27 August 2011

Pubs: Britain's greatest contribution to world peace

The book Licensed to Sell – The History and Heritage of the Public House showed that the great boom in pub building came at the close of the C19th when designers used gas lighting on mirrors and plate glass to develop an inviting and seductive appearance. Furthermore the materials that helped to create the typical image of the Victorian pub were readily available to designers and builders: woodwork, metalwork, ceramics and plaster.

The Falcon, Clapham Junction, built in 1887

The vital task taken on by by Geoff Brandwood, Andrew Davison and Michael Slaughter was to describe the long history of the public house and to examine how changing attitudes were reflected in its design and planning. And the information on Demonising Drink was very welcome. The Drink Question seemed to have a powerful influence on the various political parties and on drink-related legislation in the late Victorian decades. However it seems counter-intuitive that the Liberal Party was associated with temperance and the Conservative Party was seen as the friend of big brewers.

All writing about the visual arts, be they paintings, architecture or the decorative arts, needs to be visual. With lush photos, this book beautifully memorialised and celebrated the various styles of pub building, from rich and gaudy to sleek and modern. My particular favourite was The Salisbury in London, a 1890s pub-hotel that had every known architectural element thrown onto the façade – Flemish gables, mullioned windows, wide arches on the ground floor and red and yellow brick work. What a treat.

Turk's Head, Middlesex, 
an Edwardian pub

What the authors brought to public attention was that the number of pubs has halved since their late C19th glory days, when there were some 100,000. Alas just 250 have retained all their original Victorian architecture, furniture and decorative elements. And worse still, English Heritage has listed only 20-30 pubs for protection in the last decade. Since World War Two ended, period fittings have been ripped out of the traditional pub by big breweries who wanted up-market bars, with utterly impersonal interiors. The old colourful tiles, painted glass, timber panels and gilded woodwork were modernised! In a section that “England England” readers will admire, the authors noted that genuine features were discarded, only to have mock heritage reintroduced a few years later.

All readers interested in architectural and literary history will acknowledge that this is no mere drinking issue, since pubs have been woven into the fabric of some of Britain’s most loved novels – think of Dickens’ pubs. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s drinkers and socialisers care that under 4% have interiors of any historic value that are still intact.

The Princess Louise, Holborn, built in 1872 

Now I may be generalising from my own experience to that of the entire reading public, but I assume most readers do not read a textbook like a novel i.e from cover to cover. I hop and jump around the chapters, according to interest. Thus the Contents Page needs to signpost the material carefully. Alas in this book I cannot tell the difference between the chapters headed The Emergence of the Pub, Development of the Pub, and Planning of the Pub. The index was excellent, fortunately.

As a devoted pub patron but by no means a scholar of pub architecture, I loved the new material that I had never read before e.g that playing billiards in a licensed house required a separate licence for each table in 1845. Were billiard players a potentially dangerous lot? Then there was other material that I instinctively knew but was pleased to have confirmed e.g that many pubs had a club room, usually situated on the first floor. The pub functioned as the social centre of a community, before WW1. Finally there were familiar paintings, drawing and literary quotes that I was very familiar with e.g Pepys and Hogarth.

Licensed to Sell – The History and Heritage of the Public House by Geoff Brandwood, Andrew Davison and Michael Slaughter. It was published by English Heritage in 2011. Many thanks to Inbooks of Brookvale NSW for the copy.

It would be fascinating to follow this book up with The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 by Peter Clark. They do not cover the same eras, but drinking is drinking. And for blog readers, a swift one... focuses largely on breweries, pubs, clubs and festivals of Yorkshire. Tired of London, Tired of Life is also excellent. He recommends at the Half Moon Herne Hill, built  in 1896 and designed by architect J. W. Brooker. This beautiful Grade II listed pub still has its attractive interior intact.


Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels - what is happening to the pub trade in England right npow is sad to see.

Pubs are closing in droves due to the economic situation and other factors such as the ban on smoking.

In it's heyday my home town (Gravesend) is believed to have had one of the largest number of pubs ands ale houses per capita anywhere in England.

We still have a few pubs left with traces of their Victorian origins (such as green glazed facing tiles) but most have either been closed or bastardised into winebars or night clubs.


the foto fanatic said...

Could the demise of the local pub with its links to the community be linked to the increase in alcohol-fuelled violence? When you are at a second home you are much more likely to behave and less likely to trash the place.

The emergence of characterless drinking holes is not confined to London. Brisbane has fared as badly at preserving older pubs with character.

Hels said...

are you saying that pubs are closing down totally because of the Great Crash of 2007 and its attendant depression? If so, I think that is a terrible shame - governments should be supporting small businesses as a way of boosting both employment and morale.

Or have they been closing for decades and the recent economic depression is only the last in a long line of troubled times for pubs?

When I lived in Herts, my favourite pub was The King Harry. Not because the interior was Victorian necessarily but because the beer garden was a pleasure. Being an Australian, I needed warm days and icy beers.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

clearly true! If the pub is the heart and soul of each small community, it does become a second home to the individuals who go there. To drink of course, but also to socialise, play billiards or darts, trivial pursuit nights etc. It is madness to tear these community centres down.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hels - pubs have been disappearing since the ban on smoking in public places came into force.

I am not a smoker myself or an advocate of it but the ban did have a massive impact on pubs.

This has been coupled with successive increases in tax on alcohol and the economic downturn.

I may well write a post about some of the pubs we have lost here in Kent now you have inspired me :-)


Hermes said...

I remember London pubs - some real spit and sawdust - where darts was a competitive sport. Oddly enough I'm reading a comparison between pubs and how temperance halls/clubs tried to compete in towns and villages. The latter have died out now but was a huge movement towards the end of the 20th century. Drink driving and then smoking bans killed a lot of pubs here in the West country.

Hels said...

thanks for that. I was inspired to see if the closure of some/many/all pubs was a feature of life in an area I knew well and found this in Wiki:

There are only two pubs left in the Park St area south of St Albans. Seven other pubs in the Park Street/Frogmore/Colney Street area have closed as follows: The Jolly Farmer closed in the 1930s; The Lamb closed in the early 1970s; The George and Dragon closed in the early 1990s; The Red Cow closed 2002; The Black Horse was demolished in 2003; The Red Lion closed in 2009, The Swan closed in 2008.

Two still open out of nine seems tragic :( I hope you do write a post about some of the pubs that were lost in Kent, especially if they were historically interesting.

Hels said...


I am learning more and more.

I am fascinated in the temperance movement, its halls and clubs and coffee palaces. But even at its height, the temperance movement didn't seem to diminish the public's love of pubs. Drinkers seemed to think the ladies were church going, god bothering middle class women who had no idea what a full day of tiring work meant.

Billback said...

When I was at Melbourne Uni during the Dark Ages, Naughton's was the pub of choice for the cool set. I hope it is still there.

Hels said...

another tragedy. The Age (28th July 2010) said: "A part of Melbourne dies on Friday - the Naughton's Hotel in Parkville is calling last drinks. A mainstay to university students, political apparatchiks and Carlton footy teams, Naughton's - built in 1873 - was more than a pub, it was a part of Melbourne's fabric. Melbourne's booming real estate sector may be the reason behind the hotel's demise."

1873 *sigh* Tragic but ironic. The British comments were largely about pubs closing because of the poor economy. Yet our key pub apparently closed because the land was too valuable not to use for something more profitable.

Hels said...

while I think of it, The Age published a picture of Naughton's in its post war heyday:

Shelley said...

I'll bet this book was a fascinating read and this along with some of your other mentions sounds like Christmas gift ideas for Bill! He is not alone here in Britain in having a very particular idea about what a pub should look like and modern isn't in it! I much prefer the older decor as well. (And I do tend to read textbooks on fashion front to back, boring I know.) I'll have a look around for these books!

Hels said...


if we are right that the local pub was, for many people, a social centre and their home away from home, then they have every right to specify what their pub should look like. Bill probably does not admire stark and sleek modernity in his pub, and a don't blame him one iota.


P. M. Doolan said...

A fasciniating post. I had no idea that the Victorian period was the hey day of the English pub. I prefer pubs these days because they are smoke free, yet it is sad to realise that they are fewer and fewer. Someday, perhaps, pubs will be a threatened species, as people hang out in Starbucks and do their drinking at home and in restaurants.

Hels said...

PM Doolan,

Good question. There had of course been alehouses, taverns and inns for ever, so what were Brandwood, Davison and Slaughter meaning by the Victorian heyday?

I have two separate suggestions. Once purpose-built public houses appeared in the 19th century, they rapidly increased in number, in line with population growth. And hugely boosted by the Beer Act of 1830. By mid century, pubs must have been opened on every corner.

But the importance of the later Victorian era seems to be more about aesthetics than about numbers of pubs. Flamboyant pub interiors, with special decorated mirrors, tiled walls and etched glass, reached their peak.

Nicholas V. said...

The pub is certainly central to English culture, but also of course it has been culturally transplanted as an institution and place of socialisation in almost all of the former British colonies - Australia of course being a prime example.

I recently read an extremely amusing but also considerably academic anthropological treatise on the 'hidden rules of English behaviour'. Well worth reading "Watching the English" by Kate Fox/ The chapter 'Pub Talk' is especially pertinent to this post.

Hels said...


I will get onto Kate Fox's Watching the English as soon as I find it. The book Licensed to Sell – The History and Heritage of the Public House was strong on: external and internal architecture and the decorative arts.

But if one thing came out of all the comments it was how important the pub was as a safe and welcoming place of socialisation. In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc even more so.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels - I finally got round to writing my post about the pubs we have lost here in Kent.

Here's the link - http://kenttodayandyesterday.blogspot.com/2011/10/kents-disappearing-pubs.html

Hels said...


great post but what a misery. Not only have communities lost their social heart, but irreplaceable Victorian architecture is lost. I particularly paid attention to what you said about The Terrace Tavern: green glazed tiles, etched glass windows and fancy ironwork.

Thanks for the link.