing customers all week.”

What next? Joe, casually mentioning that he’s an experienced barman himself, steps into help out when Jim is fired:

“He steps out next Monday with three quid special wages and twenty more that he’s fiddled, and moves along the coast to get Jim the sack from the new job he’s just got at Southend.”

Gulliver gives some final notes on a con that actually involves beer. A temporary barman in a large busy pub, Corkey says, is perfectly placed to dilute the beer with water: “So if you water five or six barrels out of the 12 that a big pub’ll sell in a day you can make quite a bit by deducting the difference out of the till.”

If the manager notices, he says, the chances are he won’t do anything about it, as long as the stock-take adds up. “And, besides,” says Corkey, “he does not want the talk to go round that his beer’s been watered.”

It’s possible, of course, that ‘Gulliver’ made all this up. He’s certainly not presenting it as journalism. But the essence of it rings true to us.

20th Century Pub Beer history

Mass Observation on juvenile drinking, 1944

Mass Observation was a social research firm that made its name observing the habits of British people before and during World War II. In 1944, it published a report on a particularly interesting subject: to what extent did ‘juveniles’ consume alcohol? If so, what did they drink? And where?

The Mass Observation team set about their study during 1943. Here’s a chunk of the preamble to the report:

The object of this survey was to establish how, when and where young people consumed alcoholic drinks, how the habit of drinking and pub-going is established, and, at the higher age levels, how juveniles and youth behave in pubs. Two London areas were made the main subject of the survey, one in the South West, the other in the East End. Check studies were made in a South Coast port, Worktown and a Devonshire village, with some subsidiary observations on behaviour among the older age groups, in a docks area, the neighbourhood of a London Railway terminus and one of the London markets. Direct interviewing methods of the familiar questionnaire type were only used in certain parts of this survey. In obtaining children’s own accounts of their drinking experiences the subject was brought up in the course of conversation, on different topics, and introduced naturally into the context in a friendly manner. 200 verbatim statements were obtained in this way from children aged 7 to 18, individually engaged in conversation.

Beer history

Beer in ‘Victory’ magazine, September 1945

Victory was the magazine for armed services in India during World War II. We found a solitary tatty copy in a bargain bin in a bookshop – the September 1945 edition – and of course noticed references to beer throughout.

First, there are the adverts: one in the front for lager and one at the back for pale ale and stout. (Here’s Murree today; and here’s Mohan Meakin.)

Advert for lion pilsener beer.
Advert for Solan pale ale and XXX stout.

Then there are illustrations for articles and stories which include beer when they don’t need to – the first accompanies a comic tall tale of the adventures of an RAF officer, and the second a soupy tale of a soldier falling in love remotely with a comrade’s sister.

RAF officer with pint.
Photo and pints of beer.

Finally, though it has no illustration of note, there’s a fantastic piece called ‘The Man in the Corner on… Rationing’. The Man in the Corner is a hectoring bore who argues in favour of continuing rationing even after the war because he thinks it’s good for people, good for society, and inconveniences people he doesn’t like. The punchline is:

There’s only one thing I’m all against rationing – and that’s beer. It’s fair tired me out this war running from pub to pub – first it’s fetch your own glass, then it’s only half-a-pint served at any one time, then it’s regular customers only… there’s half-a-dozen kinds of what you might call rationing. And I hate the lot of them.

All of this ties into a theory we’ve had brewing for a while: that the reason beer and pubs suddenly became respectable topics to write about, and acceptable as hobbies, was because of the general breakdown of class distinctions brought about by the war. We’re going to explore that thought a little more in another blog post soon.

Beer history recipes

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.

Beer history pubs videos

VIDEO: Advice for Americans on English Pubs, 1943

We were alerted to the presence of this film on YouTube by Anthony Harper (@anthonymharper) and it’s a corker.

It was made as a joint production of the US and UK governments and was intended, in short, to prevent American soldiers acting like dickheads in Britain. The host is Burgess Meredith (BatmanRocky) and he spends the first third of the film — about ten minutes — in an English country pub:

We’re not trying to show you the perfect way to behave in a pub. We’re only trying to point out that some of these people are a little more reserved than some of us. If you take it easy a little bit, just at the beginning… you’ll make some damn good friends.

It’s staged with the interior filmed on a studio set but, as it’s intended to be educational rather than propaganda, we can probably assume it’s a fairly accurate portrayal. In fact, the advice is still good, on the whole:

What’s that? What’s the difference between bitter and mild? I don’t know. One’s bitter and one’s mild. You’d better find out for yourself…