Idealised as a comforting refuge and a site of warm conviviality, the public house can also be divisive
English literature starts with a night down the pub, when the pilgrims assemble in the Tabard Inn at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. It is a little Britain, in a microcosmic rather than a xenophobic sense: a boozy heterotopia where knight and clerk can mingle. This magazine also has a long relationship with the type – it famously had a pub, The Bride of Denmark, in the basement of its offices at Queen Anne’s Gate – and my story too begins in a pub: my parents met while working at the King’s Arms in Oxford, then owned by my grandparents. So you’ll forgive my sentimentality regarding the institution; I’ll temper it with bitters.
Sentimentality is in any case essential to the pub’s ripe atmosphere, along with drip trays, urinal cakes and swirling, sticky carpets. The outrageous patterns of these combine with what Patrick Hamilton called the pub’s ‘bottly glitter’ to woozy effect. Churches aside, the pub is the only building designed for the cultivation of state-sanctioned altered states in the UK.
Source: World History Archive / Alamy
It is hard to define the essential elements of this psychotropia, since the type is extremely heterogeneous. Snugs enfold and fires comfort, but the pub doesn’t have to be this cosy or domestic: grand city pubs of brass and etched mirror are equally pleasing. Suffice it to add that certain elements are fatal – tastefulness, TVs, both excessive filth and sterility – while others are desirable (I pine for the red pleather banquettes of the Norman Balon-era Coach and Horses) but dispensable.
‘At first, most pubs were indistinguishable from domestic architecture. The humbler public house was literally that: the home of the landlord’
The pub is an institution bred in Britain and Ireland; other lands less dependent on the bottle to unwind have fine bars, but they are not pubs. The type was, however, the innovation of immigrants. The tabernae were an essential component of Roman infrastructure, and these became our taverns, which continued to specialise in the wine of the invaders up to Pepys’ time. There were also inns offering accommodation to travellers, with the galleried courtyard of The George at London Bridge a rare survivor of the type, and alehouses, which tended to be simpler buildings for poorer drinkers.
Source: The Print Collector / Alamy
These subtypes were subsumed under the name ‘public house’ by the late 17th century, and by 1869 there was one for every 192 persons in England. They were equally prevalent in Ireland, where, in the course of his 1904 peregrination, Leopold Bloom mused: ‘Good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub.’ This variant has since colonised the globe; the Irish Pub Company, founded in 1991 by a Dublin architect, has built 1,000 examples worldwide. These once provided succour for put-upon immigrant communities; now they are refuges from reality for wealthy expats.
At first, most pubs were indistinguishable from domestic architecture. The humbler public house was literally that: the home of the landlord, who offered refreshment in his parlour or tap-room. Larger inns and taverns had more numerous and grander rooms accommodating all kinds of activities, from ratting and boxing to concerts and political meetings.
The bar came later, with the rise in spirit drinking that followed the Dutch coup of 1689. A heavy duty was imposed on imported brandy and, as a result, cheap, English-made gin became popular. It was drunk quickly, usually standing at the counter, which facilitated faster service and undermined the hitherto domestic character of the pub.
Source: RIBA Collections
Authority has long battled with the problem of the pub, with licensing first being mandated in 1552. Critics bemoaned the effect of drink on the working classes, especially following a reduction of duty on spirits in 1825. This, along with the development of plate glass frontages and gas lights in shop design, resulted in the development of the ‘gin palace’. These grandiose buildings had their finest hour at the end of the 19th century, when popular Gesamtkunstwerke such as Belfast’s Crown Liquor Saloon were built. They were most prevalent in slums, a fact disquieting to reformers. Mark Girouard put it nicely: ‘The 1830s saw the beginnings of one of the major 19th-century marketing discoveries: that if turnover is big enough, there is money to be made out of the poor and they can be given something approaching the amenities of the rich. The rich found this very upsetting.’
In any case, the government was dependent on tax receipts from alcohol sales – during the Napoleonic Wars they accounted for half its revenue – which meant that prohibition was never an option. Licensing hours were, however, restricted, especially on Sunday, which led to riots in 1855. More stringent rules were enacted in 1914 due to the perceived threat posed by drink to the war effort. The pub became a more exclusively working-class resort, as bourgeois distaste – and the rise of clubs, with their unregulated hours – lured the rich away. Meanwhile, activities formerly at home in the pub had been given specialised premises elsewhere, such as concert halls and sports venues.
So despite its name and ubiquity, the public house is, in fact, not always a house for all of the public. Or rather, it mirrors the Great British public, with all of its appealing and appalling qualities. Though often idealised as a zone of egalitarian conviviality, pubs have not really been heterotopian – indeed, they replicate the divisions of British society with ludicrous fidelity. The snobbery of pub names is matched by the ersatz gentility of their decor – brass fittings, sporting prints, leather-bound books and the like.
‘Nigel Farage is at pains to cultivate his image as a gurning bar-room creature, and pubs can also be marred by violence and slow suicide by the bottle’
In spatial terms too the pub is riven by class distinctions. The microscopic cellularity of the Victorian pub comprised public bars for working men, ladies’ bars and, for the more respectable lower classes, saloon bars, smoking rooms and lounges. Segregation was enforced by graduated prices and frosted glass, vestiges of which survive in the gorgeous Prince Alfred in Maida Vale, where ‘snob screens’ pivot to hide the staff from customers. The bar here was at one time divided into five compartments, each with its own door to the street – a plan expressed in a rippling Borromini-esque facade of wood and curved plate glass that bursts between two cast-iron pillars from beneath the stuccoed upper storeys.
Such physical dividers had long been dissipating when the remainder were torn out in the mid 20th century, as traditional markers of social difference loosened and the massive pub chains submerged quirks beneath a flood of Watneys Red Barrel. But despite the smoothing-out of pub space they can still be made exclusive by the chummy banter of bigots. Nigel Farage is at pains to cultivate his image as a gurning bar-room creature, and pubs can also be marred by violence and slow suicide by the bottle, when the refuge becomes a prison. The greatest poets of the pub have died of their love: Ian Nairn (beer) and Patrick Hamilton (whisky).
But despite its occasional horrors, the pub abides as the centre of community life in Britain, scene of work dos, weddings, birthdays and trysts. (Even in an age of Tinder, a quarter of British couples still claim to have first met in pubs.) And it should not be forgotten that for some minorities – especially homosexuals – there was sanctuary to be found in pubs.
Source: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
However, the pub’s supremacy is not unchallenged. Indeed, although its numbers have lately plummeted – at the peak of its crisis in 2009, 52 were closing each week – the pub has long been in decline. In 1943 Orwell put this down to the fact that ‘the whole trend of the age is away from creative communal amusements and towards solitary mechanical ones’, a familiar albeit superficial argument.
More fundamental causes of the pub’s recent trouble may be found in the property bubble and undercutting by supermarkets, as a result of which straitened punters are tempted to stay at home by cheap booze, and landlords sell up. Two pubs become a supermarket every week: having hollowed out the business, the stores step into its shell. Meanwhile in the countryside, where pub closures are even more inimical to communities, pubcos squeeze their tenants for unpayable rents, forcing them out so their assets can be realised.
Source: RIBA Collections
The pub is not going without a fight, however. Recent campaigns by the Campaign for Real Ale, the Victorian Society and Historic England have managed to save numerous examples from demolition, as have local initiatives such as the Old Crown in Cumbria, the first cooperative, community-owned pub. There are now 42 of these around the UK. But the construction of new pubs is a rare and usually unsatisfactory occurrence. The winner of last year’s CAMRA pub design award, the Admiral Collingwood in Ilfracombe, is dismal by any normal standards – in this starved atmosphere however it apparently seemed a breath of fresh air.
‘There is still a steady stream of pub conversions, usually done for JD Wetherspoon, which brings fine buildings into public use relatively unmolested’
Such meagre efforts suggest that it is hard to build a pub from scratch, since so many of their charms are accreted by generations of wayward landlords, but the Victorians proved otherwise. And although the clean lines of Modernism may seem the opposite of ‘pubbiness’, many fine examples have been built without excessive curlicues. Lutyens and Voysey produced medievalising hostelries, the first wave of a reaction against Victoriana that ironically spawned the much-mocked Brewer’s Tudor of the interwar road house.
Source: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
More stridently Modernist pubs included the four examples at Park Hill and The Eagle at Hulme Crescents, run by a famous wrestler named Honey Boy Zimba. Like many modernistic interwar pubs, these have shared the fate of the social housing accommodating the people they served – closed, torn down or gentrified. Lubetkin’s almost Pomo pub at the Devons Estate is now a hipster restaurant.
However, there is still a steady stream of pub conversions, usually done for JD Wetherspoon, which brings fine buildings into public use relatively unmolested. These include an opera house in Tunbridge Wells and two swimming pools in Sheffield. Wetherspoon’s low prices, meanwhile, preserve the spirit of the pub by ensuring its function as a place where people of all kinds may enjoy a drink – or several. This occasionally has lamentable consequences, but, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, when you can’t get out of your mind in a pub any more this country will really have had it.
MS-DA, The Truscott Arms, Maida Vale, London, 2013
This once down-at-heel pub with black-painted ceilings and gambling machines was refreshed into posh dining rooms in 2013, as part of the widespread movement towards fine dining and gastropubs. An example of the ubiquitous Victorian corner pub, it is – sadly - also unexceptional in its fate: it has recently closed despite spirited attempts to save it by having it listed as an ‘asset of community value’, a strategy lately recommended by CAMRA and Historic England. The closure is not due to an absence of custom – indeed it was very popular and had won several awards for its food – but the landlord increased the rent from £75,000 to £250,000 a year, thus rendering the building’s continued use as a pub impossible. It now seems likely to be made into flats – a far more lucrative use. This not uncommon turn of events gives the lie to the frequently repeated assertion that the decline of the pub is due to social changes such as the death of community, falling rates of beer consumption or the preference for electronic diversions and dating apps such as Grindr. In fact, in London at least, it is simply due to unscrupulous landlords wishing to cash in on the property bubble.
Craig smith truscott arms
Source: Craig Smith
Truscott arms floor plans
Sergison Bates, The Wharf Bar, Walsall, 1998
Sergison Bates’ first major commission was a diminutive partner to Caruso St John’s New Art Gallery, one of the first in a series of National Lottery-funded regional arts projects. Contrasting with the 37 metre tall gallery tower, this is a low, black shingled building with an outside seating area overlooking the basin – a pioneering essay in the reuse of former waterside industrial zones to stimulate an ‘urban renaissance’. It was earmarked for demolition in 2008 as part of an Urban Splash redevelopment plan drawn up by Will Alsop. He called the building ‘horrible’; this seems a tad excessive for what is essentially a shed but perhaps he detected in this early example of the ‘whispering tendency’ an architecture that would eventually triumph over his own, louder mode.
The wharf bar
The wharf bar floor plan
Eedle and Meyers, The Angel Islington, London, 1903
Several areas in London are named after pubs, as are no fewer than six tube stations, including Angel in Islington. An inn had stood at the crossroads there from the end of the 16th century – in ‘Oliver Twist’, Dickens states that this is where ‘London begins in earnest’ – and by 1614 it was called the Angel, its sign showing the annunciation. The current structure with its distinctive domed turret was built by Frederick James Eedle and Sydney Herbert Meyers from 1899 to 1903 (the station opened in 1901). In 1921 it became the flagship of the Lyons Corner House restaurant chain, a pioneering fast food company, and it survived the threat of comprehensive redevelopment in the 1960s to become offices and a bank.
The angel islington plan
Concorde BGW, The Cavendish, London, 2014
This corner site in Marylebone has been host to a number of establishments over the years. In its most recent incarnation it has been given a restrained and well-executed interior that continues in the gin palace tradition, albeit a little too tastefully to be entirely faithful to the spirit of the Victorians. The large, open ground floor room is served by a long bar set against the street windows, while the first floor has a dining room with a row of blue leather booths and a smaller room for private events.
cavendish1 for web
KD Paine and Associates, The Quarter Jack, Wells, 2014
JD Wetherspoon is the biggest pub chain in the UK: although it has divested itself of 45 pubs over the last two years, it still has around 900 branches. The company’s founder Tim Martin is a staunch supporter of Brexit, another example – like Farage himself – of the little-England mindset that flourishes in pubs. But we must try to separate the politics from the architecture, and in this instance the patron has done a great service in converting an enormous range of historic buildings into pubs. The Quarter Jack occupies a bus garage built in the 1950s and the designers have opted for an appropriately ‘mid-century modern’ interior, the modishness of which has now evidently percolated to the architecture of popular leisure. This has resulted in an unusually restrained carpet and imitation G Plan furniture.
The quarter jack plan