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jueves, febrero 24

The history of the English pub

(Read at -and copied from- Expat Telegraph newsletter on 26th January)

Paul Jennings's The Local: A History of the English Pub tells the story of one of England's most unique institutions. Public places where people could gather and drink date back at least as far as the Romans, but are first thought to have become a common sight in the Anglo-Saxon period, when people opened their homes as alehouses. This is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, Hertfordshire, one of several pubs which claim to be the oldest drinking house in England. It dates back to the 8th century.

The term public house only came into popular use in the 17th century. Before this, there were several types of place which could loosely be described as a "pub", which Jennings divides into the following categories: inns (designed primarily for travellers), taverns (which specialised in wine), and alehouses.

From very early on pubs became not simply places to drink, but places to enjoy entertainment - such as cock-fighting or badger-baiting - and to conduct local business. For instance, the Turf Tavern in Oxford was one of many pubs which had a cock-fighting area.

Many pubs have similar or even identical names, often inspired by real-life figures or old-fashioned sayings. Pubs called the Marquis of Granby are a particularly common sight. They're named in honour of an 18th-century general who often provided money for his retired soldiers to open public houses.

The early 18th century saw a huge rise in the number of drinking establishments, but it wasn't beer that the punters were drinking. Due to its cheapness, a craze for gin had swept the entire country, leading to the establishment of "gin palaces". Concern about the about the widespread inebriation caused by gin eventually led to 1751 Gin Act, which restricted its sale.

In 1830 the Beer Act was introduced. This hugely controversial act was designed to wean people off gin in favour of what the authorities believed was a "more wholesome and temperate beverage". Under the act, any householder was allowed to brew and sell their own beer if they made a one-off payment of two guineas. Thousands of so-called "beerhouses" opened, and pubs began to resemble more closely the institutions we know today.

Within the first year of the Beer Act, over 30,000 new licences for beer-selling were issued. Jennings says that people "almost immediately noted the drunkenness produced by the change". One observer wrote in 1831: "Everbody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling." A picture from the 19th century, The Doings of Drink, depicts a street scene where virtually everyone is inebriated.

In 1869, the Wine and Beerhouse Act finally imposed tighter regulations on licensing, and the number of public houses began to fall. Some beer-sellers complained that licence-granting operated as a lottery, but those lucky enough to receive a licence sometimes found themselves struggling to make a profit. "The disappointed beer-seller became a common figure," says Jennings.

As time went by, new devices were invented which changed the look of pubs. in the 19th century, counters became popular, while the beer engine allowed beer to brought up pipes and into pumps by the counter from barrels in cellars. Such innovations helped bar-workers to serve more quickly, especially in busy urban pubs.

Jennings says that one the most important changes during this period was the growth of brewery control over public houses. At the beginning of the 18th century, two-thirds of publicans brewed their own beer. By the end of the 19th, many were "tied" to take the products of a particular firm. Slowly, publicans moved from being owners to being tenants.

The belief that the number of pubs in Britain was excessive continued to gain ground, however. In 1904 came legislation which allowed pubs to be forcefully closed down in exchange for compensation. Around 10 per cent of pubs were closed under this act within a decade of its implementation. In 1908, a proposal to introduce yet more limitations provoked mass meetings and demonstrations across the country.

The First World War had a huge impact on the pub industry. Alcohol consumption had already begun to dip, but the arrival of war meant that there was a general feeling that drunkenness was inappropriate. In 1914 George V, pictured, publically announced that he would be abstinent for the duration of the war. This drive towards sobriety, combined with high prices, meant that pubs had less and less patrons. The 1914 Defence of the Realm Act also put strict restrictions on pub opening times, and made traditional practices like giving credit illegal.

The fall in alcohol consumption in the first few decades of 20th century was not reversed after the First World War. None the less, the pub retained its position as an important part of local communities. In total some 5,900 pubs were either built, or rebuilt, between the wars.

"In sharp contrast to the First [World War], beer and the pub were from the outset seen as essental elements of the war effort," says Jennings. The Brewers Journal noted in 1942 that the term "local" was being increasingly used, as a "neighbourly, part-of-us phrase". One of the most important effects of the wars on the pub industry was the rise in the use of pubs by women. A report in one London borough in 1943 found that 45 per cent of women under 30 were visiting pubs more often since the war began. The Second World War was something of a swan-song for the pub; since then, the number of pubs has been in steady decline.

Jennings notes, however, that many people now choose to socialise in other licensed premises, such as wine bars or the drinking venues run by companies such as Wetherspoons. Therefore the pub, in a sense, still exists. But just as it did in the Middle Ages, it has "fragmented into a variety of different entities".