Sunday, 17 July 2011


We've not been to Bolton for a while, have we? Time to revisit its 1930's pubs. This time with a vital question: glass size.

One of the biggest surprises for me about pre-war Bolton pubs was that most men drank halves. Something I've never experienced in a pub. Not one in Britain. (In Australia, of course, you rarely see anything bigger than a half. And never anything as big as an imperial pint.) I was intrigued as to why they drank from such small glasses. So I was pleased to find this explanation:


This brings us to the question of "pinters" — men who drink pints instead of gills. According to Nicholson (London Survey) men drink pints because it is something to grip on to. He quotes these words being used to him by drinkers. Also he says, it makes the beer last longer. This again, he bases on what pub-goers have told him.

Our Worktown timings show conclusively that the time taken, per pint, is practically the same whether it is drunk in pints or gills. Observers have reported men drinking pints with a group of gill drinkers, and finishing off their mugs the same moment that the others are draining their second gills. To confirm this, the same observers timed 48 beer-drinkers in London pubs (December);

Pints    17.5 minutes average speed.
Halfs     8.6 minutes average speed.

In this small series, pints actually averaged more than twice as long as half-pints.

The fact that the mug "is something to grip on to" has to do with pint drinking. The landlord of a beerhouse who has recently installed gill mugs tells us that they are very popular. On the other hand, many pubs do not provide mugs with handles, and serve pints in large plain glasses. The actual size of the glass must also be taken into account in this respect. The habit of drinking gills from pint glasses may be due to this.

Nicholson also says that the majority of London pinters are old men. Our observations bear this out for Worktown too. One of the reasons for this may be purely historical. Before the war, when beer cost a great deal less than now, most working class drinking was done in pints. A factor for changing this may have been the increased price. (We say "may have been", because, although a reasonable suggestion, we have no proof of it, and other factors are involved.) But men who have been used to drinking pints for years have formed a habit pattern which is hard to break, so whenever possible they continue it. Besides old men, the other common classes of pinters are labourers, and people who do heavy manual work, especially foundry workers. In the forge people bring in bottles and drink them off.

A barman writes:
Pints—depends on how much one can swallow at a gulp. This is entirely a matter of natural growth, and when one has attained the degree of a pinter, a half pint seems insignificant, and you are well steeped in the drinking habit. Seems a matter of choice and habit and maybe length of thirst and pocket.
He is wrong — as those who best know so often are. We see here that the size of the pint glass gives the feeling that the men who drink from them must be drinking faster and more than those who drink gills. Connected with this is the fact that the labourer and the outdoor worker who are usually pinters, do very often drink more than other pub-goers, owing to the nature of their work, which makes them thirsty. Hence the feeling that there is something "manly" about pint drinking, and inversely, that it is "unrefined". The landlords of some pubs refuse to serve pints in the parlour. Women do not drink pints — the story of a woman who used to do so bears out these points: it is a discussion in the parlour of a small beerhouse, among a number of women, some of whom are drunk.

Discussion about a lesbian woman. They concentrate like hell to try and remember her name. After four minutes'working on it and puzzling, one remembers it, and there is joy all round, and the name is reiterated again and again. The following remarks were made about her:

"She be dead and buried now."
"The worst thing about her is neither woman or man."
"'er and Emily lived together."
"She was rather on the vulgar side."
"She was very dirty spoke though."
"She'd stand up at fire." (This mentioned twice.)
"She'd rather have a pint than a gill."

Undoubtedly, the pint mug is associated with labourers, men drinking in dirty working clothes, and old chaps who spit a lot and smoke cheap twist. The association between pints, spitting and strong tobacco is dealt with below. In the lounge of the town-centre pubs, pints are a rarity; while in most vaults they are normal. In the pubs in the "Irish" district, mentioned earlier, to ask for a gill in the vault is to become conspicuous. The first time an observer ordered one, the barmaid repeated "a pint", and there was some difficulty in getting across the idea that a gill was required. A man with a trilby, standing next to the observer, who didn't seem to belong to the pub (he wasn't talking to any of the other chaps) turned and said to the observer in a low voice — "Most of these navvies they come in 'ere and order a pint, you see. ..."
"The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation, 1943 (reprinted 1987), pages 183 - 185.

I already knew that larger glasses tend to slow rather than speed drinking pace. I'm surprised that the difference recorded in Bolton between pint and half drinking times was so small. Just 0.3 of a minute. 17.5 minutes for a pint is a pretty good pace. 15 minutes I found to be the maximum comfortable pace for me. 20 minutes is a bit more civilised.

Hard times are a reasonable explanation for the switch to halves. Especially in a culture of round-buying.  By buying halves, both the amount needed to buy a round and the amount any member was likely to overspend by buying odd rounds was minimised. WW I - what isn't it to blame for? That old men - whose drinking habits were set before the war - were mostly pint drinkers seems to confirm the role of WW I. Odd, because in my experience, old men were some of the few males likely to be drinking halves.

The use of beer for rehydration is another common theme. Especially for those working in hot, physically demanding trades like foundrymen or glassblowers. Or during harvest time, when a supply of beer was considered essential to get the best out of workers. Harvest beer, a low-gravity Mild continued to be brewed well into the 20th century.

I've a good story about women and pints. When I drank in the Cardigan Arms in Leeds during the late 1970's, there was a couple who used to be regulars. Both were in their late 50's. The man would always go to the bar and order a pint and two halves of Tetley's Mild. The pint was for him and the two halves for his wife. I can remember pubs that refused to serve pints to women. Only because it was considered "unladylike". How culturally defined such ideas are is demonstrated by Bavaria and Austria. Where women - even grannies - are happy to drink beer in litres.

I love the conversation between the women. It's like a cross between a scene the Rover's Return snug and Mrs Brady Old Lady.


Anonymous said...

Interesting use of "gill", legally it was a quarter of a pint but colloquially in the North it was considered to be a half.
Sprits were sold in "sixths of a gill"- I wonder how this worked up North?

Matt said...

I wonder when women in pubs were last restricted to halves? I remember visiting Sheffield in the early 90's and the barmaid telling the woman I was with that she could only have a half glass.

Angus Boag said...

Actually, Australia has always had varied beer sizes divided along state lines - and in the last decade the 'imperial' pint has become the most common size in southern state pubs, with some offering a schooner (425ml) instead.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine Fred Dibnah ever having a half.


Gary Gillman said...

The English pint is quite common in Canada but this is relatively new, since the last 20 years. Halves are available, usually taken as the last drink. In the 60's and 70's, 10 and 12 ounce draft glasses were the norm, ordered often in quantity though (2, 4, 6, or "cover the table"). I think the pint suits real beer and English ale in general but in the end I suppose these things are arbitrary and reflect local custom or regulations. There is no logic to it except I'd regret if the Imperial pint disappeared especially in England.


Martyn Cornell said...

I wonder when the habit swung back to pint glasses again? Certainly I never saw my father, who would have started drinking in 1940 (at the latest!) or any of my uncles drinking halves.