A pub or not a pub? That is the Question

How to Define the English Pub

Among beer and pub historians, an eternal question is how to define the English pub. In looking at this, games and sports come up a lot, as these are generally considered a marker.

Read any mid-20th century musing on a pub’s attributes, and odds are various games are mentioned: skittles, darts, shove halfpenny, bowls, billiards, or innumerable local games or variants. Do you know tippet? A West Country pub pastime, or it was.

British Pathé memorialized it, along with shove ha’penny, in this 1941 sound clip. (Some great images there too of pints of dark mild and bottled beer).

Other elements of the pub, highlighted by three stories in the mid-1900s Australian press, are:

  • the idea of community or a “social club” for the everyday man, hence frequented by people who know each other
  • beer-drinking, important but not the biggest attraction
  • liberal drinking hours, in contrast to Australia’s (then) 6:00 pm weekday closing and the related “swilling”
  • patronage by both men and women – Australian pubs were male-only at time of writing
  • entertainment, e.g., piano, a small band, dance orchestra in large pubs (Midlands cited)
  • differing amenities in the pub depending on the “bar” (public, saloon, lounge), but the separation breaking down due to “intermingling”

it’s interesting to note what is not included. The quality, types, and source of beer served, for example. In the larger community, that simply was not a factor. It hasn’t really changed since. Cask and craft beer are sub-cultures, with some importance socially and economically, but are not general markers.

No particular architectural style is stipulated. Nor is building size discussed although it is implicit in the discussions that most pubs were small, consistent with the idea of a club after all.

Food is not mentioned. Nor is the factor of the landlord’s particular personality, although other accounts mention it and this does play a role for many pubs.

In 2020, the factor of offering games or entertainment continues, say a quiz night, recorded music, a big screen for sports events, various digital entertainments. The games and other entertainment have evolved, in other words.

The thorough Financial Times will update you (if you don’t know), see this account. A wide variety of interactive games and creative apps has taken the place, yet not exclusively, of the games of the 1940s.

Most pubs serve food now, not just in cities as was typical in the ’40s. Most serve lager, and an increasing number serve craft or other non-traditional British beer. And many pubs are gathered into large, non-brewery-owned groups. Wetherspoons and other large pub operators exemplify this, with a certain “system” and uniform operating style.

Like a lot of things, except at the extremes it may be hard to say pub/no pub. I think for example most hotel bars aren’t pubs. American-style craft bars, such as Brewdog’s, are not pubs IMO, excellent as they can be in other respects. The decor, the drinks served, the food, the target patrons, tend too broadly from the core concept. (Maybe in time, in 10-20 years if craft bars endure, they will be viewed as pubs, at least the smaller ones).

The U.K. “micropubs” are certainly pubs; here the factor of the landlord assumes outsize importance.

What about something like Flight Club? Do you know what that is? It’s a highly successful small chain of bars, urban hipster-oriented, the vision of an ex-City worker who started them in 2015. Their concept is to update the venerable pastime of darts, which had been declining as a focal point in British pubs.

They do that by organizing teams in larger groups than traditionally and injecting a digital component, e.g., for score-keeping and online feedback to the patrons. It’s called social darts, and is actually quite cool.

Food is also a draw, wood-fired pizzas among other standbys of upmarket urbanity.

This Guardian story from 2018 by Gavin Haynes gives the low-down. Haynes contrasted a part of the country where traditional, non-digitized darts is still a big draw: Stoke-on-Trent.

Reading his account, the Stoke pubs seem to typify enduring qualities of the English pub, while Flight Club is a hip bar pitched to the upwardly mobile. Flight Club is now in Chicago, which its deracinated quality (so to speak) must have facilitated.

The Guardian explains that Stoke may be the most working class city in Britain. It has a large number of small pubs, the heritage of a network of localities that merged years ago to form the conurbation. The pubs function as traditional social hubs, and revolve around a game that has deep roots in Britain.

(For more information on Stoke darts, this website, Darts in Stoke, is an excellent resource).

Flight Club is also a hub but of a different sort, it hosts corporate functions (team-building is cited) and Tinder date nights. The decor is contemporary, judging from the website, more like a chic hotel or restaurant bar than a traditional pub.

The three Australian news accounts mentioned are:

The Argus, 1939

Warwick Daily News, 1945

Armidale Express, 1948

The first account includes this statement:

What is there about the English “pubs” that creates [the] tradition – what is it that we [in Australia], for example, have not got? The English “pub” is, to begin with, created by the English working man through a characteristic spirit of comradeship, tolerance, and good temper. It is his club, and around it have grown up national institutions such as skittles and darts. It is the village forum – a home away from home…

Since that time, women have been fully emancipated. There is probably also a greater proportion of urban pubs vs. rural than in the 40s, but as one of the articles notes, a city pub provides a social function just as the village pub does, only less intensively. Finally, there is the ongoing march of technology.

Allowing for this, the quotation applies just as much today as to its time. The key is the pub was an outgrowth of English (not even British, here, seemingly) people of a certain socio-economic background. While the source is a single journalistic account, we have studied the origins of the public house for many years, and find the statement persuasive as a general explanation.

N.B. If you put a pub on a train and decked it out to resemble an “olde worlde” inn, is it a genuine pub or not? See our treatments here, from earlier this week. FWIW, we think it was not. Too upscale both in conception and the likely audience, e.g., look at the models in the publicity pictures. There are other reasons, as well.







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