Laver’s Law, Victorian pubs and hazy beer

You start with Victorian pubs and end up pondering hazy IPA and mild – that’s just how this game goes sometimes.

One of the things researching pubs has made us think about it is how certain things come in and out of fashion.

It’s hard to believe now but that heavy Victorian look people expect in the Perfect Pub – carved wood, cut glass, ornate mirrors – was seriously out of fashion for half a century.

Look through any edition of, say, The House of Whitbread from the 1920s or 30s and you’ll find story after story of modernisation. In practice, that meant ‘vulgar’ Victoriana was out; and a plain, clean, bright look was in.

The Greyhound, Balls Pond Road, before and after modernisation.
SOURCE: The House of Whitbread, October 1933.

Slowly, though, Victorian style became cool again. We’ve written about this before and won’t rehash it – Betjeman and Gradidge are two key names – but did stumble upon a new expression of the phenomenon this week, from 1954:

Thirty years ago the Albert Memorial was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago the late Arnold Bennett was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in papier-mâché furniture with scenes of Balmoral by moonlight in inlaid mother-of-pearl. Today tables and chairs of this kind command high prices in the saleroom and are the prize pieces in cultivated living-rooms. It is, in a word, once more ‘done’ to admire Victoriana. The slur of the old-fashioned is merging into the prestige of the antique.

That’s from a fantastic book called Victorian Vista by James Laver who turns out to be an interesting character. A historian of costume and of fashion more generally, he is best known for inventing ‘Laver’s Law’ which sought to explain how things come in and go out of style:

Indecent | 10 years before its time
Shameless | 5 years before its time
Outré (Daring) | 1 year before its time
Smart | ‘Current Fashion’
Dowdy | 1 year after its time
Hideous | 10 years after its time
Ridiculous | 20 years after its time
Amusing | 30 years after its time
Quaint | 50 years after its time
Charming | 70 years after its time
Romantic | 100 years after its time
Beautiful | 150 years after its time

This certainly works to some degree for pubs: Victorian pubs were naff in 1914, charming by 1950 and the best are now practically national monuments; inter-war pubs have recently become romantic after years in the wilderness; and we’re just begging to collectively recognise the charm of the post-war.

Naturally, though, with trends a constant topic, we couldn’t help test this on beer styles.

For example, does it map to the rise of hazy IPA? We definitely remember it seeming indecent and think we can now discern it’s decent into dowdiness.

Or 20th century dark mild, maybe? We’ll, not so clearly, because it reigned for years, even decades. But we could adapt Laver’s commentary on Victoriana:

Thirty years ago mild was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago CAMRA was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in weak, sweet, dark beer. Today beers of this kind are the prize pieces in cultivated taprooms.

Mild might be in the romantic or charming phase, then.

This works best for specific sub-styles and trends, though. IPA? Too broad. West Coast IPA? Maybe.

And for beer, in 2019, Laver’s language isn’t quite right. Maybe this is better:

Ridiculous | 10 years before its time
Bold | 5 years before
Hyped | 1 year before
Hip | ‘Current Fashion’
Mainstream | 1 year after its time
Boring | 10 years after
Interesting | 50 years after
Classic | 70 years +

It doesn’t really work, does it?

But it’s a been a fun prod.

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.

Beese’s Tea Gardens – Biergarten-am-Avon

The river for the first half mile is abominably dirty, and for some distance above that is not to be called clean. In addition to the water being so dirty, very unsavoury odours assail your nostrils, at intervals, for the first mile as you pass through the parish of St. Philip’s. After the first mile or so you come into the fresh air of the country. The water here is beautifully clear, and if the weather is fine everything is very enjoyable. At one bend of the river a railway passes very near it, and to strengthen the banks it has been found necessary to build some arches which are now covered with ivy, which gives them a very romantic and pleasing appearance — quite unlike the matter-of-fact appearance of an ordinary railway embankment. After this the river is of the most pleasing description. A short distance above the ivy-covered arches is a landing for boats called Beese’s Tea Gardens. The Tea Gardens are three and a half miles from Bristol, so it is just a suitable distance there and back for an afternoon. It is quite easy to go up this length any half holiday after call over, and to be back by lock up.

R.W.W. in The Cliftonian, 1867

Beese’s Tea Gardens opened on the banks of the Avon in 1846 as a partner business to the Conham Ferry.

Nowadays, under the name Beese’s Riverside Bar, there’s as much beer, cider and wine drunk as tea, and little evidence of Victorian heritage in the fixtures and fittings, but, still, it’s an incredible survivor.

We first came across it last summer on an evening walk, hearing the chiming of glassware and song of conversation from the wrong side of the water. From a distance it looked and sounded like a German beer garden. We didn’t stop then but made a note to come back.

Last Saturday, we approached from Broomhill, cutting from a council estate into a sloping park where teenagers flirted on the climbing frame next to a basketball court. A short walk down a wooded path brought us to a gate that might have been transplanted from Bavaria.

Tables under the shade of a tree.

Down further, all the way down to sea level, we found tables scattered across a lawn and huge, old trees polished smooth by a century of clambering children.

It’s almost magical, except it’s also very British: the self-service bar feels as if it ought to be at a Butlin’s holiday camp and the service was abrupt to the point of aggression. (Though it warmed up later as the lunchtime rush passed.)

Beer and cider cans.

We drank Veltins, served in chunky German handled glassware for the first round, albeit with a stingy head of foam, and sat on a table in the shade.

“I used to think it was for old ladies, the Tea Gardens,” said an older woman to her friend, “but it’s nice, innit?  It’s a laugh. And you can smoke, too. It’s  treat to have a proper fag.”

The River Avon

There’s something classless about the place, and a sense that it exists outside reality, like Brigadoon. We noted Americans, Spaniards, Poles, Romanians, hippies, hipsters, families from the estate up the hill, and plummy tote-bag toters with extravagantly named free-range children, and yet no tension beyond occasional passive-aggression in pursuit of the prime seats.

It’s so peaceful that a boat passing registers as a major event, drawing people to the water’s edge to watch. We saw ferries, rowers, and even a swimmer at one point. (We worry for them; we’ve heard that swimming here tends to make you sick.)

Beese's from the other bank

The trees and the dancing of light through the leaves are what makes it feel like a German beer garden – a sense of being outside but sheltered, enfolded in green.

Getting the ferry across the water (£1 for a 45 second journey, but it beats paddling) was the perfect way to finish – a return to the real world in a puff of diesel fumes.

Beese’s Riverside Bar is open Friday 12:00–11:00 pm, Saturday 12:00–11:00 pm, Sunday 12:00–7:00 pm throughout the summer season.

Incidental Lager, Pubs and Breweries in Photos of Edwardian London

Someone — we don’t know who — spent the week of 22-28 August 1908 visiting the capital of the British Empire and brought home as a souvenir a photo book called 350 Views of London.

They wrote the dates of their holiday on the inside cover in pencil. The book then spent at least some of the past century somewhere damp — an attic or shed — so that its cover buckled and the staples holding it together rusted away. That’s why we were able to by this relic for a couple of quid from the junk box in a secondhand bookshop in Bristol.

Among those 350 photos, some full-page, others fairly tiny, there are a handful that particularly grabbed our attention, for obvious reasons.

The Spaten Beer Restaurant, Piccadilly, c.1908.

This is one of the clearest, most detailed views we’ve seen of the Spaten Beer Restaurant at Piccadilly — a pioneering London lager outlet that we obsessed over during the writing of Gambrinus Waltz. We still desperately want to see a view of the interior but this is nice to have.

The King Lud, Ludgate Circus

The King Lud, Ludgate Circus

The book contains two views of one particular pub, The King Lud at Ludgate Circus. This is interesting to us because Jess drank in it fairly regularly in its final years when it was branded as part of the Hogshead chain. It is now a Leon restaurant, but recognisably the same building.

Omnibuses outside the Royal Exchange.

The beer connection in this shot of the Royal Exchange is a little less obvious: look at those two omnibuses in the centre — they’re advertising Tennent’s Lager, as distributed in London by Findlater & Co of London Bridge. This is a reminder that Germany and Austria-Hungary weren’t the only countries importing lager to London in the years before World War I.

Tottenham Court road from the south.

We haven’t seen this shot of Tottenham Court Road before, or any other from quite this angle. That’s Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery and the attached brewery tap to the right — the site of the famous beer flood. The sign above the brewery door advertises MEUX’S ORIGINAL LONDON STOUT. We’d like to know more about the Horse Shoe Hotel’s ‘American Bar’.

The Saracen's Head, Snow Hill.

The Saracen’s Head was on Snow Hill in the City of London. We can’t quite pin down the precise location, even after looking at contemporary maps, aerial photos and the comprehensive Pubs History website. An educated guess is that it was destroyed during the Blitz — if you know otherwise, or can tell us exactly where it was, do comment below.

Purl, Bumboats and the Pool of London

Main image, above: The Grand Panorama of London, Tower of London section, via the British Library.

Beer history isn’t all about pubs. Imagine working on a ship or boat on the Thames in the days before Thermos flasks or vending machines, unable to get to any of the pubs you might see on the shore. Wouldn’t you welcome a booze delivery? Well, that’s where the purl-men came in.

The most comprehensive reference when it comes to purl-men, as with so many odd aspects of London street life, is Henry Mayhew’s great survey London Labour and the London Poor, researched and written as a series of articles during the 1840s and published in book form in 1851. You can read the entire section on purl-men in Volume II, beginning on page 93 in this edition, but we’ll be quoting a few big chunks as we go, via the indexed text at the Tufts University website:

There is yet another class of itinerant dealers who, if not traders in the streets, are traders in what was once termed the silent highway — the river beer-sellers, or purl-men, as they are more commonly called… The purl-men…. are scarcely inferior to the watermen themselves in the management of their boats; and they may be seen at all times easily working their way through every obstruction, now shooting athwart the bows of a Dutch galliot or sailing-barge, then dropping astern to allow a steam-boat to pass till they at length reach the less troubled waters between the tiers of shipping…. Those on board the vessels requiring refreshment, when they hear the bell, hail ‘Purl ahoy;’ in an instant the oars are resumed, and the purl-man is quickly alongside the ship.

Mayhew’s account of the history of purl-men on the Thames seems broadly plausible, which is to say that it’s fairly dull and mostly free of cute stories. He says that the custom began with small vessels selling a wider range of goods to those aboard ships – floating general stores with the rather unfortunate name of ‘bumboats’. Mayhew reckons this derives from the German Baum (tree) which he says can also mean harbour, or haven, but we checked with a German-speaker who didn’t think so. The Oxford English Dictionary reckons the derivation is entirely English and more obvious: it’s bum (meaning arse) plus boat, meaning boat. That is, basically, a shitty boat.

A small boat on the water.
From ‘An Illustrated Vocabulary for the Deaf and Dumb’, 1857.

Mayhew describes the bumboats of the 1840s as ‘all in the form of skiffs, rather short, but of a good breadth, and therefore less liable to capsize through the swell of the steamers, or through any other cause’. (Hyperlink ours, not Mayhew’s.) Bumboats worked the river for some time before they were officially recognised by Trinity House in 1685 by which point (Mayhew says) they had ‘long degenerated into the mere beersellers’, hence the drive for licencing and regulation.

Though Mayhew calls the boats bumboats and their crew purl-men other sources, such as Arthur Morrison’s 1902 novel The Hole in the Wall, set in and around a Wapping pub, or this court record from the 1770s, are just as likely to call them ‘purl-boats’ which brings us to the fun bit: the booze itself.

Purl proper is fairly well documented. It was an infusion of ale with wormwood, a plant best known perhaps for its use in the manufacture of the psychedelic green spirit known as absinthe, which is the French name for wormwood. Another variant, purl-royal, used wine instead of beer as the base for the drink. (As you might expect, Samuel Pepys tasted both at various points,and Dickens mentioned purl more than once.) By the early 19th century this recipe was in circulation in home recipe books:

To make improved wholesome purl. — Take Roman wormwood two dozen, gentian-root six pounds; calamus aromaticus (or the sweet flag root) two pounds; a pound or two of the galien-gale root; horse-radish one bunch; orange-peel dried, and juniper berries each two pounds; seeds or kernels of Seville oranges dried, two pounds…. These being cut and bruised, put them into a clean butt, and start mild brown beer upon them, so as to fill up the vessel about the beginning of November, and let it stand till the next season; and make it thus annually.

Mayhew says, however, that what was actually being sold on the river was something quite different, simpler, and cheaper:

Now, however, the wormwood is unknown; and what is sold under the name of purl is beer warmed nearly to boiling heat, and flavoured with gin, sugar, and ginger. The river-sellers, however, still retain the name, of purl-men, though there is not one of them with whom I have conversed that has the remotest idea of the meaning of it.

The mechanism for warming this latter version of purl was a kind of brazier ‘with holes drilled all round to admit the air and keep the fuel burning’ over which the purl-man would hold the beer in a ‘black pot’. The ale was typically stored in two pins (36-pint casks) alongside a quart or more of gin in a long-necked tin vessel.

A combative article in the Morning Advertiser from 1844, however, suggested that a hundred or so licences had been granted since 1839 and that there was great concern about the sheer number of bum-boats and the frequent criminal conduct of the purl-men. It also got in a dig at the quality of the beer they sold alongside a plug for the ‘respectable Licensed Victuallers and…. owners of riverside [public] houses’ that were among its core readership. Mayhew’s figures, from around the same time, were quite different: he reckoned there were only 35 licensed purl-men on the river, 23 of whom were working the Pool of London.

The life of a purl-man, like the life of many who grubbed a living in Victorian London, seems to have been hard – a constant round of scraping together money to buy stock, and dangerous, body-wracking work. Many were disabled to begin with having got into purl-selling after being injured working on the river. The profits were never huge but, still, Mayhew reports that some of the younger purl-men managed to parlay their river work into careers as publicans on dry land.

There were still bumboat men trading in London as late as 1871 when a river policeman, new in town from the country and unfamiliar with the bumboat tradition, saw William Henry M’Colley serve something from a tin cup to a man aboard a grain ship and challenged him. According to the report in the Morning Advertiser on 19 August that year, M’Colley produced a licence which he believed entitled him to sell rum and other spirits:

Bumboat, No. 8,706. Received of William Henry M‘Colley the sum of 2s. 6d. fees due from him on registering him in the books of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, as the owner of the boat (8,706) to be used, worked, or navigated by him for the purpose of selling and disposing of or exposing for sale to and amongst the seamen and other persons employed in and about ships or vessels upon the said river, liquors, slops, and other articles, or buying or selling other articles in like-manner, but such boat is not to be used for any other purpose, for the period of three years, to the 23rd day of May, 1873. (Signed) Henry Humpheries, Clerk.

The police officer, Inspector Charles Marley, disputed the terms of the licence and the case ended up in court. The judge concluded that the bumboat men should not for the time being sell any more spirits but said nothing particular about beer. References to bumboats dry up after this which leads us to suspect (pending further research) that this particular incident triggered the end of the trade in London.

* * *

If you know more about this or can point to really substantial sources our Googling might have missed, comment below. We’d be especially interested to know if there’s any way we can see a copy of an 1835 painting by George Chamber entitled ‘Purl boat and barges on the Thames — morning’ mentioned here.