Time, please, to save the great British pub - if it's not too late!

Ahh, the Great British Pub. It is as quintessentially British as cricket, fish and chips, Marmite, Monty Python or Stephen Fry.

Go to other countries, and most bars have ordinary, mundane names. In the US and Canada, bars may be called Bob's Beers or Al's Alehouse.

But British pubs have colourful, and often funny, names.

Scattered all over the country we have pubs called The Cat and Fiddle, The Hare and Hounds, The Red Lion, The King Charles, The Slug and Lettuce, The Cricketers, The Nutshell, The Battle of Trafalgar, The Three Horseshoes, The Rose and Crown, The Royal Oak, The Robin Hood, The Hero of Norfolk, The Dirty Habit, The Goat and Compasses, The Swan, The Swan With Two Necks, The Lamb and Flag and The King's Head.

Many names are to do with items which appear on coats of arms. Some are to do with royalty. Others are heraldic names. Some are the names of occupations, others are the names of historical events (the Royal Oak comes from the time in 1651 when King Charles II hid from the Roundheads in an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester, and I don't need to tell you what event The King's Head refers to).

These names are centuries old, from the time when most of their customers were unable to read and pictorial signs could be readily recognised.

And to this day, British pubs have beautifully painted signs above their doors, so the Slug and Lettuce will have a painting of a slug and a lettuce.

Over the centuries, the Great British Pub has not just been a place to drink merrily with friends and family.

Magistrates and coroners often held court in pubs - and many people have been hanged in them.

Many pubs have been the sites of famous last drinks before an execution.

The "Ye Olde Man and Scythe" in Bolton, Lancashire is the third oldest pub in England, dating back to the 1200s.

The pub is located in the Churchgate area in the centre of the town. In 1651, the Earl of Derby had a last drink and meal inside the pub before being beheaded in the street right outside the pub for his part in the Bolton Massacre. His head supposedly missed the basket and rolled along the street. To this day, the wooden chair which he sat on during his last meal and the axe used to behead him and on display inside the pub. On the chair is an inscription which reads: "15th October 1651 In this chair James 7th Earl of Derby sat at the Man and Scythe Inn, Churchgate, Bolton immediately prior to his execution".

But, unfortunately, the Great British Pub is in danger of becoming a dying breed.

Each week in the past six months, an average of 39 of the nation's 57,000 pubs have closed.

Max Hastings says it's time we must do something about the gradual loss of this great icon of British life....

Time, please, to save the great British pub - if it's not too late!

By Max Hastings (external - login to view)
29th April 2009
Daily Mail

Passing one of our local pubs last week, I saw a 'To Let' notice hanging above its signboard. Within a few miles, several other hostelries stand desolate, shuttered and dark, victims of a nationwide phenomenon.

Each week in the past six months, an average of 39 of the nation's 57,000 pubs have closed. Figures released this week by the British Beer and Pub Association revealed that nearly 150 million fewer pints of beer have been drunk this year compared with last - the biggest fall since 1997.

Everyone - except temperance societies - must lament the shrinkage of pubs as a loss to community life.

Dying a quick death: People are drinking less in British pubs, with 150 million fewer pints of beer this year compared with last

In many places, churches, women's institutes and suchlike are almost moribund.

There are ever fewer places where we recognise each other, except on the internet. Most of us know the people with whom we work better than those among whom we live. If the local vanishes also, more than ever we become strangers.

The pub trade blames high taxes, lower supermarket prices, the smoking ban and regulatory pressures including health and safety. Last week's Budget tax rise of one more penny on a pint of beer struck another blow.


Professor David Preece, an academic at Teesside University, condemns what he calls the 'financialisation' of the industry. 'Pubs are assets that can be bought,' he says. If the big conglomerates which now dominate ownership can make more money by selling and reinvesting elsewhere, 'that's what they do'.

All this must be true, but many of us would highlight other causes.

Many British people today drink either grotesquely much, or pathetically little. Since the 2005 introduction of 24-hour opening - Jowell's Law as it is called, in dishonour of our Olympics minister who steered through the iniquitous measure at Tony Blair's behest - we have teenage binge-drinking in city centres.

At the other extreme, stringent drink-driving laws discourage law-abiding citizens from sampling alcohol anywhere save at home. I order bitter shandy not because I like the stuff, but because one can drink two pints and pass a breathalyser test. No pub can get rich out of punters like me.

Old inns were commercial exchanges as well as social centres. Magistrates and coroners held courts there. Many had assembly rooms attached, which played an important part in the life of Jane Austen's gentry.

Most pubs have become dull, sober places after centuries in which they were the social focus of British life. 'There is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves as well as at a capital tavern,' exulted Dr Johnson in the late 18th century.

'At a tavern, there is general freedom from anxiety. You are sure you are welcome; and the more noise you make, the more things you call for, the welcomer you are.'

For centuries, patrons played dice, cards, backgammon, bagatelle or skittles without doing themselves much harm.

Running dry: Many pub landlords are sturggilng against rising costs and falling profits

Of course, it is foolish to idealise the pub tradition. In the early 18th century, the British became addicted to spirits, and especially gin, in a fashion which frightened their rulers as much as does modern binge-drinking.

Only slowly did taxation and tougher licensing laws force more temperate habits.

During World War I, the Government believed that excessive drinking was causing industrial accidents, especially in munitions factories.

Lloyd George fulminated in 1915: 'Drink is doing more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together.' Pub opening hours were sharply curbed. National alcohol consumption fell from 89 million gallons in 1914 to 37 million gallons at the 1918 Armistice.

Yet, for centuries, lots of people got somewhat drunk in the pub from time to time, without doing themselves or anybody else much harm, in the days when transport lacked ignition keys.

Old inns were commercial exchanges as well as social centres. Magistrates and coroners held courts there. Many had assembly rooms attached, which played an important part in the life of Jane Austen's gentry, by providing venues for balls, such as the one at which Elizabeth Bennet met Mr Darcy.

Functions are now the monopoly of hotels, which also get most of the casual stopping trade. In the coaching age, tavern and inn stableyards provided changes of horses.

When a farmer might take an hour or two to drive his gig to market and a humble labourer required much longer to walk to a neighbouring hamlet, alehouses provided essential refuges, especially in bad weather or when a horse went lame.

Now, everybody can drive home in minutes, or grab a burger at McDonald's.

A couple of centuries ago, Britain boasted a wonderful diversity of locally-brewed ales. Among the better-known were Yorkshire Stingo, huff- cap, nipitation, Pharaoh, Nanny Driffield's and Mother Penwaker's. Today, global conglomerates have largely displaced regional breweries.

But it's not all bad news, of course.


A good pub is still a glorious find. I cherish the memory of a delicious three-course Sunday lunch for £12 at one of the string of great inns that flourish in the Yorkshire Dales. The Mayfly at Stockbridge in Hampshire is deservedly one of the most popular riverside pubs in southern England.

I was faithful for years to the tiny Duke of Cumberland's Arms, at Henley, near Midhurst, in Sussex, where ducks waddled among the tables in the garden and the mixed grills satisfied the appetite of even a hollow-legged adolescent. My daughter swears by The Boot at Willington in Cheshire, which she says has the best food and views she knows.

But almost every landlord reports himself struggling against rising costs and falling profits. Places with strong tourist business can still prosper, yet those dependent on local trade are half-empty every night. The supply of 'regulars' is drying up.

My father loved going to the pub before lunch, to gossip with Hampshiremen who shared all his prejudices. I remember his innocent delight, returning home one day to report the local farmer who said over his pint about Tony Benn: 'If I had a dog with eyes like that, I'd shoot it.'

Unlike father, I have never been a 'regular' and dread getting into pub conversations. This is where I must admit hypocrisy. Just as we spend too much money in supermarkets and not enough in corner shops, so I lament the decline of pubs and yet am part of it.

We do almost all our drinking at home. We get better food and wine for less money, without Muzak or fruit machines. Yet people like us, and perhaps like you, are starving out a great British institution.


John Betjeman wrote half a century ago of his guilt on hearing a eulogy for pubs:

'Until I felt a filthy swine
For loathing beer and liking wine
And rotten to the very core
For thinking village inns a bore
And village bores more sure to roam
To village inns than stay at home.'

Urban pub numbers are declining even more steeply, because city- dwellers enjoy such a choice of restaurants and coffee shops.

A survey of 227 out of 936 North London pubs that have closed since 2002 shows that 84 have been turned into flats, 143 into businesses or voluntary projects, including variously an Ethiopian restaurant, a theatre, a Turkish social club, a canoe centre and a cafe opposite Pentonville prison called the Breakout.

The truth about pubs is that, as with everything else, quality is decisive. In the age of almost universal mobility, none of us is any longer a prisoner of the local in the village, or at the end of the street.

We can choose a pub several miles in any direction. If we dislike what the nearest landlord offers, we go elsewhere. Good pubs will continue to prosper, but the bad ones - and heaven knows, there are plenty of them - will go to the wall.

'Time, gentlemen, please,' is a phrase which pub customers seldom hear any more, but which is being called on many landlords.


History of the Great British Pub

The inhabitants of the UK have been drinking ale since the Bronze Age, but it was with the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of the Roman road network that the first Inns called tabernae, in which the traveller could obtain refreshment, began to appear. By the time the Romans had left, the Anglo-Saxons had formed alehouses that grew out of domestic dwellings. The Saxon alewife would put a green bush up on a pole to let people know her brew was ready. These alehouses formed meeting houses for the locals to meet and gossip and arrange mutual help within their communities. Here lies the beginnings of the modern pub. They became so commonplace that in 965 King Edgar decreed that there should be no more than one alehouse per village.

King Edgar

A traveller in the early Middle Ages could obtain overnight accommodation in monasteries, but later a demand for hostelries grew with the popularity of pilgrimages and travel. The Hostellers of London were granted guild status in 1446 and in 1514 the guild became the Worshipful Company of Innholders.

Traditional English ale was made solely from fermented malt. The practice of adding hops to produce beer was introduced from the Netherlands in the early 15th century. Alehouses would each brew their own distinctive ale, but independent breweries began to appear in the late 17th century. By the end of the century almost all beer was brewed by commercial breweries.

The 18th century saw a huge growth in the number of drinking establishments, primarily due to the introduction of gin. Gin was brought to England by the Dutch after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and started to become very popular after the government created a market for grain that was unfit to be used in brewing by allowing unlicensed gin production, whilst imposing a heavy duty on all imported spirits. As thousands of gin-shops sprang up all over England, brewers fought back by increasing the number of alehouses. By 1740 the production of gin had increased to six times that of beer and because of its cheapness it became popular with the poor, leading to the so-called Gin Craze. Over half of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London were gin-shops.

The drunkenness and lawlessness created by gin was seen to lead to ruination and degradation of the working classes. The distinction was illustrated by Willia Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane.

Gin Lane, 1751. It was painted by William Hogarth at the height of Britain's Gin Craze

The Gin Act (1736) imposed high taxes on retailers but led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The 1751 Gin Act however was more successful. It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin-shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates.

By the early 1800s and encouraged by a lowering of duties on gin, the gin houses or “Gin Palaces” had spread from London to most major cities and towns in Britain, with most of the new establishments illegal and unlicensed. These bawdy, loud and unruly drinking dens so often described by Charles Dickens in his Sketches by Boz (published 1835–6) increasingly came to be held as unbridled cesspits of immorality or crime and the source of much ill-health and alcoholism among the working classes.

The British government’s eventual response to the problem seems strange now to modern eyes. Under a banner of “reducing public drunkenness” the Beer Act of 1830 introduced a new lower tier of premises permitted to sell alcohol, the Beer Houses. At the time beer was viewed as harmless, nutritious and even healthy.

Young children were often given what was described as small beer, which was brewed to have a low alcohol content, to drink, as the local water was often unsafe. Even the evangelical church and temperance movements of the day viewed the drinking of beer very much as a secondary evil and a normal accompaniment to a meal. The freely available beer was thus intended to wean the drinkers off the evils of gin, or so the thinking went.

L Gilbert
Slainte mhaith chugat!!

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