HISTORY OF PUBS
The Alehouse, the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration
The English Civil War, which began in 1642, was not an uprising of the people, nor a class struggle. Only three percent of men were involved in the fighting and many families were split in their allegiance. It was essentially a power struggle between Parliament and the King.
The unrest saw the rise of the Puritans. Part of their strict code was against the evils and excesses of drink. They had a lot to complain about. To them, and many observers at the time, it seemed that much of the English population was permanently drunk, and alehouses too numerous to count.
Alehouses, taverns and inns were taxed to pay for the war. They also were used by both sides, Roundheads (Parliamentarians) and Cavaliers (Royalists), to billet their troops. As the progress of the war swung in favour of one side and then the other, an alehouse would change its name from say, the King’s Head to the Nag’s Head and back again.
Pub names often reflect historic events. In Uxbridge, an inn was used as a venue for unsuccessful peace talks in 1645, and was renamed the Crown & Treaty. The Royal Oak, refers to the story of Charles II avoiding capture, following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, by hiding in the hollow trunk of an oak tree.
Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead army was victorious. King Charles I was executed on 30th January 1649, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. At the Red Lion in St. James’s this event is commemorated by customers who dress up as Cavaliers and lament the killing of the King.
With Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, there was religious and intellectual tolerance, but repression of peoples everyday enjoyment. Games, sport, dancing and singing (except in church) were banned. Many alehouses and taverns had their licenses withdrawn or refused, and illegal drinking outlets were closed. One positive consequence was an improvement of standards.
Three new drinks were about to change the habits of a nation. Coffee was introduced in 1650, chocolate in 1657 and tea in 1660. The first coffee house opened in London in 1652 on the site of what is now the Jamaica Wine House, Cornhill. It is claimed that newspapers began in the coffee houses, they were centres of gossip, some of which was written down and circulated.
When Oliver Cromwell died, his son Richard, took over but his regime soon collapsed. Parliament decided to restore the monarchy, albeit with much reduced power. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and with the new monarch came optimism and extravagance. Charles took a keen interest in the sciences and encouraged their development. Another interest was his string of mistresses, the most famous of whom was Nell Gwynne. Many pubs claim to have entertained the lovers including the Dove, Hammersmith.
Soon after the accession, London was to suffer two calamities. In 1664-5 the Great Plague killed thousands of Londoners. This was followed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London, which all but destroyed the entire City. The medieval and Tudor buildings were made of wood and the fire burned out of control. A law was passed so that all future London buildings were to be made of brick or stone.
Of course a great many inns, taverns and alehouses perished in the fire too. One house at the edge of the fire survived and later became a pub called the Hoop & Grapes. The cellar of the Olde Cheshire Cheese survived and Samuel Pepys witnessed the fire from the Anchor.
The Great Fire did rid the City of the plague. Plans to rebuild London in the Italianate style, with wide streets and piazzas, were abandoned. However several of London’s finest buildings date from that time, many the work of Sir Christopher Wren. St. Brides Church was one of them and the mason’s house is now the Olde Bell pub.
Coaching Inns – romance and heartbreak
The coaching era is imbedded in English history as a time of romance and legend, a Golden Age. To this day, prints hanging on pub walls depict idyllic scenes; a coach and horses outside a rustic inn, its passengers greeted with ale and wine by a rotund, red-cheeked landlord; or a speeding coach, its team of horses wild-eyed, nostrils flared, gallop along a country track, the coach driver leaning into the wind. Pubs, even new ones, are adorned with relics of the time; postal horns, horse brasses, copper pots, bed pans, lanterns and whips.
The coach as a mode of transport had been around for centuries, but was the preserve of the wealthy, much like motor cars at the beginning of the 20th century. Other wheeled transport on the roads would have been agricultural wagons or carts moving merchandise.
The growth of coaching and its inns gathered pace at the start of the industrial revolution. The movement of goods and people was essential to trade and commerce. At the same time improvements to roads was crucial. Most routes, even between major towns, were little more than dirt tracks; rutted, pot holed, liable to flood or collapse. The Turnpike Act of 1663 transferred responsibility for roads from parish councils to Turnpike Trusts. Tolls were charged to fund improvements. The scale of the task meant progress was slow and the road network, if it could be called that, took centuries rather than decades to achieve.
In 1657 the first proper coaching route from London to Chester began, but it took another hundred years before most cities and major towns were on a coaching route. It was not until the early nineteenth century that saw the boom in coaching. Brighton had a skeleton service in 1757; by 1840 it was served by more than forty coaches per day.
Although the speed and range of coaches increased, there were frequent stops to rest, feed and water the horses, as well as refresh the coachmen and passengers. The coaching inn fulfilled this need. An entire industry grew and the coaching inn was at the centre of it.
Romance aside, coach travel was far from comfortable and despite improvements to roads and carriage suspension, the whole experience was often an unpleasant one. Breakdowns and crashes were not uncommon. The coachmen, and passengers who rode on top of the coach at a reduced fare, were occasionally thrown off with fatal consequences or died from exposure in cold weather. They were prey to robbers too, the highwaymen, romanticised in folklore, were desperate and murderous.
Despite their failings, coaches became the safest and most reliable way to travel long distances within the country. For most of its history, coach travel was expensive and the preserve of the middle and upper classes. It was not until the early 19th century that coach travel became more affordable.
The introduction of a regulated mail service in the late eighteenth century set new standards for punctuality and reliability. The postal service became legendary and the postman, in his scarlet Post Office livery, and armed with his all too essential musket and pistols, became the legend’s hero. So reliable was the service that it passed into folklore that villages would set their clocks by the sound of the postman’s horn. The coaching inn however, was much less reliable.
A team of horses had a limited range of around twenty miles, depending on the terrain. So existing inns at these distances became coaching inns and were either converted, extended or built anew. As speed became more important the distances between the staging posts were shortened, subsequently more staging points were needed. Horses were changed, instead of rested, so extra stabling had to be provided.
Coaching inns came in many guises and location was everything. Those on minor routes on remote country roads barely survived, others on busy established routes thrived. Some old Tudor inns, their good fortune to be on a revived coaching route, flourished once again. Many were purpose-built.
New towns were established or existing villages were expanded, because of their position along a staging route. One such town was Stoney Stratford, near Milton Keynes. Its raison d’etre to serve the traveller, its long narrow street having no fewer than eleven coaching inns. Most are now hotels or pubs, their tell-tale stable yard entrances remain. Some towns had traffic problems, their centres jammed with horses waiting to be stabled or hitched. Northampton’s human population was almost equalled by its equine one.
Standards varied enormously. If done properly, the cost of setting up an inn was considerable. Warm shelter had to be provided, with food readily available for travellers who might stay only half an hour and consume nothing, before dashing on their way. Staff had to be on hand, stabling had to be provided, rooms had to be furnished and kept ready, fresh provisions constantly available. Those well paced en route or at a terminus would have enough trade to prosper, others had a harder time.
Travellers tales complain of damp rooms and linen, bed clothes soiled and stinking, food that was stale and rancid, incompetent staff and landlords who were indifferent to their needs or plain rude. Some we also criminal, in cahoots with highwaymen, the landlord telling them which guests had full purses.
Coaching inns also became centres of trade. Many were associated with one trade or another, such as wool or hops. Lawyers met their clients in them and businessmen met to negotiate deals. They were often used for auctions and became secure places to hold money for transactions, taking on the role of an informal bank. Traders stored their goods in the inns own warehouses. Circuit judges held court in them, good news for the innkeeper who would provide rooms, food, drink and stabling for their horses.
All these activities enhanced the standing of the inns owners. They may not have been educated, some were illiterate, but their premises provided a place for commerce as well as livery, accommodation and food. A landlord’s position carried influence and power, as well as an opportunity to become rich.
The scale of the grandest inns is hard to imagine. The larger ones had sixty bedrooms and stabling for 50 horses. They were often several storeys high, particularly in London where space was at a premium, with galleried courtyards, as can be seen in what remains of the George in Southwark. Many were lavishly decorated with Chinese silks and the finest linen, quality furniture, silver cutlery and tableware.
For some the investment would be ruinous. The advent of the railways and their dramatic expansion brought the Golden Age of the stage coach to an abrupt halt. As before, location was everything, and those coaching inns which were close to the new railways stations or termini survived, usually as hotels.
Many fell into disrepair and were demolished. The George Inn, Southwark, is close to London Bridge Station but was no longer considered suitable and closed. It was sold to a rail company who demolished two thirds of it to make way for a warehouse. What was left is now the treasured possession of the National Trust.
The Gin Palace & Mother’s Ruin
When Charles II died in 1685, he left no legitimate heir to the throne. His brother, who had been living in France, returned and was crowned James II. His strong Catholic faith put him at odds with the Protestant majority. One of Charles’s illegitimate sons, the Duke of Monmouth, led a revolt against James, but was defeated. The revolt’s survivors were dealt with ruthlessly by the Lord Chief Justice Jeffries (see the Prospect of Whitby & the Town of Ramsgate).
James wanted England to have a Roman Catholic monarchy, similar to that of France under Louis XIV. Fearing the worst, a group of statesmen invited James’s Dutch nephew, William of Orange, who was married to James’s daughter Mary, to contest the throne of England. William landed with his army at Torbay, Devon in November 1688. James was deserted by his few supporters and fled to France and his bloodless overthrow became known as the Glorious Revolution. William and Mary shared the crown of England and agreed to a shift of power back to Parliament.
William III hated France and encouraged a ban on trade. French brandy and wines were very popular in England, and the ban sparked a huge increase in smuggling. As a substitute, William encouraged the distilling of ‘Geneve’ or Gin as it was known in England. Restrictions on distilling Gin were removed and by the early 1700’s the country was awash. The availability of so much cheap alcohol proved devastating, particularly amongst the poor.
In the mid eighteenth century, Gin’s perils were immortalised in William Hogarth’s engravings, ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’. The characters in the former are plump and healthy, but in ‘Gin Lane’ there is death and chaos, a mother so drunk that her baby falls from her arms. Gin’s effect was such, that in London, despite improvements in sanitation, its population actually fell. Londoners were drinking themselves to death.
Gin’s hold on the population was temporarily slowed through new laws to curb production and sales. The imperative to do something about it came from the disapproving middle classes and the new industrialists who needed a sober workforce.
In the mid 1820’s anti-smuggling measures led the duty on spirits being drastically lowered. Statistically spirits consumption increased, but this probably had more to do with a switch from smuggled to legitimate drink. Even so there was an alarming increase in the number of ‘gin shops’, many were former pubs which had been converted.
Unlike the pubs they replaced, the gin-shops served no food and had no seating. They were usually in poorer areas and designed for fast turn-over, the poor had little money so were not encouraged to stay once they had spent what they had.
The success of the gin-shops coincided with developments in plate glass production and gas lighting. These new products were employed to the full, creating a dazzling spectacle of light and reflection. They stood out in the dark streets like beacons. To the poor they were palaces – Gin Palaces.
(See fine examples of glasswork etc at the Red Lion SW1, Argyll Arms W1, Princess Louise WC2, Kings Head SW17, Salisbury WC2, Prince Alfred W9)
Acknowledgements to Peter Haydon, Author "The English Pub – A History", Mark Girouard , Author – "Victorian Pubs".