Gin palaces in Manchester: blessed gaudiness

As you might expect, when it comes to writing about gin palaces, London seems to hog the limelight, but they popped up all across England in the early 19th century, including Manchester.

Without Dickens to write about them or Cruikshank to draw them, the records are more sparse, but they do exist. And, once again, we owe disapproving temperance types a debt of gratitude for their information gathering, biased as it might be.

For example, here’s a summary of the situation from Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects by the French economist Léon Faucher who visited England on a study tour in the mid-1840s, with paragraph breaks added for easier online reading:

Only twenty years ago, drunkenness was considered a degrading indulgence; the dramshops were in retired places, and their customers entered secretly by private doors; and a candle placed behind the window was the dubious sign to arrest the attention of the passer-by.

But now, drunkenness has infused itself into the bosom of society. Habit has conquered shame, and that which formerly drew a blush from the men is now regarded as a daily habit by women and children.

By degrees, the dim lights have been replaced by the dazzling gas; the doors have been enlarged; the pot-house has become a gin-shop; and the gin-shop a species of palace.

The games hitherto carried on in these places not being sufficient, the proprietors have added music, dancing, and exhibitions, as additional attractions to a dissolute people. Formerly, concerts were held in these places only in the winter, but now they extend throughout the year; and, as in Liverpool, so here, the swelling of the organ, and the sounds of the violin and the piano, resound in their large saloons.

One of these houses, situated not far from the Exchange, and at the entrance to Victoria Bridge, collects in this manner, one thousand persons, every evening, until eleven PM. On Sundays, to diminish the scandal, religious hymns and sacred music are performed upon the organ and piano.

We can’t work out exactly which establishment is being described here but a quick look at this much later map, from 1888, suggests plenty of candidates – P.H. here, P.H. there, P.H.s everywhere. Whatever was previously on the site of The Grosvenor seems most likely.

Map of Manchester with many public houses.

In 1845, an American observer using the pseudonym ‘Looker On’ set out just how common gin palaces were in Manchester at that time:

To form any just idea of the magnitude of Manchester, and of the character of its population, it should be entered towards evening.

Then every mill is illuminated, and as their countless windows blaze forth, they present a brilliant spectacle. The black walls are no longer seen, and the canopy of smoke which overhangs all is no longer distinguishable by the eye.

At the corners of nearly all the principal streets are gaudy buildings, with enormous lamps, and into these Gin Palaces, as they are called, a continual stream of living beings enter.

And oh! what a wretched procession! Old men and little children, drabbish women and young girls; youths of besotted appearance, and men in the very flower of life, bowed down to the dust, energies quenched, strength prostrated, minds half destroyed.

Benjamin Love’s 1842 book The Handbook of Manchester gives us another couple of interesting nuggets, wrapped up in a lot of temperance hyperbole:

From an observation made on [Sunday] the 13th March, 1842, by the writer’s direction, there were found to enter one dram-shop only, in this town, the astonishing number of 484 persons in one hour! The greater part were women! Some decently dressed, apparently the wives of mechanics; others almost naked, carrying in their arms a squalid infant. When wives frequent gin-palaces, no wonder their husbands, on leaving work, proceed straight to the beer house.

Assuming we credit Mr Love’s figure, that means these places were undeniably busy. It also suggests a clear gender divide between types of establishment. Beerhouses were the antithesis of the gin palace – generally small and plain.

Here’s a bit more from ‘Looker On’ describing the scene inside a Manchester gin palace:

Behind a bar, decorated richly with carvings and brass work, multiplied by numerous mirrors, in costly frames, with three or four showy-looking, and flashily attired females, occupied incessantly in drawing from enormous casks, gaudily painted in green and gold, and bearing seducing names, glasses of spirits, which are eagerly clutched by the trembling fingers of those who crowd round the counter, gasping as if for breath, for the stimulus of drink. Look at their red, half-raw lips; their glaring lack-lustre eyes…

Right, well, that’s enough of that, but the description of the fixtures and fittings seems accurate.

Glitter and grandeur aside, they were by no means genteel places, as this note of a criminal case from 1847 makes clear:

Yesterday, at the Borough Court, before Mr. Maude, a fellow employed… about the Bowdun and Altrincham coach office named John Hampson, was charged with robbing a gentleman from Preston, of his purse and eighteen sovereigns.

It appeared that on Monday evening, the prosecutor who had come here on business, got ‘a little over the line,’ and being determined, as it seemed to have jolly good spree, and see life in Manchester, he bent his steps towards gin palace in Deansgate.

There, on the strength of his well-filled purse he was received by the company present as ‘a real good fellow,’ and very speedily his excessive liberality became apparent, as he insisted on standing treat for everybody.

When the hour for closing the vaults arrived, he was just in the height of his glory, and nowise inclined to go to bed, when the prisoner and some of his friends kindly offered to find him with quarters, provided he would pay for a supply of liquor.

Accordingly, he accompanied the parties to a house in Back Queen-street, where gallons of ale, quarts of rum, &c. &c. were sent for pretty freely, until overpowered with strong drink the Preston gentleman fell asleep, and on awaking found that he was minus his purse and eighteen sovereigns.

An 1857 guidebook to Manchester and Salford singles out the gin palaces of Ancoats for particular attention:

The oldest and the worst working district of Manchester, is the region known as Ancoats. Here, however, you will find the truest specimens of the indigenous Lancashire population, and hear the truest version of the old Anglo-Saxon pronunciation… Ancoats, in fact, is Manchester pur sang – Manchester ere sanitary improvement and popular education had raised and purified its general social condition.

Many of its streets, particularly the great thoroughfare called the Oldham Road, are magnificent in their vast proportions; but the thousands of by-lanes and squalid courts, the stacked-up piles of undrained and unventilated dwellings, swarm with the coarsest and most dangerous portions of the population. Here the old and inferior mills abound; here the gin-palaces are the most magnificent, and the pawn-shops the most flourishing; here, too, the curse of Lancashire-the ‘low Irish ’ – congregate by thousands; and here, principally, abound the cellar dwellings,and the pestilential lodging-houses, where thieves and vagrant; of all kinds find shares of beds in underground recesses for a penny and twopence a night.

Another source, also from 1855, paints a vivid picture of the contrast between the Ancoats gin palaces and their surroundings:

Returning from the Christmas treat of the St. John’s Industrial Ragged School, in company with the energetic and intelligent master of the New Ragged School in Angel Meadow, Ancoats, I met numbers of poor wretched looking children, in groups, round the corners of low streets and public-house doors, where the numerous gas lamps inside threw a gleam of light across the road, and the opening and shutting of the door of the magnificent gin palace gave a cheerfulness and bustle to a very dull and dirty street.

On the step of one public-house, a little girl, herself o about six years old, was nursing a pale and delicate infant not six months old, or rather just letting it lie over her knees. The mother was, in all probability, inside, spending her last copper; the rain was pouring, and it was past nine o’clock.

Finally, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life mentions gin palaces and pubs in passing in a couple of places, including confirmation of the obvious appeal of places ”where all is clean and bright, and where th’ fire blazes cheerily, and gives a man a welcome as it were”.

What we can’t work out – not easily, anyway – is if there are any surviving early 19th century gin palaces in Manchester today. There are plenty of wonderful historic pubs but most, such as The Marble Arch and Crown & Kettle, are late 19th century or early 20th century buildings.

On that, local intelligence would be welcome.

The temptation of the gin palace door, 1844

An essay by Irish writer John Fisher Murray from 1844 gives us yet another portrait of the gin palace. And, as is often the case, through the veil of temperance disapproval, there are some evocative details to be enjoyed.

For example, haven’t we all come across inviting, tempting pub doors like this?

The doors are large, swinging easily upon patent hinges, and ever half-and-half—half open, half shut, so that the most undecided touch of the dram-drinker admits him. The windows are of plateglass, set in brass sashes, and are filled with flaming announcements, in large letters, ‘The Cheapest House In London,’— ‘Cream Of The Valley,’—‘Creaming Stout,’—‘Brilliant Ales,’—‘Old Tom, fourpence a quartern,’ — ‘Hodges’ Best, for mixing,’ and a variety of other entertainments for the men and beasts who make the gin-palace their home. At night splendid lights irradiate the surrounding gloom, and an illuminated clock serves to remind the toper of the time he throws away in throwing away his reason.

The other line that leaps out there is ‘Creaming Stout’ – a foreshadowing of the marketing that would arise around Guinness draught stout more than a hundred years later. It turns out this was a fairly common descriptor throughout the nineteenth century; here’s one example from 1855:

Creaming Ripe Porter, Treble Creaming Stout
SOURCE: Friend of India and Statesman, 20 September 1855, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Creaming Ripe Porter! Treble Creaming Stout! Bring these beer names back, somebody. (Not now, obviously.)

But let’s step back and look at the lie of the land – where would you find a gin palace? And what face does it present to the street?

Good eating deserves good drinking; and, if you have the wherewithal, you need assuredly not remain many minutes either hungry or dry. In London, the public-house is always either next door but two, or round the next corner, or over the way… The gin-palace… is generally at the corner of two intersecting streets, in a gin-drinking neighbourhood; it lowers, in all the majesty of stucco pilasters, in genuine cockney splendour, over the dingy mansions that support it, like a rapacious tyrant over his impoverished subjects.

Right, now it’s time to slip through that light-touch door and see what’s going on inside:

Within, the splendour is in keeping with the splendour without; counters fitted with zinc, and a long array of brass taps; fittings of the finest Spanish mahogany, beautifully polished; bottles containing cordials, and other drugs, gilded and labelled, as in the apothecaries’ shops. At one side is the bar-parlour, an apartment fitted up with congenial taste, and usually occupied by the family of the publican; in the distance are vistas, and sometimes galleries, formed altogether of huge vats of the various sorts of liquor dispensed in the establishment.

The intriguing detail here is the bar-parlour. We’ve only ever encountered one of these in real life, at the Bridge Inn in Topsham, Devon. That example is a cosy little domestic room with a fireplace and armchairs (we think, from memory) where the landlady occasionally invites favourite regulars to sit.

It’s funny to think of a family living in a gin palace, or at least the kind of den of debauchery depicted in Victorian literature and art.

Now we get a look at the customers and, of course, an obligatory glance towards the sexy barmaids:

Behind the counter, which is usually raised to a level with the breasts of the topers, stand men in their shirt-sleeves, well-dressed females, or both, dispensers of the ‘short’ and ‘heavy;’ the under-sized tipplers, raising themselves on tiptoe, deposit the three-halfpence for the ‘drop’ of gin, or whatever else they require, and receive their quantum of the poison in return; ragged women, with starveling children, match and ballad-vendors, fill up the foreground of the picture. There are no seats, nor any accommodation for the customers in the regular gin-palace; every exertion is used to make the place as uncomfortable to the consumers as possible, so that they shall only step in to drink, and pay; step out, and return to drink and pay again. No food of any kind is provided at the gin-palace, save a few biscuits, which are exhibited in a wire-cage, for protection against the furtive hand; drink, eternal, poisonous drink, is the sole provision of this whited sepulchre.

“Whited sepulchre!” we both cried, being of the generation that read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for GCSE English. It must be from the Bible or Shakespeare, then, we thought, and sure enough, it’s from Matthew 23:27:

Woe unto you… for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness…

Oof! The gin palace as Biblical symbol.

This theme is continued in the next passage which, judgemental or not, gives us some fascinating, vivid details:

There is not in all London a more melancholy and spirit-depressing sight than the area of one of the larger gin-palaces on a wet night. There, the homeless, houseless miserables of both sexes, whether they have money or not, resort in numbers for a temporary shelter; aged women selling ballads and matches, cripples, little beggar-boys and girls, slavering idiots, piemen, sandwich-men, apple and orange-women, shell-fishmongers, huddled pell-mell,in draggle-tailed confusion.

Pies, sandwiches, shellfish… Almost two centuries on, this is still the essence of pub grub. We can’t say we’ve ever had the urge to buy an apple or an orange down the boozer, though.

Well, fun as this brief visit has been, it’s probably time we pulled our lapels up and went out into that bloody awful weather…

The noises, too, of the assembled topers are hideous; appalling even when heard in an atmosphere of gin. Imprecations, execrations, objurgations, supplications, until at length the patience of the publican, and the last copper of his customers, are exhausted, when, rushing from behind his counter, assisted by his shopmen, he expels, vi et armis, the dilatory mob, dragging out by the heels or collars the dead drunkards, to nestle, as best they may, outside the inhospitable door.

You can read Mr Fisher Murray’s essay in full in various places including his own 1845 collection The World of London. The main image is adapted from an engraving from The Working Man’s Friend and Family Instructor, 25 Oct 1851.

A Frenchman visits a gin palace, 1873

In early 1873, English newspapermen were amused to discover that the French critic and novelist Alphonse Karr had been writing about London gin palaces for Le Figaro.

Karr is these days best known for epigrams such as “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’ll confess we’d never heard of him at all until we came across a mention of him in an article in the British Newspaper Archive.

Fortunately, thanks to the magic of online digital archives, it’s fairly easy to read a version of Karr’s original text as collected in an 1876 anthology of his writing.

Here’s our attempt at tidying up Google’s automatic translation:

Let’s talk about cabarets and cafes.

This must be dealt with from three points of view, one of which is completely modern and contemporary.

The first point is drunkenness, its hideousness, its dangers; the second, the thefts, the tricks and the poisonings practiced by certain merchants; the third, the application of cabaret and coffee to street politics – or rather to agitation, to the spread of false or exaggerated ideas, to the poisoning of minds.

It seems that to see drunkenness in all its horrible stupidity, in England you have to visit the shops, the palaces, dedicated to it – gin shops, or gin palaces.

A flood of ragged beings move incessantly towards the temple, on the door of which shine, on large copper plates, the words gin, beer, spirits – that is to say, forgetfulness, absence stupor.

A room a hundred feet long, all furnished on one side with huge barrels painted in various colors, with portraits of the queen in between.

In front of the barrels, a long counter or bar and many waiters constantly busy pouring. In the crowd, there are as many women as men and women are often, in fact, in the majority.

We approach the bar, money in hand with a sort of dumb reverence, as if we were going to receive communion; in a low voice, gin or spirits are asked for; the glass, not filled until the waiter has received the money, is accepted in silence and with an icy seriousness; then we will sit on a long bench leaning against the wall in front of the barrels; here we remain motionless, silent, in a sort of ecstasy and contemplation of the barrels; a little later we rummage in our pockets and count our money; we return to the bar, we drink and we return to the bench, from where we return to the bar; and always thus as long as there is money.

Everyone knows how rigorously the sabbath is observed in England – any distraction is strictly prohibited; the only exception is the gin shop. It is enough that they should look closed, but you only have to push the door to enter. The State and Church seem to believe that there would be danger in leaving one day per week free of that awful misery – one day when people don’t forget and fall asleep like brutes.

The British take on his story was perhaps understandably arch: this daft foreigner didn’t understand how pubs worked and, worse, was some sort of temperance advocate. Here’s how it was reported in a syndicated story that appeared in numerous newspapers on and around 9 January 1873:

Not a word for the neat-handed Phyllises behind the counter. This is hardly courteous on the part French litterateurs, who are fond of ogling them when they do come here… M. Alphonse Karr a very remarkable man; one time, it we remember right, he even aspired to the dignity of citoyen, but has ever been animated with a strong dislike of perfidious islanders. It is very clear that he has never heard the Licensing Act.

Those barmaids again!

We wonder if any more confident French speakers than us might be able to dig out more accounts of English pubs and drinking culture. For example, this advice looks intriguing:

L’intérieur de ces établissements si nombreux présente quelque intérêt en ce qu’il explique la société anglaise. Il y a d’abord la salle du comptoir (bar-room), sorte de terrain neutre sur lequel des hommes et des femmes debout se rencontrent pour étancher leur soif aux flots d’ambre liquide…

The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892

In 1892, Eliza Orme undertook a painstaking investigation into the working lives of barmaids, producing a report which takes us back to the pubs of the past with incredible vividness.

Eliza Orme was an interesting woman. She was the first woman in England to get a degree in law, in 1888, as Dr Leslie Howsam, who has studied Orme’s life, explains here:

[She] was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. ‘I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment’, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.

An early feminist, Miss Orme was a firm believer in allowing women to work in whichever industries they chose and was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women.

Through this, she ended up as Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Labour, overseeing a small team of Lady Assistant Commissioners.

Portrait photo.
Eliza Orme c.1900.

After the Commission decided at a meeting in March 1892 to undertake research into the working lives of women, Orme dispatched her team around the country, from Bristol to the Western Isles, to investigate various industries such as textile mills, chocolate factories and stocking making.

Continue reading “The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892”

A big night out in London, 1858

The 1858 book The Night Side of London by James Ewing Ritchie offers an overview of places of entertainment in the capital, from music halls to proto-nightclubs. Most were built around pubs and all seem to have been permanently soaked with booze.

Ostensibly, this is a moralising tract: alcohol ruins lives, Ritchie argues, and nobody out at night is on the path to righteousness.

At the same time, like Mondo Cane and other ‘documentary’ films of the 1960s, its disapproving tone is at odds with the titillating nature of the content. In fact, it almost amounts to a guidebook for visitors seeking London’s naughtiest neighbourhoods.

It’s probably also worth saying at this point that in places, it’s an uncomfortable read: Ritchie is blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish people for everything from running sweat-shops to pimping to clip-joints. And just in case there’s any doubt, he even throws in a few references to the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’. This seems to be at the root of his objective to alcohol, in fact – that it is weakening the mighty master race, and so on and so forth. Anyway…

The single most interesting thread is its perfect capturing of the moment when pubs and music halls began to branch apart from their common roots.

There’s an extended description of Canterbury Hall, for example, which grew out of the Canterbury Tavern on the Upper Marsh, built on the site of the old skittle alley, and is generally reckoned to have been the first purpose built music hall.

Canterbury Hall interior.
The interior of the Canterbury Hall.

It sat in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by railway lines and “monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas… full of ragged children, hideous old woman, and drunken men”. The Canterbury Music Hall, though still boozy, the author reluctantly admits, was relatively more sober than the alternatives:

A well-lighted entrance attached to a public-house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and nine- pence if we do the lobby and ascend into the balcony.We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a very handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding fifteen hundred persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse shoe. At the opposite end to which we enter is the platform, on which is placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage… Let us look round us; evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics, or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts there. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen, who confidentially inform each other that there is “no end of talent here,” and that Miss “is a doosed fine gal;” and here, as elsewhere, we see a few of the class of unfortunates, whose staring eyes would fain extort an admiration which their persons do not justify. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of the ladies has also a beneficial effect…

The book concludes with a detailed portrait of The Eagle Tavern, famous for its pleasure gardens, and another nascent music hall, where people sat “eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer”.

For more on the birth of the music hall, read Lee Jackson’s excellent book Palaces of Pleasure, published earlier this year.

The roughest pubs in London get looked at, too – those on Ratcliffe Highway, which ran out of London through the East End to Limehouse. We are told that this notoriously dangerous stretch of road smelled worse than Cologne, or even Bristol. (Cheeky bastard.) Here, sailors would go wild spending their earnings from the last voyage, lured into clip joints by prostitutes who would drink water while the sailors downed gin.

One victim, James Hall, spent a month staying at a pub on Clive Street run by a Mr Glover, where he burned through £30 by drinking:

20 pints of rum… 20 quarts of beer… 8 glasses of rum… 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale… 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy… 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum… 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer…

…and so on.

Another interesting observation, in a chapter on ‘Discussion clubs’, is that pubs in crowded markets have always resorted to novelty and spectacle to draw in custom:

It is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirees Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief — actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer.

Discussion clubs were one such entertainment:

Now, in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville ; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers’ Hall, and another large room in Shoe Lane. These are [free but] you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals.

It’s hard to imagine live debating being much of a draw these days but back then, before television panel shows and daily news programmes, it might have seemed fun.

Doctor Johnson’s Tavern, which we think is The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, gets a pen portrait, too:

[There] are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present… They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beery. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to “Islin’ton” tonight. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about ‘Lovely Spring’ but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I cannot tell.

That last line is fairly typical of the author: even if a bloke looks to be having fun, he must be inwardly tortured.

As well as music halls, clubs and pubs, there were also boxing pubs

We enter, we will say, Bang Up’s hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening ; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worthwhile to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up’s bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money… [We] find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits — imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom’s lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then — for the room is a complete Walhalla — we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villainous foreheads, all “vacant of our glorious gains,” heavy eyes, thick bull necks…

…and 600 or so pubs with billiards rooms attached to pubs, as well as standalone billiard rooms with their own bars.

The most interesting bit of the whole book, given our recent pondering on gentrification and the research we did into the rise of the ‘improved public house’ for 20th Century Pub, is a chapter on the ‘Respectable public house’, which is…

…situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier- glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare… Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly’s, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of show is cultivated to an alarming extent. “Let us be genteel or die,” said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropolis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers’ flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.

This, from the 1850s, could almost be a description of a genteel London pub of today – one of those posh Fuller’s joints, maybe. The clientele according to Ritchie’s account was bank directors, railway officials and City boys. This type of pub, he says, was their equivalent of the working class beerhouse or gin shop and, of course, is sure to spell doom for them and their impressive careers in the long run.

The single most effective portrait of an individual pub is of one frequented by costermongers, “in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house”. Costermongers were street traders who wandered around selling cheap food and were famous for their ‘backslang’, such as ‘top of reeb’ for ‘pot of beer’. Here’s the scene:

Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives… The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character… [As] the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten… the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious…

Our edits above remove a lot of judgemental asides. Let’s be clear – the author does not approve of this kind of thing at all. It’s just the truth can’t help shining through: these people had hard lives and found happiness and companionship in the pub.

There are also a few stray beer-related nuggets and facts scattered throughout the text:

  • London consumed 43,200,000 gallons of porter and ale each year.
  • In London, “according to Sir R. Mayne”, there were 3,613 beer shops, 5,279 public houses, 13 wine rooms.
  • People were accompanying oysters with pale ale – not stout.

And, finally, there’s this piece of temperance-flavoured philosophy:

The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun.

In other words, it’s the socialising that makes you merry, not the booze. And, temperance propaganda aside, there might be something in that.

You can find the full text of The Night Side of London via the Hathi Trust and no doubt elsewhere, too.

The gin palace vs. the pub, 1836

In 1836, somebody calling themselves ‘Observer’ put out a treatise in six parts comparing gin shops, or gin palaces, with pubs.

We’d never come across it until it popped up in a search for something else via the Hathi Trust website. What particularly caught our attention were the illustrations, reproduced below.

The introductory paragraph to the first issue suggests to us that it might have been a propaganda tool of brewers keen to bolster the image of beer as a healthy, moderate alternative to spirits:

A Succinct Historical Narrative of the Gin-shop; its Commencement, rapid Increase, its Collapse and System, with the inherent Evils, special Influences, deceptive Allurements, and demoralizing Nature of its Workings, carefully dissected, analyzed, and Comparisons drawn, proving the System to be worse than an intolerable Nuisance; while the Public-house System is shown to be both highly Useful and Necessary.

In fact, later on, the author grumbles that the Morning Advertiser (which, don’t forget, is an ancient institution) refused to run an advert for his series of pamphlets because it was so strident in defence of publicans and might offend gin-palace operators.

Continue reading “The gin palace vs. the pub, 1836”

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.