The Decline and Fall of the English Public House

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Prince of Wales, Watling Street, Brownhills, 2016.

It is said that eight pubs close every day in this fair land. The reasons are complex, but the plainest is that fewer people are frequenting local pubs in villages and suburbs in favour of drinking at home, buying booze from supermarkets, discount suppliers and direct from micro-brewers.

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Rising Sun, Watling Street, Brownhills West, 2016.

In my own experience over the last fifty-odd years I can recall many pubs that have closed, and there were many more before that. In The Pub Dennises (2) is a map showing 5 pubs on the short 500 metre length of Chasetown High Street. There were at least two beer houses and two other pubs within 100 metres. This was not an unusual setup. Along, or very near to, the Watling Street, Brownhills, were no fewer than eight pubs and more beer houses operating between 1900 and 1912 along a stretch of 2.3 km (1.4 miles), see map below.  And there were others within easy walking distance.

Previously there had been four other beer houses in the subject area: Baileys Buildings, Watling Street – beer house; Watling Street, next to Queen’s Head – beer house, Chinnock’s beer house, Chapel Street beer house.

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The Crown, Watling Street, Brownhills West, 2016.

The 1830 Beer Act enabled people to brew and sell their own beer at home, “beer houses”. In 1883 the wider area of Brownhills there were 15 fully-licenced houses, 9 beer houses with indoor licences, 3 beer houses with off-licences, and one wine and spirit licence; one license for every 26 houses! Generally these produced and sold “small beer” a low alternative to drinking water, which could be contaminated, though in these parts the wells would have been much cleaner that the supply in crowded cities. An Act of 1869 tightened the licensing laws, preventing new licenses and making it harder for people to obtain licenses. Beer houses virtually disappeared in the nineteenth century.

The sources for this project were Kelly’s Directory of Staffordshire, 1900, 1904 and 1912, and the England census 1901 and 1911, and newspaper reports via Findmypast.

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Chase Inn, Newtown, Brownhills, 2016.

Theory

I have a theory that many of these establishments were unsustainable, especially given their frequency.

For all the beer houses I have identified, even though trade directories list people as “beer seller” or “beerhouse”, the census, which records primary occupation records something related to coalmining. These were working people just trying supplement their main colliery wages by selling a little home brew in the front room.

watling-street-pubs

The same goes for many public houses, where the beer was served by the lady of the house, perhaps helped by a daughter or other relative, see White Horse Inn below. Here is what the 1901 and 1911 censuses record:-

From west to east (numbers from map):

1. Rising Sun: 1901 John Glover, manager public house, worker ; 1911 Joseph Tideswell, police pensioner licensed manager, closed sometime before a fire in 2011, derelict and fire damaged. Also closed for time in the 1960s.

2. Crown Hotel: 1901 Joseph Read, publican; 1911 Joseph Harrison, licensed victualler, still going, but more like a canteen.

3. White Horse Inn: 1901 Sarah Alltree, innkeeper; 1911 George Henry Perks, surface foreman colliery, related to licensed premises – wife’s occupation “carrying on the business of licensed victualler” and sister-in-law “assists wife” (Kelly 1912, Sarah Alltree, 1911 private means at Watling Street), still going.

4. Lamb Inn: 1901 Thomas Gwilliam, coal hewer below ground (Lamb Inn named); 1911 Andrew Baker, coal miner hewer; closed in 1950s (unless you know different) and demolished about 1967 after a spell as a shop.

5. Prince of Wales: 1901 James Norris, publican; 1911 – I have not been able to find this out, still going as a local.

6. Anglesey Arms: 1901 William Teece, licensed victualler pub; 1911 Thomas Yates; miner & publican, closed and demolished late 1960s.

7. Queen’s Head: 1901 Maud Norris, licensed victualler pub (Alice M M Norris, pub not named, but listed in Kelly; 1911 William Aubrey Lewis (husband of Maud), licensed victualler (pub not named, but listed in Kelly), closed, demolished and redeveloped late 1960s.

8. Chase Inn: 1901 Francis Thompson, Licensed victualler pub; 1911 George Shingler, publican, still going as a local pub and music venue.

So what does this tell us about the viability of these public houses?

Note:  This has no bearing on public houses that are in business today; these are the survivors and adapters and they continue to provide a valued service.

Only four of the eight proprietors gave their primary occupation as publican or licensed victualler in both 1901 and 1911 censuses. In 1911 the Rising Sun was being managed by a police pensioner, so his pay may simply have been supplementing that. In 1911 the licensee of the White Horse was George Perks, a coal miner, but the pub was run by Mrs Perks, assisted by her sister. The Prince of Wales is not recorded in 1911 so was clearly not providing anyone’s main income. From impressions gained through my wider research, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, this is typical: that is a significant proportion of inns and public houses, and a much higher proportion of beer houses, were not able to generate enough profit to be the only or primary income for a family. There were just too many of these establishments for all to be sustainable and it was inevitable that many would close, even without competition from nationwide high volume and discount suppliers for drinking at home.

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