Saturday 18 January 2014

A lost world of pubs

Boak and Bailey recently did a fascinating blogpost revolving around a book called The Renaissance of the English Public House, written by architect Basil Oliver and originally published in 1947. This sparked my interest sufficiently to acquire my own copy of the book. I paid a little more than they did but have got one in excellent condition complete with original dust jacket.

The book is basically a hymn of praise to the “improved public house” movement of the inter-war period which sought to give pubgoing a more responsible and respectable image as compared with the old concept of single-minded perpendicular boozing. The vast expansion of new housing, both private and council owned, saw large numbers of new pubs – often very large and architecturally ambitious – constructed along “improved” lines and many existing pubs extended and refitted along the same principles.

It includes 114 black-and-white colour plates and 51 plans of pub layouts, a very lavish level of illustration for a book of that era. One thing that is very evident from the plans is the elaborate compartmentalisation of interior layouts, with numerous different rooms and bars serving different functions. Apart from the usual public and lounge bars there are men’s, women’s and mixed smoke rooms, games rooms, tea rooms, snack bars, dining rooms, restaurants, ballrooms and assembly halls. A number of pubs in the south-east have a distinct private or saloon bar in between the public and the lounge. It is also evident that great care has been taken by the architects in balancing the different elements of the pub so that they all fit together, in particular the issue of access to toilets. One of the most intricate plans is that of the Earl Grey (later Jester) in Carlisle on an awkward urban corner site, which managed to incorporate a women’s room with its own dedicated toilet.

All of this has been pretty much entirely swept away now, and very few of these pubs survive with anything like their original plan. This trend was well under way in the more lively and brash atmosphere of the 1960s when internal remodelling was often seen by brewers as a way of attracting a younger clientele. Now, many of these big pubs have been demolished and their sites redeveloped for alternative use. A lot of those remain have been converted to a dining format and their interiors completely changed. A few have even been bought by Wetherspoon’s. Some linger on as rather down-at-heel locals which rather give the impression of barbarians playing amongst the awesome ruins of Ancient Rome.

In contrast, the layouts of modern open-plan pubs often come across as rather haphazard and ill-thought-out, with a lack of appreciation of how customers flow round the pub and use different areas, with the result that inconvenient pinch-points and dead zones are created. Wetherspoon’s often seem guilty of this, although that may be because they are currently about the only pub-owner engaged in opening significant numbers of new pubs and remodelling existing ones. An example of this is that I can think of two non-Wetherspoons food-oriented pubs, one a new-build and one a conversion, where the gents’ toilet can only be reached by walking right through the dining area, something no 1930s architect would have contemplated.

An entire chapter is devoted to pubs in the West Midlands, where the massive “Brewer’s Tudor” roadhouse or estate pub, often built by local brewers Mitchells & Butlers is, or was, a distinctive feature of the local scene. I was at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, but have to say that this aspect of pub design rather passed me by then. Pubgoing trips usually involved venturing outside the city boundaries to find a wider selection of beer. In those days, 1930s architecture was widely felt to be dull and old hat, and even then many of these pubs had already been knocked through and lost their original layouts. I do remember once going in the Black Horse in Northfield, externally maybe the most magnificent of all, which seemed rather tatty and run-down and gave the impression of being something of a reverse Tardis, with a much more cramped interior than the exterior suggested. The plan in the book rather bears this out as, although a very long building, it is in fact quite shallow, and surprisingly little of the floor area is given over to bars.

Apart from forays into the West Midlands and the Carlisle State Management Scheme, the book largely concentrates on London and the South-East. That is not to say, though, that “improved” pubs were not built in other parts of the country and, if you look, there are, or were, plenty in the Greater Manchester area. A classic example was the now-demolished Oakwood in Salford which would not have looked out of place in the Birmingham suburbs. Still with us are Holt’s Melville in Stretford and the Gateway in East Didsbury which has now been taken over by Wetherspoon’s.

Looking round Stockport, off the top of my head I can think of at least seven major inter-wars new-builds – the now-demolished Greyhound in Cheadle Hulme and Wembley in Adswood, the now-closed Royal Oak and still-open FiveWays in Hazel Grove, the Heald Green Hotel, the massive, Birmingham-style Ladybrook in Bramhall (pictured) and the Nursery in Heaton Norris, which is a rarity that still largely retains its original layout. Without wishing to bore non-locals, there are several other smaller pubs or major remodellings. Robinson’s also built a number of new pubs in the improved style outside the Stockport area such as the Broadoak in Ashton-under-Lyne and the Bleeding Wolf at Scholar Green in Cheshire.

From the perspective of 80 years later it is difficult to visualise the social conditions that lay behind this style of pub. Class divisions in society were more sharply defined, so there was a clear divide between public and lounge bars. Women were still widely regarded as second-class citizens, and much of the pub was a male preserve, but encouraging women in for a drink with their husbands or boyfriends, especially at weekends, was something that these pubs aimed to do. Pub-based activities such as darts and bowls were growing in popularity, and many improved pubs featured a bowling green where space permitted. There was no television, so for many people just going to the pub to chew the fat with your friends was a common activity several nights a week. But beer consumption had fallen dramatically since the days before the First World War, so customers were generally just having a modest two, three or four pints rather than getting sloshed.

The question must be asked, though, whether these pubs ever really achieved the popularity their designers hoped for. Were they perhaps a slightly patronising architect’s vision of the ideal pub, imposed from above on ordinary people who actually preferred something more small-scale and homely? John Betjeman is very critical of the “improved pub” in his poem The Village Inn:

Ah, where's the inn that once I knew
With brick and chalky wall
Up which the knobbly pear-tree grew
For fear the place would fall?

Oh, that old pot-house isn't there,
It wasn't worth our while;
You'll find we have rebuilt "The Bear"
In Early Georgian style.

In his novel-cum-memoir Portrait of Elmbury, published in 1945, John Moore writes:
...the majority of the population, it seems, likes the little pubs also, and people from the cities drive twenty miles on Sunday morning to crowd us out of our local because they hate the big roadhouses too. A pub, after all, is not just a place for convenient drinking; if it were these modern palaces with their ceaseless fountains of beer would serve the purpose very well. But a pub is primarily a meeting-place for friends; where friends as well as drinking may talk, argue, play game, or just sit and think according to their mood.
John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy remains well worth reading – well-written, well-observed, affectionate and humorous books that encapsulate the spirit of rural and small-town England. The whole section about pubs is wonderful – I love the description of the Coventry Arms in Elmbury “which has a little back parlour where grave old citizens like to sit in semi-darkness and sip their beer and talk of old times while the shadows close in upon them.” Mudgie heaven, I hear you say.

You have to wonder whether many of these improved pubs were ever really busy except on weekend evenings and special occasions. I only encountered them when they were already in steep decline, but I remember going in to the Gateway shortly after I moved into this area in 1985 and finding it a shabby, virtually deserted, barn-like place that wasn’t remotely congenial. Having said that, where the architecture is on a more modest scale, as with the Nursery, and the pubs have been looked after, the 1930s style can actually provide a pleasant, cosy pub atmosphere where you can easily feel at home.


  1. This has the makings of a good OT article Mudgie - care to adapt accordingly?

    Most of the surviving examples are on the NI (or the accompanying RIs) I think. I remember carrying out a lot of preliminary NI surveying in Birmingham in the 1990s, which involved visiting numerous examples of these pubs (many of which has already been wrecked). I believe Spoons have done a good job on the Black Horse although I've not visited since they took over.

  2. Perhaps these were the wetherspoons of their day?
    Trying too cater for numerous clientele rather than the working class man.
    the few examples that remain I think are truely great examples of pub architecture - both internally and externally, that we will never see the likes off again sadly.
    The Margaret Catchpole in Ipswich is a fantastic multi roomed pub with bowling green attached - much like the Nursery..special mention too the Berkeley in Scunthorpe-Sam Smiths too!! what more do you want?

  3. I too enjoyed reading the Boak & Bailey post you refer to Mudgie, and would like to get hold of my own copy of The Renaissance of the English Public House.

    Architecturally, I agree that these “improved public houses” were real gems, although like yourself, massive “Brewer’s Tudor” roadhouses never really appealed much to me either. I think the problem was they were too impersonal; that and trying to be all things to all men. Better to have lots of smaller pubs each appealing to a different section of the community or to specific interest groups.

    All the same, very sad to see them go, either knocked down or converted into Sainsbury and Tesco Locals. Future generations will look back on us with unkindly eyes for letting this happen.


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