Britain’s Most Distinguished Licensee

In the 1930s the “English tavern” was a gauzy, feel-good concept in American eyes. It denoted comfort and homeyness but also gentility. Somewhat discordant elements, but it worked. I’ll return to this theme later with examples of new English taverns in 1930 New York’s concrete canyons and urbanized beach resorts. For now, I’ll elucidate elements of the model Americans followed.

In truth of course, the tavern, inn, taproom, call it what you will was as old as America. The British founded the principal American colonies, or took them over early as Manhattan, and provided the major cultural impetus that extended to resorts of hospitality, as the tavern.

The comfy place where one could sip punch, flip, cider, or ale before a roaring fire was venerable and enduring. This benign side co-existed with the later, more suspect idea that the saloon and cocktail bar corroded public values. The Janus-face never departed the folk memory (to this day) but each facet in different eras was more or less prominent.

Certainly in the late 1800s and early 1900s news accounts of both British and American taverns tempered the older affection with realism on the tavern’s dangers. This was the result of a long process of temperance agitation, so that alcohol’s role in society acquired by this time a conditional status.

By the 1930s, the tavern rebounded in prestige. Post-Prohibition, English taverns so-called proliferated in the major cities and in basements of tony suburban homes.

The fashion then was perhaps rivalled only by the Irish pub craze of the last 30 years. Stories in the press burnished and consecrated the older 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 shows crisply that she had bought an inn in Speen, Buckinghamshire, The Plow. She had married a local villager, to boot.

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

By all reports she was a remarkable person, and must indeed have been the perfect pub manager. Her mother had died young so Ishbel became the chatelaine for her father Ramsay McDonald, honing her clearly innate social skills to the max. She had the personal touch long before the today’s crop of commoners who marry into royalty.

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

In truth, Ramsay MacDonald was born to humble origins, which he overcame in social terms but not financially. Ishbel’s management skills helped run the household at 10 Downing Street efficiently, as Ramsay had no independent fortune. The experience gained surely helped her keep The Plow on a sound financial footing.

The pub endured for many years after Ishbel retired to the MacDonald seat in Lossiemouth. In the last 30 years or so it functioned mainly as a stylish restaurant, serving a chic clientele in the Chilterns. Today, it is a private residence.

The image above is from a second Pathe clip and pictures the alert, good-looking hostess with the 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.

2 thoughts on “Britain’s Most Distinguished Licensee”

  1. Am very interested in Ishbel Macdonald for personal reasons and would welcome information regarding her tenure at The Plow. Also information re her time as hostess at 10 Downing St.;her own time in politics and especially about her return to Lossiemouth in later years. JanetKnowlson

    • My knowledge only went as far as stated in the post, but perhaps some reading may know more, or point in useful directions.


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