Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Tied House System

It’s odd the sense of déjà vu as I flick through the Brewing Trade Review. Many of the same topics as today were being discussed back in 1950. Like the tied house system.

First, let’s hear from those who wanted to abolish it:

Tied House System (Motion)
MR. Bing (Hornchurch, Lab.) asked the following question during a discussion on the coming business of the House: Can my right hon. friend say, in view of the interest shown on all sides of the House in the tourist industry, and of the fact that this motion really was signed by a record number of hon. members, whether he can give any time at a convenient date in future for the discussion of a motion on tied houses which is at present standing on the Order Paper?

[That this House condemns the Tied Public House System, as at present operated, in that it deprives the customer of his freedom of choice of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages alike, tends to restrict the provision of food and accommodation, increases by monopolist practices the price of refreshments to the customer and does not furnish sufficient security of tenure to the publican; and that therefore this House calls upon His Majesty's Government to inquire into the Tied House system and other restrictive practices of brewers and to introduce, where necessary, remedial legislation.]

Mr. Morrison (Lord President of the Council): I am afraid I could not give any firm undertaking at this stage, but I do realise that this is a matter upon which there is fairly extensive interest among hon. members on all sides of the House ; but, as my hon. friend knows, after he and his hon. friends put down their motion, the brewers did offer to make a new type of agreement with their tenants. Perhaps he and his hon. Friends might consider whether we should not wait for a little while to see how it works out in practice and get some experience of it in a practical way.”
"Brewing Trade Review, 1950", page 80.

The irony is, of course, that the tied house system was the direct result of government interference in the brewing industry. The limitation of the number of licensed premises was what prompted brewers to snap up every pub they could in the first place.

Like most Private Member's Bills, the one on tied houses got nowhere. The brewers had plenty of friends in parliament. Note from which side the Bill came: Labour. The party had a tradition of hostility to brewers, partly through worries about them taking advantage of and profiting from the working classes, partly from the non-conformist, temperance wing of the party.

This next quote comes from chairman’s report at Ansell’s annual general meeting. Unsurprisingly, he had a slightly more positive view of tied houses:

The Tied House System.—The past year has also seen a Private Member's Bill introduced by Mr. Bing, seeking to abolish the tied house, and, when that failed to get a Second Reading, a motion was put on the Order Paper for an inquiry into the tied house system. It is quite clear that this campaign is not based on any practical knowledge of the system under which the industry works, nor has any satisfactory alternative system been put forward.

At the same time, it is alarming to find that the tied house system, as it has come to be called, is so little understood not only by the public but by many Members of Parliament.

About a hundred years ago the system did not exist. Licensed houses were, for the most part, privately owned and somewhat squalid. The licensed trade did not enjoy a good repute. The licensed house was not a place in which a respectable person liked to be seen, let alone take his wife. These somewhat derogatory remarks are not, of course, aimed at the many fine old inns that existed then as they do to-day. I am speaking of the ordinary public house as it then was.”
"Brewing Trade Review, 1950", page 84.

You should see some of the places I’ve dragged Dolores.  Just trying to think where the roughest ones were. Either Czechoslovakia or East Berlin.  I guess I’m not that respectable a person.

The line trotted out is also a familiar one: MP’s don’t understand the way the trade works. It’s always a good one. A timeless classic.

Note that at no point does he mention the reason breweries started buying pubs like crazy:

“As time went by brewery companies began to take over these places—at first by a system of mortgage, and later by outright purchase. The brewery companies, by thus ensuring a certain outlet for their products, were able to cut down on many overhead expenses and to spend money on the improvement of the promises. They were thus able to provide a good quality beer at a low price, and to afford to surrender licences in areas where there were too many, and also to build now licensed premises at high cost and with no chance of writing off the capital expenditure for a great number of years.

The policy of surrender and improvement of licensed premises pursued by Birmingham brewers prior to and immediately after the 1914-18 war—known as the "fewer and better scheme” - could not have been carried through had not the licensed houses been owned by brewery companies. Had such a scheme been carried through while the houses were individually owned, it would have meant ruin to many of the owners. Surely the benefit to the public that has resulted from this scheme in Birmingham and from a similar policy in other ports of the country is easily seen from the very high standard of licensed premises which now exist, many of which are owned by your company."
"Brewing Trade Review, 1950", pages 84 - 85.

Ansells were one of the big Birmingham breweries. I remember the city well from visits to my mum’s family in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Driving through the city, it was clear that the pubs were relatively few in number but large in size. Partly it was due to when bits of the city were built. Birmingham was one of the few provincial cities to see substantial areas of new housing built between the wars. But even in the older districts, the pubs were few and big.

Many brewers had been keen on the “improved” public house between the wars. Somewhere bigger and with more facilities than a back-street boozer. Whitbread and Barclay Perkins in London, for example. But they had been frustrated by licensing authorities to a great extent. You couldn’t just rebuild or extend a pub. You needed permission from the licensing magistrates. And the teetotal twats amongst them didn’t want pubs to improve. They wanted them to be squalid so they had more reason to close them.

In Birmingham they were more practical. Brewers were allowed to build big, modern premises, if they surrendered enough licences. Obviously several, as councils were keen on whacking down the number of licences.

If I tell you the City of Birmingham had a population of 1.1 million in 1951 this next sentence won’t sound so impressive:

“So far as the tied house system limiting choice is concerned, in Birmingham alone there are houses owned by 11 different brewery companies all producing several different types of beer, though, with all modesty, we claim that the "Better Beer" is very popular in all districts where it is obtainable.

Fortunately the relationship between the wholesale and retail trade, both in the Midlands and throughout the country as a whole, has never been healthier nor happier than it is at the present time. It is only natural that the two sections of the trade, with similar but not identical interests, should from time to time have differing views. But it has been proved during this year that any differences within the trade that do exist can be settled within the trade to everyone's satisfaction, and without any need for outside interference.”
"Brewing Trade Review, 1950", page 85.

Well, at least all eleven brewed several types of beer.

That’s a dreadful selection for 1950. Though, in the Birmingham of my youth, it was two. Pretty much. The pubs were alternately M & B or Ansells. Unless you were in Aston. Just to the West of the city, in the Black Country, there were still a half dozen small brewers. But you’d never see their beer in Birmingham.

Davenports, the other brewery in Birmingham, had sold most of its pubs to invest in its home-delivery service. I can remember just one in the city centre, on Hurst Street. Where I was served the yeastiest pint of Mild I’ve ever had.

Yes, everything is wonderful. If only the government would leave us alone. That last paragraph could have come from a pubco today.


Alistair Reece said...

ah...Birmingham, my 4 years living in the city were wonderful. Such a great city.

Gary Gillman said...

What was the difference between a "fine old inn" and the "ordinary" public house whose repute still seemed of some question in 1950? I noticed this use of the word "inn" in the 1950-era puff piece for pub culture, probably it was to glorify a tradition still felt suspect in many quarters.

Was an old Fleet Street pub with literary or other special associations an inn, such as The Olde Cheshire Cheese? If not the Cheshire Cheese, what were these hallowed inns of special status? Didn't they all have the same license?

I can attest that into the late 1900's, many English people were chary of pubs. I knew a businessman once who told me he would never go into a pub unless he could not avoid it for business or another pressing reason. I have read in literature many similar comments.


Ron Pattinson said...


inn implies a country pub or an old pub with accomodation in a small town. There was no difference in the licence, other than that residents could try outside opening times.

There were only two types of licence: full licence and beer and wine only. Other than more restritive licences for restaurants and hotels with bars not open to the general public, only residents.

Alan Powell said...

This is the start of a really good article, but it reads as if someone's cut out the second-third out of it. There's been a monumental shift in the tied house system, from pubs aligned to breweries for the purposes of reducing costs, to one where most tied houses are now in the hands of pubcos; who align themselves with particular suppliers for the purposes of screwing big discounts out of them (reducing profits). This is an significant episode in the evolution of the British pub trade and would certainly be worthy of inclusion.