A survey of a certain type of pub, 1963

In Egon Ronay’s 1964 Guide to 600 Pubs we have a snapshot of ‘nice’ boozers in London and the South of England as they were in 1963, from collections of tat to hot pasties.

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.

Guidebooks don’t endure, generally. They’re usually out of date by the time they go to print and generally all but useless within about two years of publication. When it comes to pubs, which can change from manager to manager and season to season, that’s especially true.

Ronay’s pub guides weren’t annual and the title varied, but the idea was always the same: to help well-to-do travellers find something to eat in a pub that wouldn’t offend their sensibilities.

They’re not as interesting as old editions of the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide – Ronay and his team weren’t especially interested in beer – and lack the entertainment value of those Batsford guides. Still, there are nuggets of gold to be found.

Let’s start with Ronay’s introduction, in which he sets out his belief that ‘atmosphere is, of course, the most important of the factors associated with the word “pub”’:

I insisted. ‘There must be a way,’ I said, ‘in which we can briefly define the atmosphere of pubs and inns.’

We were discussing, my five colleagues of ‘pub testers’ and I, the resume of months of vetting more than a thousand houses. And, as I pressed them and the highlights of their experience unfolded, stories beyond the mine of factual information they had gathered, i dawned on me that such a definition will always elude us. Our impressions were made up of so many factors: individual experiences, historical facts, intriguing figments of imagination, rare moments of warm human communication and, above all, of personalities. Looking back we find that it is the little things that make English pubs and inns inimitable.

It’s hard to argue with that and interesting to think that Ronay didn’t encounter the English pubs until he was in his thirties, having been born in Hungary in 1915 and only arriving in the UK after World War II.

There’s something tickling about the league of gentlemen Ronay assembled, whose blazers and nicotine-tinted moustaches one can’t help but picture: ‘A tobacco blender, a retired naval commander, a chartered accountant, an ex-RAF officer and a businessman…’

Agreeing certain standards and divvying the country up between them, they managed to visit 1,152 pubs, of which 552 had ‘nothing to commend them’. They found 280 pubs in London worth recommending and 320 ‘in the Provinces’ – that is, from Warwickshire to Cornwall. (Sorry, the North.)

The primary value in this relic is that it provides yet more evidence for an argument we’ve been making for years: though the Gastropub™ may have been invented in the 1990s, and Pub Grub™ in the late 1960s, pubs with decent food and ‘dining areas’ had been around for much longer.

Here’s the first entry proper, for The White Hart at Ampthill, Bedfordshire:

At more and more pubs it seems necessary to book a table in advance, particularly in the evening. As eating places, they are getting better and better, yet most of them are maintaining very reasonable prices.

That could have been written at any point in the past 60 years, couldn’t it?

Lots of the pubs listed, especially those further from London, weren’t serving full meals but pasties, rolls and other items of what we’d now recognise as traditional pub snacks. Others had an emphasis on cheese – 20 types here, 36 types there, chosen from cheese menus. Yes, this is due a comeback.

One of our favourite entries, because it rises above the blandness of most and tells a story, is this for The Barnstaple Inn at Burrington, Devon:

Burrington is one of the very few ‘undiscovered’ villages where your car will even excite comment as you park it under the massive oak near the church. One is amazed that such a rural atmosphere still exists. The landlord seemed surprised that we wanted something to eat – he was obviously unused to travelling customers – but his wife rose so nobly to the occasion that we were served with the most enormous plate of ham with a tomato and at least half a loaf of bread, all very nicely served on a tray. A perfect example, this – down to the helpings of ham – of an unspoilt country inn. Don’t spoil it.

Amongst all the talk of shellfish and steak, there are also plenty of dubious ‘it is said that’ stories of murderous landlords and amorous monks. We’ve heard most of these a million times, and generally assume them to have been invented in around 1955, but this one, from The White Lion at Farnborough, Kent, is new to us:

During recent renovations to the pub, the landlord discovered a woman’s skull under the floorboards complete with a bullet hole through the forehead and he has placed it in a niche in the bar, from where it gleams with macabre light!

Ho ho, what fun! The problem is (a) if you find a skull, even an old one, the police get involved, and it’s unlikely they’d let you keep it as a decoration; and (b) we can’t find any mention of this in any other book, newspaper or journal. Ronay and his writers must have known this but when it comes to country pub history bullshit, playing along is all part of the fun.

Historic pub crawl
One of a handful of pub crawls included in the book, illustrated by Michael Peyton.

In London, what’s clear is that the chain pub was beginning to emerge as a concept. For example, there are three Chef & Brewer pubs listed – a joint project between Grand Metropolitan and Levy & Franks. Here’s a description of one, at 60 Edgware Road, London W2:

A brand new pub like this one is a crying need in the Edgware Road. It is built into a new block of shops and offices, and with its clear plate glass window, it is barely distinguishable at first from the shops around it. The single bar is narrow but long, with a bar running the length of the room, and one wall is covered by a coloured mural depicting an aerial panorama of London. Canned music and plastic are inevitable in a modern pub it seems, but it is pleasant and comfortable here, although the roar of traffic is unceasing.

The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

We’re pleased to note, too, that Ronay and his team share our interest in The Samuel Whitbread, the big flagship pub on Leicester Square which is now Burger King:

One of the most fascinating of modern houses with its semi-circular shape and all-glass walls. Take your foreign friends to the basement bars where murals illustrate all the old London Cries, from flower girl to coalman, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere all the more surprising as this is a ‘contemporary’ pub.

We won’t go through every single entry in the book but here’s one more that leapt out, because it seems to describe a pub for mods:

This pub is at the centre of continental and American style clothes, of jazz instruments and the pop-music world. Needless to say, the pub fits like a glove. Modern, go-ahead and young. It is packed with the sort of people whose conversation revolves round pop and jazz, jazz and pop. In the capital of music publishing an ‘olde worlde’ pub would be quite incongruous. As it is, in the world of PVC, it provides the sort of quick lunch that serious talkers need to keep them at it.

We’ll finish with a couple of notes on terminology: in those days before the language of cask and keg firmed up, all sorts of terms were used. Here, we get ‘canister’ for keg and ‘wood bitters’ for cask. And – we sort of like this – ‘landlord’ as a gender neutral term: ‘The landlord is a woman.’

And a footnote: after all this, how did Ronay use the accumulated knowledge of 50 years of pub food? He became a consultant for the Wetherspoon chain, known to ‘turn up unannounced in a chauffeur-driven limousine to check the crispiness of the onion rings and fluffiness of the baked potatoes’.

A Texan in England, 1943-44: pub trivia and pints of bitter

In 1943, American writer J. Frank Dobie was offered a post at Cambridge University. He used the opportunity to observe English life, including the central role of beer and pubs.

We mentioned Dobie’s 1946 memoir A Texan in England in our recent post about Ray Oldenburg. We then managed to track down a copy, printed in 1946 on thin austerity paper, for just shy of £6, delivered. It has no dust jacket but on the upside, it is signed by Jack Barrett, landlord of The Anchor Hotel, of whom more later.

The material on pubs is primarily confined to a single chapter, although they’re mentioned in passing at various points. Beer also makes a cameo early on in the book in a description of the culture of university societies:

I went to the monthly meeting of a historical society presided over by a genial tutor. Only about a dozen men belong to it. After coffee one of them began reading a paper on Punch. As soon as he opened his mouth there was a bolt of all other members to a case of brown bottles I had observed in a corner of the room. It is a part of the formalism of the society that beer shall be drunk while the programme is in progress but that nobody shall touch beer until the speaker begins… Most of the men drank two or three bottles apiece during the course of the evening. A large proportion of University men drink beer, and think no more of it than of drinking coffee. I have not seen any undergraduate intoxicated beyond gaiety.

This perhaps explains why there are so few mentions of beer or pubs in writing from before about 1960 – because it was utterly and literally unremarkable.

J. Frank Dobie
J. Frank Dobie from the US National Portrait Gallery.

The chapter on pubs is actually about one specific pub, The Anchor on Silver Street, overlooking the river where the punts park. It opens, however, with a quick rundown of others in the city:

The Baron of Beef, out of bounds for American soldiers; The Angel, where soldiers are too thick for anybody else to get in bounds; The Castle, where the matured barmaid combines dignity with easy welcome; The Jug and Bottle, where citizens take their pitchers to be filled; The Red Cow, too cavelike for cheer; The Bun Shop, often in stock when other pubs have run out but too garrulous for conversation; The Hat and Feathers, too far away; The Little Rose, just what is should be.

As you’ll know if you’ve read 20th Century Pub, Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell or any number of other sources, beer wasn’t rationed during World War II but was in short supply, hence the comment on The Bun Shop.

Dobie’s poetic introductory description of The Anchor is lovely, and one in which you might want to wallow in these pub-deprived times:

The time I began finding it a refuge was when darkness came early and black curtains shut off the view from the river, but the ingle fire was ‘bleezing finely’. Then the days lengthened, and from the seat by the window that I always seemed to find – by being prompt at the six o’clock opening – I could see the mallard duck with her little ones, which grew up and practised skimming. In the elm trees beyond the river and a bit of fen, the rooks talked about their nests, their eggs, their young ones and other things until they all went away.

Jack Barrett, Dobie tells us, had a sideline renting boats from the wharf attached to the pub. After hours were restricted by the Government, he let regulars continue sneaking in at the usual time by the back door, pulling their own pints of bitter on the way. ‘Jack is a philosopher,’ writes Dobie, ‘kind of partridge-built, quick as a cat on his feet, light always dancing in his eyes.’

Per the quote that appeared in the previous post, Dobie was fascinated by the British innkeeper’s attitude to money:

The good English publican is certainly not averse to making money, but he is content with making a living. His pub has likely been a pub for generations without appreciable growth. The pictures on its walls go back sometimes as far as the walls themselves. They are quiet, inclining to landscapes, coaches, cheerful faces… This is the very opposite of the American bar pictures, which are designed to inflame all the lusts. The absence of silence-murdering noises from radios, nickelodeons and slot machines harmonizes with the pictures. In all the pubs you can play darts free. The proprietor is not trying to peddle sidelines…

We can’t help but wonder if Dobie ever came back to Britain and thought, oh, that didn’t last, as radios, TVs, fruit machines, jukeboxes and so on began to appear with greater regularity during the 1950s and 60s.

His idealising of the pub continues with a passage on attitudes to alcohol, which seem rather at odds with the notes taken by the Mass Observation crew in Bolton only a few years before:

These pubs do not try to make drinking ‘attractive’. Ideally, they are just homey spots among a very settled and not at all Bohemian population. They are more cheerful than merry… Neither ale nor beer – they are the same thing – taken moderately is highly potent as ‘conversation juice’. I have watched a labourer sip at his pint for an hour without saying a word, just sitting and thinking or maybe just sitting.

The bulk of the chapter is given over to a record of the pub conversation between Dobie and his cronies, the underlying point being the extent to which trivia rules. One, for example, has a list of Assyrian names for girls in his pocket to prompt a discussion about which is the prettiest. They touch on politics, but lightly, and there are competitive bouts of did-you-know about Henry VIII, the burial practices of Burmese priests, jellied eels and judicial wigs.

As one perspective among many, it’s a useful thing to have, but Dobie is clearly a romantic, writing about a particular type of pub, in a very peculiar city.

Wodehouse in America, thinking of the English pub

The English writer P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his stories of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves but also invented a pub, The Angler’s Rest, which was the setting for his Mr Mulliner stories.

The story ‘The Truth About George’, first published in the Strand in 1926, opens the 1927 collection Meet Mr Mulliner and gives us our first taste of this ideal small town inn:

Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest as I entered it; and one of them, I gathered from his low, excited voice and wide gestures, was telling the other a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional “Biggest I ever saw in my life!” and “Fully as large as that!” but in such a place it was not difficult to imagine the rest; and when the second man, catching my eye, winked at me with a sort of humorous misery, I smiled sympathetically back at him.

These stories are not about the pub but, like Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, exploit the pub’s reputation as a place where stories get told.

So, in the course of forty pieces, most written in the 1920s and 30s, we get a series of mere glimpses into The Angler’s Rest, adding up, just about, to a portrait.

In the second story, ‘A Slice of Life’, we meet a recurring character, the barmaid Miss Postlethwaite. We don’t learn much about her in this brief first appearance other than that she likes going to the pictures to see films on their first night of release and that she is ‘courteous and efficient’. Elsewhere, she is ‘able and vigilant’, ‘gifted and popular’ and ‘a girl of exquisite sensibility and devoutness’.

The landlord, Ernest Biggs, is also introduced. He opens the 1933 story ‘The Juice of an Orange’ by kicking the pub cat, to everyone’s astonishment, ‘For Ernest had always been known for the kindness of his disposition.’

Eventually, the regulars are brought in, too, with a convention emerging in the second batch of stories collected as Mr Mulliner Speaking that each of them is named for the drink they usually consume: ‘Small Bass’, ‘A Tankard of Stout’, ‘A Pint of Half-and-half’, ‘Rum and Milk’, and so on.

In ‘Something Squishy’, 1929, a point of etiquette is spelled out: ‘A tactless Mild-and-Bitter, who was a newcomer to the bar-parlour and so should not have spoken at all, said that…’

Wodehouse captures the tone of the conversation between these barroom acquaintances in ‘The Man Who Gave Up Smoking’ from 1929:

In a mixed assemblage like the little group of serious thinkers which gathers nightly in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest it is hardly to be expected that there will invariably prevail an unbroken harmony. We are all men of spirit: and when men of spirit, with opinions of their own, get together, disputes are bound to arise. Frequently, therefore, even in this peaceful haven, you will hear voices raised, tables banged, and tenor Permit-me-to-inform-you-sir’s competing with baritone And-jolly- well-permit -me- to-inform-yous. I have known fists to be shaken and on one occasion the word ‘fat-head’ to be used.

The space gets filled out, bit by bit, as Mr Mulliner and his loquacious drinking companions move around the bar from one story to the next. Here’s the window seat, for example, from ‘Mulliner’s Buck-u-uppo’:

The village Choral Society had been giving a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Sorcerer’ in aid of the Church Organ Fund; and, as we sat in the window of the Anglers’ Rest, smoking our pipes, the audience came streaming past us down the little street. Snatches of song floated to our ears, and Mr. Mulliner began to croon in unison…

As for Mr Mulliner himself, he is a portrait of the long-winded pub bore, or would be if his stories were less entertaining and outlandish. Here’s a brilliant description of him, and by extension of his type, from the 1927 story ‘Those in Peril on the Tee’:

I think the two young men in the chess-board knickerbockers were a little surprised when they looked up and perceived Mr. Mulliner brooding over their table like an affable Slave of the Lamp. Absorbed in their conversation, they had not noticed his approach. It was their first visit to the Anglers’ Rest, and their first meeting with the sage of its bar-parlour, and they were not yet aware that to Mr. Mulliner any assemblage of his fellow-men over and above the number of one constitutes an audience.

It’s telling, we reckon, that Wodehouse wrote these stories while he was working primarily in New York and Hollywood – pining, perhaps, for this most English of institutions.

If you find yourself craving a bit of escapism for, oh, any reason at all, you could certainly do worse than spend some time in The Angler’s Rest yourself.

The pub isn’t as mysterious or special, it’s just small, that’s all

What makes English people think the pub is so special? Is it some special quality of the decor, the culture that surrounds it, or something else?

Ray Oldenburg, the American author of The Great Good Place which we mentioned in yesterday’s post, gives over several pages to a consideration of the English pub as an example of ‘the third place’.

Acknowledging that for most English people, the local pub is the default third place, he is nonetheless scathing of the way it is sometimes written about:

The pub’s favorable press is often romanticized. Writers are quick to proclaim its mystique, especially in comparison to ‘imitation’ pubs on the Continent. A barrage of platitudes are leveled at attempts to create the pub elsewhere: ‘Real pubs are found only in England!’ ‘Only an Englishman knows what a pub is!’ ‘An outsider couldn’t possibly create a pub!’ There is some truth to these prideful claims, if only because the pub is part of the larger culture that nurtures it. But there is no magic in porcelain beer pulls, smoke-tainted pictures of Teddy, or mementos of the local cricket team. Nor do the quaint signs, etched glass, and idiosyncrasies of pub behaviour lend the English public house its essential warmth and verve.

You’ll note that he does concede that the pub is special. It’s just that, in Oldenburg’s view, the explanation is very simple: unlike the third places of other nations, pubs are small.

Or, in social-commentator-speak, ‘pubs are built to the human scale’.

Remember, now, that Oldenburg was writing in the late 1980s, just as the modern superpub was coming into existence, and at a time when the vast interwar pubs were largely forgotten out on ringroads and housing estates. His focus was on the pubs most often written about, especially by Americans, and particularly in London.

He backs up his argument by quoting Frank Dobie’s 1946 book A Texan in England – a book and writer we must admit that, until this, we’d never heard of. You can read more about it at the Pub History Society website, which says:

In the autumn of 1942, Cambridge University instituted its first Professorship in American History. Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, New York, was invited over to blaze the trail but he stayed only one term and was then asked to nominate his replacement. The man he selected was one of his Columbia University colleagues, a Texan named J. Frank Dobie… Never intending to set out to write a book about his life at Cambridge… Dobie eventually put pen to paper because ‘experiences within myself as well as without made me want to say something.’

Dobie apparently became rather fascinated by the pubs of Cambridge and pub culture in general, devoting an entire chapter to one particular pub, The Anchor.

We have a copy on order, of course, but for now, though, here’s the line that Oldenburg quotes, with reference to The Anchor:

If they operated such an establishment in America, they’d make a barrel of money. They’d enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable ‘island of the blest’.

It’s hard not to read that and think of the rise of the Wetherspoon pub chain on the one hand, and the rise of the micropub on the other.

Tim Martin has acknowledged his debt to Ray Kroc’s business model for the expansion of McDonald’s across the US so, in a sense, Dobie predicted the future.

And at the same time, he foreshadowed the backlash, too.

Based on our experience of drinking in The Drapers Arms, Oldenburg was on to something: it doesn’t matter that the building isn’t traditional, or that the fixtures and fittings aren’t authentic Victorian, because the space sends the right signals to the pubgoer’s brain.

Pickled Egg, Blade Bone, Swedish Crowns: London pub names in the 19th century

George Dodd’s The Food of London is something of an overlooked gem published in 1856. Among many other passages worthy of attention in their own right, there’s a fantastic rundown of the naming of London pubs.

It’s great for three reasons:

  • Where other writers might have skimmed the surface, Dodd provides a detailed list of London pub names with a count of how many there are of each type.
  • It highlights some genuinely bizarre names that we’d have thought were made up if we’d encountered them in fiction.
  • There’s a certain wit and poetry in his writing that makes a list amusing.

First, though, there’s a bit about the sheer volume of pubs in London at this time, in the wake of the 1830 Licensing Act:

In relation to the metropolis only, the number of public-houses is of course enormous — intended, as they are, to supply malt-liquor to two million and a half of drinkers. In London, the licensed victuallers are probably about 4500; while the beer-sellers are somewhat over half this number — very likely 7000 altogether, equal to one in about every 45 houses, or one to 350 inhabitants.

If you’re interested, the full text provides further detail of the numbers of pubs, and pubs per household, for various districts, such as Norton Folgate.

The number of pubs is what drives the variety of names Dodd records – if you’ve only got one pub in the village, The Red Lion will do. If there are ten pubs on the street, you’d better start thinking about a ‘distinctive brand’ that will provide ‘differentiation’.

Because, as we say above, the writing has wit and rhythm, we’ve presented the pub passage presented complete, below, with paragraph breaks and small edits for ease of reading.

Our advice: read it aloud to really catch the poetry of it.

The public-houses of London are as motley an assemblage as can well be imagined — so far as signs are concerned. We find among them about 70 royal dukes – Cambridge, Clarence, Cumberland, Gloucester, Sussex, and York; a few royal duchesses; 60 or 70 Georges and George the Fourths; Victorias and Royal Alberts in great abundance; 80 Crowns and 20 Crown and Anchors; 70 King’s Arms and 90 King’s Heads; 20 Queen’s Arms and 50 Queen’s Hèads.

Next comes a menagerie of extraordinary animals – 30 Green Men, with or without Stills, Bells, and French Horns; 120 Lions – red, white, blue, or black; 25 Black Horses, and 45 White; 70 White Harts; 55 Swans, black or white as the case may be – and so forth.

Then we have a series of couplets – 55 Coach and Horses; 25 Horse and Grooms; 55 Rose and Crowns; and numerous Ships, combined in an extraordinary way with Blue Balls, Blue Coat Boys, Punchbowls,‘Rising Suns, Shears and Shovels.

The system of numeration has been carried out by the licensed victuallers more fully than they themselves, perhaps, are aware; for we shall find One Tun, Two Bells, Three Suns, Four Swans, Five Pipes, Six Cans, Seven Stars, Eight Bells, Nine Elms, Ten Bells, and Twelve Bells: let any enterprising publican hit upon Eleven something – Cricketers, Virgins, or what not – and the duodecimal system will be complete. Some numbers are great favourites, especially number three, which develops itself in all the varieties of Three Brewers and Three Colts; three each of Compasses, Cranes, Cups, Doves, Elms, Foxes, Goats, Hats, Herrings, Horseshoes and Johns; Three Jolly Bakers, Three Jolly Butchers, and Three Jolly Gardeners; Three Kings, Three Loggerheads and Three Lords (three loggerheads between three kings and three lords might appear sarcastic, were not the order of the alphabet alone responsible); three Mariners, Merry Boys, Neats’ Tongues, Nuns, Pigeons, Spies, Sugar-loaves, Stags, Suns, Swedish Crowns and Wheat Sheaves.

A wonderful display of tapsters’ ingenuity occurs in such signs as Blade Bone, Coffee-pot, Essex Serpent, Knave of Clubs, Lilliput Hall, Naked Boy and Woolpack, Old Centurion, Pickled Egg, Prospect of Whitby, Tippling Philosopher, Widow’s Son, Valiant Trooper, Sun in Splendour, Running Footman, Experienced Fowler, Good Man, Kentish Wag and World Turned Upside Down.

Phew!

Can you believe there was ever really a pub called The Pickled Egg? Or The Three Spies? Or the bloody Blade Bone!?

Well, there was a Blade Bone trading in Bethnal Green as recently as 2000, demolished in 2016, according to WhatPub.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was popular with skinheads in the 1970s.

If you tried to name a pub that now, we suspect the licencing authorities would attempt to discourage it.

But we’d be quite excited to drink at The Tippling Philosopher if anyone fancies reviving that.

Main image: Cowcross Street c.1870 via the Survey of London.