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How did historic alehouses, taverns and inns evolve into the pubs we see today?

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

The neverending story: over the course of hundreds of years, modern pubs have emerged from the intertwining of historic alehouses, taverns and inns.
The neverending story: over the course of hundreds of years, modern pubs have emerged from the intertwining of historic alehouses, taverns and inns.
Getting together over a drink – or some other psychoactive substance – has played an important part in the social evolution of human beings for millennia

During the agricultural revolution, groups of people began to settle in one spot to tend their crops and, inevitably, started to get on each other’s nerves. Sharing a pleasurable beverage, at least on special occasions, was a way of bonding and soothing relations.

Archaeologists have unearthed what seem to be special places reserved for doing that – the first pub, though perhaps not as we know it. You have to leap forward 10,000 years or so to find the first recognisable pubs on these islands. Both the inn, which provided lodging, food and drink to weary travellers, and the tavern, which mostly served the middle classes with wine, emerged from around the 12th century, while houses that welcomed guests to sample the host’s home-made ale appeared from the 14th century.

While the term ‘pub’ didn’t start to be used till the 19th century, it’s the intertwining and blurring over time of three distinct environments, the alehouse, the tavern and the inn, which created the rich diversity that characterises the pub today.

First licensing laws

Alehouses quickly became the most numerous drinking places and, from the 1500s, they were prolific enough to attract the first licensing laws as the authorities sought to stem fears of disorder and have some control over who was allowed to sell intoxicating drink.

A government survey in 1577 counted 24,000 and, by the 1630s, there were 50,000, or a generous one for every 95 people. As historian Mark Hailwood argues in his recent book on the subject – Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England​ – this growth was probably more driven by the desire to come together socially than by a sheer thirst for beer.

It wasn’t until the early 18th century that breweries and the sale of beer – dosed with preservative hops – split off from the domestic alehouse, especially in London where ‘common brewers’ sprang up to supply the many pubs that did not brew.

These brewers were increasingly making a new kind of beer – porter – producing it in larger volumes than ever before and wanted to guarantee a steady market for it.

So the first brewery tie was born. It was a haphazard process in those days, mostly achieved through the loan-tie with the relatively wealthy commercial brewers lending publicans money in return for selling their beer.

The tie became increasingly important to the brewers and, on occasions, assertive methods were deployed to make sure the pubs stayed loyal.

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Alan Pryor, writing in the journal Brewery History​, tells of a Limehouse publican who “accepted a loan from the Black Eagle brewery on the agreement he would only sell their beer. When he tried to renege on the deal, 20 draymen were sent to persuade him to change his mind Needless to say, he quickly concurred”.

Thanks to such means, and more legitimate ones, over the course of the 18th century, the proportion of pubs in London that were homebrewing fell from two in three to two in 10.

It was in these oppressive circumstances that pubs realised they needed to band together in their own defence, and the Society of Licensed Victuallers (SLV) was formed in 1793. Less than a year later it launched a daily newspaper, The Morning Advertiser​, that carried a motto that neatly summed up the dual purpose of the movement: ‘Protection and benevolence’.

The SLV built ‘asylums’ for ‘decayed’ licensees and schools for their children that survived into the 21st century. In 1805, it even started its own London brewery, Golden Lane, to offer pubs a better deal. Sadly, competition from commercial brewers forced it to close only 21 years later.

The counter surfaces

The 18th century also brought gin and a moral panic captured in Hogarth’s famous etching Gin Lane, graphically depicting the horrific consequences of spirits-drinking – disorder, crime, debt and, most disturbing, the threat to motherhood as, centre stage, a baby falls from a drunken woman’s arms.

Gin Lane, however, is one of a pair. Its partner is Beer Street, celebrating the wholesome virtues of beer drinking with jolly folk going about their business, including a painter at work on a pub sign while a pawn shop’s balls dangle half-off behind him.

The two cultures were not, in reality, so sharply opposed, however. The gin shops pioneered a new concept in on-premise drinks retailing, the bar counter.

It was an innovation speedily adopted by pubs that had typically served beer through a hatch, from a back room or direct from the cellar. A counter made service much quicker especially if you had a beer engine installed on it to draw the beer from the cellar.

The handpump was invented to complement the bar counter in 1787, and from there we probably start to get something that looks much more like a pub.

Front room alcohol sales

The most drastic piece of legislation to hit the pub industry back then was a measure to encourage free trade and challenge the power of the brewers: the 1830 Beer Act.

For the price of a guinea (£1.05) anyone could buy a licence to sell and serve beer in their own front room, and the opportunity was enthusiastically seized – perhaps more so than the government expected.

In the first year of the act, more than 30,000 beer houses, as they became known, opened for business, joining the little more than 50,000 existing pubs. Almost overnight, the market ballooned from one house for every 275 inhabitants to one for every 168.

Expanding the range

Disorder and drunkenness again became a worry and measures were taken within a few years to ensure beer house licensees were fit and proper and to triple the licence fee. Still, by 1837 there were 40,000 beer houses in England and Wales and, despite an intervening dip, in 1869 the number had risen to nearly 50,000 – alongside some 70,000 ‘full’ licences.

The rest of the trade responded by widening their repertoire, selling spirits as well as beer, improving their décor and furnishings and switching from candles to gaslight to provide more interesting and comfortable environments than the simple beer house could offer.

The rise of the Victorian gin palace belongs to this period and its grander standards spread widely among pubs in general.

Indeed, historian Paul Jennings, author of the The Local: A History of the English Pub​, places the origins of the pub as we know it today in the middle decades of the 19th century, finding in an 1859 dictionary of slang the word ‘pub’ defined for the first time. Even so, it was, and remains, a heterogeneous institution.

The publicans themselves were drawn from a variety of professions, sports and the military among them, inspiring the names of many houses. Some carried on other trades at the same time, leaving their wives to run things.

National brewers

Staff were frequently family members, supplemented by ‘servants’, as bar staff were then called.

Meanwhile, the trend in London away from pubs brewing their own beer and relying on a brewery tie for their supplies spread around the country. This was driven partly by the emergence of national brewers based in Burton-on-

Trent who, according to Jennings, accounted for 12% of the English market in the 1880s. Beer consumption had peaked in the 1870s and the recession saw brewers compete even harder for control.

Stock market flotations of the bigger players fuelled a scramble for pubs that, by 1900, had taken most houses into brewery hands and reduced the number still brewing to less than 4% of the total. Brewers Society figures for 1913 estimated that 95% of pubs were tied.

The early 20th century also saw the temperance movement reach its height, at least in terms of its influence on national politics.

Threats to industry

Pub numbers were already declining, thanks to falling consumption and the actions of licensing magistrates, but the Balfour government of 1904 determined to accelerate closures by offering breweries compensation from a fund generated by a levy on licensed premises. Over 10 years, almost 10,000 houses disappeared as a result.

The Liberal government that came to office in 1905 threatened to go even further, however. Its 1908 Licensing Bill would close a third of all pubs and nationalise the rest. The trade rose up against this horrific prospect, mobilising Beerage and bar staff alike, climaxing in a demonstration of 250,000 in Hyde Park.

That, and a House of Lords dominated by Tories, many of them with an interest in brewing, meant the legislation was thrown out by the Upper House.

Yet temperance was to get another chance to attack pubs, this time with greater success, with the declaration of the First World War. War minister and teetoaller David Lloyd- George famously declared drink a greater enemy than the Germans and, ostensibly to reduce the drinking of munitions workers and make them more productive, cut opening hours, raised taxes and banned practices such as ‘treating’ – buying rounds.

The wartime licensing regime, though eased following the cessation of hostilities, wasn’t completely replaced until the 21st century, but that wasn’t the only legacy of war that changed the pub.

In 1916, the Control Board established to regulate the liquor trade embarked on a great experiment, taking into state ownership the pubs and breweries in three areas around munitions factories – most importantly Carlisle.

New model of pub

Pubs were closed, but many were refurbished and reconfigured and some built from scratch to create environments that encouraged a broader customer base, providing food and entertainment as well as drink.

Their operation was based on the idea of ‘disinterested management’ where managers employed directly by the state were incentivised on food and soft drinks sales – but not alcohol.

This new model pub strongly influenced a movement between the two world wars that would encourage the evolution of the public house into the kind of multifaceted operation we are familiar with today, serving the whole community and not just drinkers.

Until this Improved Pub, as it was called, took hold, most pubs were truly ‘spit-and- sawdust’. There was sawdust on the floor and customers spat in it.

The success of the Carlisle Experiment – the nationalised pubs made a profit every year until they were finally reprivatised in 1973 – encouraged brewers like Whitbread and Barclay Perkins to open their own large-scale directly managed houses designed to high specifications that had a broad appeal.

There wasn’t a huge number of them, but they had a disproportionate impact on the whole industry. Pubs would never be the same again.

CAMRA is founded

Brewers continued to riff on the model after bombing in the Second World War destroyed many city pubs, opening big new houses with outlandish themes.

This, along with a move away from cask conditioned ales to more reliable kegged products, eventually stirred traditionalists to hit back. In 1973, Christopher Hutt’s book The Death of the English Pub​ captured the feeling that something was being lost in all the innovation, while Richard Boston’s columns in The Guardian​ mourned the demise of ‘proper’ beer.

The mood took organised form with the launch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) which, in 1974, produced the first Good Beer Guide, listing pubs on the basis of the quality of their ale.

That encouraged licensees to develop a market niche for cask beer and family brewers to look to the traditional product as a way of fending off competition from the big players.

Meanwhile, the campaign against drink-driving was gathering momentum and threatening the pub from another angle. The introduction of the breathalyser in 1967 was a blow to rural houses that relied on customers who had to travel a few miles or more for a pint.

‘Big six’ domination

Some responded by focusing on food and becoming more like restaurants, while still more were converted to desirable country cottages as the property market boomed in the 1980s. In 2001, an initiative inspired by a dinner conversation with the Prince of Wales promoted an alternative strategy. Pubs could diversify, offering services to rural communities such as shops, post offices and libraries.

Pub is the Hub has since enjoyed a smallscale success that’s nevertheless welcomed by locals, who have, in dozens of cases, taken the pub over for themselves.

In the 1990s, the industry was to face an even bigger, more far-reaching shake-up, however. For some time, the state had been worried about the domination of the pubs by the major brewers which, through waves of consolidation from the 1950s, had become the ‘big six’, owning more than half the nation’s pubs between them and selling 75% of the beer. In 1989, a Monopolies & Mergers

Commission (MMC) inquiry into the tied house system concluded there was a ‘complex monopoly’ and proposed a drastic solution – a brewer should not tie more than 2,000 pubs and must free the rest.

The brewers were complacent. Surely the Tories, now in government, would come to their defence as they always had in the past? But trade and industry secretary Lord Young said he was ‘minded’ to implement the MMC’s recommendations.

Supply deals with new pubcos

Only under extreme pressure did he compromise in the Beer Orders that followed later that year, instructing brewers to free half their houses above the 2,000 threshold by 1992.

Wartime measures aside, it was the biggest thing to hit pubs since the 1830 Beer Act. But nobody predicted just what would happen. Rather than merely freeing some 11,000 pubs from the tie, the brewers sold them off in bundles to newly formed companies and negotiated supply deals with people who had often been their employees.

Huge growth

The pubco was born. Since they didn’t brew beer, they could grow as big as they liked and, by the early 2000s, there were two giants with more than 8,000 pubs each – Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns.

That prompted another wave of inquiries eventually culminating in a statutory pubs code to regulate the relationships between pubcos of more than 500 houses and their tenants. But that wasn’t the only impact of the Beer Orders.

The now slimmed-down, cash-rich big brewers invested in fewer, larger pubs, many of them concentrated in tight, city-centre drinking circuits and occupying grand buildings, mostly former banks.

These ‘superpubs’ could accommodate a couple of thousand vertical-drinking customers on a Friday or Saturday night, putting a strain on high streets and their own management.

Somewhat later, the mass media became attracted by the visual spectacle of drunken youth in the high streets and sensational reports and footage led to a moral panic and the invention of a new term – binge drinking.

Longer hours, less ‘bingeing’

Around this time, the Labour government was unveiling a licensing regime that would clear away the accumulated clutter of past decades, relaxing licensing hours, removing the power of magistrates for the first time in many centuries and setting higher standards for licensees.

What caught the Daily Mail’s eye about the 2003 Licensing Act, though, was what it called ‘24-hour drinking’, a possibility under the law that only a handful of licensees had taken up.

A steady decline in alcohol consumption from 2004, driven by those young people of what by now was officially ‘Binge Britain’, did nothing to stem the rage against the licensed trade.

Yet it was the smoking ban, introduced in England in the summer of 2007, that made a real difference to pub operations. Licensees had to adapt fast, refocusing their businesses on food in the anticipation of lost wet trade, and constructing ‘smoking solutions’ in every available outdoor space.

Fewer pubs, more employment

Along with the recession of 2008 and a deepening crisis in unwieldy debt-burdened pubco estates, the ban contributed to what was dubbed ‘the perfect storm’ for the pub industry.

Closures soared to more than 30 a week and in 2018 the Office of National Statistics declared that 25% of pubs had been lost since 2001. Were we facing the death of the pub that author Christopher Hutt had predicted? Or was the pub merely evolving?

Despite a shrinking number of premises, the ONS figures showed employment in the industry had remained stable, suggesting the remaining pubs have got bigger and that food is an increasing part of the mix.

That’s not the only trend, though. The importance of beer to the pub, evident throughout its long history, is again making itself felt as micropubs and craft brewery taprooms proliferate around the country, creating an alternative to large food-led establishments.

If there’s anything the story of the past millennium shows, the pub has never been simply one thing, and it’s always evolving to meet the challenges of the day and the desire for human beings to get together over a drink.

Related topics: Legislation

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