Thursday, 4 April 2013

London pubs in the 1850's

We're staying with George Dodd's "Food in London", but this time we're looking at pubs rather than Porter. Let's dive right in.

"The Public-houses of London, as distinguished from hotels, inns, chop-houses, eating-houses, and coffee-rooms, have undergone great changes within the last few years. They have been transformed from dingy pot-houses into splendid gin-palaces, from painted deal to polished mahogany, from small crooked panes of glass to magnificent crystal sheets, from plain useful fittings to costly luxurious adornments. The old Boniface, with his red nose and his white apron, has made way for the smart damsels who prepare at their toilettes to shine at the bar. The comfortable old landlady is less seen than formerly, ensconced behind and amongst her rich store of cordials and compounds and liqueurs; she, too, must pass under the hands of the milliner before making her daily appearance in public. Even the pot-boy is not the pot-boy of other days; there is a dash of something about him that may almost be called gentility; his apron is cleaner than were the aprons of pot-boys twenty years ago; and the tray filled with quarts and pints of dinner-beer, carried out to the houses of the customers, seems to have undergone some change, for it is less frequently seen than 'in days of yore.'"
"The food of London" by George Dodd, 1856, pages 470 - 471.

I like the way he differentiates public houses from other types of drinking establishments. And the fact he ignores all the others to concentrate on pubs. He makes an important point about the transformation of pub interiors in the middle of the 19th century. It's easy to think that ornate pub interiors in the gin-palace style have been around forever. They haven't and were really the product of the late Victorian period. But it's clear that it wasn't just the buildings that had been spruced up, but the staff, too. Sounds like quite a revolution. Though the author does betray nostalgia for the old state of affairs, even the pot-boy's dirty apron.

Now it's the turn of the tied house system, a topic very dear to me.

"The great porter-brewers, as is generally known, are the owners or lessees of a large number of public-houses: indeed, much of the enormous capital of these firms is sunk in this way. Their object is, not to obtain a very large return as landlords, but to ensure the custom of the house; for the publican of a 'brewer's house,' whether he be a mere agent or servant, or has some little stake of his own in the concern, is expected to purchase his beer and ale of that particular brewer. We rarely or ever see any change in the name of the brewer who supplies a particular house; the inscription 'Barclay, Perkins, & Co.'s Entire' adorned the front of the 'Red Lion' twenty years ago, as it does now, and will probably do twenty years hence; 'Truman, Hanbury, & Buxton' cling to the 'Lord Nelson' year after year; and 'Henry Meux, & Co.'s Entire' has been the beverage supplied at the 'King's Head' for a generation past. During a turmoil in London a few years ago, one of the great brewers offended the working classes concerning some political question ; it was determined to desert the public-houses that obtained their supply from that brewery; and the result soon became so serious, that the brewer thought it best to 'eat humble pie,' and beg for a return of favour to the hostelries under his control."
"The food of London" by George Dodd, 1856, pages 471 - 472.
The huge amount of capital invested in public houses was the eventual downfall of the brewing industry. By the early 1950's brewing companies, as far as the stock market were concerned, provided a very poor return for the amount of capital invested. That's when rationalisation reared its ugly head and the rash of takeovers were kicked off that left the bulk of the industry, and its pubs, controlled by just seven brewing companies, the infamous Big Six*.

In the 1850's, breweries didn't own the freehold of the majority of their tied houses. Most were controlled through loan ties, though the freehold or leasehold of maybe 20-25% of the pubs were owned by the brewery. The number directly owned rocketed in the 1890's when new pub licences were virtually impossible to obtain and licensing authorities began to actively reduce the number of pubs by revoking existing licences. There was a scramble to buy pubs and eventually around 95% were tied.

As stated, there's another good reason why a pub would stick with the same brewery for decades: the reluctance of customers to accept change. It's probably hard for you youngsters, who haven't grown up with the system, to understand. A change in brewery ownership was very upsetting for locals who had got used to a certain type of beer. They would invariably moan at a change in supplier, even if the quality of the beer improved.

Next time we'll be looking at pub names.

* Bass Charrington, Allied Breweries, Whitbread, Watney, Courage and Scottish & Newcastle. Guinness, who brewed a similar volume of beer, were left out by CAMRA because they owned no pubs.


Bailey said...

Interesting. Would it be fair to say that, before the development of the elaborate brewery-owned palatial pub, the difference between a beer house and a house was... the presence of some beer?

Ron Pattinson said...

Bailey, I think many beer houses remained like that into the early 20th-century. Some were poshed up, but many were simply closed by licensing authorities, who seemed to hate them.

Pivní Filosof said...

"A change in brewery ownership was very upsetting for locals who had got used to a certain type of beer."

You can still see that in old school Czech pubs, specially those in small towns. Owners are reluctant to change their Gambrinus/Pilsner Urquell combo because they know the regulars will complain.