A Visiting Yankee Goes Postal
We’ve examined in recent essays attitudes to the pub from the 1930s-1970s, coming from Irish, Irish-American, and English quarters. The general picture, the odd dissenting note apart, is of a venerable and benign institution, entirely characteristic of its native lands, fostering community, mirth, and maybe song.
Pubs were noted as well for architectural and historical features, and for accommodating a wider demographic than before WW I, especially women. Increasingly too the drinks typical of the pub came in for attention, beer of course but also cider.
By the mid-1950s, the pubs and the way people wrote about them are recognizably modern. Soon, university scholars would follow to add their ponderings.
I’m setting aside periodic reports of health departments and recurring news campaigns about the dangers of drinking. These spring from a wider concern, with alcohol’s abuse in general. The pub is one facet, but hardly exhaustive.
Writ large, the picture is sylvan, reassuring. There’s a tavern in the town, there’s a place where everybody knows your name, and (often) one more for the road. What’s not to like?
Except, it wasn’t that way before WW I, as discussed in my earlier posts, not in official or polite society, call it what you will. Even the first modern writer on the pub, Ernest Selley, born in the 1880s, was warned by his parents against entering such establishments according to Ben Clarke’s article I discussed recently.
Much evidence abounds on the (at best) equivocal image the pub evoked in Victorian opinion, as analyzed too by scholars such as David Gutzke and Paul Jennings.
(In saying this, I take no position for or against. I’m outlining various historical positions, from different quarters, so people can think about where the truth lies, as I do continually).
If we look at writing in the U.S. press on the British pub between Reconstruction and the 1930s, broadly a similar pattern emerges. Early stories are often carping, as were similar accounts of the American barroom. At most American writers were guarded, considering the pub not quite of social repute although run by respectable people for the most part.
By the 1920s and especially with the expiry of National Prohibition, the Stateside tone changes to one of frank admiration. The pub adopts a gilded aspect, hallowed by age, tradition, and (oddly) British gentility.
I’ll look at a number of these accounts, starting with this one of July 27, 1880, from the Watertown Times in Watertown, NY. It is a letter to the editor although longer than most such pennings.
The story at least today rings uneasily to our ears due to its strident tone. It is anti-pub, anti-drink, anti-Yorkshire, anti-British. In a word, full of bile motivated by some obscure discontent.
Still, it’s a picture of one small-town Victorian pub by one visitor, an inn but of no elevated distinction. In fact, the (anonymous) writer uses the term pub except placing it in quotes.
Of interest is his description of three separate rooms, meant he said to attract respectively, the average tippler; moderate drinkers who wanted amenities such as cushioned seating and wall decor; and young men and women with a piano for entertainment.
Landlord Gott is portrayed as self-important and prolix on politics, with his customers as awe-struck audience. His wife, Mrs. Gott, fusses over and is familiar with customers including the priggish writer, to his annoyance.
This quotation will give some sense of the tone:
The walls [of the second room] are hung with dull smoky-looking oil paintings of mail-clad knights and convivial scenes, and perhaps here and there a faded, a very faded view of some moonlight with a background of weird ruins. The third room is across the corridor at the end of a very long passage, and by a merciful dispensation of providence, the piano is placed off in there. This room is frequented mostly by young sprigs and their girls, and the contortions that the piano goes through and the shrieks that issue from it are heartrending. Let me be bored to death by listening to discussions upon the subject of “Owd Billy Filigree’s eccentricities,” or the drunken exploits of a warlike Briton with the stiletto, and my endurance is great. Let me breathe second-handed the perfume of beer and be turned to a herring tint by tobacco smoke, and I survive. Let me be anything, but, 0 don’t condemn me to “The Maiden’s Prayer,” or H.M.S. Pinafore, or any of those rare old gems of song… Let me die in peace.
The vitriol is hard to take, certainly. The writer seems actuated, not by religious motives, but simply the sense that drinking was a waste of time and prevented resources from going to more useful purposes. He mentions in particular the lack of free schooling in England (although I believe it existed by then in Scotland).
The link between these two situations is surely questionable though, and in any case his opinion is elitist. The more prosperous classes have never abjured alcohol in the service of yet further elevated goals in life.
He sardonically comments on the books used in the (non-free, he says) state schools which included a manual on surgeons. He comments on the utility of the latter given all the wars Britain fights. A strange thing to read with the calamitous American Civil War only 15 years behind and the nasty Spanish-American War, not too far ahead.
So, a piece of limited but decided interest. And it must be said the portrait of a young inebriate in the bar is not pleasant to contemplate: a scene of Dickensian grimness if there was one. The tone was slanted, very, but such accounts should not be dismissed for all that.
Nota bene. Of three notable things about this article, the pub, the newspaper it appeared in, and the writer, two still exist: the paper and pub. The Unicorn is still going strong in Skipton, as its website and other sources confirm. And images on the site show that the Gotts did run the establishment in the late-1800s.
Due to the widening of Keighley Road on which the original building stood, the pub was rebuilt near to the original site. Today it is a hotel only, the pub on the ground floor was given up although not all that long ago, within the last generation. (The image above was drawn from the current website).
Hence, the institutions that hosted the dyspeptic American long outlasted him, and no less the small-minded attitudes he incarnated.
Finally, I proffer an affecting bluegrass performance of The Maiden’s Prayer. By Americans.