Public-houses play a larger part in the lives of
the people than dubs or friendly societies, churches or missions, or perhaps
than all put together, and bad it would be if their action and influence were
altogether evil. This is not so, though the bad side is very palpable and
continually enforced upon our minds.
A most horrible and true picture may be drawn of the trade in drink, of the wickedness and misery that goes with it. So horrible that one cannot wonder that some eyes are blinded to all else, and there is a cry of away with this accursed abomination There is, however, much more to be said. Anyone who frequents public-houses knows that actual drunkenness is very much the exception. At the worst houses in the worst neighbourhood~ many, or perhaps most, of those who stand at the bars, whether men or women, are stamped with the effects of drink, and, if orderly at the moment, are perhaps at other times mad or incapable under its influence; but at the hundreds of respectable public-houses, scattered plentifully all through the district, this is not the case. It could not be. They live by supplying the wants of the bulk of the people, and it is not possible that they should be much worse than the people they serve. Go into any of these houses - the ordinary public- house at the corner of any ordinary East End street - there, standing at the counter, or seated on the benches against wall or partition, will be perhaps half-a-dozen people, men and women, chatting together over their beer - more often beer than spirits - or you may see a few men come in with no time to lose, briskly drink their glass and go. Behind the bar will be a decent middle-aged woman, something above her customers in class, very neatly dressed, respecting herself and respected by them. The whole scene comfortable, quiet, and orderly. To these houses those who live near send their children with a jug as readily as they would send them to any other shop.
I do not want to press this more cheerful point of view further than is necessary to relieve the darker shades of the picture. I would rather admit the evils and try to show how they may be lessened and what the tendencies are that make for improvement.
It is evident that publicans, like all the rest of us, are feeling the stress of competition. Walk through the streets and everywhere it may be seen that the public-houses are put to it to please their customers. Placards announcing change of management frequently meet the eye, while almost every house vigorously announces its reduced prices. So much the worse,' some will say. But no! It is a good thing that they should be considering how to make themselves more attractive. Undermined by the increasing temperance of the people, and subject to direct attack from the cocoa rooms on the one side and the clubs on the other, the licensed victuallers begin to see that they cannot live by drink alone. Look more closely at the signs in their windows. There is hardly a window that does not show the necessity felt to cater for other wants besides drink. All sell tobacco, not a few sell tea. Bovril' (a well-advertised novelty) is to be had everywhere. Hot luncheons are offered, or a mid-day joint; or sausages and mashed' are suggested to the hungry passer-by; at all events there will be sandwiches, biscuits, and bread and cheese. Early coffee is frequently provided, and temperance drinks too have now a recognized place. Ginger beer is sold everywhere, and not infrequently kept on draught* (*it is then called Brewed Ginger Beer' - a sort of sheep in wolf's clothing.) These things are new, and though trifles in themselves, they serve as straws to show the way of the wind. The public-houses also connect themselves with benefit clubs, charitable concerts, and friendly draws' No doubt in all these things there is an eye to the ultimate sale of drink, but every accessory attraction or departure from the simple glare of the gin palace is an improvement. In order to succeed, each public-house now finds itself impelled to become more of a music hall, more of a restaurant, or more of a club, or it must ally itself with thrift. The publican must consider other desires besides that for strong drink. Those that do not, will be beaten in the race.
In all these efforts there is bad as well as good, and a monstrous ingenuity may be exerted in tempting men to dnnk - gambling and other vices being used to draw people together and open their purses. As public servants, the licensed victuallers are on their trial. The field is still in their possession, but let them be warned; for if they would keep their place they must adapt themselves to the requirements of the times. If they should neglect the larger wants of the great mass· of the people, content to find their principal customers amongst the depraved, they would deserve the ruin that would inevitably fall on them.
In such a situation it would be a fatal mistake to decrease the number of the houses in the cause of temperance. To encourage the decent and respectable publican by making existence difficult to the disreputable is the better policy, but let us on no account interfere with a natural development, which, if I am right, is making it every day more difficult to make a livelihood by the simple sale of drink.
Cocoa Rooms, and especially Lockhart's cocoa rooms, have become an important factor in the life of the people. At first cocoa rooms, or coffee palaces' as they were then called, were the result of philanthropic or religious effort. They were to pay their way; but they did not do it. They were to provide good refreshments; but tea, coffee, cocoa and cakes were alike bad. It was not till the work was taken up as a business that any good was done with it. Now it strides forward, and though Lockhart's are the best and the most numerous, others are following and are bound to come up to, or excel, the standard so established. Very soon we shall have no length of principal street without such a place, and we shall wonder how we ever got on without them. In their rules they are wisely liberal: those who drink the cocoa may sit at the tables to eat the dinner or breakfast they have brought from home, or bringing the bread and butter from home they can add the sausage or whatever completes the meal.
Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903