The English Pub Then and Now

“The Quiet Pub is the Mirror of England”

Godfrey Blunden was an Australian war correspondent who was in the thick of key campaigns in WW II. In October 1943, temporarily in England, he painted a vivid portrait of the English pub. When not in the field some of his work was of this “domestic” nature, reporting on local life. As an Australian, he brings a unique perspective to England of the 1940s. His incidental comments about drinking in Australia are of interest too.

Blunden saw the importance of the pub to morale, and in fact his is one of a number of sympathetic treatments which appeared in the press in the last years of the war.

The pub was seen, in this perspective, as  something to stand for, an inherent part of English social life.

Showing the pub as a friend to the community rather than the insidious evil depicted, say, in Victorian temperance literature would remind people what they were fighting for, and help stay defeatism.

George Orwell’s famous essay on the ideal pub, The Moon Under Water, written shortly after the war ended, is another example in more literary form. Blunden’s essay combines literary flashes with the investigative tone reminiscent of the sociological studies of the English by Mass-Observation.

Sample quotes from the piece:

The life of London today is very thin beer. By that I mean to submit that British morale would long ago have collapsed without the English pub. That English pub has no connection with the rowdy beer halls of Australia, where a beer monopoly stooge throws you a drink, and tells you to get out before the police arrive. The English pub does not have [as the Australian hotel] buff-coloured tiles and miles of glittering mirrors. It is very small, very old, and very quiet. The pub I am thinking about has a bar not more than 12 feet long. Its top is a piece of polished jarrah, which has a deep red lustre as a result of many decades of polishing. Handles of beer pumps are big and white, and stick above the bar top…. Your order is half a pint of bitter, which is a darkish fluid, said to contain a percentage of alcohol. That percentage, of course, is fixed by the Government, and one can imagine the profound discussion and wide exercise of statesmanship which counsels just how little alcohol can be left in English beer without undermining British confidence. That is not intended to be funny. It is part of my submission that the principal factor which has held the British together, kept them sane during long, dreary years of blackout, has been the English pub, and that the British Government knows that very well, and is wise and judicious in its regulation.

Much has changed since then. To read the customary New Year’s eve reports of public drunkenness in the English high streets is to enter a different world. Blunden’s pub is characterized by sobriety and high prices, which as he notes were interrelated. The beer during the war was about 3.5% abv (see Ron Pattinson’s many analyses to this effect), and this encouraged restraint.

In 1943, most of the coloured bottles behind the bar (spirits) were empty.

Blunden later never returned to Australia. He married a Frenchwoman and lived in New York working for Time magazine. He issued numerous novels and made his final home in France before passing at 90 in 1996. One wonders what he thought of the Bacchanalian scenes depicted in the press over the holiday period, or of English revels on the Iberian coast, as these were already evident in his last years.

Of course, riotous behaviour and unhinged drinking are nothing new in England. Periodically the country seems to go through these bouts, one can trace it intermittently from Tudor times at least until today. Hogarth’s etching of destructive gin boozing is only one of the best known examples. Beer in the 1800s was plenty strong and Henry Mayhew, among others, noted its toll.

Lloyd George in WW I and the Depression, however, encouraged a long period of relative restraint which reached its apogee in the Second War.

What the wartime pub does show is that behaviour can be adjusted by taxation and rules on alcohol strength. Today, the typical pint is closer to 5% abv and vodka coolers and other alcohol are easily obtained.

None of this is to say the 1943 pub does not exist anywhere in Britain today. Of course it does, and not every pub permits over-drinking and rough customers. But many more do than existed in the straightened war era.

In the past when alcohol use became viewed as a public threat, various measures were introduced to rein it back. That day may come again, especially if Brexit results in an independent United Kingdom.

One thing unlikely to come again is the submissive behaviour to government and the civic order demonstrated in the article. The average Briton then accepted things as they are, mostly. However, the problems of coal supply adverted to in the piece were related to ongoing labour disturbances which became more common after the war. They were a harbinger of the extremes of politics and sociology one sees in the country today.

There was something to be said for the country being guided by the sure hand of the great and the good. We have gained a lot since the 40s, but also lost a lot.

Note re images: the images above of World War II war correspondents is drawn from this Australian military history website and profile of Godfrey Blunden. In the first image, he is depicted second from left. In the second image, he is second from right. Copyright belongs solely to the lawful owner. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.