History Of The British Public House
The description “public house” was first coined in the 17th century. Ever since, the British public house has survived periods of extreme popularity and periods of regrettable decline. For Brits and for international tourists, the British public house is part of the endearing culture that helps the economy and welcomes guests hospitably.
Britain has a long history of taverns, alehouses and hospitable inns. Taverns served wine. Alehouses served beer and ale and inns provided much needed accommodations for travellers. The British pub borrows a little bit of all these institutions.
The British public house changed the landscape and usually had a strong local community presence. People came to the first pubs to conduct business or share results from a sporting or wagering event. Pubs had great flexibility and loads of local colour.
The 1700 Boom
The industry grew in the late 17th century and by the mid 1700s was thriving. Every community had at least one or two local pubs and they were as busy during the day as they were at night. Igniting this early growth was the extremely favourable price for gin.
In fact, many would argue that Brits may have enjoyed their gin a bit too much. The 1751 Gin Act restricted the sale of the popular beverage. As a means to discourage gin consumption, politicians decided to encourage the consumption of beer, which was described as a “more wholesome and temperate beverage.” The public house now featured a new attraction and the tradition of the pub benefitted from the conversion. Pub guests stayed longer, conversed more and were by most accounts friendlier.
By the time the Beer Act of 1830 was passed, British pubs had longstanding legacies of outstanding beer and ale offerings. The Beer Act allowed property owners to brew their own beer and sell the homemade products in their own pub. The fee to start a new pub was 2 guineas!
Not surprisingly, the public jumped on board. Homebrews became commonplace and more than 30,0000 beerhouses were opened. There were immediate side effects.
There was such an outcry against public drunkenness that politicians had to act. In 1831, one journalist wrote, “Everybody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling.”
In 1869, licensing restrictions were implemented in the Wine and Beer Act. This act limited the number of pubs and gave some solace to forlorn landlords whose rental income was diminishing.
During the 29th century, British public house began to implement service bars similar to what many pubs offer today. But, the biggest driver in the industry was the invention of the beer engine. This invention allowed the beer stored in barrels in the ground to be pumped through pipes for a perfect and quick pour.
In the 19th century, more and more breweries entered the public house trade. Gradually, breweries that had produced homemade beer and had grown took over ownership and management of many pubs. In many cases, the publicans became tenants.
Government actively pursued closing more pubs. A 1904 law authorised local authorities to close existing pubs in exchange for consideration. Within 10 years, 10 percent of the country’s pubs were closed.
20th Century And War
Pub trade declined during and after WWI. The consuming public had a focused, sober awakening and sobriety was interpreted as support for the troops. Sobriety was endorsed by King George V and politicians agreed. Pub hours of operation were limited.
The reaction was different during WWII. Communities gathered at local pubs to support each other and the troops. During WWII, the number of female guests to public houses increased significantly and a new level of sociability took over.
Today, many of the public houses are challenged, for a number of reasons. As a result they have sought to bring vibrancy to their premises, with many public houses now striving to create the perfect balance between great pub food and a quality beverage. However, the public house remains a proud British tradition and a national institution – and will be going nowhere!
The Cotswolds: Local Produce & Spectacular Scenery (The Angel at Burford)
Great British Drives: The Cotswolds (The Telegraph)
A Short History of the Pub (Camra)