Britain’s Most Distinguished Licensee

In the 1930s, the “English Tavern” was a gauzy image in American eyes of comfort, homeyness, and gentility, rather discordant elements, in fact, but “it worked”. I’ll return to this soon with examples of newly-built English Taverns in the concrete canyons and urbanized beach resorts of 1930s New York, but for now draw attention to the kind of model the Yanks had in mind.

In truth of course, the tavern, inn, taproom, call it what you will, was as old as America. After all, the British founded the principal American colonies, or took them over early as Manhattan, and provided the major cultural impetus including the English language.

The comfy resort where one could relax and sip punch, flip, cider, or ale was therefore venerable and enduring, and co-existed somehow with the more nefarious notions of saloon and cocktail bar. This benign image never left the folk memory, but was less potent in certain periods.

In the late-1800s as I discussed recently, news coverage of English and American taverns tempered the old affection with more realism on the tavern’s dangers. This was the result of a long process of temperance campaigning, so that alcohol’s role in society changed to a kind of conditional status.

I’ll review soon as well perspectives of the English pub in another period, the years leading up to WW I – height of prohibitionist sentiment. The Gothenburg experiment came in for a close look, as did schemes in Britain favouring alcohol-free pubs.

By the 1930s though, the English inn/hostelry/tavern/alehouse (all confounded happily in the American mind) rebounded in prestige. Suddenly, English taverns were everywhere, in the major cities, in the basements of plush suburban homes.

The fashion was rivalled perhaps only by the Irish pub craze of the last 30 years.

Stories in the press burnished and consecrated the old image, and what better model than “Britain’s most distinguished licensee”. She was no less a Prime Minister’s socially prominent daughter, Ishbel MacDonald.

This Pathe clip explains crisply what she did – she bought an inn in Speen, Buckinghamshire, The Plow, and married a local villager to boot.

He died 15 years later and she remarried. Sadly, the second husband died only three years after. MacDonald finally returned to Scotland, passing away in 1982.

By all reports she was a remarkable woman, and must indeed have been the perfect pub landlady. Her mother had died young and Ishbel became chatelaine for her father, honing what seems innate social skills to the max. She had the personal touch long before the current crop of commoners who married into royalty.

This 1938 press story in the Philadelphia Inquirer dished the details of running the pub and marrying Norman Ridgely. It dazzled American readers with an upstairs-downstairs scenario. Villagers fretted that Ishbel’s “breeding” would alter the tone of Saturday nights in the pub, but were converted by her winning manner.

In fact, Ramsay MacDonald was born to humble origins, which he overcame in social terms but not materially. Ishbel’s management skills as publican/hotelier in part came from savvy economizing as hostess at 10 Downing Street, as Ramsay had no independent fortune to spend.

The Plow endured for years after Ishbel retired to the MacDonald seat in Lossiemouth. In the last generation the pub functioned mainly as a stylish restaurant, serving a chic clientèle in the Chilterns. Today it is a private residence.

The image shown above is from a second Pathe clip, picturing the good-looking hostess with handsome townsman Ridgley.

Note re image: Image above was sourced as noted and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.

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