Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Drinking - Public Houses - Character of

   So, we turned back towards an old, quiet, decent public-house, which we remembered to have passed but a moment before (it was not far from the City-road), for the purpose of solacing ourself with a glass of ale. The house was none of your stuccoed, French-polished, illuminated palaces, but a modest public-house of the old school, with a little old bar, and a little old landlord, who, with a wife and daughter of the same pattern, was comfortably seated in the bar aforesaid - a snug little room with a cheerful fire, protected by a large screen ... The little old landlord ... bustled out of the small door of the small bar; and forthwith ushered us into the parlour itself. It was an ancient, dark-looking room, with oaken wainscoting, a sanded floor, and a high mantel-piece. The walls were ornamented with three or four old coloured prints in black frames, each print representing a naval engagement, with a couple of men-of-war banging away at each other most vigorously, while another vessel or two were blowing up in the distance, and the foreground presented a miscellaneous collection of broken masts and blue legs sticking up out of the water. Depending from the ceiling in the centre of the room, were a gas-light and bell-pull; on each side were three or four long narrow tables, behind which was a thickly-planted row of those slippery, shiny-looking wooden chairs, peculiar to hostelries of this description. The monotonous appearance of the sanded boards was relieved by an occasional spittoon; and a triangular pile of those useful articles adorned the two upper corners of the apartment.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836

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?

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



saloom1.gif (46070 bytes)



WITH the exception of one particularly privileged house in Covent Garden - which is permitted to be opened on three days of the week for twenty-one and a-half hours out of the twenty-four - the licensed hours within the Metropolitan area are twenty and a-half a day. The public-house is the first to open its doors in the morning; it is the last to close them in the early morning following. Mid-day and midnight are both embraced in the working hours of the London licensed victualler. There are suburbs in which the closure is applied at 11 p.m., and bars in the \Vest-End where the presence of a customer before eleven o'clock in the day would be regarded as an intrusion. London has been styled the city of great contrasts, and the truth of this remark is emphasised to the visitor who regards the Metropolis from the "licensed to be drunk on the premises " point of view. Luxury and squalor, gilded affluence and shamefaced dinginess, the marble entrance-hall and the swing doors, stand shoulder to shoulder through the heart of the town.
    If we would obtain a comprehensive impression of Bar and Saloon London we must be astir with the dawn. All through the night the market carts have been jogging into town, and although it is not yet three o'clock Covent Garden Market has been long awake. Already a small crowd is gathered around the portals of the market house. With the first stroke of three the doors are unbolted, and the business of the day commences. For the next four or five hours the smart-looking, alert barmen will, literally and figuratively, have their hands full.
    The buffets at the terminal railway stations are among the earliest saloons to open, and as we make our way to Piccadi1ly through the smaller thoroughfares signs of activity are everywhere observable in the licensed world. Tubs of bar refuse, which repose on the kerbs against the corning of the dustmen, attract the scrutiny of the early prowler, potmen are polishing the huge swinging lamps and plate-glass windows and barrels of beer are being lowered into dark yawning cellars. The four thousand licensed houses and beer shops of the Metropolis are being put in order for the daily round.
    Let us pause for a moment in the security of the island pavement in Piccadilly Circus. Half a dozen well-known bars are in sight, while behind the solid blockade of buildings that hedge about the Circus half a hundred licensed houses are within a few minutes walk of our halting place. The Piccadilly, the Leicester Lounge, and the wine shops of Soho [-288-] are behind us, the St. James's Restaurant is hidden from view by the curve of the noble Quadrant, the Café Royal catches our eye from the opposite side of Regent Street, while the Criterion occupies nearly one whole side of the Circus. We enter the long marble saloon of the Criterion, and pass into the American bar. It is still early, the sun is barely over the yardarm, and only some half-dozen men are assembled. We must return to the Criterion in the late evening if we would see this popular resort at its brightest. Here are men in evening dress and men in mufti, guardsmen and garrulous music-hall artists, City men, well-known racing men, and popular jockeys - all sorts and conditions of men - composing a human panorama in a state of perpetual motion.

saloom2.gif (82658 bytes)

    At the neighbouring St. James's we shall encounter a similar crowd, but interspersed with the male element we notice a sprinkling of the other sex. If we retrace our steps across the Circus, and pass through Leicester Square to Maiden Lane - we have no time to look into the handsome bar of the Queen's Hotel, or dive into the beer saloon of the adjacent Brasserie on our way -  we shall find at Rule's a similar scene - on a smaller scale. There is a distinctly theatrical flavour about the company, and the theatrical traditions of the house are recalled by the pictures and playbills which cover the walls. Stage-land in the more exalted form of leading actors and theatrical capitalists is to the fore again at Romano's, which rears its striking yellow frontage in the Strand. We have dropped the feminine element at Rule's, and shall pick it up again later at Short's, "the oldest wine-house in London." The Garrick is a newer theatrical rendezvous, and facing it, hard by St. Martin's Church, is yet another, the Chandos, the morning house of call for ladies who [-289-] have paid their diurnal visit to one or other of the dramatic and musical agencies that flourish in the locality.

saloom3.gif (61285 bytes)

    In the wine houses a different class of customer is usually encountered. At Short's, whose chief branch is just east of the Gaiety Restaurant in the Strand, port is the favourite beverage. A few wine shops are conducted by a privileged class called "free vintners" - men who have completed service under indentures with a free vintner - who require no licence, and who have the consolation of knowing that, on dying, their businesses can be carried on by their widows with the same immunity from restrictions.
    The Cheshire Cheese, rich in tradition of Dr. Johnson and his contemporaries, still retains its ancient form. We approach the sanded bar through a narrow court, and warm ourselves before the old shell-shaped iron grate in a company that is representative of journalism rather than literature, the journalism of sport predominating. The Rainbow Tavern, which for scores of years did one of the most serious select, and conservative businesses in London, is now a Bodega. The Bodegas adapt themselves to circumstances. They cater for men and women or for men only, according to locality and environment. Let us drop into the commodious branch in Bucklersbury, sometimes known as the "Free Exchange." The heavy swing doorway is flanked on either side by a sandwich counter and a cigar stall. The circular bar occupies the centre of the shop, and on an adjacent stand reposes a whole Cheddar cheese of noble proportions; while baskets of plain but wholesome lunch biscuits are within reach. Besides the above, mention may be made of Henekey's wine house in High Holborn, which was established as far back as 1695.
    The Stock Exchange has for years resorted to Mabey's, in Throgmorton [-290-] Street, for both meat and drink. It is a hatless and hustling crowd that one encounters in this famous establishment, a note-book and pencil-carrying crowd, that converses in figures and argues in vulgar fractions.
    Mabey's from the outside has the appearance of a City sale room; some of the other bars of the neighbourhood are small and dimly lighted offices, fitted up with a counter and stocked with good liquor. There are half a dozen such within hail of Shorter's Court. 
    Going further east into Bishopsgate Street Without we come to "Dirty Dick's," so named after its original proprietor, who found a grubby consolation for blighted matrimonial projects - his intended bride died on the morning appointed for the wedding - in a protracted abstinence from soap and water. Dirty Dick is also known to history on account of the rule, that was rigorously enforced at this house during his lifetime, which denied a customer more than one drink at each visit. At an adjacent hostelry in Artillery Lane this "one call, one cup" system still obtains, and a printed copy of the rules of the house is presented to each new customer. Another curious house is the Vine Tavern, in the Mile End Road, a wooden building which stands detached and apart, like an island, in the middle of the broad thoroughfare. Near by, in the Whitechapel Road, is to be seen an open bar - the only one of its kind in London - where, as shown in our photographic illustration on page 286, customers stand on the pavement about the pewter-topped window-ledge, and imbibe their refreshments in sight of the passers by.
    Discussion halls, which constituted a popular feature of public-house life some fifty years ago, are now almost extinct, and the time-honoured practice of formally celebrating a change of ownership of licensed property is fast falling into disuse. The Cogers' Hall, near Fleet Street, still holds discussions; but the custom of inviting some of the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood to spend a long damp day at the joint expense of an outgoing and an incoming tenant is now seldom observed. A modified form of "a change" is still occasionally to be witnessed, but the proceedings are marked by their brevity and orderliness. The gaugers employed by the two contracting parties having completed their duties of checking the stock, the legal deeds are signed, the money is paid over, and an adjournment is then made to the bar. A fund is started by the new and the old landlords, the other interested parties also contribute, and the proceeds are devoted to the disbursement of champagne and other liquors among the assembled well-wishers of the new management.
    Sunday closing in London, though rigorously paraded, is rarely strictly observed. [-291-] Many houses in the City proper and the West-End are held on the six days' licence, which precludes a Sunday trade, but by far the greater number of publicans are entitled to open on Sundays between the hours of one and three in the afternoon and from six to eleven in the evening. The licensing law permits a traveller, who has journeyed a distance of three miles, to obtain refreshment during closed hours, provided that he has not travelled for the express purpose of obtaining the drink to which he is legally entitled. But this provision is seldom enforced.
    For example, on Sundays during the summer months the Bull and Bush at Hampstead is a very popular resort with pedestrians, cyclists, horsemen, motorists, and travellers in every description of conveyance. All the morning there is a continuous stream of visitors, and the broad roadway is filled with a great variety of vehicles, from the neat dogcart to the stately four-in-hand. Stylish gowns mingle with cycling suits and immaculate frock coats, the outer walls present a network of spokes and handle bars and the snorting motor is oftentimes the centre of an interested group apart.
    In the poorer parts of the Metropolis the authorities assume a more precautionary attitude towards travellers who demand to be served with liquid refreshment out of licensed hours on Sunday morning. The same law applies to both Hampstead and Whitechapel, but in the latter neighbourhood it is dispensed with rigid formality In the Clothing Exchange, locally known as "Rag Fair," which lies off Middlesex Street (née Petticoat Lane), thousands of people assemble on the Sabbath to sell and purchase ready-made and re-made clothes. The doors of the local hostelry are open for bond fide travellers, but they are zealously guarded. The proprietor, with note-book in band, interrogates every aspiring customer. If he is without a railway ticket, his name and address are duly entered upon the landlord's tablet if he produces his "return half" it is subjected to close scrutiny. Should the date be obliterated - by accident or otherwise - the policeman on point duty is consulted, The precaution is adopted at all the houses in the neighbourhood. 
    It was an observant Frenchman who, arguing from insufficient information, was deluded by the obvious into the reflection that the omnibus system of London was arranged for the purpose, when it was not taking travellers from a public-house to a railway station or front a railway station to a public-house, of conveying passengers from one public-house to another. It is, of course, a fact that the termini of the majority of bus routes are made at public-houses, and that the average Londoner, in pointing out the way to a stranger, will punctuate his directions with references to well-known taverns. Tell the most puzzled cabman the name of the nearest hostelry, and you give him his bearings in a word. Wonderful structures are these establishments that give individuality to neighbourhoods. Islington has its "Angel ," Cricklewood its "Crown," Kilburn its "Lord Palmerston," Newington its "Elephant and Castle," Camden Town its "Mother Red Cap," Hendon its "Welsh Harp," Finsbury Park its "Manor House," Finchley its "Bald-[-292-]Faced Stag," Kentish Town its "Mother Shipton," and Pimlico its "Monster," while Swiss Cottage is named after its distinguishing hostelry. No Londoner could associate any of these houses with any other neighbourhood. Structurally they may be widely different, but in their general plan and their working arrangements they are so much alike that a description of one will stand as a description of all.
    Let us glance into this palatial building that runs like a headland into the sea of traffic and divides the current of it into two streams. Omnibuses are drawn up against the kerb on both sides of the house, and a dozen huge lamps throw a flood of light far across the roadways. The interior is divided into some half-dozen compartments, which are duly labelled, and the printed announcement, " Parlour prices charged in this department," or "Glasses only," signifies that a practical purpose is served by these partitions. There is a great deal of noise, but no technical disorder, in the "four-ale" bar, where a small crowd of omnibus drivers and conductors are making full use of their short respite. In the corresponding bar opposite the "horny-handed sons of toil" are interspersed with lady customers; and in the bottle and jug department more women are to be descried, who while their vessels are being filled are fortifying themselves against the return journey. Of children there are none to be seen. This is a flourishing house, and, rather than be bothered with the labour of "corking and sealing" the vessels and interrogating the deceptively ancient-looking youngsters as to their age, Mr. Publican will not serve any children under the age of fourteen years. The distinction between the "private" bar and the "saloon" bar is subtle. The same prices are charged in both. The customer whose desire is to escape the "mutable many" will patronise the former ; the latter is affected by the "lads of the village" and their ladies. The saloon bar is the ante-chamber of the billiard-room, its habitués are mostly known to the landlord, and often address the bar-maids by their Christian names.
    As the hour of twelve-thirty approaches, preparations for closing are ostentatiously paraded ; the potmen look to the fastenings of doors, lights are lowered, and cries of "Time, gentlemen, please!" grow more peremptory as the minute hand creeps towards its nadir. With the clock strike the customers are outside, the doors are bolted, and the policeman on duty disperses the reluctant groups and clears his beat of dawdlers against the visit of the inspector.

saloom4.gif (63047 bytes)

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902

    As regards women: “Many more women are seen in public- houses; the middle-aged are the drunkards, not the young. Young people do their courting in public-houses, since both sides are rather ashamed of their homes, and like to make themselves out a class above what they are. The young men treat the girls to a glass of wine. No harm comes of it. It is not till they get older that women take to gin and ale and become regular soakers.” ... “Public-houses are more attractive than they were; ladies’ saloon bars are to be seen everywhere. Publicans tell you that it is in response to a demand, but it is difficult to distinguish between cause and effect.” Such are other police opinions. ... And an “old resident,” speaking of the increase of drinking among women, says: “You cannot but see it: respectable women go into public-houses without any compunction, a sort of thing never seen until late years.” ... Of the increased and respectable uses made of public houses by young women we have, as our quotations show, heard much; and it may be noted that the age of limitation, the age at which liquor may be supplied to the young, agrees with their natural tastes; indeed, sweets remain in the ascendant for some years longer with most young women. Alcohol is seldom any temptation to the young, but nevertheless, the habit may be acquired and become a temptation later. It is directly on this account and indirectly on others, that legislation has been introduced to check the practice of sending children to fetch the drink required by their parents. At the time of our inquiry this subject was before the public, the Bill had not yet passed through Parliament, and the pros and cons were in every one’s mouth. The matter is now settled; we have only to see how the law works in practice; and if I reproduce some of the statements and arguments connected with it, it is mainly on account of the light they throw on the habits of the people, but partly also as concerning the whole general policy of control of the liquor trade by licence.
   A parish nurse, working in the East End, said that “as to drink, there is more there among women than among men. They drink beer, or rather porter, not spirits, and always in company. When once inside a public-house, they stay there. For this reason she believed that if a law were passed (she was speaking in 1898) prohibiting children from fetching the dinner and supper beer, it would do distinct harm to East London. It was to her a sad thing to see children going into the public-house, but she could not honestly say that it did them any harm. She had never seen a child the worse for drink. They sip the beer, but only on the general principle that they take a little of everything they are sent to fetch; and if it were milk they would take a great deal more of it. Children of the rough class fetch the beer from the public bar because they are often given a penny by some of the men there; children of the better class go into the jug and bottle entrance, get their beer, and go away at once. Sweets are given, but not as a general thing.” The giving of sweets by publicans is forbidden by law, with the idea that children will fetch drink with less alacrity if this encouragement is denied them, but to set against this, a child who is sucking a sweet will certainly not sip the beer. The object of giving the sweets was to induce the child to pass other public-houses in order to reach one which was liberal in this respect. Many shops adopt the same plan to secure the patronage of child messengers. It is improbable that any more drink would be sent for because of the child’s willingness to go, or that any greater familiarity with the public-house would result.
   The principal of a Ladies’ Settlement (speaking in 1899) said she “had only once seen a child the worse for drink, and that was from drink that had been given to it by its parents. She had often seen them sip, especially in hot weather, but children do not care for the taste of beer. They much prefer sweets. She herself used to be rather glad than otherwise when she saw that the beer was sent for, and that the woman did not go herself. The attractive­ness of the public-house to the child is not inside but outside. The lights are bright, the pavement is carefully mended and smoother for marbles and other games; organs and niggers come to play and sing there; and at night there is the sight of the drunken man being chucked out or trying to get home; sometimes he is hauled off by the policeman. Children spend their money on sweets, and some say that the habit of sucking induces a craving in the palate which later is satisfied by drink. In any case, more harm is done to children by sweets than by beer.”
   A police superintendent (from the same district as the nurse quoted above and speaking in 1897) said: “There is not much harm in sending children to fetch beer—absolutely none in this district; the language and atmosphere is no worse in a public- house than what they hear at home. Besides, it would not prevent the children frequenting the houses which they look upon as a sort of paradise. It is always to them that they are taken by their parents for a cake or sweets. They go there from babyhood upwards. To send them there to fetch a pint of beer is no demoralization for them, or the introduction to anything new and harmful. In better-class districts, where the parents do not fre­quent the public-house, it would probably be better not to send the children. They always sip the beer they are sent to fetch; he has noticed it scores of times, but does not think they acquire their taste for beer in this way."
   To the above I may add a picture from our own notes (1899) of the dinner-hour in a poor South London quarter:—”Children going in large numbers to the public-house at the corner with jugs for the dinner beer; no sipping; our companion, the police ser­geant, knows it is not usual to think so, but has never been able to see any harm come of it himself. One child looked as though she were sucking a sweet as she came out, but the others did not: it was constant come and go, one moment to go in and get the jug filled, and out again the next; none of the children waited to talk or play with one another, but at once hurried home.”
   Of the police spoken to on the subject, some had, and some had not, noticed the children sipping the beer they carried. The question is not, perhaps, of great importance. The children could not take much without being detected. To drink out of a jug at all without spilling the contents, must be difficult for a small child; and if much were lost, there would be trouble. If, however, the mere tasting of the drink be the danger it was sought to avoid, is it to be supposed that opportunities for this would not have oc­curred in homes where beer was being constantly drunk? But, in fact, children do not really care for it, and with open heart are quite ready to join and faithfully obey the rules of their Bands of Hope.
    The question of familiarity with the public-house, engendered by being constantly sent there, is more serious. Even those who think no harm comes of it, would very likely not allow their own children to go, but if legislation can do nothing in this respect for the child whose home is on the level of the public-house, neither is it required for those whose homes are superior. It might there­fore seem to have been a waste of good effort to pass this particular restriction, when so many of greater importance are sadly required.
   If we leave the children themselves out of account, it may however be argued that if they cannot be sent, it is tantamount to reducing the facilities for procuring drink, and that less will therefore be taken. It is likely that in some instances this would be so, but we have to consider the alternatives. Instead of a young child, a boy, or more probably a girl of over sixteen, may be sent. Would that be an improvement? The presence of a child, we are told, has often a marvellous effect. “Consider the child~~ is a rebuke to which, thank God, no man refuses to listen. Behaviour at the public bar is more likely to gain, than the child to suffer. But with a young girl how would this stand? And it must be remembered that she is allowed to take a drink, and perhaps is beginning to have a taste for it. It is no question of sipping, but of some man standing treat. That the wife should herself fetch the beer is a better alternative, but if instead of taking it at home with their meal, those who want it adjourn to the public-house to drink there, this plan is surely not to be desired, and is likely to lead to more rather than less being consumed. To return to the more general aspect of the question. Whether the people drink less or not, the police are practically agreed in saying that they are much less rowdy than formerly: “Totally different people to what they were thirty-three years ago,” said one who joined the force then; an improvement which he claims has extended also to publicans and the police themselves, of whom the latter are now an almost entirely sober body of men, while the former are much more respectable and steady, and for the most part careful as to the conduct of their houses. “The modern publican is of a totally different type to the man of twenty years ago, with his white hat and black band, and his bull-dog: the decayed prize-fighter type. The publican now is usually well educated; respectable, and a keen man of business, who can keep his own accounts in proper order, and fully realizes that it is to his interest that the law should be strictly observed in his house.~~ As to drink, this last witness reiterated the opinion that there had been a great decrease, if not of drinking, certainly of drunken­ness, and was one of the few who asserted that the alleged increase among women was not a fact, the true way of putting it being that drink had decreased among men, but not, or at all events not in the same degree, among women. As to drunkenness he said, “Go and look at Hampstead Heath on Bank Holiday and compare it with what it was twenty years ago, or walk in the streets on Saturday night.”

Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903