Sunday 1 February 2015

Nowt to eat but crisps

Boak and Bailey recently did an interesting blogpost on the subject of pub snacks. This raised another question – it’s often claimed that, going back fifty years ago, the only thing you could get to eat in pubs was a packet of crisps.

My memories of legal drinking in pubs go back to 1977, but even then pub food was commonplace and varied, although there were more wet-only pubs, and food could be harder to find in the evenings and on Sunday lunchtimes. So I find it difficult to believe that, ten years earlier, little or no food was served.

This is borne out by a quotation on the Boak & Bailey post:

Here’s Maurice Gorham on central London pubs in The Local 1939:

“At midday practically every pub can supply something eatable at the bar, and many have separate dining rooms or restaurants as well… At the other end of the scale are the small houses where you can get bread and cheese and perhaps a ham sandwich and hard-boiled egg.”

So what I think is that pubs throughout that era did continue to serve plenty of food, but in general only where they had a captive market of people away from their homes – such as in city centres with numerous office workers, tourist spots and along main roads. They may have done straightforward grub for manual workers too. The big innovation in the 1960-75 period was that pubs started promoting themselves as destinations to actually go out for a meal.

I also advanced the speculative theory that, in those days, there was a kind of unacknowledged divide between “pubs” and “hotels and inns”, which has pretty much disappeared now. I certainly remember as a kid being taken into “hotels” by my parents which would now be just regarded as pubs.

People’s memories of pubs in the pre-CAMRA era are notoriously unreliable – for example it’s hard to get an idea of when top-pressure taps started to replace handpumps across the South of England. But I think it’s fair to say that plenty of food was served in pubs in the 50s and 60s, but only in those pubs that had an obvious dining clientele on their doorstep.


  1. My mother's pub in the early 60's, like most others, sold only mild and bitter - none of that foreign lager stuff. Her great innovation in the early 60s was a heated glass unit where she could have hot pies and bagged toasted sandwiches. This went with the pickled eggs and Smith's crisps with their blue bag. She also had a tray of fresh eggs for anyone who wanted a poor man's oyster!
    Sadly things have changed since then and I recently went into a pub where the selection of beers was well away from my taste and I had to drink San Miguel.

  2. Although Smith's crisps with a twist were the main snack in my grandad's pubs in the 60s, my grandma also made sandwiches. Her profits went on a fur coat for vitlers evenings...but the moths got it.

  3. Professor Pie-Tin2 February 2015 at 12:19

    There used to be a pub in my town which kept ham and cheese rolls under a glass container on the bar.
    Its demise coincided with increased EU regulation on food safety which ruled that the landlord had to have a separate food prep area other than behind the bar where he usually knocked them up.
    This would have required the installation of an air extraction system, stainless steel worktops etc etc.
    It was a sad day when the landlord - whose family had been providing said snacks for well over a hundred years - called time on his baps.

  4. A lot of pubs where food was a bit marginal have given up serving it because of the need for a food preparation area entirely separate from the living quarters.

  5. Just like there used be a world before the motorcar, electricity, internet filth, craft beer there was a world before the brie & grape ciabatta. Where people were grateful for crisps in pubs as a change from the bread and dripping of home. Where kids played in bombed out ruins and dad drank boring brown beer and mam cleaned the doorstep 24/7

    None of these worlds are as good as here and now. Pubs got better with the invention of the brie & grape ciabatta and no pub should be without it.

  6. “It’s hard to get an idea of when top-pressure taps started to replace hand pumps across the South of England.”

    This must have happened during the very late 1960’s-early 1970’s. I started going in pubs round about 1971-1972, and was legally old enough to drink in 1973. Most of the pubs in the Ashford (Kent) area, where I lived at the time, had top-pressure dispense, although quite a few of what my friends and I called “old boy’s pubs” still had hand pumps. They were not the sort of places where the youth of the time drank though, and alas many of them vanished to make way for a ludicrous ring-road scheme promoted by the local council.


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