From Suffolk to Burton in search of work, c.1880–1931

Interviewing farm-workers in East Anglia the folklorist and oral historian George Ewart Evans discovered what in publishing blurbs would be trumpeted as an ‘untold story’: the mass movement of men from Suffolk to Burton on Trent to work in the brewing industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His book Where Beards Wag All is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a col­lec­tion of essays high­light­ing spe­cif­ic nar­ra­tives aris­ing from oral his­to­ry research and a defence of oral his­to­ry as a dis­ci­pline. Its mes­sage is that with­out oral his­to­ry – with­out talk­ing to work­ing peo­ple, and min­ing their mem­o­ries – we lose great chunks of his­to­ry that weren’t record­ed in offi­cial papers or cov­ered in the news.

Hav­ing spent a chunk of the past few years research­ing and writ­ing about pubs, we can’t agree enough. Pubs, being seen as pro­sa­ic and unsavoury, weren’t well record­ed, and it is only through oral his­to­ry that much sense of the habits of drinkers and pub­li­cans real­ly emerges from the fog of the past.

The sto­ry of the Suf­folk malt­sters Evans uncov­ered is par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing and begins like this:

The search to col­lect evi­dence start­ed after a chance remark made by a farm horse­man while I was col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about his expe­ri­ences on the Suf­folk farms. I found that it was not the first occa­sion on which a remark made on the mar­gin of anoth­er and total­ly dif­fer­ent enquiry proved – when fol­lowed up – to be more fruit­ful than the sub­ject I was inves­ti­gat­ing at the time… [The] horse­man was giv­ing an out­line of his life on the farm: “I rec­ol­lect,” he said, “that were the year I went to Bur­ton. I went up for two sea­sons, missed a sea­son, then went for anoth­er two – and then I got mar­ried.”

Evans con­tin­ued to hear vari­a­tions on this sto­ry until, he writes, “it became clear in my own mind that there had been a fair­ly wide­spread move­ment of young farm-work­ers who fol­lowed the bar­ley they had grown in East Anglia to Bur­ton on Trent where they worked as malt­sters, help­ing to con­vert the malt to be used in the brew­ing of beer”.

For more than 50 years

This migra­tion, Evans was able to work out, began at least as ear­ly as 1880 (pos­si­bly as far back as 1860) and con­tin­ued until 1931 when unem­ploy­ment in Bur­ton trig­gered a back­lash against import­ed labour.

What prompt­ed this pat­tern of work­ing to emerge was the sea­son­al nature of farm work. Once the corn and hay had been har­vest­ed, lots of fit, able young men found them­selves unem­ployed. Some spent win­ter liv­ing off their fam­i­lies or char­i­ty; oth­ers joined the fish­ing fleet; but lots went to Bur­ton, because just after the har­vest hap­pened to be exact­ly when broad-shoul­dered malt­sters were most in demand.

Evans recounts his strug­gle to find doc­u­men­tary evi­dence and the even­tu­al emer­gence of paper­work from Bass which record­ed the names of Suf­folk and Nor­folk men on the pay­roll dur­ing 1904-05 and 1926–27. In 1904, the doc­u­ments revealed, 169 men went to Bur­ton from Suf­folk, mak­ing up a lit­tle over half of the work­force dur­ing that malt­ing sea­son.

Then comes a heart­break­ing detail: when Evans went to Bur­ton in 1968 intend­ing to inter­view Suf­folk men who had set­tled there he found that Bass had just moved offices and in so doing, destroyed the labour books. Yet anoth­er archives-in-the-skip sto­ry to make researchers weep.

Had it not been for the efforts of indus­tri­al his­to­ri­an Col­in Owen, who tran­scribed and sum­marised many of these records, noth­ing would sur­vive. As it is, Evans was able to include Owen’s work as an appen­dix to his book. It takes the form of a list of work­ers from East Anglia in the 1890–91 sea­son, with names, home vil­lages and the rail­way sta­tions from which they embarked, via Peter­bor­ough, to reach Bur­ton. Edgar Spall, Obe­di­ah Mort­lock, Arthur Pan­ment, William Tit­shall, George Fenn, Charles Flatt… There are also lists of names for lat­er sea­sons.

The old men Evans inter­viewed told him how the recruit­ment process worked:

At the end of August and the begin­ning of Sep­tem­ber the Bur­ton brew­ers sent agents down to var­i­ous cen­tres in East Anglia to engage the young farm-work­ers. Bass and Com­pa­ny sent a cir­cu­lar let­ter to each malt­ing work­er who had been employed dur­ing the pre­vi­ous sea­son – if he had proved sat­is­fac­to­ry. The let­ter gave the date when the agent would be in a par­tic­u­lar local­i­ty. The place was usu­al­ly a pub­lic house – The Sta­tion Hotel, Ipswich, Fram­ling­ham Crown and so on.

They used to sign us up at the Crown. The agent was a man called John­ny Clubs, a good owd bloke, and lat­er a Mr White­hart come down. You went into a room and he looked you up and down to see if you could do the work, see if you were well set up. Then he asked you the name of your last mas­ter so he could get a char­ac­ter. Then you signed the paper.”

One inter­vie­wee, Albert Love of Wortwell in Nor­folk, describes men gath­er­ing at the local sta­tion ready to depart “like sol­diers”. They were giv­en one-way tick­ets and Evans includes a sec­ond-hand account of one work­er mak­ing his way back to Suf­folk from Bur­ton on foot, push­ing a child in a pram. It wasn’t a cushy life and it’s hard not to read into it echoes of mod­ern slav­ery.

Hard work and free beer

As well as a chap­ter on the recruit­ment and migra­tion, Evans also gives a detailed account of the work itself, from lug­ging 16-stone sacks of malt to hurl­ing hot malt against screens to fil­ter out “the muck”: “When you come out of there you was drunk from the dust of the malt – with­out hav­ing nawthen to drink!”

And, of course, there are the tales of free beer, includ­ing this from Will Gosling, a man born and brought up in Bur­ton but whose father migrat­ed there from Suf­folk in the 1890s:

In all steel-works and in every job like that where men lose a lot of sweat it has to be replaced with five pints of some­thing – whether it’s water, tea, milk or beer. They used to sup­ply us with allowance beer. Five pints in my time; we used to have a pint at six o’clock, a pint at ten, anoth­er pint at mid­day and anoth­er two pints dur­ing the after­noon. Then if you had to come back after tea to turn the kiln you had anoth­er pint for that. In between times you was giv­en two pints of beer called lack. They called it lack because it was lack­ing a lot of things. It was a very mild beer, but it was wet: it was mois­ture.

Living and working in Burton

Final­ly, there are two entire chap­ters on life in Bur­ton for migrants from East Anglia. Evans inter­viewed William Den­ny (1882–1968), who worked four sea­sons in Bur­ton around the turn of the cen­tu­ry, and gave a bril­liant account of the social lives of young work­ers:

After com­ing home from work and hav­ing some tea we’d go round the town, hav­ing a pint at one pub and then at anoth­er. There was The Wheat­sheaf, Punch Bowl, Gold­en Ball and many more. We were a crowd togeth­er and we used to enjoy our­selves. We used to sing, and one thing we used to do up there was step dance on top of a bar­rel. In all the pubs up there you could get a free clay-pipe at that time – with the pub’s name on it. After my first sea­son I rec­ol­lect I brought nine­ty clay-pipes home with me.

Evans paints a pic­ture of “Suf­folk Jims” as hard-drink­ing, hard-work­ing men liv­ing in lodg­ings, scrap­ping in pubs, and mak­ing them­selves con­spic­u­ous in Bur­ton by their unusu­al taste in cloth­ing and pecu­liar accents. When they went home, it was often in a fan­cy new Bur­ton suit, or wear­ing braid­ed belts that were a spe­cial­i­ty of Bur­ton; and bear­ing fan­cy teapots as gifts for their moth­ers or land­ladies.

One spe­cif­ic brand­ed beer also gets a brief men­tion in this con­text – the 1902 King’s Ale, bot­tles of which are amaz­ing­ly still in cir­cu­la­tion. This is Will Den­ny again:

It cost a lot o’money, about a shilling a pint as far as I can rec­ol­lect. Some of the boys brought a gal­lon of the Roy­al Ale hoom with them. My mate did.

Although this sto­ry was for­got­ten when Evans wrote Where Beards Wag All, and was ques­tioned at the time, it has since become an accept­ed part of the nar­ra­tive of brew­ing in Bur­ton, being ref­er­enced by mul­ti­ple aca­d­e­m­ic works on the sub­ject.

And these days, even ama­teurs can find doc­u­men­tary evi­dence with a few clicks: if you have access to ancestry.co.uk, search the 1901 cen­sus for peo­ple born in Suf­folk, liv­ing in Bur­ton, with ‘malt­ster’ as a key­word, and you’ll see for your­self how real this was.

We bought our copy of Where Beards Wag All for £5 in a book­shop but used edi­tions are avail­able online for less. There’s also a Faber print-on-demand edi­tion avail­able at £20.

Main image: Suf­folk malt­sters in Bur­ton, one of sev­er­al old pho­tographs repro­duced in Evans’s book.

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.

Geoffrey Fletcher on Victorian Pubs, 1962

Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) wrote and illustrated a lot of books – observations of the unglamorous end of London life, from pie shops to street markets.

His most famous book is The Lon­don Nobody Knows, pub­lished in 1962 and the basis of a cult doc­u­men­tary from 1969.

We’d pre­vi­ous­ly only read it in libraries but final­ly got our own copy last week­end – a 1965 Pen­guin edi­tion that cost £2.50.

Though most of Fletcher’s books men­tion pubs in pass­ing – we quot­ed a cou­ple in 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub – it’s in chap­ter eight of The Lon­don Nobody Knows that he real­ly sets out his man­i­festo:

One of the strik­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Lon­don pubs is the way in which dif­fer­ent pubs have an appeal to dif­fer­ent kinds of patrons.

To under­line his point he goes on to list var­i­ous types of pub, from legal pubs to “homo­sex­u­als’ pubs… where queers meet queers”.

Like Bet­je­man, Osbert Lan­cast­er, Rod­dy Gra­didge and oth­er con­tem­po­raries, Fletch­er believed that Vic­to­ri­an pubs were the pin­na­cle of the form:

Lon­don pubs are rich in the trap­pings of the Vic­to­ri­an age, which knew exact­ly how a town pub should appear. A fine one is illus­trat­ed here – the King and Queen in the Har­row Road. This is nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Baroque at its most florid. Grey mar­ble columns ris­er from a mosa­ic floor, raised a step above the pave­ment. There is splen­did iron­work – iron let­ters and wrought iron – over the door. The words ‘Saloon Bar’ have a bucol­ic aban­don… The archi­tects of the late Vic­to­ri­an pubs and music-halls knew exact­ly what the sit­u­a­tion demand­ed – extrav­a­gance, exu­ber­ance, and plen­ty of dec­o­ra­tion for its own sake.

The King and Queen
The King and Queen, Har­row Road, as drawn by Geof­frey Fletch­er.

Oth­er pubs Fletch­er men­tions by name as good exam­ples include the Lamb in Lead­en­hall mar­ket (still worth stop­ping to look at today), the Black Fri­ar at Black­fri­ars, and the Crown on Cun­ning­ham Place, St John’s Wood/Maida Vale. The lat­ter is still there, appar­ent­ly with a nice­ly pre­served inte­ri­or, but as a gastropub/bistro called, for some rea­son, ‘Crocker’s Fol­ly’. Fletch­er also pro­vides draw­ings of The Lamb and The Black Fri­ar.

Beyond fix­tures and fit­tings, Fletch­er has views on pub cul­ture, too:

Although… the East End is los­ing some of its strong­ly focal char­ac­ter, the old life of the pubs in those parts of Lon­don still per­sists. A week­end pub crawl in such places as Shored­itch, Step­ney, and Hack­ney is the way to see it at first hand. Here the East End ‘ma’ con­tin­ues to flour­ish, the large sized, per­haps even pneu­mat­ic spec­i­men who was no stranger to Phil May and Albert Cheva­lier, joins in the cho­rus, sup­port­ed at the bar by a but­toned horse­hair seat and at the front by a large Guin­ness. Such peri­od char­ac­ters must dis­ap­pear some­time – that is where the funer­al par­lour comes in; if so, how­ev­er, they are at once replaced by repli­cas, pre­sum­ably on a sys­tem known only to the East End.

That’s yet more evi­dence of the link between women and stout, by the way, which we’ll file away for future ref­er­ence.

You can find copies of The Lon­don Nobody Knows knock­ing around in sec­ond-hand book shops or online, or there’s a fair­ly recent reprint and eBook edi­tion from the His­to­ry Press, with a fore­word by Dan Cruik­shank.

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.

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.