Icons of England
  • Introduction
  • The Icons
  • Nominations
  • News
  • Learn & Play
  • Your Comments

The Pub

The Story of the Pub

Pubs have formed the backdrop of social lives for centuries. Now undergoing a radical process of transformation through reform of the licensing laws, they may not feel any longer like the corner-site premises with frosted windows in which many of us had our first alcoholic drink. But they have already undergone many changes since their earliest incarnations.

A country pub 1931
A country pub, 1931
©TopFoto.co.uk
The first establishments selling alcoholic drinks date, like so much else in our history, from Roman times. Known as "tabernae" (the origin of the word “tavern”), they were places where weary troops could refresh themselves with food and wine in between bouts of quelling the natives. The tabernae advertised themselves with bunches of vine leaves to indicate their principal stock-in-trade, these effectively being the forerunner of the English inn sign.

When the Romans departed in the fifth century AD, the tabernae fell into disuse. Home brewing of ale continued, and was much favoured by the successive waves of invaders who came to these shores up until the Normans, but there was no precise equivalent of the wine or beer shop. People who had brewed a batch of ale might sell it in the village, or even invite others into their houses to buy it. In AD 965, King Edgar decreed that there should be no more than one such alehouse in each village.

Church ales and inns

By about the 13th century though, alehouses had become a feature of the rural landscape. Festivals known as “church ales”, which were basically pagan drinking rituals transformed into Christian church fundraising events, encouraged licentious drinking, which might go on for as much as three days. At this time, beer was a much safer drink than either water, which might be full of water-borne bacteria, or milk, which quickly spoiled in an age when there was no such thing as refrigeration.

Next on the scene was the roadside inn, establishments that offered long-distance travellers a bed for the night, as well as food and drink. The monasteries originally fulfilled this function, and when the inns first came into being, they were very often still run by monks. With the development of trade between towns, there were increasing numbers of travellers on the roads, and the inns represented the only relatively safe option for spending the night.

It was not only commercial traffic with which the roads were busy. After the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket in 1170, pilgrimages to Canterbury became very popular, and remained so for some centuries afterwards. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century, tells the tale of a disparate group of individuals who set out from the Tabard Inn in London on pilgrimage to Kent.


The urban equivalent of the inns, from the Elizabethan era onwards, were the taverns. These were places with a purely social function, in which the professional classes could eat good food and drink imported wine. The taverns survived, more or less unmodified, until the 17th century, when the rise of teetotal Puritanism under Cromwell’s government led to many of them having their licences revoked. This was also the period when tea, coffee and chocolate were introduced, offering non-alcoholic alternatives to beer.


Changing tastes

'A Rake's Progress', 1735 - Tom Rakewell is in the Rose Tavern, on Drury Lane, London,
Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress", from 1735.
©TopFoto.co.uk/Corporation of London /HIP
In the early 1700s, owing to an anomaly of the excise system by which alcohol was taxed in the UK, domestic spirits suddenly became cheaper than beer. This led to a wholesale shift in the drinking patterns of the poorest people - from beer to gin. Most of what was consumed was hardly worthy of the name of gin, being the product of rough-and-ready freelance distillation and sold illegally. This basic firewater was drunk in dingy establishments known as gin-shops, and the terrible toll it exacted on people’s health – by means of both its rank quality and the quantity consumed – forced the government eventually to act to mitigate the situation, by reforming the tax system and restricting the sale of hard spirits.

In the meantime, the countryside establishments had mostly transformed themselves into the coaching-inns that now served a great mass of business and personal travellers. The inns offered stabling for the horses, as well as accommodation and sometimes lavish hospitality. They were also a refuge from the attentions of the highwaymen who preyed upon goods coaches and wealthy travellers.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the urban taverns had begun to change beyond recognition. Some of them installed luxurious interiors designed to make them look as little like the old city drinking dens as possible. Those with ornate plaster mouldings, neo-classical pillars and decorative brass became known as gin palaces (not to be confused with the old gin-shops). In smaller communities, people gathered in the pubs to exchange news, provide each other with mutual support, and found friendly societies and even trade unions.

The Temperance movement

An illustration showing a young attractive woman being introduced to the 'pleasures' of gin drinking, c1810
A young woman is introduced to gin drinking, c.1810
©TopFoto.co.uk/Museum of London /HIP
From the 1830s on, the most significant influence in the decline of the pub as a social centre occurred not through government action, but by the influence of the Temperance movement. This was a religiously motivated campaign to shame working classes into a life of sobriety. It achieved a remarkable degree of success during the Victorian era, when many working people took the Pledge, a ritualised vow to abstain from intoxicating liquor, for the good of their souls and their families. This was the era when the public house began to be known by its shortened name as the “pub”.

Into the 20th century

In the early years of the 20th century, emergency legislation was introduced to curb the hours at which pubs could open. This was intended to boost the productivity of workers in the munitions factories during the time of the first world war, but ended up surviving into the 21st century. It is only in the last few years that it has begun gradually to be reformed, against a concerted public outcry about the effects of allowing pubs to stay open later in the evening.

Today, the traditional pub is once more on the retreat. Many of the old city-centre pubs have had their interiors torn out by the licensees, and replaced with a décor and atmosphere likely to appeal to a younger crowd. Sports pubs offer wide-screen broadcasts of live football matches for those who don’t have satellite TV at home. Old bank buildings have been turned into wine and cocktail bars, and the meteoric rise of the gastropub has brought restaurant-standard cooking to a more informal ambience.

In the rural towns and villages though, the traditional country pub survives, dispensing hand-pumped, cask-conditioned ales, decent wines, hearty home cooking and local cheer. It is to these places that our overseas visitors flock to get a taste of the English pub experience, the unique conviviality of which we were encouraged to protect by one naturalised British writer:

“When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.” Hilaire Belloc, Preface to The Four Men (1911)