20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs versus cafes in 1927 and 2024

What is it about pubs that makes them particularly suitable for socialising and ‘hanging out’, compared to cafes and restaurants?

Earlier this week we wrote about a board game cafe which seemed to have many of the characteristics of a pub.

Most crucially, it was busy (it had atmosphere) and relaxed, with no particular pressure to buy anything once you’d taken a table.

We found an echo of this – including a mention of games – in Ernest Selley’s 1927 book The English Public House As It Is:

The public house is a place where people tarry for social intercourse as well as for refreshment. There are, of course, other shops which sell refreshment, i.e., dairies and tea-shops, but one rarely sees a crowd of people congregate in a dairy or tea-shop in quite the same way as people meet in public houses. It is true that people meet in tea-shops and take refreshment and enjoy social intercourse, and also at times play games such as draughts, and dominoes; but the number of people who, for instance, make a habit of spending a whole evening in a tea-shop is small enough to be left out of account. Besides, tea-shops are not nearly so ubiquitous as public houses, except perhaps in the office areas of some of our larger towns and cities.

On that point of ubiquity, things have changed, at least if we substitute ‘coffee’ for ‘tea’.

In 20th Century Pub we wrote in passing about the arrival of the espresso machine in Britain in the 1950s and the threat it was seen to pose to the traditional pub.

Zooming forward half a century, and just picking one chain, there were 41 branches of Costa Coffee in 1995. Now there are more than 2,000.

And the number of pubs has, of course, severely declined since 1927.

But, still, if you wanted to meet a friend, hang out for a couple of hours, without eating a full meal, wouldn’t you still default to a pub?

Well, of course you would – but would a majority of people?

We think the answer is still “Yes” but with a shift definitely underway.

As well as the aforementioned board game cafes, we’ve also noticed in Bristol a growing number of (a) video game bars or grown-up amusement arcades and (b) dessert cafes.

The video game places are interesting. In both of those we’ve visited there was draught beer but you were absolutely free to ignore it. You were paying your way by paying to play games with drinks as an additional amenity.

And the desert cafes will sell you a disgustingly huge plate of ice cream and waffles, or whatever, and then let you and several friends spend hours picking at it. In Bristol, they’re notably popular with young Asian people, who perhaps feel less comfortable hanging out around booze.

Much as we love pubs and enjoy drinking beer, the prospect of a hospitality landscape that includes hangover-free options doesn’t displease us.

As we hinted in our previous post, perhaps what pub operators need to focus on is how they can make people who don’t want to drink feel welcome, and welcome to stay. And think about what they can sell them other than alcoholic drinks.

Of course, you can file that under “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that”.

From pub grub to coffee to cinemas to ballrooms, pubs have been trying to diversify for more than a century. Why doesn’t it ever quite seem to take?


Games people play: pub cricket

Maybe one of the reasons I can spot a pub a mile off is early training playing pub cricket on long car journeys as a child.

Pub cricket, as we used to play it in my family, is based on spotting pub signs and calculating runs based on the number of legs on the sign.

So for example, the Red Lion has four legs.

The Swan with Two Necks has two.

The Coach and Horses has… well, there’s a question. In our version we assumed that if no specific number was depicted in the image on the sign then there could only be two horses, and would therefore count eight legs by default. And then get into a row about whether the coach driver should also be counted, of course, which was half the fun.

There were further questions of interpretation around pubs with Heads and Arms in the name. If a pub is The Queen’s Head, is it fair to assume the Queen also has legs?

Wikipedia includes further variants, including ways of deciding whether a player is out or not.

As Wikipedia suggests, this game was actually much better suited to the network of British A-roads, before the development of motorways.

To account for this, in my family, we ended up adapting the game as motorway cricket, which had complex rules based on the number of wheels on passing lorries. It really wasn’t so much fun, because pubs are better than lorries.

Did you play pub cricket as a kid? What were your family’s rules?


Pub Life: Vapeman Against Humanity

A small pub with dark walls, swirling with psychedelic rock, and swirling also with sweet cherry-scented vapour.

Four men are gathered around the bar, three of them playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’.

They all have the build of nightclub bouncers but one is dressed in heavy metal denim; another like the croupier on a Mississippi gambling boat; the third in tatty biking leathers; and the fourth, disappointingly, in jeans and trainers. The first three have different varieties of ostentatious facial hair; their less showy friend is clean-shaven.

No, his flair is not sartorial; rather, he is generating his own fog with an illuminated sci-fi e-cigarette. Clouds and clouds of it. He is too drunk or too disinterested to join the game, or perhaps just concentrating too hard on his art.

Croupier reads from his card: ‘“What do old people smell like?”’

Bike Leathers slaps his thigh: ‘Oh, I’ve got the winner right here, my friend… “Sneezing and farting at the same time”!’

Everyone cracks with laughter, except the Vaper. Though the Vaper isn’t playing, he is thinking hard about the question, eyes narrowed and pink, fixed on a faraway place, or perhaps a distant time.

Heavy Metal begins his turn: ‘Right — “What do old people smell like?” The answer is obviously, “My balls in–”’

‘Decay!’ declares the Vaper suddenly, and loudly, killing the chatter in the bar. ‘Decay, isn’t it? That’s what they smell of. Decay. Impending death. Like…’ He generates a serving of particularly gothic graveyard mist. ‘Like their bodies are breaking down even though they’re still… Their eyes are still…’

Silence falls. Vapour churns.

‘Another round of these IPAs, lads?’ slurs Croupier, slapping his cards down on the table. ‘Or is it time to move on to that imperial stout?’

Everyone cheers, except the Vaper.

Vaper just vapes, intensely.


Games in the pub


As we might have mentioned once or twice, Bailey spent some of his childhood in a pub run by his parents in Exeter. One of the things you’d have noticed if you’d walked into that pub would have been the sheer number of games being played — darts, cards, dominoes and  skittles (the West Country variety) were all taken very seriously.

When Bailey’s parents visited recently, they made sure to take cards and darts to the pub, just in case.

Their favourite game is Euchre, a card game invented in America but massively popular in Starkey, Knight and Ford country (Exeter, Tiverton, Bridgwater, and so on). Like Go Johnny Go Go Go Go the game has its own complex language apparently designed to baffle beginners — “Benny, both bowers, ace!” — and there are also cheat signals which they declined to teach us.

When you’ve dealt cards in a pub, though, you begin to realise why beer mats are a good idea.


Beer Tycoon

At last, a computer game for people like us. Bizarre.

I can’t decide whether the brains behind this really understand the beer geek or not. On the one hand it offers the chance to come up with your own recipes and “highly realistic models of real brewing equipment such as Mass (sic) Tun, Copper Kettle, fermenting tanks, open fermenting vats, conditioning tanks, bottling and casking machinery”.

On the other hand, the aim of the game is “to run a high tech industrial scale brewery on a truly massive scale”. Surely the measure of success for any self-respecting beer geek is to get your beer voted in the top ten on RateBeer or something like that..?