Watering the Mild and Other Wheezes, 1955

Running a pub has always been a matter of margins which can encourage dodgy behaviour, from watering the beer to serving up slops.

Tom Berkley’s 1955 comic memoir We Keep a Pub is either a goldmine or completely useless depending on your view of the semi-fictional James Herriot school of writing.

It tells the story of Bill and Irene Day, apparently stand-ins for Berkley and his own wife, who return to Britain from colonial work in Malaya and decide to run a pub. The brewery they approach sends them out on a series of placements to learn the trade and the book is an account of the characters they meet and customs they observe in a string of London pubs.

For example, in one pub, Bill and Irene become fascinated by the snack counter which offers two items: veal-and-ham loaf and Melton Mowbray pie. What is the difference between the two? They look identical. Irene decides to find out by ordering a slice of each, and Bill observes that “the snack girl gave her a nasty look”. It is only when they see a customer order Melton Mowbray (premium) but receive veal-and-ham (cheap) that this gentle fiddle becomes clear.

The behaviour in the cellar of the landlord of this pub, a Mr Lawson, also goes some way to explaining the decline of mild in the 1950s. He explains to Bill that mild ale, being unfined, is easier to adulterate: “You can’t put nothing back into the bitter.”

[He told me] that if waste beer were put into fined beer it turned it cloudy, but that a reasonable amount did not harm to bright beer…. [All] beer collected in drip cans was invariably poured into the mild ale, and not, as I had naively imagined, thrown away, or even returned to the brewery as ullage as so many people think. And at the Gorget Hotel the same was done with the filtered dregs from barrels of fined beers, and the lees of bottled beer and used glasses. It did not matter to Mr Lawson what kind of beer it was: bitter beer, light ale, brown ale, Burton: according to him it was all fit to go into the ale.

Bill wonders if anyone ever notices this jiggery-pokery:

“Mild-ale drinkers never notice nothing — not if you don’t overdo it; and that reminds me: when you was pulling up mild-and-bitters last night I see you giving ’em half-and-half. That’s no good. All you want is a drop o’ bitter at the bottom o’ the glass and fill up with mild. Mild’s cheaper than bitter. See? You got to watch the stocks.”

As well as the unofficial methods of recirculating waste beer there is also the brewery’s own preferred approach, the utilizer, “a sort of china bucket that hung from a hook in the ceiling”:

[Waste] beer from the various bars drained into the utilizer, whence it was sucked into the public bar by a little auxiliary pump on the beer engine at a rate of about a spoonful per glass…

(Further reading on p.112 of this 1923 paper on pub cellars.)

The next pub, the Block & Anchor in the East End, is a similarly grotty, penny-pinching place. The staff pay for their own drinks by short-changing customers. When Rosie the barmaid’s cigarette ash drops into a customer’s beer she apologises, tips it into a drip can, replaces the pint, and then serves someone else the beer from the drip can later in the shift. The manager, Mr Grainger, tips three buckets of slops into a half-empty cask of mild. Perce the Potman is supposed to clean the lines every Saturday but evidently never does.

I noticed that the bottles had been put on the shelves straight from the boxes without being polished; that the shelves were dirty; that the pewter was tarnished a dull dark-grey colour. There were puddles of beer on the counter; glasses were cloudy and smeared with finger marks. The electric-light bulbs were spattered with fly spots.

Pouring slops into the mild is bad; is letting down beer with water better, or worse? We suppose it depends on whether you prioritise hygiene or intoxication. One of the best passages in the book concerns Mr Grainger’s furtiveness over this illicit activity:

“I’d better do the cellar today,” he muttered, with a sidelong glance at the clock. “You ain’t got time to go down there today. See?”

Of course Bill forgets and does go into the cellar where he discovers a funnel jammed into the top of a cask of mild, half full of water, with two more buckets of water at its side. Fearing he has been rumbled, Grainger becomes tense and knocks back several gins.

Mr Grainger worries
Cartoon by ‘Starke’.

Eventually, he confronts Bill.

“You know, a man can’t be honest in this line,” he blurted out, giggling foolishly to cover his embarrassment.

I decided to help him.

“No, I suppose he can’t,” I mumbled commiseratingly, “not with his staff guzzling all the profits.”

“No,” he said sadly… After a silence lasting several seconds he he glanced up at me, and I saw tears in his eyes.

He cleared his throat.

“A man’s got to try and make it up somehow, or else get the sack,” he mumbled.

Later, discussing the business with Irene, Bill makes two further observations:

  1. It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”.
  2. Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?

The pub that features in the third act, the White Lark, is a respectable place with decent managers, the Handens. Mr Handen is proud of his beer and holds the view that it is better to sell two casks of good clean beer than one of the dirty stuff:

I’m proud o’ my bitter; that’s what makes your name — and you don’t want to muck around with your mild too much, either. All mild-ale drinkers ain’t dumb, though there’s many as thinks they are.

But even they are winkingly dishonest in various small ways. For example, Mrs Handen always accepts a drink when offered by customers; if they’re poor, she takes a Guinness, and drinks it; but if they’re well off, she accepts a neat gin, takes a sip, and hides what remains beneath the bar to be sold to a customer later, thus being paid twice for the same drink.

The dirty tricks aren’t all on the publicans’ side, though, and Mr Handen clues Bill in on one of the brewery’s bits of slyness: they send in spies (Slimy Grimes, one is nicknamed; the other Mephistopheles) to check that staff aren’t drinking to excess, that things are being run properly, and that opening times are being observed. You’d call these mystery shoppers now, we suppose.

And then, worse, there is Mr Green, the brewery’s inspector, who turns up with shaking hands, accepts a run of free and discounted drinks, asks for the loan of some money (a bribe) and leaves having decided that there’s no need to actually go down into the cellar, up to the kitchen, or look at the books.

Of course all of the above has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with other of these We Ran a Pub memoirs there’s a streak of class disdain running through the whole thing. The authors are generally of the officer class, regard working class people as filthy brutes, and the publicans as worse again because they have the nerve to believe themselves respectable.

Being fictionalised, there’s no way to know what really happened, whether it happened to Berkley himself, or whether this amounts to a collection of trade mythology.

But, anyway, it’s worth a read.

Now, when is the first We Ran a Craft Beer Bar memoir due?

Pub Life: Hit & Run

Stink-eye bar-fly.

A man of indeterminate age, somewhere between 30 and 50, strides up to the bar: ‘Shit, man, have I had a rough day.’

The baby-faced, slightly sleepy barman blinks and smiles.

‘Yeah? Sorry to hear that, man. What can I get you?’

The customer mounts a high stool and starts to unload his tobacco pouch, ancient mobile phone and various other nick-nacks, constructing a nest.

‘Half a San Mig.’

The barman pours the lager and places it on the bar.

‘That’ll be–’

‘Tell you what, I’ve had such a shit day… Sod it — give me a sambuca, too.’

The barman turns to look at the spirits shelf. The customer drinks half of his half of lager. The young man turns back. His eyes dart to the half empty glass.

‘Er… Black or white?’

‘White.’

The barman pours the sambuca into a thimble-like shot glass.

‘That’ll be–’

‘What it is, my wife — are you married yourself? — my wife, she was meant to meet me this morning but her train got delayed…’

He suddenly drinks most of the sambuca, chasing it with another gulp of lager.

‘…so I’ve been hanging around Temple Meads…’

‘Er, sorry, man, but, er, I’m going to need you to pay for those drinks.’

‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, man, no problem, yeah, yeah, yeah.’

He finishes the sambuca.

‘My wife will be here in like two minutes and she’s got the cash.’

The barman begins to vibrate anxiously.

‘I really need you to pay for those drinks–’

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, no worries, man, no worries — I’ll just give her a call.’

The customer very obviously pretends to make a call on what, at second glance, might actually be a toy mobile phone. And are his shoes… Are they held together with Sellotape?

He stands up, pockets his tobacco almost as if by sleight of hand, and retreats to a corner, and then further into the corner, and then clear through the corner, out of a side door that we hadn’t noticed.

The barman deflates as he puts what is left of the glass of lager on the back shelf.

‘I’m so stupid,’ he says partly to himself, partly to us, but mostly to his own sneakers.

He makes sure to take the money before handing over our pints.

Advice for Pub Staff, 1965, Pt.2 — Pub Life

On Sunday we ran through the beer-focused parts of James H. Coombs 1965 instructional manual Bar Service; today, we’re looking at the bits concerning people.

That means we’re skipping the sections on cider, spirits, wine, cigarettes and snacks — they’re pretty dry, to be honest, but if there’s anything particular you’re curious about ask below and we’ll dig around.

Mr Coombs’s first assertion in ‘Part IV: General Bar Practice’ is that ‘the Licensed Trade is a domestic business and is not like any other trade’. What he means by this is, first, that in his opinion unionisation won’t wash, just as it wouldn’t in the family home; and, secondly, that a lot of the work is just like looking after your own house — wind the clock, unblock the sink, don’t let the fire go out, and so on.

After a long section on cleaning — which goops and types of cloth to use on which surfaces — there comes a bit of timeless advice:

Never keep a customer waiting — it is most annoying. It will not escape you that a man quite resigned to wait ten minutes in the Post-office for a stamp will shout the place down if he is kept waiting more than five seconds for a drink. In fact many seem to think there should be one bartender to each customer! … However, should you be engaged in some job more important than taking his money (if there is anything more important!) always acknowledge him and say you won’t keep him a moment.

Fifty-odd years on, this is still just about all we ask for from bar staff.

The Public Bar

Perhaps our favourite bit in the book is this frank account of the dynamic between new staff members and the customers in the least pretentious room in the pub:

Some staff enjoy serving in the Public Bar better than the Saloon or Lounge. They appreciate the ‘earthy’ touch of the ‘honest-to-goodness’ working man, the quick and snappy conversation, the everlasting ‘mickey taking’… Should it be part of your duty to serve in the Public Bar you may have to suffer a certain amount of ribald comment from the regulars… ‘’Ow long you gonna stay? ’Ad eight noo barmen ’ere in six weeks!’ … Probably untrue anyway. The ‘Public’ as they are called are very fond of ‘having a go’ at anyone new but you should just laught it off and not get bad-tempered. When they fail to get a rise out of you they’ll go back to their dominoes.

In other words, don’t feed the trolls. Apparently speaking from bitter experience Coombs goes on to say that they’ll continue to watch the newbie waiting for a moment of vulnerability:

Wrong change rates three roars all round the bar… pulling up Mild instead of Bitter rates two roars… Short measure is good for five minutes hollering and hooting.

Londoners in particular, he observes, liked to lay the slang on thick as a kind of power move: ‘Pint o’ Diesel, an apple fritter and a Tom Thumb.’ This leads to a nice little list of colloquialisms:

  • Ale — Mild, Ale, Double, XX, Diesel, Splosh, Hogwash
  • Bitter — apple fritter
  • Scotch whisky — pimple [and blotch], Hooch
  • Gin — needle [and pin], Vera [Lynn], Mother’s Ruin
  • Rum — Tom Thumb, Nelson’s Blood, Black Jack
  • Brandy  — Coconut Candy
Con Tricks

This chapter, entitled ‘The Crooks — and Some Tricks to Catch You’, runs over familiar ground but with a few new bits of business. It begins with a general warning (slightly edited by us for weird punctuation):

If two strangers are found in the bar at the same time and have taken up separate positions, be very much on your guard, more especially if one of them engages you in close conversation — the other one may be up to a little ‘mullarky’. Anything portable is fair game to public-house crooks, the Blind collecting box, the lighter fuel box, the Christmas stocking, the Spastics Beacon, even chairs and tables — anything they can lay their thieving hands on.

Sandra Gough pushing over a pile of pennies, 1965.
Sandra Gough (Irma Ogden in Coronation Street) pushing over a pile of pennies collected for charity (i.e. ‘the Spastics Beacon’) at The Bowling Green, Stockport. This was a big thing in the 1960s.

Among the specific tricks described, after the short change con and a version of the serial number wheezed described in Lilliput, there’s a move with a touch of the Derren Brown about it:

A man standing at the bar waiting for service has a five-pound note spread out on the counter in front of him. He passes some remark about it to the man standing next to him — a complete stranger, probably… The stranger agrees and the man has made certain he has drawn ample attention to the five-pound note… As he is being served, however, he switches the fiver for a folded one-pound note. A little later he will insist to the barman he received change of £1. He calls on the stranger as a witness and he, of course, affirms that he saw a five-pound note handed over — which, of course, he didn’t! Heigh, ho! Another four quid up in the air!

Next, there’s a con in which the perp claims to have bumped into the landlord in the street who has authorised the cashing of a cheque. Not all that subtle this one, although the convincer is that he doesn’t need the full amount — just £15 for now and he’ll collect the rest that evening when he sees his old pal, the guv’nor.

There are stock cons, too, where a customer buys a bottle of whisky to take away, returning moments later to say, sorry, my husband wants a different brand, but the returned bottle is actually a dummy filled with water. Or, alternatively, a customer claims to have won a case of whisky in a raffle and sells it to the licensee at a pound a bottle, only that’s all water too. In this case, the licensee, having broken the law, can’t go to the police. (You can’t con an honest man and all that.)

Finally, there’s something that sounds quite implausible, outside of an Ealing comedy:

Watch for the gentleman, perhaps not too well dressed, who walks about with an umbrella or walking-stick. Sometimes these have a handy spike on the end and can be used for spearing cigarettes off a shelf behind the bar… Sometimes paper money is kept in a glass beside the till on an adjacent shelf. Make sure it is not in a mug with a handle because the same umbrella or walking stick can be used to hook it up.

Close-up of a chapter heading in the book.
A Final Round of Golden Rules

This part of the book, which comes after a lot of dated and dusty matter about wages and licencing law, is a kind of miscellany of stuff that didn’t fit elsewhere, and is great fun:

Before you go behind the bar make certain you enquire about the dog (if any) and where it is kept… If someone from the kitchen is kind enough to give you a cup of tea in the bar have the decency to wash up the cup and saucer… Buy an alarm clock… Turn out the dartboard light when play is finished… Keep a sharp eye on tramps, dirty-looking people, hawkers, or anyone with an obvious disease… It is illegal to take snuff behind the bar… Avoid those customers you know will want to engage you in conversation for the rest of the session… Pick up any loose crown corks on the floor — don’t kick ’em about!

(Some small edits for ease of quoting in that chunk of text, by the way.)

This book, unlike some others, gives relatively little time to matters of gender relations but does have this of-its-time advice:

It is one of the time-honoured features of the English public-house for the ‘regulars’ to have a bit of fun with the bar staff — especially with pretty barmaids. You will be expected to take this in good part — and even to join in. The purchase of a Brown Ale, however, does not entitle anyone to take liberties and you should see that the conversation never degenerates below the level of propriety.

If someone is constantly harassing you, Coombs says, don’t fall out with them but do tell the boss.

There’s lots on etiquette including some reminders that the pub was not quite a respectable place: don’t address customers in any way that might tip strangers off that they are regulars, for example, and avoid saying things like, ‘You back again?’ when a customer who was in at lunchtime returns in the evening with company.

Then, much as with Mrs Mullis, Mr Coombs seems to get more unhinged the closer he gets to the end of the book, finally letting his annoying customers have both barrels a few pages from the end:

The drinking public from every sphere, you will soon discover, are the most obstinate, ill-informed and perverse section of the community it is possible to find. Even if they have a question they will often refuse to accept the answer — right though it may be. Afford them an indulgent smile and let them wallow in their ignorance…

Our copy of this book cost £9.30 delivered — it’s rarer than some similar volumes, and less entertaining — but we can certainly see ourselves referring to it from time to time which makes it a worthwhile addition to the Arthur Millard Memorial Library. (That is, our back room).

Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944

The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about — or maybe an exposé of — bar staff in London pubs.

It’s credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ and is entitled Gulliver Peeps Behind the Bar implying a connection to the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s perhaps not the stuff footnotes are made of, unless carefully worded. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plenty of creative licence in writing up material from various sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:

‘You’ll get thirty-five bob a week,’ said the barmaid ducking through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her peroxide head popped up again in the frame of the ornamental bottles and frosted glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morning til eleven at night.’

She went on to detail the various ways barmaids in London pubs compensate themselves for their miserable lot, namely ‘fiddling’.

‘Go on with you,’ said the barmaid. ‘You know what fiddling is, making a bit on the side.’ She gave a mascara wink.

First, there was the barmaid who took additional compensation in the form of drink, ‘a bottle of gin before breakfast’, the empty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sherry’ to cover her tracks. The customers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.

The cover of Lilliput, December 1944.

Then there was a barman who was in the habit of slipping coins into his waistcoat but was found out because his pocket was wet: ‘Don’t you know that money taken over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the prevalence of this kind of thing, according to Gulliver’s informant, most pubs banned bar staff from having any money in their pockets at all.

There were various methods for fiddling the till. First, there’s the simple wheeze of taking orders for multiple rounds but only ringing up the price of one — easy, but risky. Alternatively, they might work with a friend posing as a customer on the other side of the bar: ‘Every time the accomplice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elaborate approach sounds positively ingenious:

Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The people in the bar used to drop the money on the floor, shuffle it down the hole and the cellarman used to catch it in a beer filter.

She explained that such dishonest bar staff worked in gangs, moving around to avoid the police, and alternating so that some worked while others laid low. They found new jobs using forged references, ‘sixpence each’.

The article concludes with details of a clever customer-side con trick that’s new to us:

The most famous trick is called ‘Ringing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Immediately after, the accomplice goes into the public bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the number. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accomplice had just handed in. Well, when that happens, the landlord has to pay up.

Can anyone who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still happens today, or have CCTV and the death of the multi-bar layout out done for this (ahem) fine old tradition?

The main illustration above is signed ‘Victoria’ which we think means it’s by Victoria Davidson, 1915-1999.

Definite Scope: Dodgy Draymen, mid-1960s

Old advertisement: men loading a dray with casks.
An ad from the wrong time period (1929) and wrong city. So sue us.

On our travels round the country over the last few months we’ve been seeking out small press local history publications like Mike Axworthy’s A Garston Working Life (2012), which we found at Liverpool Central Library.

As well as being a keen frequenter of pubs Mr Axworthy also worked as a drayman (beer deliveries) when he was a teenager in the mid-1960s, and gives us this glimpse behind the scenes:

I soon learned why our wages were so poorly paid, because the company knew we made them up on the fiddle. I am ashamed to say that no one was safe, the company were robbed in many ingenious ways, like putting extra crates on when the checker wasn’t looking. These we would sell cheap to barmen at a low cost cash price. Then often we would walk out of the bar with some of their stock in empty boxes, or with bottles of spirits up our shirt. We justified this thieving by our low wages, but really it was just greed…

I was definitely not guilty when a big robbery took place in the warehouse. Inside ‘Kings of the Bottlers’ warehouse there was a strong room that contained the spirits… [It] had a steel door and a 2ft thick brick wall. One morning we came in and a hole had been knocked through the wall and most of the spirits spirited away. No one was ever caught for the theft but we all had an idea who it was but grassing was definitely out in our culture.

Presumably this kind of thing doesn’t happen today, or is very rare, what with electronic stock control and CCTV and so on… or maybe we’re being naive?

We’re posting this in response to something on the same topic that appeared on, and then disappeared from, Ron Pattinson’s blog. When it turns up again we’ll add a direct link. UPDATE 29/5/2016: And here it is.

PS. There was no blog post yesterday but we did update this 2014 post on The Britannia Inn at the 1958 Brussels Expo with new information and pictures.