Public houses are a form of drinking establishment that has been at the centre of British life for centuries. Britain has thousands of public houses, or pubs as they’re usually known. Some lie at the heart of rural villages; others are nestled in the streets of towns and cities.
Many are hundreds of years old. For example, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem is a pub in the historic city of Nottingham and has a strong claim to be the oldest pub in England. According to local legend, the pub takes its name from the Crusades of the 12th Century. The knights who answered the call of Richard I supposedly stopped here on their way to the Holy Land. Remarkably, the pub is built into a cliff face, using of a network of caves, and many of the rooms resemble dark and secretive grottos.
Many pubs have distinctive names, the origins of which are based in history, mythology and folklore. Names like The Black Horse, The George and Dragon and The Green Man are common. Pubs could be recognised by signs decorated with vivid imagery. Early customers were often unable to read. Pictorial signs provided an outlet for vibrant folk art.
Pubs are derived from two earlier types of institution - the inn and the tavern. An inn was a place for wayfarers - travellers not locals. A tavern – from the Latin tabernae – was for locals. Waggoners were entertained in the kitchen’ the landed gentry in the parlour. This was the origin of the two room pub. The public bar is the direct descendant of the tavern kitchen. The saloon bar is the successor of the private parlour, more luxurious and expensive.
In the 19th century, the inn and the tavern merged to form the pubs we know today. A pub was a common meeting place, a club open to strangers, a centre of the local community, a home away from home. The pub was an important part of the working man’s life, providing relaxation and recreation. Significantly, the Church of England was the largest provider of inns. The architect Sir Edwin Lutyens wrote, ‘The Church is to the spirit what the inn is to the flesh, and, if good and well designed they baulk the Devil himself.’
Beer could be sold without a licence from 1830 so cottage beerhouses opened everywhere. In the 18th century, there was a switch from drinking ale to gin. Gin was cheaper than beer. Larger breweries bought pubs where they could sell their ales and the cheap gin. This was the beginning of the grand Victorian corner pub. The Dun Cow in Sunderland is a spectacular gin palace designed by BF Simpson in 1901.
Beer was seen as respectable and inherently English. In contrast, gin was seen as a dangerous foreign spirit. There was no quality control in this period and gin was frequently mixed with turpentine. This is illustrated by two prints by the satirical artist William Hogarth. Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751) depict the evils of gin in contrast to beer.
Hogarth portrays the inhabitants of Beer Street as happy and healthy, nourished by the native English ale. The people of Gin Lane are destroyed by their addiction to the foreign spirit of gin. Gin Lane shows shocking scenes of infanticide, starvation, madness, decay and suicide, while Beer Street depicts industry, health, bonhomie and thriving commerce. However, Hogarth was a brilliant satirist and closer inspection reveals that the poverty of Gin Lane and the prosperity of Beer Street has caused the misery of Gin Lane.
What makes a pub a pub? Seclusion and intimacy are important qualities. Rich, dark colours are used throughout, with emphasis on dark wood and brass fittings. The interiors are full of visual incident to produce surprise and delight. Glass screens and mirrors are used to give mystery and sparkle. Bottles, barrels and brewer’s trademarks are used as decoration.
As well as traditional country pubs, Britain has ornate Victorian and Edwardian pubs in urban areas. The Eagle and Child is a world-famous pub in Oxford. It was a favourite haunt of the authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who would meet there to discuss their literary works such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia.
As breweries became more powerful they took control of pubs in order to have guaranteed outlets for their products. They created establishments that were distinctive features in the townscape and which provided various attractions to the public. The design of these grander pubs became a specialist task. Many breweries appointed a house architect and so achieved something of a house style.
Urban pubs often have grandiose architecture and interiors. One of the most ornate pubs in Britain is the Philharmonic in Liverpool (1898). The pub is opposite the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, from which it derives its name. The building was designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas. The exterior is in the Free Style, but as was common with late Victorian architecture, the building has a wealth of detail in the Art Nouveau style. There is also a profusion of sculpture on a musical theme, with musicians and musical instruments emerging from the architectural fabric in low relief. Many of the fittings were created by craftsmen at the Liverpool School of Art. Members of the Beatles used to frequent the pub before they became famous.
Joseph Oswald was architect to Newcastle Breweries. He was involved in the development of over a hundred pubs in the North East, including the Beehive Inn in Newcastle. A particularly impressive example of his work was the head office of Newcastle Breweries in Newcastle (1896-1901), with its vibrant interior of turquoise and yellow faience.
The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle occupies one of the most spectacular sites in the city, with views of the colossal High Level Bridge. The pub is located right next to the historic Castle Keep from which Newcastle derives its name. The Bridge Hotel was designed in 1899 by the important Newcastle architects James Cackett and Robert Burns Dick, who also designed the Laing Art Gallery and the architectural portions of the Tyne Bridge. It was designed in the Baroque style with traces of Art Nouveau. The interior is opulent, with wood panelling and carved fittings, together with stained glass windows and mosaics.
The quirkiest pub in Newcastle is the Crown Posada. Known as the Coffin, this is a tiny building wedged into a narrow site on the Side, a street that runs steeply down to the River Tyne. The Crown Posada was designed in 1880 by the Newcastle architect William Lister Newcombe and it has elaborate Victorian design and Pre-Raphaelite stained glass.
My local pub is the Three Horseshoes in Leamside, a small village in County Durham. To its regulars the pub is known as ‘the Shoes’. It has a coal fire, which generates a warm atmosphere, especially during winter.
Davis, B. (1981). The Traditional English Pub: A way of drinking. London: Architectural Press
Pearson, L. (1989) The Northumbrian Pub. Morpeth: Sandhill Press