Sunday 26 September 2010

The heyday of pubs

I cut my drinking teeth in the late 1970s, a period that surely will come to be seen as the all-time heyday of the British pub. Annual on-trade beer sales exceeded 37 million bulk barrels (over 10 billion pints), a post WWI record, and more than two and a half times the current level. And the pub trade had achieved a level of acceptance and respectability that it never did in the previous boom period of the late 19th century when the temperance movement was still an active force (which it of course now is again). Drinking in pubs had become a normal part of everyday life, something most people did from time to time. I remember my father saying to elderly aunts “it’s OK to go in pubs now, they serve food”.

It has been suggested that on this point I am looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Now, I recognise that back then the range of beer and food was often much more limited, poor cask beer was commonplace, many pubs had a sense of entitlement that led to a “take it or leave it” attitude to service, a cliquish, unwelcoming atmosphere could often be encountered, and there was a whole stratum of dirty, grotty bottom-end pubs that has now largely disappeared.

But it is a matter of recorded fact that pubs were shifting vastly more beer in those days, and so thus demonstrably far more popular than they are now. My subjective memory is also that going to the pub for a drink was, for far more people, a routine everyday activity. Apart from town-centre redevelopments, and areas of inner-urban depopulation, pub closures were virtually unknown.

Today, there are still some thriving and busy pubs, although a lot fewer than there once were, and the best pubs are in many respects well ahead of their counterparts of thirty years ago. But it is all too obvious that much of the pub trade is now scratching along on very thin pickings, and equally obvious that pubs in general have lost a lot of their broad social acceptability. I am struggling to think of the last occasion I went in a pub (except on a Friday night) and couldn’t find anywhere to sit. The last job I had where it was commonplace to go to the pub at lunchtime at least one day a week I left in 1988.

Middle-class people may eat enthusiastically in dining pubs, but you just don’t see them drinking in pubs in the way they once would. I vividly recall an occasion in the early 80s when my father and I went in a pub in one of the better-off parts of Cheshire, and encountered a gang of “golf club types” standing around the bar sounding off about the latest BMW models and Poppy’s gymkhana results. It wasn’t one of my most enjoyable pub experiences, but you rarely see it now. Drinking – and I mean drinking – in pubs has morphed from the staid and respectable to Mark Dredge’s realm of misbehaviour. It has become, to some extent, denormalised.

And, however good individual pubs may be nowadays, I make no apology for looking back nostalgically to the days when pubs as a whole were doing two and a half times the business, when there were half as many of them again, and when visiting them just for a drink was a core part of national life rather than something peculiar and vaguely antisocial done by oldsters, oddballs, students and drunks.


  1. I would say the pubs peaked between
    55 and 68,only jerkoffs drank at

    The pubs have been subject to a few
    assaults in my lifetime,restricted
    Breathalyser,Tax hikes ,late licence clubs,industrial closures.
    The pubs rode these storms and the number of pubs remained the same as
    the previous 100 years,some closed
    others were built.
    But then came the thunderbolts,
    the 24 hour silliness and of
    course,(none dare mention its name)Allowing for the dramatic disappearence of real Englishmen,
    and emergence of a new breed of
    effeminate jellymen,the pubs signed their own death warrant
    with their Quisling like complicity.The rapid decline will continue untill the punters and
    publicans together start standing up and shouting out the obvious.

    Not done yet.

  2. The 70's was my first decade in pubs and a truly wonderful time is was to.
    Now that you have mentioned it I never see a full pub any more and often when I walk in the pubs are empty with ALL people out the front or back smoking and chatting.
    With the changing weather these people won't be bothering at all for the next few months. Not so sure I will be either.

  3. The brainwashed are waiting for the 5 minutes of fame before they die.
    We used to enjoy life and took it as it came.
    We are well and trully f****d.
    The brainwashed generation, here they come.

  4. The pubs do indeed have a problem
    with bans,supermarkets etc but by
    a long way the biggest drawback is
    the miserable freaks that still
    frequent them.
    I popped into the Village of the Damned(Mossley) last week,you
    would have thought the Black Death had made a comeback unless CAMRA
    were having a Christopher Lee

    The Pennine Spirit

  5. 1979 was the all-time peak of British beer production - 40.5 million bulk barrels. In 1959 it was only 23.4 million. During the 60s and 70s the brewers invested a lot of money both in improving their pubs and promoting their brands, They successfully made beer drinking and pubgoing seem modern and aspirational, not just something done by old working-class blokes.

    Nowadays, you very rarely see any beer advertising on TV specifically alluding to a pub situation, which was commonplace in the 1970s. Possibly this is a consequence of divorcing brewing and pub ownership.

  6. One of your best, PC, exceptional.

    I lived in two pubs from 1981 to 1992 and ours were deliberately targeted at 'locals'. Both incredibly successful, the archetypal places where 'everybody knows your name'. Saturday afternoons would find you struggling for somewhere to stand let alone sit. Food was served weekdays only between 12 and 2 as it was the only non-busy time.

    I walked past my local tonight (haven't been in it for a couple of years) and saw through the large glass windows just two people there, playing a fruit machine. It's been there since 1929 and isn't long for this world seeing as it is on a very lare piece of prime London suburb land. It had always been a drinkers' pub amongst a huge catchment area of working/middle class residential households. It does food now and has even invested in a garden for kids but nothing is working. The Co Op next door does a roaring trade though.

    Very sad, but pub organisations brought in on themselves it has to be said.

    I still miss the old 'local' experience, but less and less with every passing week. My local is now Sainsbury's or Tesco and my home.

    It's all very reminiscent of football in the late 80s but with no Premier League to reinvigorate interest.


  7. The thing is, you can still come across pubs where it does pretty much work like it used to (apart from the smoking), but they are few and far between, and it's difficult to define what the magic ingredient is. It's certainly not something that can easily be bottled and transplanted elsewhere. See this post by Tandleman, referring to an area where the pub trade in general has been really suffering.


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