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How the pub survived the World Wars

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Allied: pubs remained an important part of British culture during the World Wars
Allied: pubs remained an important part of British culture during the World Wars
Pubs have always fought through tough times, and world wars in the 20th century certainly offered hugely difficult periods.

War didn’t get in the way of The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) hitting the nation’s bar counters every day.

Indeed, while paper rationing at times reduced the number of pages, it was important that the press was able to continue bringing news from the battlefields and at home, keeping up morale and a sense of normality and routine, and, during the Second World War, printing and publishing was a reserved occupation.

But the pub industry’s experience of the 20th century’s two world wars, reflected in the pages of MA​ archived at the British Library, could not have been more different.

In the First World War, drink was considered, at least by war minister David Lloyd George, a greater enemy than the Germans, and strict licensing laws were imposed by the Central Control Board responsible for the supply of alcohol, directly threatening the livelihoods of licensees

 Little more than 20 years later, though, pubs were seen as home-front heroes, boosting the morale of the population.

First World War

In 1915, the Defence of the Realm Act, conceived to tackle any disorder on home shores that would harm the war effort, was extended to the licensing regime. Lloyd George’s stated aim was to maximise production in the munitions industry by keeping workers sober and hangover-free.

At first, the new restrictions affected only scheduled areas, but while laws differed as you moved around the country, the whole licensed trade felt the wartime measures bite.

Hours were drastically reduced. Pubs could no longer open through the day as they had done before the war.

There was enforced morning and afternoon closing and, in some areas, the evening closing time was as early as 9.30pm. There were also bans on treating (buying drinks for others) the long pull (serving more than the measure to attract custom) and, in some places, spirits.

And taxes soared to boost government funds. By the end of 1915, duty on beer had trebled from 7/9 a barrel to 23/- (38p to £1.15).

Morning advertiser world war 2

On 1 January 1916, MA continued to give over the whole of the front page to advertisements, with one reading “Wanted, a barmaid… short hours”, telling its own story. News from the war is on page 2 – and alongside it the ‘In the Lounge’ comment column written in the wake of New Year celebrations “marred at the bidding of a few cranks” and making the editorial position on the restrictions very clear.

“Practically, the only things that give evidence of a state of war are the darkened streets and the Control Board restrictions.

“It is difficult to find any reasonable ground for their imposition, and the more I think of them, the more disgusted I feel with the politics of a man (presumably Lloyd George) who can take advantage of such a time to aim a deadly blow at the living of men whom he believes to be his political opponents… this ‘servant of the people’ has now constituted himself a dictator.”

Temperance had indeed seized the opportunity of war to – as Robert Duncan argues in his book Pubs and Patriots: The Drink Crisis in Britain During World War One – harness the population’s support for the nation to pursue its cause, but that didn’t stop publicans protesting against the measures, with MA​ reporting on meetings held across the country.

Mitchells & Butlers

One, in Birmingham, welcomed William Waters Butler of Mitchells & Butlers who sat on the Control Board as a brewers’ representative. He defended the restrictions telling the licensees that a “remarkable reduction in drunkenness in scheduled areas is also of immense and far-reaching benefit to the licensed trade” – and brewers’ profits, at least, were benefiting.

But he warned that “pubs had been closed for infringing the board’s orders”, and publicans who stepped out of line were certainly feeling the punishment of the courts.

Under the headline “Trapping A Licensee” MA​ reported, for instance, six summonses against Ernest Dixon of the Kitchener’s Arms, including allowing soldiers to consume alcohol out of hours. He was fined a total of £20 and 14s (£20.70) – or alternatively face 23 weeks’ imprisonment.

Owen Bishop of the Duke of York in Hanwell, west London, a licensee for 20 years, was fined £1 for permitting treating while the bar staff and customer involved were each fined 10/- (50p).

The licensee of the Royal Tar, Brentford, west London, was fined £10 after a police raid found five men hiding upstairs after having their Sunday morning drinking session interrupted.

In June 1916, alongside reports from the Battle of Verdun, there was also news of a ‘Big Fight at Motherwell’ where “the publicans in defiance” continued selling whisky in spite of a ban in the steel-producing town. All were summonsed.

These kind of cases, reported day-by-day, were one thing. But what the trade feared most was that the restrictions might become permanent, and even that they would lead to total alcohol prohibition. Those fears were not entirely unfounded. While British soldiers were being massacred on the Somme, temperance campaigners were on the march in Cardiff, calling for an outright end to the drinks trade.

“The promoters of the prohibitionist agitation,” said MA​, “in order to snatch an advantage for their own narrow and intolerant opinions… have not hesitated to traduce those who are doing splendid work in the Empire’s defence.”

Second World War

The feeling about the positive role pubs had to play in the war effort this time round was best captured in an advertisement feature in MA​ announcing the opening in July 1940 of the Greyhound in Bromley, Greater London, one of three new managed houses by Whitbread.

“For many years to come, these three houses will be regarded as proud monuments to the dauntless spirit of all connected with an historic industry when confronted with difficulties without precedent.

“Such houses are particularly needed now for, among all British institutions, inns and taverns are of the greatest value in the fostering of an optimistic and balanced outlook on life and the counteracting of the twin evils of depression and defeatism.”

A detailed description of the premises, designed along ‘Improved Pub’ lines, follows.

During the early months of the war there was a definite business-as-usual mood about the pages of MA​ with pub openings, reports from licensed victuallers associations’ (LVA) meetings and horse racing cards mingling with updates on the war and ‘News from the Courts’ carrying tales of bigamy, incest and the theft of a halfpenny stamp.

With conscription under way, the main problem for pubs was finding tenants and staff, brewers repeatedly complaining they couldn’t find licensees and the front pages were packed with ads for bar staff.

Serving in forces

Glasgow pubs were rewarded when their plea that 50% of barmen were serving in forces or likely to be called up convinced magistrates they should be allowed to employ women again after a barmaid ban of 30 years.

Temperance, of course, opposed the move as “not in the interests of public morality… and might tempt young men into licensed premises”.

More women were running pubs as the menfolk were called up, and a regular MA​ column, Women’s Work and Interests Today remained conservative about what that might entail beyond “serving cereals in interesting ways”.

Morning Advertiser world war two

As rationing deepened, the minister for food warned “every kind of luxury feeding must cease”, which probably didn’t trouble pub menus.

Curiously, no danger was perceived of a shortage of home-grown barley for brewing as farms produced record crops. That didn’t stop the National Temperance Federation complaining about the use of such materials for brewing rather than for food, but the Government’s view now was that beer was a vital fuel for morale.

Rather than restricting hours, the West End of London saw an experiment in 2am closing to enable pubs to serve “men of the services”.

Reinstating the law against buying another customer a drink was considered, however – on the grounds that “treating is a potent weapon in the hands of fifth columnists”.

Beer did become more expensive

Thanks to tax rises, beer did become more expensive. Reflecting on the increase of the price of a wartime pint from 3d (2p) to 11d (5p), Bristol Retail Licensed Trade Association declared: “There is very little grumbling, but there is quite a deal of dissatisfaction… public servants have received increases in salary and if the publican is not a public servant, he is the nearest approach possible to it.”

There was, at least, a “gentlemen’s agreement” with brewers that they would bail out tenants who got into financial difficulties.

The mood changed dramatically, however, after the evacuation of Dunkirk when Britain went on the defensive.

Fear of invasion brought the compulsory evacuation of licensed houses along the southeast coast, and with no compensation from Government or brewers, there were “cases of tenants finding themselves in the street”, MA​ reported. Others faced a 10pm curfew.

The trade was asked to provide details of pubs’ cooking and seating capacity for feeding the civil population in case there was an emergency.

German bombs began falling on London in August 1940, and soon spread to other industrial cities over the following weeks.

Pubs were allowed to stay open when the air raid sirens sounded, but licensees were advised to warn customers and, if they wanted to go home, urge them to leave immediately. “If they want to stay, they can remain at their own risk till the end of permitted hours.”

LVAs announced their support for bombed publicans and we know that many pubs were flattened by the bombing and others seriously damaged and forced to close.

In 1940, MA​ seemed reticent to report this in much detail, perhaps to keep up morale. Poignant details did slip through, though. During a London air raid “a public house had the front blown out yet a darts score board, with the previous evening’s final figures, was left hanging”.

And the dramatic survival of one licensee and his staff warranted this tale after a dozen “high explosive” bombs fell on a south London street in a daylight raid, hitting a pub and demolishing the bars and the front of the premises.

“The front of the house collapsed before my eyes, and I rushed upstairs to see what had happened to my staff,” said the unnamed publican. “The ceiling fell in a few seconds after they had left the room.”

Charged with stealing

Looting of bombed premises was reported, including the case of Henry and Mary Bartoli who were charged with stealing a bottle of port and a bottle of whisky, value 13/- (65p), from licensee Charles Nailard.

“We took it as everybody, like the ARP (air raid precautions warden), seemed to be helping themselves,” Mary Bartoli told the court. Both were discharged after the air raid precautions warden confirmed he had been treated to a drink by the licensee.

Another ARP warden, Leonard Weston, was charged with stealing a quarter-bottle of gin from the wreckage of a pub. “Yes, I took it,” he admitted. “We needed a drink after getting that body out.” He was remanded on bail.

Pubs wanted to do their bit in the nation’s defence and many became home to war savings groups to raise funds. One group of licensees came up with the idea of raising money to buy the RAF a Spitfire, and the idea took off with LVAs around the country.

It was the licensee of the White Hart at Chalk, Kent, who perhaps best sums up the enterprising spirit of the wartime pub, however. As the bombs rained overhead he applied for permission to use the cellar as part of licensed premises.

The locals loved this unusually well-appointed bomb shelter, and it became known as Daniel’s Den.

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