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» History of the British Pub

"I am thoroughly convinced that bad beer produces Communism..." - H.L.Mencken.

The Unique English Pub

The Rovers Return, the Queen Vic, the Bull and the Woolpack are all well known English pubs, but you can't have a drink in any of them. That's because they exist only in soap-opera fiction. They illustrate how the pub is at the heart of the community, in villages, towns and cities, all over England.


The pub is more than just a shop where drinks are sold and consumed. For centuries it has been a place where friends meet, colleagues 'talk shop' and business people negotiate deals. The place where people gather to celebrate, play games or to seek quiet relaxation. Due to changes in the law, the pub is now a place for families. It is re-establishing itself as the place to eat, a tradition that all but disappeared after the last war. Many provide affordable accommodation, particularly in rural areas. In remote communities pubs often serve a dual role, such as church or post office.

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So how has the pub evolved its unique role in English life?

Today we talk about the 'pub' but this is a term invented by the Victorians, an abbreviation of 'public house'. It was the Romans who gave England its first 'pubs' almost two thousand years ago. In Roman towns tabernae served food and wine (and probably the local ale too), they displayed vine leaves outside to advertise their trade. When the Romans left, the tabernae disappeared.

Over the next few centuries invaders came and went, and occasionally settled. One thing all the invaders had in common was their fondness for drinking. They had a particular thirst for ale, which was brewed using malted barley, water and yeast. It was sweet and often powerful, but was easily soured and did not keep. Skill was needed to produce good ales.

The Alehouse

As with all skills, some people were better at brewing than others. Those who made good ale sold it within their village, and beyond. The ale was sometimes consumed at the brewer's house and thus, the informal alehouse was born. However this arrangement was likely to be part-time or when the brewer had enough money to brew. We know that as early as the seventh century the number of ale-sellers was restricted by Ethelbert, the King of Kent, so perhaps the population was becoming a little too skilful at brewing.

Three centuries later, another King of Kent, Edgar, regulated the size of drinking vessels, which suggests that ale was served and drunk at a particular location. Incidentally this drinking vessel was shared and each measure was marked by a peg, requiring the drinker to drink down to the peg and then pass the vessel on. However the drinker often drank beyond the measure...taking the next drinker 'down a peg or two' an expression which is still used today.

The spread of Christianity did nothing to lessen the English thirst for ale and many Pagan rituals which involved drinking, were adopted by the Christian church. Ales were sometimes brewed especially for church festivals or to raise funds, these were known as 'scot ales', and those who brewed secretly to avoid giving the church its share were drinking 'scot free'.

The Middle Ages saw increased population and industries which began to pollute the water supply. Ale become the only safe drink. Because of the increase in demand, alehouses began to take on a permanent role.

Room at the Inn

Expansion in trade, particularly in wool, saw a marked increase in the traffic of goods and people on the treacherous roads. This traffic was further increased after the horrific murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket on 29th December 1170, in Canterbury Cathedral. Christians from all over Britain and even overseas made the pilgrimage to his shrine. Soon the faithful would be making pilgrimages to other shrines all over England. This put a tremendous strain on the resources of the monasteries, which had provided sustenance and accomodation for these travellers. A new type of establishment was needed, the inn.

The earliest inns were run by monks who offered travellers shelter and food, as well as drink. Many of these old inns are still in business today and continue to offer hospitality to travellers, although the monks have long gone. Probably the most famous of all the inns was the Tabard, in Southwark, London. It was here in 1388 that Chaucer begins his Canterbury Tales.

'In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start For Canterbury......'

Chaucer’s journey takes place more than two hundred years after Becket’s death. The pilgrimages continued for another two centuries after that, ensuring the inn was a permanent feature of English life.

(The Tabard was demolished in 1874. See the George Inn).

Enter the Tavern

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) England began to assert herself in the world through trade and exploration, as well as military might. Population growth and a changing economy saw the expansion and creation of towns. There was now a permanent urban population. The professional classes, such as lawyers, bankers, writers and civil servants, prospered most from urban society.

The tavern grew up in the towns and sold only wine. The essential difference between the tavern and the alehouse, was that the tavern was a place for leisure and pleasure, whereas the alehouse was a place of necessity. In the alehouse, the poor sheltered, spending the little money they had, to sustain themselves and find relief from their plight. The taverns on the other hand, were where the professional classes ate, drank and relaxed. The tavern offered comfort and served superior food.

The image of the cosy tavern; with a large open fire; its customers gathered round in lively conversation; smoking pipes and quaffing ale and wines, hangs in many a modern pub. This is a romantic, eighteenth century image when the tavern thrived. Although the clientele may have been wealthier than those that frequented the alehouse, their behaviour was not always gentlemanly. There was much drunkenness, but drunkenness was not disapproved of as it is today. The taverns also attracted confidence-tricksters and prostitutes, who preyed on the inebriated and unsuspecting.

Taverns became the fashionable place to be seen, similar to the exclusive winebars of today. The City of London was famous for its taverns. Ben Jonson, Samuel Pepys and Dr. Samuel Johnson (pictured) were pillars of tavern society, many London pubs claim one, or all of them, as past patrons. Some have named bars in their honour. (See Anchor & Cheshire Cheese).

It was Boswell’s famous quote of Samuel Johnson that appears in many a pub;

‘....No, Sir; there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.’

But by the end of the eighteenth century, competition and changes in social structure, saw the decline of the tavern. Alehouses began to mimic them; they lost their monopoly on selling wines; the 'gin palaces' drew away some of their custom and drunkenness was no longer acceptable to the middle classes. The upper classes left the taverns in favour of gentlemen’s clubs.

The Alehouse, the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration

The English Civil War, which began in 1642, was not an uprising of the people, nor a class struggle. Only three percent of men were involved in the fighting and many families were split in their allegiance. It was essentially a power struggle between Parliament and the King.

The unrest saw the rise of the Puritans. Part of their strict code was against the evils and excesses of drink. They had a lot to complain about. To them, and many observers at the time, it seemed that much of the English population was permanently drunk, and alehouses too numerous to count.

Alehouses, taverns and inns were taxed to pay for the war. They also were used by both sides, Roundheads (Parliamentarians) and Cavaliers (Royalists), to billet their troops. As the progress of the war swung in favour of one side and then the other, an alehouse would change its name from say, the King's Head to the Nag's Head and back again.

Pub names often reflect historic events. In Uxbridge, an inn was used as a venue for unsuccessful peace talks in 1645, and was renamed the Crown & Treaty. The Royal Oak, refers to the story of Charles II avoiding capture, following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, by hiding in the hollow trunk of an oak tree.

Oliver Cromwell's Roundhead army was victorious. King Charles I was executed on 30th January 1649, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. At the Red Lion in St. James's this event is commemorated by customers who dress up as Cavaliers and lament the killing of the King.

With Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, there was religious and intellectual tolerance, but repression of peoples everyday enjoyment. Games, sport, dancing and singing (except in church) were banned. Many alehouses and taverns had their licenses withdrawn or refused, and illegal drinking outlets were closed. One positive consequence was an improvement of standards.

Three new drinks were about to change the habits of a nation. Coffee was introduced in 1650, chocolate in 1657 and tea in 1660. The first coffee house opened in London in 1652 on the site of what is now the Jamaica Wine House, Cornhill. It is claimed that newspapers began in the coffee houses, they were centres of gossip, some of which was written down and circulated.

When Oliver Cromwell died, his son Richard, took over but his regime soon collapsed. Parliament decided to restore the monarchy, albeit with much reduced power. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and with the new monarch came optimism and extravagance. Charles took a keen interest in the sciences and encouraged their development. Another interest was his string of mistresses, the most famous of whom was Nell Gwynne. Many pubs claim to have entertained the lovers including the Dove, Hammersmith.

Soon after the accession, London was to suffer two calamities. In 1664-5 the Great Plague killed thousands of Londoners. This was followed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London, which all but destroyed the entire City. The medieval and Tudor buildings were made of wood and the fire burned out of control. A law was passed so that all future London buildings were to be made of brick or stone.

Of course a great many inns, taverns and alehouses perished in the fire too. One house at the edge of the fire survived and later became a pub called the Hoop & Grapes. The cellar of the Olde Cheshire Cheese survived and Samuel Pepys witnessed the fire from the Anchor.

The Great Fire did rid the City of the plague. Plans to rebuild London in the Italianate style, with wide streets and piazzas, were abandoned. However several of London's finest buildings date from that time, many the work of Sir Christopher Wren. St. Brides Church was one of them and the mason's house is now the Olde Bell pub.

Mother's Ruin

When Charles II died in 1685, he left no legitimate heir to the throne. His brother, who had been living in France, returned and was crowned James II. His strong Catholic faith put him at odds with the Protestant majority. One of Charles's illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, led a revolt against James, but was defeated. The revolt's survivors were dealt with ruthlessly by the Lord Chief Justice Jeffries (see the Prospect of Whitby & the Town of Ramsgate).

James wanted England to have a Roman Catholic monarchy, similar to that of France under Louis XIV. Fearing the worst, a group of statesmen invited James's Dutch nephew, William of Orange, who was married to James's daughter Mary, to contest the throne of England. William landed with his army at Torbay, Devon in November 1688. James was deserted by his few supporters and fled to France and his bloodless overthrow became known as the Glorious Revolution. William and Mary shared the crown of England and agreed to a shift of power back to Parliament.

William III hated France and encouraged a ban on trade. French brandy and wines were very popular in England, and there was a huge increase in smuggling. As a substitute William encouraged the distilling of 'Geneve' or Gin as it was known in England. Restictions on distilling Gin were removed and by the early 1700's the country was awash. The availability of so much cheap alcohol proved devastating, particularly amongst the poor.

In the mid eighteenth century, Gin's perils were immortalised in William Hogarth's engravings, 'Beer Street' and 'Gin Lane'. The characters in the former are plump and healthy, but in 'Gin Lane' there is death and chaos, a mother so drunk that her baby falls from her arms. Gin's effect was such, that in London, despite improvements in sanitation, it's population actually fell. Londoners were drinking themselves to death.

Gin's hold on the population was temporarily slowed through new laws to curb production and sales. The imperative to do something about it came from the disapproving middle classes and the new industrialists who needed a sober workforce.

In the mid 1820's anti-smuggling measures led the duty on spirits being drastically lowered. Statistically spirits consumption increased, but this probably had more to do with a switch from smuggled to legitimate drink. Even so there was an alarming increase in the number of 'gin shops', many were former pubs which had been converted.

Unlike the pubs they replaced, the gin-shops served no food and had no seating. They were usually in poorer areas and designed for fast turn-over, the poor had little money so were not encouraged to stay once they had spent what they had.

The success of the gin-shops coincided with developments in plate glass production and gas lighting. These new products were employed to the full, creating a dazzling spectacle of light and reflection. They stood out in the dark streets like beacons. To the poor they were palaces - Gin Palaces.


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I Just a short note to say thank you so much for a lovely trip. Did the Oxford/Stratford trip with Pauk and Debbie yesterday. It will definately stand out as a memorable moment. I'm actually quite happy with the fact that we got some rain, must be my romantic side, as I saw the real English weather.
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