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.