The decline of the pub: what can we learn from history?

As more of us turn our backs on pubs in favour of bars, clubs and drinking at home, Chris Bowlby asks Paul Jennings what the future holds for a great British institution

This article was first published in a 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The pub has long been one of the great institutions of British society. It has been celebrated as a centre for community life, but has also been the focus of anxiety about rising levels of alcohol consumption. Governments have been torn between their reluctance to interfere with such a popular institution – one that provides a useful source of tax revenue – and the pressure to respond to threats posed to individual health and public order by excessive drinking.

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And the debate over drinking in pubs and elsewhere has been given added momentum recently by licensing laws, brought in to England and Wales in 2005 (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own licensing regimes). The laws aimed to temper Britons’ predilection for concentrated consumption by encouraging a more continental-style cafe culture – most notably by introducing 24-hour licences.

Pubs have certainly felt the impact of the legislation, as more drinkers now choose to buy alcohol throughout the night from bars and clubs.

But worries about health and alcohol-related crime remain prominent. Such concerns focus on binge drinking among younger generations – women as well as men – and on the growing numbers admitted to hospital with alcohol-related diseases.

Yet, with more drinkers going elsewhere or consuming at home, some people have expressed concern at the negative impact on communities of the loss of meeting places like the pub.

So, in light of the growing concerns over the effects of the ‘demon drink’, what does the future hold for the pub? I’ve been discussing this with Dr Paul Jennings, author of The Local – A History of the English Pub.  

How have drinking regulations changed over the centuries?

Paul Jennings: Drinking and drinking places have been regulated for a very long time indeed, but the modern system of licensing dates back to 1552, when concerns over public order led to magistrates being given the power to license alehouses. Generally speaking, they acted to control the number and conduct of drinking places in the interests of the community – and for the most part that was restrictive.

Legislation in 2003 transferred that authority from magistrates to local councils. The transfer embodied a shift, actually developing for some time, from a restrictive to a more liberal licensing regime, in which the market determines the number of drinking places – with due regard, of course, for concerns such as public order and nuisance. That has produced more drinking places, but not necessarily more pubs.

Yet the shift towards greater licensing freedom hasn’t been an uninterrupted one. In fact, during the 19th century, the laws became progressively more restrictive. A significant change came in the First World War, when early morning, afternoon and earlier evening closing were all introduced to combat the perceived evil effects of drinking on the war effort. These were not removed until the 1980s. Now, under the new licensing regime, it is possible to apply to open around the clock.

These greater freedoms also apply to the presence of children on licensed premises. Nineteenth-century restrictions culminated in a complete ban on children under 14 in 1908. Once again the late 20th century saw a more relaxed attitude.

How significant has the pub’s decline been?

PJ: There’s been a growth in recent years in the number of places where Britons can buy alcohol. When we fancy a drink, we can now go to a restaurant, bar, hotel and club as well as the local pub, and the latter has declined in popularity as a result.

Yet this decline is far from a recent phenomenon. The number of pubs actually peaked as long ago as 1869 and has been falling ever since. Reasons include the ever widening array of alternative leisure pursuits, and the increased importance of the home as a place to spend time in.

Historically, too, the pub was rooted in working class communities. Those communities have been disappearing, whether one is looking at big city slums or agricultural villages.

That process continues and, I would say, accounts for most of the almost 2,000 pub closures in 2008 [figure from British Beer and Pub Association]. Having said that, there are still over 57,000 pubs in Britain, and one cannot deny their hold on the national imagination. After all, where would the soaps be without them?

What other factors have influenced the way we drink?

PJ: The pub may be declining but alcohol consumption is not. We don’t imbibe as much as our Victorian ancestors – and certainly not as much as their 18th or 17th-century forebears – but since the 1950s, we have been drinking more and more.

What we’re drinking is also changing. Wine has seen by far the biggest growth, driven by growing affluence. And the consumers themselves have been changing. Women go to pubs and other drinking establishments probably more than at any time in the past. This, of course, is linked to wider changes in the position of women in society.

Finally, there’s the impact of the under-25s. Their grandparents in the 1930s preferred the dance hall, cinema or a walk about the streets. Then, from the 1960s, more and more started frequenting the pub. Today, this trend is reversing as young people have come to favour bars and clubs – another factor in the pub’s gradual decline.

Pundit from the past: George Orwell

What would the author and pub lover have made of our drinking habits today?

The writer George Orwell was a keen frequenter of pubs, and a keen commentator too on their wider social role. He called the pub “one of the basic institutions of English life”, which “carries on despite the harassing tactics of Nonconformist local authorities”.

In a review of Mass Observation’s justly famous study of ‘Worktown’ (Bolton, Lancashire), published in 1943 as The Pub and the People, Orwell extolled the traditional pub with “its elaborate social ritual, its animated conversations… its songs and weekend comedians” and contrasted that with “the passive, drug-like pleasures of the cinema and radio”.

Orwell would probably have disliked the way many pubs have since been modernised. In 1946 he described his perfect pub, The Moon Under Water, with “its whole architecture and fittings… uncompromisingly Victorian… the grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar… no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries”, a place where “it is always quiet enough to talk”.

The twist was that no such ideal pub existed. Given his exacting preferences, says Paul Jennings, “it is fair to assume that much of what he would see or hear in the modern drinking world would not appeal”. His “rather grumpy view”, he adds, “has found many echoes in commentators on the pub scene down the years”. Orwell might also have resented modern political pressure to police drinking more closely as he criticised those who claimed that “people go to pubs to get drunk”.

In other ways, says Dr Jennings, Orwell’s “was a more modern vision, in his sympathy, for example, for pubs as ‘family gathering places’ rather than the male dominated worlds they still largely were”. He would have approved of recent changes in licensing hours too. In a 1944 article on the “downtrodden” British people he complained about the regulation of opening hours, contrasting the rules unfavourably with France, where “a cafe proprietor opens or shuts just as it suits him”.

But the rise of the cafe, club and home drinking at the expense of the pub would, believes Dr Jennings, have led Orwell to “deplore the drinking world of the early 21st century” in one crucial aspect. The neighbourhoods that sustained Bolton’s pubs or those Orwell so valued have largely gone and affluence and technology have created ever more rival forms of leisure. The Moon Under Water would seem today a more distant ideal than ever.

Paul Jennings teaches history at the University of Bradford. He is author of The Local: A History of the English Pub (Tempus, 2007)

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.