Ye Olde Public House

You find yourself in London, and after the initial shock of the most important city in the world subsides, you notice the pubs, there will be several on one street. In fact there are over 7000 pubs in London, although hopefully you do not go looking for all of them. Pubs are an important part of British culture, you can get a ‘proper’ English breakfast, a half pint with your sandwich at lunch, and of course after work drinks. Most pubs will offer pub games, weekly pub quizzes, music, food, snacks, draught beers, and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Pubs will look the similar: sturdy wooden interior, with a bar in the centre or just off to the side, the outside will usually be black (sometimes red), with a colourful sign somehow related to the title. They clearly try to appeal to an older tradition, but what is? How long have pubs been about? How are they different from bars?

Pubs hark back to an older tradition of inns and alehouses , the earliest inns were run by monks who offered shelter and food. Beer back in the day was safer to drink than water, and inevitably, with all that time on their hands monks were also skilled brewers. 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.

The use of animals as pub names comes from times when literacy was rare, and pictures of swans, horses, dogs were used to mark houses where beer was brewed. The Black Horse became popular in the 17th century as it was the nickname of the popular 7th Dragoon Guards. One only needs to see a picture of a bear hugging a stick to know this is the ‘Bear and Staff‘.

The word ‘Arms’ in a name often refers to the ownership of the land, which is why you will find the Devonshire Arms in London,  the pubs being originally built on estates owned by the hugely wealthy dukes of Devonshire. Similarly there is no shortage of Derbyshire and Yorkshire Arms.

The most popular pub name in Britain is the Red Lion, with at least 600 bearing the title.

What makes the pub such an important English tradition? In the early 1750s Parliament realised the problems that alcoholism was causing their country. In 1750 they passed the Sale of Spirits Act (commonly known as the Gin Act fo 1751). This was enacted to reduce the consumption of spirits, namely Gin which was seen to be one of the main causes of crime and moral decay in the cities. At the same time, popular artist and satirist William Hogarth published two prints, Gin Lane and Beer Street. The former showing all of the social mores caused by Gin consumption, London was submerged into a damaging culture of drunkenness. Gin was the cause of blindness, deaths, child abuse, all this we see in Hogarth’s tragically comic illustration.

Gin shops were virtually eliminated with increased taxes, stricter licensing laws, and fees. As an alternative to after-work gin, the import of tea was encouraged. You can guess this didn’t go down well.

Gin Lane on the right: debauched and deranged. Beer Street on the left: orderly and idyllic. William Hogarth

Gin Lane on the right: debauched and deranged. Beer Street on the left: orderly and idyllic. William Hogarth

Before we get to pubs, a quick run down on Gin!

The tavern, an offspring of the monk-kept inns, 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.

Alehouses began to mimic taverns; 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.

William III (ruled 1689 – 1702) 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. Restrictions 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. Londoners were literally drinking themselves to death.

Unlike the taverns 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.

By 1740 Gin, the cheapest and quickest way to get drunk had conquered London. Over half of the 15,000 drinking establishments of the city were Gin shops.

Thankfully for all of us, 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.

Under the 1830 Act any householder who paid rates could apply, with a one-off payment of two guineas (roughly equal in value to £159 today), to sell beer in his home (usually the front parlour) and even to brew his own on his premises. This arrangement is what we know as the ‘public house’ or the pub. The permission did not extend to the sale of spirits and fortified wines, and any beer house discovered selling those items was closed down and the owner heavily fined. Beer houses were not permitted to open on Sundays. In the first year, 400 beer houses opened and within eight years there were 46,000 across the country.

The Crown and Greyhound

The Crown and Greyhound

My favourite pub in London is in Dulwich, best experienced in conjunction with the Dulwich Gallery. It is called The Crown and Greyhound. It has everything I could wish for in a pub, there is an article George Orwell wrote when he was writing for the Evening Standard about his favourite (fictional) pub called Moon Under Water (an ersatz exists in Leicester Square today). I say he must have never visited The Crown and Greyhound, because it fits all the criteria (read Orwell’s article here )  I won’t go into details about it, it’s a delight that you should explore for yourself.


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