A Brief History of... Pubs

Visitors to Britain's shores frequently comment that there is nothing quite like the English pub to be found anywhere else in the world. Alas, the rural pub is under siege, one 1999 estimate suggesting that such establishments were closing at the rate of six a week.

Where our pubs still function at their 'community' level they are very much part of the social fabric... a place to meet friends and neighbours, a focal point for various community activities, and a source of local information and contacts. In some rural areas pubs are now having to bolt on other activities to stay afloat; adding post office and shop functions, for example.

The origin of our pubs - public houses - can be traced back through the ages... Inns were common along the roads of Roman Britain; providing lodgings for officials and others travelling this sometimes inhospitable outpost of empire. There were also small hut-like establishments - taberna - from which the word tavern is derived.

With the departure of the Romans from Britain customer service really went down the tubes and it was not until the middle ages that things picked up as the monasteries created guest-houses and hospices to provide much of the available lodgings for travellers. Frequently the bread and ale was offered free at these establishments. It wasn't unknown for the brothers, or their visitors for that matter, to over-indulge, which led to ale tankards in monasteries being marked inside with vertical pegs to indicate the amount of ale to be consumed in a single gulp. This is the origin of our phrase 'to take down a peg'.

Strictly speaking, inns provided rooms for travellers, taverns provided food and drink, while alehouses simply dished out beery substances. Since most of the population were illiterate it was quite common for each establishment to display a simplistic sign which depicted the name of the alehouse. The concept of signage may have been imported by the Romans and one 15th century manuscript depicts an ale-house with an ivy bush sign hanging outside.

Many of the signs which developed over the centuries were adapted from tradesman's signs; hence the Woolpack or Carpenter's Arms. Doves were associated with monastic hostelries. Near a canal or river one might come across a Navigation in the 18th century, and an equally unimaginative Railway Arms close to the burgeoning 19th century railway routes. Interestingly, the Pig and Whistle name is a corruption of 'peg and wassail'... Wassailing being the drinking to 'good health' while the peg is taken from that commonplace saying we mentioned previously.

Innkeepers weren't necessarily dullards, and in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes an innkeeper as well taught and wise. By the time of the early 19th century local innkeepers had frequently become a patron of local village life, since well-heeled landowners and squires were often absent; out hunting, or doing whatever absentee landowners did to fill their time.

Brewers of the middle ages were required to hang an 'ale-stake' outside their premises upon completion of a new batch of ale. This was a summons for the local 'ale-conner' to drop by - a civil servant (probably a very happy one) charged with ensuring the quality and quantity of ale. Brewers caught short-measuring could expect to be ignominiously dragged through the streets as a punishment.

The introduction of hops into brewing brought a new drink onto the market - 'beer'. Ale was still the premier booze since it was unadulterated with preservative hop flowers added to beer. Recognising a good thing when they saw it Dutch and Flemish immigrants who had settled in England took advantage of the situation to develop hop gardens in counties like Kent and Sussex, and these became well established by the middle of the 16th century. However, not everyone welcomed the new 'beer' tipple, regarding the addition of 'hoppes' as a poison and contaminant. Imagine what they would have made of alco-pops? In vain, Henry VIII tried to stop the brewing of beer through heavy taxation. But such a heavy handed approach wasn't likely to prevail when it came to the question of tax and brewing. Well was it?

What is perhaps extraordinary about some of our hostelries is that some of them have remained on the same location through the centuries.... The George at Glastonbury originates from the time of Edward VI, while The George at St. Albans is mentioned as long ago as 1448. Another George, in the Somerset village of Norton St. Philip may have been licensed as long ago as 1397. A quite amazing longevity in historical terms, perhaps only equalled by theological establishments.

With the gradual spread of the road network and horse-drawn coaches our roadside inns were transformed into coaching inns; such establishments even now preserving the archways which lead to former stables and courtyards behind. In market towns it was not uncommon for prosperous inns to add function rooms, and private rooms where business could be discussed away from the bustling town marketplace outside. And so it was that hostelries created a social role for themselves.

'Tied' houses came into being through the endeavours of William Simonds, one of the early brewing monopolists. Until Simonds arrived on the scene the wholesale beer and ale market did not really exist because of laws laid down in James I's reign. These generally prohibited wholesale supply of beer except to fully licensed establishments. Sensing that times were changing Simonds sought out potential positions for hostelries in the south of England. When the law changed in the early part of 1800s he was able to move quickly and set up fifty alehouses to take his wholesale product.

The abolition of beer tax in 1830 meant that any ratepayer could now sell beer without a licence. There was virtually an explosion of beerhouses - the beer often sold in the kitchen of someone's home. Gradually the drinking spaces in people's homes were separated: seating being available in the taproom, but standing space only offered in the bar-room. More genteel might look for an establishment with a parlour.

The free for all in ale stopped in 1869 with tighter regulation of the brewing trade. Smaller alehouses fell by the wayside while larger brewers extended their control over drinking establishments as brewing was transformed into an 'industry'. Today, many of our pubs have been transformed into 'themed' hospitality shops and formica gin palaces which would probably make innkeepers of the past turn in their graves.

The quite extraordinary thing, as mentioned before, is that many of these pubs have a historical background - albeit potentially transformed - that goes back centuries. As long as church establshments in many cases, and older than royal families. So when you next visit your local pub consider its historical background, and raise a glass to the ghosts of tipplers past.


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