How long have we had pubs in the UK? What do we do in them, besides drink? And at what point and why did they transform from a place of men, spit and sawdust to couples, table service and Chardonnay?
In this pint-sized history of the pub, Alcohol Research UK’s Dr James Nicholls takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the past 400 years of the British boozer.
Chrissie Giles: So it seems like pubs are really a central part of British life, but how long have we kind of had pubs as we know them in the UK?
Dr James Nicholls, Alcohol Research UK: Pubs generally, and drinking places, have been around for a very long time, but it’s interesting that the pubs that are like this, that we’d often think of as kind of traditional pubs, are really an invention of the mid 19th century. Following legislation in the 1830s, a lot of new small, independent brewers entered the market and a lot of the established brewers had to really try and reach out and attract new custom and so the whole thing of cut glass and ornate wood and brass fittings was actually an innovation in the mid 19th century, that we now kind of see as the traditional way of doing things. Prior to that you had at the kind of bottom of the social scale, ale houses, which were very widespread, they were very popular, but they’d been legislated against repeatedly in the early 17th century, and in the late 18th century there’d been kind of waves of concern about popular ale houses, ostensibly to do with the drinking that was going on within them but you know, in many ways it was more to do with concern over what the poor were doing when they got together in their own social spaces, and idleness and political dissent and all those other issues.
Chrissie: If we were to go back in time to say the 1900s, how would we recognise a pub then and how would it be different to where we are now?
Dr Nicholls: A lot of the fittings you see here; the pumps, the wooden bars, all that kind of thing, would have been fairly familiar. I think tables were less of a common thing until slightly later. The idea of table service and eating food in pubs, came kind of more around the 1930s when brewers started to really reach out to the middle classes and try and create what they called improved pubs, which had big open spaces and were much lighter, with larger windows.
Chrissie: So in terms of what pubs are for, has that kind of changed since they first originated?
Dr Nicholls: Especially at the start of the 19th century, in poor areas, probably the only place that would have lighting, hot water, other people to speak to, that was warm in the winter, was very often the local pub. There was a lot more to what was going on in pubs than just drinking. And that changed once home entertainment, television, started to become more commonplace, once central heating became more widespread. I think that’s where the massive shift has been. It’s about the home being where most of the alcohol is consumed and not the pub.
Chrissie: For you what makes a typical nice pub that you would go to? What are your top five ingredients?
Dr Nicholls: [Laughs] I am a kind of a nice atmosphere, good beer, nice music that isn’t deafeningly loud and you can sit down and have a chat kind of a pub goer.
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