20th Century Pub pubs

What were roadhouses and how were they different to pubs?

Roadhouses emerged in Britain in the 1930s and were large, out-of-town entertainment complexes, sometimes serving drinks – not pubs.

A few years ago Historic England published a report into inter-war pubs which described roadhouses as…

vast buildings… with facilities for dining, swimming, dancing, cabaret, overnight accommodation and often sports… typically situated on the major routes around and out of London.

The problem is, as time passes, the memory of the precise ways in which language is used gets hazy.

When we first came across the phrase ‘roadhouse’ it was being applied very broadly to cover roadside ‘improved pubs’ built in the same period.


The improved pubs of 1920s and 1930s were, like roadhouses, often both big and architecturally striking, like The Comet at Hatfield.

They were often by the side of major roads, too, with lots of “drawing up space” (car parks) and sometimes had facilities such as ballrooms, bowling greens and concert halls.

But as the preeminent academic historian of interwar pubs, David Gutzke, says:

Most interwar Britons, however, at least those who drank alcohol on licensed premises, knew better, and would not have mistaken either of them.

Here’s a helpful contemporary definition of the term ‘roadhouse’ from a report of the Dundee Licensing Court from 1937:

The roadhouse as he understood it was a house which supplied all the services of the hotel without sleeping accommodation… As in a hotel, the supply of drink was merely ancillary.

That Historic England report, though it makes a point of excluding roadhouses from its scope, helpfully lists the most famous examples:

  • The Ace of Spades on the Kingston bypass, Surrey, 1928
  • The Thatched Barn on the Barnet bypass, Hertfordshire, converted into a roadhouse in 1932
  • The Spider’s Web, Watford bypass, Hertfordshire, 1932
  • The Showboat,  Maidenhead, Berkshire, 1933

Although it was designed by E.B. Musman, who also designed pubs, The Ace of Spades was described in a 1933 article in The Architectural Review as a “Cafe Restaurant” and a “private club”.

Strikingly decorated it looked more like a Las Vegas casino than a Home Counties inn.

The entrance to the building with black and white stone, glass, and a design resembling the ace from a pack of cards.
The interior of the Ace of Spades, Architectural Review, May 1933.
A large roadside building with garage, car park, pool and multiple pavilions.
An aerial view of The Ace of Spades, from an advertisement in The Sketch, 31 May 1933. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

Here’s how The Ace of Spades and The Spider’s Web were described in a newspaper article from 1932:

Here there is a swim 100 feet in length with fresh, ever-changing water. From dawn to dusk Londoners swim, sunbathe and play deck tennis, or golf beside the pool. From dusk to midnight the pool becomes a blue lagoon, floodlit from beneath the waters – while fairylights twinkle In the encircling trees. There is a terrace where you may dine. Ace of Spades on the Kingston by-pass and at Beaconsfield are among other modern roadhouses which boast attractive swimming pools with diving boards, medicine balls and strange rubber beasts on which to ride.

It also refers to them as “roadside lidos”, identifying them as part of the increasing popularity of recreational swimming among the British public.

An art deco advertisement
An advertisement for The Ace of Spades from The Bystander, 15 June 1938. © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

None of those famous roadhouses listed above were owned by breweries and many roadhouses were never licensed to sell drink. The Ace of Spades was also open 24 hours a day – distinctly un-pub-like.

However, some breweries did open establishments that blurred the line. For example, The Myllet Arms in Perivale, West London, still trading as a Premier Inn. This was commissioned by the brewer Benskins, designed by Musman, and described in 1936 as an “inn-cum-roadhouse”. 

There’s a very detailed piece by West Middlesex CAMRA on The Myllet Arms if you want to know more.

In Inside the Pub, published in 1950, Maurice Gorham recalls that the roadhouse…

owed something to the tradition of the Gin Palace and quite a lot to the transitory spirit of their age. They were often characterised by chromium and plastics, bright colours and display lighting, but missed the decorative possibilities of their own stock-in-trade.

In terms of numbers, David Gutzke reckons there were about 200 genuine roadhouses compared with around 6,000 ‘improved pubs’.

The roadhouse essentially disappeared with World War II, the coming of post-war austerity and the creation of the motorway network.

Writing in The Tatler in 1961 Douglas Sutherland said:

Before the war the roadhouse ranked high with the younger set. The essential equipment was a red M.G., a golfing cap and a pretty girl –and heigh-ho for the open road… Today the roadhouse era seems ended. Surprisingly, this is not because people are no longer willing to tangle with the traffic after a hard day at the office, but because they are tending to go farther and farther afield to get away from it all.

28 June 1961

Surbiton, it seemed, just wouldn’t cut it.

Main image by ‘Mel’ for The Sketch, 31 May 1933, © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library.

Further reading

20th Century Pub london

The Battle for the Boot, 1914-15

In the early 20th century The Boot, a pub on the High Street in Edgware, North London, was the focal point for a battle between brewers and licensing magistrates. Was it one pub too many, or did it perform a vital social function?

While browsing the wonderful British Newspaper Archive trying to find out more about the Middlesex magistrates we came across an interesting story about The Boot from the Hendon & Finchley Times for Friday 2 July 1915.

It’s about how the pub was initially refused renewal of its licence by the local justices but had that decision overturned by the Middlesex Licensing Committee – twice.

The Boot c.1910
The Boot in 1911. SOURCE: Colleen/PubWiki; our own image clean up.

What seems to have happened is that the local justices were keen to close the pub purely because, in their view, there were too many in the area.

Look at the map above (via the National Library of Scotland) and you’ll see that there were, indeed, quite a few ‘P.H.’ in the area, not to mention the Railway Hotel just up the road.

But the magistrates were unable to provide any convincing evidence as to why that pub in particular should be the one to close.

They had tried the previous year, and the decision had been overturned by the licensing committee.

The full newspaper report paints a fascinating picture of the changing, evolving nature of pubs at this time, particularly in growing suburbs:

The house was small, the bars were extremely small, and the roofs so low that a person wearing a hat could hardly stand upright. The house was 31 yards from fully-licensed house, The Red Lion, the same side of the road, and about yards from a commodious, well-built, and fairly new beer house called The Surrey Arms, also on the same side of the road. The other direction, 220 yards away, was The King’s Arms, another fully-licensed house. All of these three houses were very superior accommodation to The Boot. The total population within a quarter of a mile radius, as near as could be ascertained, was 350. that at the present moment there were four licences within the area for 350 people.

The Boot in 1900
SOURCE: Possibly Barnet Archives – the subtle watermark may offer a clue.

The representative for the Gore Division justices (who were the ones that turned down the renewal) went on to say that

as the brewers had another house in the immediate neighbourhood, it could not be argued that those who liked the beer to be obtained at The Boot would suffer. They would hear that the other house, The Surrey Arms, coupled with the two fully-licensed houses, could easily deal with the trade which at present was being done at The Boot, and if the other side argued that it could not, then there was plenty of room for enlargement.

He also said that beer being served through windows was causing blockages in the passage outside.

In an unusual defence of this sort of pub, the Chairman of the committee “suggested that The Surrey Arms might not be so attractive to people in humble life” and that he “understood The Boot was a favourite house with this class of people”.

The justices’ representative replied that “he quite appreciated the point that there were always people who preferred a house where they might touch the ceiling in preference to a better building, but in considering whether a house was redundant they must differentiate the ordinary rules and consider which were the better premises”.

There is then a fairly lengthy recap of a report that was commissioned comparing The Boot to The Surrey Arms – “an excellently arranged house”. 

A local policeman then gave witness and said there had been “no complaint” about the conduct of The Boot. After further appeals from the licensee’s representative, pointing out how much trade The Boot did, and how difficult it would be for The Surrey Arms to absorb this, the Committee upheld their decision from the previous year to renew the licence.

They refrained from ticking off the local justices for bringing the case back with no new evidence but there’s certainly an undercurrent of irritation evident in the report.

The Boot was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a modern shopping precinct fittingly called Boot Parade.

The Surrey Arms continued in various forms, including as a Shisha Lounge and a night club, until it was eventually demolished in May 2020.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing campaign to save the nearby Railway Hotel, with a petition here.

20th Century Pub london

The Tabard – the first improved pub?

It’s always a delight to discover historically-interesting pubs, even if it messes somewhat with the narrative of the book you sweated over for two years.

When we came across mention of The Tabard, Bedford Park, our first thoughts were “Wow, that looks like a prototype improved public house” and “How did we miss this when we were researching 20th Century Pub?”

Of course, one reason for missing it is that it was built in 1880 and so was well out of the scope of our book. We did, however, highlight some examples of pre-WWI improved pubs, or pubs built in a different style to the prevailing late Victorian/Edwardian gin palace cliche. For example, the Forester in Ealing, built 1909 by Nowell Parr. 

We even formed a theory that there was some specific trend-bucking in West London (or rather the Middlesex Licencing area) in the Edwardian era. That is, at a time when most magistrates in England were concerned with reducing the number of licenced premises, there seemed to be a lot of new pubs being built in Ealing and other areas of West London.

We wondered whether local breweries such as Fullers and the Royal Brentford Brewery enjoyed a particularly productive partnership with the local justices, perhaps because these breweries were prepared to build posher pubs. Or maybe the magistrates were more relaxed. Or perhaps a combination of the two.

Unfortunately, this was something we couldn’t pin down with facts and figures so we left it out of the book. 

Back to The Tabard: what do we know? It was part of the privately developed Bedford Park suburb, described by some as “the first garden suburb”.

The architect was Richard Norman Shaw, one of the most renowned architects of his time. The Historic England listing for the Tabard describes it as “Queen Anne style” while the Camra pub heritage site entry highlights its Arts and Crafts features.

Several websites, including Historic England, refer to the pub being a “pioneering improved pub”. Improved pubs, as you probably know, is a term generally used to describe a particular trend or movement in the early 20th century which sought to elevate the status and reputation of pubs. Not to make them posh, as such, but more respectable, largely in an effort to head off any moves toward prohibition.

Now, unpicking this a bit more, we think we’d probably challenge the claim that The Tabard qualifies. On an architectural level, you can see a relationship between this and the Nowell Parr pubs, and from there you could draw a link to the neo-Georgian movement.

And perhaps more compellingly, there’s something about its status as a community space, not just a drinking den. Searches in the newspaper archives throw up countless examples of it being used as a meeting place or a concert venue. And its current incarnation hosts a small theatre, so there is a pleasing continuity there.

However, we would stop short of calling it “an improved pub” firstly because we don’t have any evidence of this concept existing in 1880. At this point, although England’s pubs were past their all time historical high numbers, magistrates hadn’t really begun flexing their muscles, the temperance movement had not gained significant political traction and the Trust House movement was a good 20 years in the future.

Secondly, there’s no evidence that it was an influence on later “improved pubs” in the way that Harry Redfearn’s pioneering work in Carlisle was. We couldn’t find anything about the pub being designed to be more efficient, for example, or laid out in a way to discourage drunkenness.

So, we don’t think we need to beat ourselves up about not mentioning The Tabard in our book. However, it is further evidence that there was more going on in Victorian pub architecture than gin palaces and beer houses and is, of course, a fascinating thing in its own right.

We can’t wait to visit, hopefully later this year.

Main image via Village London, 1883.