Is pub history real history?

The essence of this question concerns the historical importance of pubs within the discourse of history. Meaning that we are questioning if pubs are more than places where people go to drink alcohol.
Whilst to all people fascinated by pub history the answer has to be affirmative, to a more general public and the wider world any fascination for the history of pubs can appear to be little more than an enthusiastic hobby.

In the libraries of history books, we find Kings and Queens, Empires and Civilisations, Battles and Revolutions, the story of power and politics woven as the spine of the human story. This is what most people consider ‘real’ history.

Pub history as real history can only be understood as such when we start from the premise that the English public house is a special institution. These pubs of ours derive their name from the idea of being a public house as opposed to a private house. Their birthplace as a cultural institution is in law and regulation, they are designated centres of a specific trade. In the villages and towns of England, this trade was mandated in outlets which were different from the shops, fairs and markets of other business enterprises.

The legal history of the establishment of public houses places them within the history of the realm. However, this is not the major claim for pub history being real history. Regulation was necessary for the sake of institutionalised control of the drinking of alcohol and was demanded for two key reasons. Firstly it was about easy taxation and secondly, it was about drunkenness.

According to Frederick W. Hackwood (1851 – 1926), in his excellent work of history, “Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England” (1909).

“…there was a strong feeling in the country that there were already too many ale-houses; and the first law by which it was sought to keep some sort of a check upon those who carried on the trade of retailing ale was the enactment of 1495 – the earliest licensing law on the statute book, 11 Henry VII. – empowering any two justices “to put away common ale-selling in towns and places where they should think convenient, and to take sureties of keepers of ale-houses in their good behaving.”

The later act of 1552 confirmed Henry’s law and tweaked it so that to operate an ale-house you first had to obtain permission of two justices of the peace. These local arbiters of law were empowered to take payments for the act of licensing and also to fine those in breach of regulation. They were further empowered to punish those who kept unlicensed ale-houses. Hackwood quotes the act:

“as intolerable hurts and troubles to the Commonwealth of this Realm do daily grow and increase through such abuses and disorders as are had and used in common Alehouses, and other houses called Tippling Houses”; and on grounds of public policy the justices were empowered “to remove, discharge, and put away the common selling of ale and beer in such towns and places where they shall think meet and convenient.”


Pub history is real history

Pub history is real history when viewed as part of the law of England for over 500 years but this is not its only claim to importance. Law merely confines an activity within the permissions of state regulation. Whilst law itself hints at other social stories and conditions, in terms of history it is the driest of studies and the dreariest of venues for the enquiring mind. A study of law should be little more than a portal to other enquiries and when it comes to pub history, the real history is much more saturated and refreshing.

This wet history is created because of the nature of the trade undertaken in a public house. Poets have never sat in a cobblers writing their sonnets, dramatists have not created and performed their plays in the bakers’ shop and revolution has not knowingly been fomented in the grocer’s store. The dangers of alcohol to the state are not in the incapacity it confers but the arousal of the passions it promotes. The public house has always been a venue in which discontent is espoused.

In the Newport rising of the Chartists, November 4th, 1839, their base, according to W. E. Tate in his 1955 article “A Battle Long Ago.”, was the licensed premises known as The Westgate Hotel. The anger and bullets which spilt out onto the streets was fuelled by social injustice and it would be wrong to attribute alcohol as the primary cause. In this observation, we see another facet of the public house. Whilst it has always been a venue for drinking beer and other beverages, it is not true to say that everyone who enters a public house leaves it in a state of intoxication. That a public house attracts drunkards does not mean that only drunkards go there.

In many communities, the public house is as much a community centre as it is a place of trade. People gather there for more than one purpose. They meet friends. They eat meals. They play games. They use public houses as the base for sports teams. They have public meetings. They celebrate family events. The list of social uses of the public house is as diverse as the society of the community it serves. In this respect, the public house can be seen as a bellwether of the condition, health and wealth of those communities. In every public house, you will find a social history of the community it serves. Add up all the social histories of all the public houses in England and you have a social history of England.

Nowhere was this idea of the value of pub history as real history better understood than in the Mass Observation surveys of the 1930’s. So much so that this sociological survey unit produced an incredible history called “The Pub and the People.” (1942). This masterwork was researched between 1938 and 1942 and centred around the lives of the working-class people of Bolton, Lancashire. There is much to criticise about this work as it has a patriarchal tone which is not uncommon amongst middle-class sociologists with a zeal for bettering the lives of others. However, the insights it provides into the workings of the public house and its place within a community is a rare history.

“Often the men and women separate like this at the beginning of the evening and then rejoin later on. The reasons for this are not straightforward. On the one hand, they are connected with the tabu on the pub itself, the idea that it is not “respectable”, and that women are more susceptible than men to the operation of this kind of tabu. (the middle-class man who is not a regular pub-goer, but will occasionally drop into a pub and drink with a friend, will not take his wife with him.)…

Behind the idea that pub history is not real history lies a deeply entrenched social prejudice which we can see in this quote from Mass Observation. The rarity of this social history of pubs is nothing to do with the public house in its own right but everything to do with with the prejudicial construction of the academies of history and the histories they write. Again, in the libraries of history books, we find Kings and Queens, Empires and Civilisations, Battles and Revolutions, the story of power and politics woven as the spine of the human story. Considering the history of pubs is a trivial occupation and more often than not, beneath the efforts of Professors in their academies.

Once spewed out into the world, the Oxbridge historian replete with a doctorate in the toilet habits of Henry V or the preferred baby carriages of The Duke of Cambridge (1664 – 1667), if good looking enough for television, will soon be in a television documentary on the subject of royalty or their palaces. They will appear on the BBC as “Constitutional Experts”, “Royal Historians”, “Baby Carriage Expert” or any other title required by the subject under discussion. Our national media is riddled with these obsessional histories about the power structures which have served only the state and controlled our lives since we crawled out of the caves. This is where real history is to be found, not in the bars, lounges and saloons of our pubs. Certainly not in the lives of ordinary people and their communities.

Yet, as with all prejudice, such a position devalues much more than it celebrates. The public house has been a hotel, a lodging house, a dining room, a staging post, a mail stop, a place in which other trades have been conducted, a courthouse, a theatre and on and on goes the list of functions our pubs have performed over the ages. They may well be a bellwether of a local community but they are also the windmills of our cultural history. As the culture changes so the pub has to re-position itself, now a lodging house, now a mail coach stop, now a railway hotel, now a roadside restaurant. Sometimes just a ‘boozer’ when the working class filled with industrial wages could pursue a thirsty sin but never a static, one-dimensional business enmeshed in a single operation of trade.

As the cultural wind of the day changes so the publican has to turn his or her pub windmill around to face the direction of the gale. If they do not it will be blown over by an economic storm and left derelict or demolished. What this means in the context of the real history of public houses is that what you see today is rarely what that public house was 100 years ago. Consequently, every reasonably old public house and England boasts a substantial number of serious age, is the centre of an ever-changing cultural history. That real history has left its imprint in the memories of the local community, the books and pamphlets of local historians, the architecture and fabric of the building and in the story of the lives of the English people and those who came to these shores to become English.

An image of The Roebuck Inn at Knebworth.
The Roebuck Inn, Knebworth.

A pub with real history.

farmhouse<public house serving agricultural community< coaching inn
< roadside watering hole< restuarant<Best Western Hotel

Knebworth is a fantastic village and I really love going there. If you get the chance you should drop by as well.