Gastropubs of 1951

Detail of book cover: The Good Food Guide 1951-1952.

It’s gone all foody,” peo­ple used to grum­ble in the nine­teen-nineties when a pub start­ed offer­ing meals. “It’s a restau­rant now,” they’d mut­ter, “not a prop­er pub… knives and forks… smim­ble…”

Is the idea that food is some­thing essen­tial­ly ‘un-pub­by’ a post CAMRA Good Beer Guide idea? A recent­ly acquired pock­et-sized gem of a book, The Good Food Guide 1951–1952, cer­tain­ly sug­gests quite a dif­fer­ent point of view.

First Rule. – If you are in a strange town, with­out any guid­ance from a friend or an entry in this list, always pre­fer a clean and brisk-look­ing pub­lic house… [You] are more like­ly to find there than in teashops a sur­vival of the old­er Eng­lish tra­di­tion of sol­id eat­ing. In both cas­es the cook­ing may well be, at the best, unimag­i­na­tive, but in a pub, at last, you are not expect­ed to peck like a spar­row.

Per­haps, then, it’s only pre­ten­tious food which is un-pub­by?

And what about women in pubs, inhibit­ing the fart­ing and sex­ist ban­ter? That’s a new thing, too, right?

[A] clean-look­ing British pub­lic house with a menu out­side is a place where any respectable woman can go for her lunch with­out any dis­qui­et… She should not go into the Pub­lic Bar, which may be rough, but into the Saloon Bar or the Lounge; nor need she drink beer, for lemon­ade and such are sold equal­ly will­ing­ly. She should also, by the way, ignore the state­ment… that “British beer should be drunk warm”.

Still, one thing we know is new are the ter­ri­ble pres­sures under which pub licensees find them­selves com­pared to the hal­cy­on days of old. Oh, wait…

[The] pro­pri­etors of licensed hous­es are hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time, and deserve the sup­port of all the benev­o­lent peo­ple. they pay heav­i­ly for their licences, and the dis­pro­por­tion­ate tax­es on beer have dri­ven away their cus­tomers.

And yet, six­ty years on, there are still pubs, and there are still cus­tomers.

Inside the Pub, 1950

Detail from an illustration by Gordon Cullen.
One of Gor­don Cul­len’s illus­tra­tions depict­ing an ide­al mod­ern pub.

Mau­rice Gorham’s best-known books on pubs are The Local (1939) and Return to the Local (1949), nei­ther of which we have yet read. What we did acquire, thanks to a tip from Herb Lester, was a bat­tered copy of Inside the Pub (1950), a pub design­er’s man­u­al which Gorham wrote with Hard­ing McGre­gor (‘H. McG.’) Dun­net for the Archi­tec­tur­al Press.

It’s an inter­est­ing book for var­i­ous rea­sons but what leapt out at us were the open­ing lines of the intro­duc­tion by J.M. Richards, on the sub­ject of the alche­my of pub atmos­phere:

If I were asked what are the qual­i­ties I would like to find in a pub I would say sim­ply, ‘the right atmos­phere’, and if asked to be a lit­tle more pre­cise I would say that the right atmos­phere is one which pro­vides warmth, cheer­ful­ness and a sense of seclu­sion and one in which the charm of the famil­iar is some­how com­bined with a sense of some­thing intrigu­ing just round the cor­ner. A pub should make peo­ple feel at home and yet have the capac­i­ty to lift them a lit­tle out of them­selves.

Lat­er in the book, Dun­net says that many pubs built just before the war suf­fer from the lack of nooks and dividers, offer­ing only a ‘large bleak inte­ri­or’; they are some­times ‘indis­tin­guish­able from post offices or banks’; they ‘deny the whole pub tra­di­tion and only suc­ceed in dis­cour­ag­ing the cus­tomer from join­ing his cronies round the kitchen chim­ney cor­ner’.

We can think of a few pubs to which that descrip­tion would apply.