Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Drinking - Public Houses - 'free-and-easies' and pub concerts

Public-houses are most uncomfortable and very poorly stocked. If you go into a coffee-house you will find only tea or coffee there, as they are not licensed to sell any other drinks. There are places one drinks without eating, others where one eats without drinking. In some oyster bars you find fish but no meat. The larger taverns are better provided with food; one can dine there, but for supper about midnight is the time when they are most popular.
    The saloons are usually on the first floor of the building, and the entrance money is one shilling, in exchange for which you are given some small refreshment. The tables, covered with oil cloth or leather, are placed against the wall and partitioned off in cubicles. The Englishman likes to be isolated, he wants privacy even in public. Tea is drunk, or boiling grog, ale, inky-coloured porter or strong beer. Brandy is a favourite beverage and often served in tumblers. The room is plain, people do not go there to be amused, and drinking is a serious business. The more liquor they absorb, the quieter they become, and if occasionally a morose drinker breaks into a tipsy song, the oppressive silence soon reduces him to muteness again. This is how most Londoners who cannot afford to belong to clubs spend their evenings; and at midnight they reel homewards. Could anything be more tedious?
    At the end of the room on a raised platform three gentlemen sit at a table. They are corrected dress in black swallow-tailed coats and white ties. Suddenly one of them hits the table with an auctioneer's hammer. Dead silence follows - and the to accompaniment of a piano our three gentlemen, as serious as Anglican ministers, start singing, sometimes alone, sometimes in chorus, sentimental ballads, or Anglo-Italian tunes which have the greatest success, judging by the unstinted applause they elicit. As the English have the faculty of enjoying the same thing indefinitely, this entertainment lasts for hours.

Francis Wey, A Frenchman Sees the English in the Fifties, 1935

Several houses in various courts off Cheapside, and in the neighbourhood of Foster Lane, and, to a greater extent still, in certain portions of the suburbs have a room reserved on the first floor where social evenings and "free-and-easy " concerts are held. Considerable pains are taken by the proprietors to make these attractive, in order to keep the young men in the city as long as possible after business hours. The proprietor will actually pay good-looking girls to attend, in order to keep the custom of the visitors. Each house is used by its own particular set, and the members after a time come to know one another rather intimately, and can obtain a considerable amount of credit from the landlord. One will have a special attraction for the young girls in these buildings, another will have facilities for those interested in "tips" and the races, another will be remarkable for its barmaids, and so on. In one near St. Paul's we found a dance terminating the musical evening.
    These evening parties are much looked forward to by tired and worried warehousemen and clerics. The expense is small - only what may be spent in drink - for no charge is made for admission, the freedom of behaviour is unlimited, a friend is easily made, nobody affects to be better than his fellows, and everybody appears desirous of making himself as agreeable to everybody else as possible. Furthermore, the majority of these entertainments may be attended by the sweethearts of the young men. But the very nature of the arrangements is destructive of morality. Young men and young women are brought together without restraint. The songs sung would not be tolerated in any reasonably regulated assembly. The comic element, as it is termed, predominates and the broader it becomes the greater favour does it obtain, any particularly bold indecency being generally received with especial applause. The meeting seldom breaks up without many of the revellers becoming the worse for drink. The "free-and-easies" are a recognized institution in the city, where the young man may take a female employee of his firm or other acquaintance, without the expense of the the theatre, music-hall, or dancing academy, which would be too great a tax upon his resources. One may see young men and women in those places first introduced, who have never previously tasted drink and who listen, at first, to the questionable songs with something akin to pained surprise. Yet as others - men  and women too - will laugh quite heartily, joining freely in some coarse chorus, and giving point to what is most objectionable, the new-comers will soon find their consciences dulled to the necessary level. One may hear these young women boasting of the number of glasses of wine or spirits which they can take without "Making fools of themselves.".

Tempted London, 1889