Saturday, 9 November 2013

The British Pub Corporation

Occasionally, campaigners against pub closures have suggested that threatened pubs should be taken into local authority ownership and run as “community resources”. Realistically, I doubt whether many people nowadays would consider running pubs to be an appropriate activity for councils and, even if they tried to, the enterprise would be on a pretty certain road to disaster. Just imagine going to your local pub and being bombarded with posters about the evils of binge-drinking!

But many of today’s pubgoers won’t be aware that, within the drinking career of many older pub customers, something along similar lines existed in Britain in the form of the Carlisle State Management Scheme. This was originally set up during the First World War when Carlisle and the surrounding area were a centre of munitions manufacture and concern was expressed that widespread drunkenness amongst the workers was harming the war effort. So all the pubs in the area, together with four small breweries, were taken into State ownership. Three of the breweries were closed down and production concentrated on the fourth. Opening hours were curtailed and instructions given that the pubs should be run with the aim of discouraging excessive consumption, for example by banning the buying of rounds.

Some would argue that the ulterior motive was actually for Lloyd George – a noted temperance campaigner – to run an experiment with State control of the liquor trade which, if successful, could be extended to the rest of the country. In the end, this never happened but, somewhat surprisingly, after the war the scheme was allowed to continue, and the pubs and brewery were not returned to private ownership. The beers were sold at notably reasonable prices, as the aim was not to make profits from alcohol sales, and there was no advertising or brewery branding on the pubs. During the inter-war period, a number of the pubs were tastefully rebuilt on “improved” lines according to designs by architect Harry Redfern, who is commemorated by the handsome Redfern Inn at Etterby, complete with its own bowling green. It almost sounds like a nationalised version of Sam Smith’s without the feudal employment practices. The photo above shows the Jester (formerly the Earl Grey) on Botchergate, a rare design by Redfern in an Art Deco style rather than his usual more traditional Arts and Crafts idiom. It is now a Taekwon-do school.

The scheme seems to have been pretty much forgotten by officialdom and continued in operation well after the Second World War. However, it was eventually wound up by the Heath government in 1971. In The Beer Drinker’s Companion, published shortly afterwards, Frank Baillie says that it brewed “a well-flavoured draught bitter with a good hop rate, and a dark mild” and also mentions that its pubs also stocked over twenty brands of beer from other brewers, draught keg and bottled. It seems that it was regarded locally with considerable affection, but in reality it had become an indefensible anachronism. I don’t know from my reading to what extent it exercised a monopoly within its trading area that prevented outside brewers from opening new pubs – I assume that effectively it did.

In hindsight, it would probably have made more sense to sell off the brewery together with a good chunk of the tied houses as a going concern. As it was, most of the pubs were acquired by either Scottish & Newcastle or Greenalls, and the latter attracted considerable criticism by refusing to sell cask beer in any of them. The brewery ended up in the hands of Theakston’s, who had outgrown their original Masham premises, but it seems they always struggled to make a go of it, especially as it was a considerable distance from their main trading area in the Yorkshire Dales. Eventually it closed in 1987 after Matthew Brown – who had previously acquired Theakston’s – were themselves taken over by Scottish & Newcastle.

Even had it lasted through the 1970s, it is unthinkable that the State Management Scheme would have survived the privatisation boom of the 1980s. It was created in an age when the demand for pubs was very much a given, and in the much more fickle and competitive marketplace of the modern age it would surely have struggled. It is always a feature of publicly-owned enterprises of any kind that they are much more concerned to defend the past rather than innovate, and you can see it attracting criticism for failing to meet the demand for trendy city-centre bars and food houses, while being engaged in a constant running battle over attempts to rationalise the peripheral estate and rural pubs that had experienced declining trade. There would inevitably be an expectation that it would keep open such establishments for social reasons even if they had become unprofitable.

Even now, there are a couple of examples of this kind of thinking in these recent local newspaper reports about the future prospects of two Redfern estate pubs – the Rose & Crown and the Magpie. Indeed,

Councillor Robert Betton, who represents the Botcherby ward, launched a petition to try and save the Magpie. He is trying to persuade Carlisle City Council to run it as a going concern.
I wish him luck with that. Whereas, re the Rose & Crown,
Philip Tuer, the pub’s liaison for the Solway branch of CAMRA, said: “It’s one of the Redfern pubs and it will be a sad loss but unfortunately the last couple of licensees haven’t been able to make it pay.

“If you can’t get the customers through the door no matter how much you spend you are flogging a dead horse.”

He added: “With its bowling green, by knocking it down you triple the size of the land you have available.

“Financially it is worth a lot more that way. It is a difficult time.”

I understand that the Rose & Crown has now been demolished.


  1. I thought the state managed pubs were actually quite innovative for the time, didn't they try to have decent surrounds, encourage women to go and to serve good food?

  2. The SMS followed the "improved pub" model of the inter-war period which was basically a defensive reaction by the brewers to the threat of various kinds of quasi-prohibitionist measures.

  3. Filton Town Council in North Bristol owns and runs a pub called The Ratepayer's Arms. Don't know if it makes money or not.
    I had a pint of "State Bitter" once in a Spoons in Carlisle, brewed by a local micro to the original recipe. Bloody nice, it was.

  4. We have not seen the worst of
    pub closures yet.Many Pubco Pubs
    are still with us because the current period of low valuation and depressed demand have left this sector in limbo,When the Pubcos and struggling landlords see more attractive values for their properties then you will see an ever increasing level of closures

    A bit ofF subject
    Another little snippet for our
    blinkered anti tobacco heroes
    Greater Manchester Transport has
    banned the use of E-Cigarette on
    buses and trams
    .....???"HEALTH ISSUE"???----

  5. fascinating stuff.

    how come the beard club, what will being a tad leftie, has never attempted a Co Op type approach to running boozers itself?

  6. They did, Cookie - see here.

    Maybe now CAMRA should put its money where its mouth is and use some of the millions in the CAMRA Members' Investment Club in buying up failed estate boozers and leasing them out ;-)

  7. Oh no,please no ,CAMRA running pubs ?,I,de rather do a Salsa with The Medusa or dragged round Hayfield by Ramblers from Manchester Town Hall

    Ta Ra for now
    Oh nearly forgot,dont forget to switch off your E-Cigs on Manc buses

  8. CAMRA's first pub was the Old Fox in Bristol. I remember going there in the 1980s . They ditched it because it wasn't making money and it's now offices/flats.


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