English Public House in 1886

In the Pubs the Pundits Come and Go …

A compact portrait of the pub appeared in 1886 in American newspapers, including The Oswego Blade in New York. The story originated in the Chicago Herald and evidently was syndicated.

The English pub was exotic enough in America to attract readers’ interest over morning coffee. That is, their saloon, although a descendant of the self-same pub, had diverged enough to be something different.

From the piece:

There is a great deal more sociability in the English public house than in the Ameri­can sample room. In the lanes and side streets of the fashionable part of London may be found the same character of old-fashioned public as in the city. Every one of these has its regular customers, and its ” snuggery” in the evening is generally full of its patrons who are, for the most part, the coachman, grooms, and “gentlemen’s gentlemen,” otherwise valets of the “classes” who reside in the neighboring Belgravia. Here the Jeameses canvass the characters of their various lords, and ladies, and more true scandal is talked in these public house snuggeries than in any of their ladies’ boudoirs.

The village public is quite an institution by itself, and is as distinct in character from its London brother as chalk is from cheese. Here the landlord still retains some of the qualities and bearings of “mine host” of former days. The public is the headquarters of the political lights of the village, and doctor, lawyer and farmer meet together in the snuggery to discuss the merits of a popular race horse or a popular statesman just as frequently now as they did in days gone by. The railroad and telegraph have had wonderfully little effect in some of the rural parts of England, and Hodge, in the village public, is just as densely ignorant of anything that goes on beyond his own immediate kin as ever he was. To him “t’sqoir” and the “big house” are the epitomes of all that is great and noble, and the opinions of the lord of the manor give a coloring to everything discussed in the “snuggery.”

The term sample room for bar or saloon may have a Chicago origin, as suggested in the Encyclopedia of Chicago History.

The Herald usefully sketched the Victorian pub, distinguishing village and urban versions. There is a tinge of condescension, not untypical for the time,  but it can’t spoil the piece.

The writer explained how in the country the pub showed vestiges of an earlier time, with deference still paid to village notables. The landlord himself could be one, see my earlier discussion.

The gentry might hold the freehold, or employ part of the village, so enlightened self-interest probably played a greater role than the Herald understood.

The piece noted that in the country, professional classes might take over the snug, a sequestered nook in the bar,  while in tony London that aerie was used by retinues of aristocracy.

Those who know The Star Tavern in Belgrave Mews, Belgravia can imagine it was the kind of posh pub referred to, although it has no snug as such, that I can recall.

The snug, snug-room, or snuggery was a small chamber, sometimes shielded by frosted glass. Women might frequent it, or officials conducting public business such as voting or judging a fair.

In many older pubs today the physical arrangements of 1886 still exist although socially their use is altered. Still, the essential function of the pub as social and rest centre remains unchanged.

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the mermaids sing, each to each, but not to the public house – for which it is doubtless grateful. It would interrupt the yellow fog of conversation.

Below is a country pub and inn in Dinton, Wiltshire, the Penruddocke Arms (source: Wikipedia).





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