The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Customs + Festivals

The pub has evolved over the centuries, always playing an important part in social life. Originally a stopping place for weary travellers, it was then called an inn or tavern and was one of the few places where a traveller could get food, warmth, shelter, and of course a drink. Even in those far-off days the inn was often the centre of community life in an area, and it was there that gossip and news was exchanged, and the latest political developments discussed.

Many English pubs have names which show their former use: “The Traveller’s Rest’’, for example, or “The Coach and Horses’, or “The Pilgrim’s Arms’’. Other pubs have humorous names like “The Cat and the Custard Pot’’, “The Man in the Moon’’ (a pub in a lonely spot is often so called) or “The Who’d Have Thought It’’ (a pub in an unexpected place).

Every pub has several rooms; originally, this was a division of classes, and still is to some extent today. The richer travellers did not want to eat and drink with the “lower orders’’ of the local village, and therefore certain rooms were set aside for them, usually the tap-room, lounge or private bar. Today there is a smoking-room, a lounge, and a public bar (where women do not usually drink) and sometimes a singing room.

There are generally no waiters, for the customers fetch their own drinks; but in most rooms there will be a long counter presided over by a barmaid or barman who stands behind several large handles, the beer pumps. The English drink beer because they like it, and because it is the cheapest alcoholic drink. Spirits have a heavy tax on them, and whisky and soda, sherry or gin, although drunk by working people, are usually the preserve of richer customers.

The British drinking laws are full of absurdities. They cause plenty of irritation, but probably do not reduce the amount of drinking. Perhaps this is the reason why the drink trade itself seems little interested in attempts to get the laws radically changed. Alcoholic drinks, including beer, are allowed to be sold in any place for nine hours each day; it is for the local Justices of the Peace to decide exactly what those hours should be. Special rules apply to clubs, and special exemptions from the normal rules may be granted by magistrates for particular occasions. Again, drinks may be sold only in establishments licensed for the sale of drink, and in practice these are either hotels or pubs, or licensed grocers or wine merchants which sell bottles to take away.

Some of the most agreeable London pubs are to be found in Holborn. The clientéle is mixed: lawyers, commercial travellers, chars, women, book-keepers of mature years, shopkeepers, company secretaries, clerks. Though women are not unwelcome, such pubs remain essentially male establishments. They are clubs as much as pubs — relaxed, pleasantly noisy, a great place for exchanging stories and tips.

At the George Inn, Southwark (usually crowded with medical students these days) you can absorb the flavour of an old coaching inn and see the wooden galleries round thecountry—courtyard where Elizabethan players acted.

The music hall or “club’’ type are too numerous to mention, but there are also more than a dozen London pubs with good live jazz.

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