An Even-Tempered Look at the English Pub, 1870s

New York’s The Sun in 1877 covered the English pub, one of many articles in the American press between the post-Civil War period and the 1950s dealing with the topic.

The pub exercised a certain fascination on the American public, and this continued for a long time. It manifested itself in different ways, including the building of American restaurants and bars that sought to emulate the tap-house/pub/tavern/inn (largely undifferentiated in American eyes) or the Americans’ conception of it.

Some lines from The Sun’s article:

LONDON, Nov. 1.—In Great Britain, everybody, approximately speaking, drinks wine, ale, or beer—women and children not excepted. A very large majority of the English people look upon ale and beer as being quite as necessary a part of of their living as tea and coffee—and as being quite as legitimate, too. …. In England, a man who does not drink is something of an oddity. Abstinence is looked upon as a whim; few can detect in it a real principle. … Nearly all families keep a jug of beer or ale in the house, and all partake of it daily. When the jug is empty, the wife or daughter thinks nothing of running into the public house for a new supply.

…. The English public house is comparatively respectable. The occupation itself is considered reputable, and the most attractive house-fronts in almost any business street, are those of the public houses. Within, they contrast very favorably with other places of business … When people all drink beer, the places where beer is sold cannot well be other than reasonably decent. I would not be understood as saying that the average English public house is a thoroughly reputable place, but it is less objectionable than our American saloon.

In most public houses girls wait upon the bar, and, so far as I can see, they are generally quite as intelligent and well behaved as those who wait upon customers in other branches of business. At any busy part of the day you would not often look into a public house without seeing a fair sprinkling of women present.

…. drunkenness is not of the most violent kind, but it is very general.

The assessment was rendered about the same time as the dyspeptic article by a fellow-American I discussed here. The Sun article is certainly more even-tempered and reasonable in tone, and seems to want to understand the true facts without a distorting agenda.

The normality of the pub as a business enterprise is stressed. The staff acts in a manner similar to that in other shops, the owners are for the most part reputable, and (evidently) the pubs cater to a real, widespread demand in the population. In other words, the daily imbibing of alcohol is a cultural trait, not something created by a cynical syndicate of brewers or out-of-control licensing system.

Yes there is drunkenness, but the writer doesn’t define most of its manifestations and it is hard to know if on a net basis society is worse or better off; the writer is non-committal in any event.

The factor of women being regularly present in London pubs is interesting. There is no reference to “hidden” compartments such as the snug, or any kind of particular case in this regard such as arriving to fetch beer for home, but a general statement that if you looked in the bar day in day out women would be seen.

Other evidence suggests similar, including this interesting paper that compares pubs in Liverpool and Manchester berween 1840 and 1914 by Alistair Mutch (see especially p. 27).

Practice may have varied too depending on the type of pub, the city, the licensing regime.

Fragmentary as these press reports are, taken together they are a kind of Mass Observation social study before its time. One advantage of journalistic coverage is, unless coming from a strong ideological base such as a temperance newspaper, the depiction of social reality tends to be relatively objective, even as no one observer is perfectly objective or has all the facts.

An old expression says, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and perhaps that’s true of the public house issue for Victorian Britain. It was never as wicked as the temperance advocates argued, never as innocent and benign as its ardent defenders wished.

Note re sources: The quotation above is drawn from the press report linked in the press, archived in the Fulton History newspapers. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Quotation used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

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