All about pubs: The history of the pub

The word pub is short for ‘public house’, if you didn’t already know that. It describes an establishment that’s been granted a licence to serve alcoholic beverages for drinking on the premises.

The very first pubs to appear in Britain were actually Roman taverns, which served alcoholic drinks and food. Later, those taverns that had been granted licence to put up travelling guests in their rooms were known as inns. Inns tended to be located in the countryside or along highways, whereas taverns would generally be more central to villages and towns.

The Anglo-Saxons, who inhabited England from the 5th Century A.D. onwards, also brought with them their concept of alehouses, which were somewhat less sophisticated than taverns (of which famed writer Samuel Pepys was an early advocate) but offered the same comforts of drink, company and good cheer.

By the middle of the 17th Century, though, all of these terms had largely given way to the more generic term public house or pub, for short, and that’s how our watering holes are mostly known to this very day.

Why ‘public house’? Well, quite simply, the term helped to distinguish pubs from private residences. Virtually any adult could – and still can – walk into a pub and order a drink. It’s a social term by design and pubs are very much social institutions.

19th Century beerhouses

In 1830, the Beerhouse Act was passed in English law, which permitted any householder to brew and sell beer or cider in their home for the price of two guineas (around £190 in today’s money). Not spirits or fortified wines, though – the manufacture and sale of those would be punished by closure and a large fine. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of what we know today as the modern pub.

Beerhouses served beer from jugs or directly from barrels that had been tapped and placed on a corner table. They were incredibly profitable organisations and, as a result of that (and the fact that it was so easy to get a licence), the number of them increased from 400 in the first year of the Act being passed to 46,000 eight years later. Eventually, they became so popular that, in 1869, their growth had to be controlled by the Court and new licensing laws were introduced making it not quite as straightforward as paying a paltry two guineas.

And that licensing process is pretty much the one that operates today, albeit with a few minor adjustments along the way.

The growth of the modern pub business

The modern pub is a far cry from the earliest alehouses, which might not have been all that distinguishable from regular homes. This is largely thanks to the advent of the industrial revolution, which saw the production potential of beer grow dramatically over the course of the 19th Century. And the beer-loving population also grew at a similar rate over the period.

This gave rise to the hundreds of purpose-built pubs by the middle of the 19th Century. Architecturally, they began to take on their own style, distinguishing them from regular private houses. Beautifully hand-painted pub signs, which helped customers (many of whom would have been illiterate) to identify the pubs, began to hang outside beerhouses. They would generally (and still do) tend to depict whatever it is they were named after.

The most popular pub names are taken from:

  • Animals, e.g. The Dog & Partridge
  • Random objects, e.g. The Old Pint Pot
  • Heraldry (coats of arms), e.g. Elephant & Castle
  • Landowners, e.g. The Prince Albert
  • Myths and legends, e.g. The Robin Hood
  • Old occupations (many of which will pun on coats of arms), e.g. The Butcher’s Arms
  • Historic events, e.g. The Royal Oak (after the 1651 Battle of Worcester)
  • Books or literary characters, e.g. Jabez Clegg (taken from Isabella Banks’ novel The Manchester Man)
  • Places, e.g. The Cambridge Inn

Modern pubs also began to include bar counters (which were adopted very early on), ornately decorated mirrors and etched glass, highly polished brass handrails, opulently painted tiling, wood panelling and, perhaps most importantly (because they allow more people to be served more quickly), hand pumps (or beer engines, as they’re known in the pub business).

Beer production methods now also meant that beer could be delivered from breweries far and wide (first by horse and cart, later by lorry), meaning that brewing companies like Marston’s were able to deliver their products all over the region and, eventually, the country and now the whole world.

Pub chains and brewery-run pubs

The tied-house system, as it’s known, began in earnest toward the end of the 19th century (although it started in the 1600s) when popular breweries looking to make their mark in new territories began to purchase local pubs and employed publicans, landlords or pub partners to run them.

Buy-outs of pub companies became a regular occurrence (Marston’s alone went through a relatively small four mergers and acquisitions processes between 1834 and 2007) until, by the beginning of the 20th century, at least 90% of pubs in England were brewery-owned and most of them by the big six:

  • Allied
  • Bass
  • Courage
  • Grand Metropolitan
  • Scottish & Newcastle
  • Whitbread

The Beer Orders

These six breweries dominated the pub industry until the end of the 1980s, when the government – in response to a report by the Competition Commission – introduced statutory instruments known commonly as The Beer Orders [or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, The Supply of Beer (Tied Estate) Order 1989 and The Supply of Beer (Loan Ties, Licensed Premises and Wholesale Prices) Order 1989].

The Beer Orders, quite simply, restricted the number of tied pubs that large breweries were allowed to own in the UK to a maximum of 2,000. It demanded broader product inclusion by requiring that a ‘guest ale’ must always be sourced by tenants in larger brewery-owned pubs. The big six (and other large pub groups) responded by establishing new sister companies, purely to own pubs, such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns and yet further companies were set up purely to purchase some of the pubs for sale.

Finally, in 2003, the Beer Orders were revoked and a House of Commons report demonstrated that no single pub company any longer had a dominant market position.

Nowadays, there are all manner of different names in the pub industry and some of the biggest pub chains include:

  • Mitchell’s and Butler
  • Greene King
  • Punch Taverns
  • Stonegate
  • Wetherspoon
  • EI
  • Star Pubs and Bars (Heineken)
  • Admiral Taverns
  • Fullers
  • Marston’s
Friends in a pub drinking beer and talking

How do you define a modern pub?

It’s hard to define a pub today as there are so many different offerings.

Should a pub have a beer garden?
Does it need to serve ‘real ale’?
Is it still a pub if it’s mainly known for food?
When does a gastro pub simply become a restaurant?

CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) is the leading British consumer institution promoting pubs as social centres and part of Britain’s cultural heritage. Their definition of a pub is an establishment that:

  • Is open to members of the public, so doesn’t require membership or residency
  • Serves beer on tap and/or draught without having to serve food alongside it
  • Has a minimum of one indoor space with no dining tables (or laid out for dining)
  • Allows people to buy drinks by going up to the bar (in other words, not table service)

Beyond these so-called ‘essential’ factors, there are all kinds of elements a modern pub might include. No longer are pubs tied to the decorative restrictions of Victorian taste or conservatism. Sure, you’ll still see plenty of dizzying Axminster carpets on the floors to hide the dirt from the constant footfall (though most modern pubs prefer a surface you can clean with a mop). And you’ll still see dark oak and walnut tables, politely curved at the corners, indoors with park bench style seating outside…

When you walk into a modern pub, however, you might find any of the following elements:

  • A saloon – a saloon bar is where entertainment might happen as part of the pub’s everyday offering. You might find a pool table, games machines and a TV in a contemporary saloon bar. Also known as the lounge, this is the main area of the pub, where socialising happens.
  • A function room or gig room – different to a saloon bar, the function room is a part of the pub that people can hire out for private parties or events, such as weddings, birthday parties, live music gigs and corporate showcases.
  • A tap room – this was traditionally where working class people congregated, separately from the middle class (because we used to be much more socially divided than nowadays), but now it tends to be more immediately associated with the idea of a tasting room, where pub customers are there to concentrate on the serious business of trying their favourite ales and other tipples.
  • A beer garden – actually directly translated from the German Biergarten, would you believe? It is pretty much exactly what you might imagine – an outdoor space where pub customers go to drink beer, wine, cola and whatever else they fancy – it’s not just restricted to beer drinking. Heck, you might even have a meal out there.
  • A snug – how very exclusive! The snug is the private room or area within the pub that might have a frosted glass window pane to keep regular patrons from seeing whoever was in there. In the old days, when it was frowned upon for women to drink in pubs, you might have found a well-to-do lady in there, enjoying a drink. Nowadays, they’re just the cosy parts of old pubs that customers always hope is free for them to sit in when they get there because it’s often the nicest bit of the whole pub.
  • A dining room or restaurant – some pubs still focus solely on wet sales (drinks, in normal parlance), but most offer something to eat nowadays and, if the pub’s big enough, it will probably incorporate some kind of separate space for dining. Perhaps even a restaurant branded under its own separate name.

What drinks will you find in a pub?

Metal taps with wooden handles, draft.The beerhouses of old expanded over the years to incorporate all kinds of alcoholic beverages from far and wide as well as soft drinks. These are just some of the drinks you will find in a modern-day pub:

  • Real ale – cask conditioned beer, served traditionally without additional gas pressure
  • Wine – by the glass or by the bottle; red, white or rosé; from as far away as Australia and as close to home as South Wales; the fermented juice of crushed grapes might not be produced as easily in Britain, but British pubs certainly sell plenty of it to an ever-more discerning customer base of wine lovers.
  • Porter – a well-hopped, dark beer developed in London in the early 18th century that uses malted barley.
  • Stout – almost identical to porter in appearance and flavour, the only difference with a stout is that it’s made from unmalted roasted barley.
  • Cider – sweet or dry, cloudy or clear, fizzy or flat; the delights of fermented apple juice have been explored to perfection by cultures all over Europe and beyond. Just don’t ask an American for a glass, if you’re hoping for an alcoholic beverage, as theirs is unfermented.
  • Bitter – a British pale ale that varies from gold to dark amber in colour and in strength from about 3% to around 5.5% ABV on average.
  • Lager – also available in amber and dark! Yes, pale lager is probably the most well-known type of beer consumed in pubs today. The name comes from German lagerbier and it refers to the bottom-fermented beer that’s been cool conditioned (say, in a cave) – that’s what’s known as ‘lagering’.
  • Whisky (or whiskey) – the word actually comes from the Gaelic word for water, but make no mistake, this distilled drink of fermented grain mash (barley, corn, rye or wheat), is a little bit stronger than your average glass of H2O – usually around the 40% ABV level. The good stuff is produced in a still made of copper and aged in oak casks.
  • Rum – sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice are distilled and then aged in oak barrels to make this typically Caribbean spirit (as that’s where the sugar cane grows). Light rums are great for cocktails, but golden and dark rums are best drunk neat or on-the-rocks.
  • Vodka – this alcoholic beverage comes from Russia originally and is actually made from distilled rye, wheat or… wait for it… potatoes. Like whisky, it’s meaning is derived from its country-of-origin’s word for water. Also like whisky, it’s a little more complex than water.
  • Vermouth – an aromatised, fortified wine flavoured with everything from roots, barks and flowers to seeds, herbs and spices, Vermouth originates in Turin, Italy and you might best know it by its biggest brand name: Martini.
  • Gin – this British favourite tipple is a distilled drink of mixed herbal ingredients whose main flavour comes from the delightful juniper berry.
  • Soft drinks – pop, tea, coffee, fruit juice, fruit punch (or juice based drinks), even good old water – all of these are considered soft drinks and you’ll find all of them and more in your average pub, nowadays.

What are the licensing laws in Britain?

Sale and consumption of alcohol is regulated (with different legislation for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively) by the alcohol licensing laws of the United Kingdom.

In each of those territories, selling alcohol is restricted and pubs (as well as restaurants and shops) must have a license, granted by the relevant local authority.

In England, Wales and Scotland, the Premises Licence lays out the times and conditions under which it’s okay to sell alcohol and the Personal Licence allows individuals to sell alcohol or authorise others to sell it – so it comes in two parts. On Premises Licences, each name what’s called a Designated Premises Supervisor (Designated Premises Manager in Scotland) and that person has to hold the Personal Licence so that alcohol can legally be sold there.

The legal minimum age for buying alcohol in the UK is 18. However, people aged 16 or 17 are allowed to drink beer, wine or cider in a pub with a table meal so long as it is purchased for them by someone older than 18.

Before 2003, there were lots and lots of separate legislative provisions covering pubs and other licensed premises in England and Wales, but they were all consolidated into the Licensing Act in 2003 and near-identical reforms were put in place in Scotland two years later in 2005.

Are pubs on-licence premises?

On-licence basically means an establishment where alcohol has to be consumed at the point of sale, i.e on the premises. Off-licence means the opposite – where the alcohol has to be consumed off the premises. So, largely, yes… pubs are considered on-licence premises.

Since the Licensing Act 2003 (and 2005 for Scotland), however, there’s only been one type of premises licence for shops and pubs alike. Yet, when one is granted, it comes with a set of conditions that will determine whether it allows ‘on’ sales, ‘off’ sales or both types.

This is why you now get both ‘bottle shops’ (in other words, shops where you’re allowed to consume the beer in the shop) and ‘takeout pubs’ (in other words, pubs that allow you to take home your favourite alcoholic tipple, usually in some kind of cardboard milk-carton-like container, if it’s drawn from the pump and isn’t a bottle or can).

Premises licences are granted to people, not to establishments. You probably remember seeing pubs with the name of the licensee above the door – these are from the days before the Licensing Act 2003, when the licence was granted to the establishment. You do still see them, but they’re no longer a legal requirement, as a result of the change in law.

Northern Ireland has slightly more restrictive legislation law than in Britain, so only a limited number of licences are available and new pubs have to wait until existing pubs surrender their licences to be granted one. Also, it’s the courts that grant the permitting of licences, not Local Authorities.

The smoking ban

You might be old enough to remember what it was like to go into a pub before the indoor smoking ban of 2007 (2006 in Scotland). Well, it was quite smoky, to put it bluntly. A lot of publicans, landlords, tenants and pub managers had expressed concerns that it would put people off going to the pub if they weren’t able to smoke inside but, after a rocky start, where sales did fall in some places (while rising in others and being largely unaffected in yet others), the whole thing sort of plateaued.

What is a gastropub?

The hybrid word ‘gastropub’ describes an environment that’s just as hybrid in its nature – a down-to-earth pub that serves high-end food. ‘Gastro’ from gastronomy (or fine dining), ‘pub’ from, well… pub!

The term first came into use in 1991 and the concept helped to revolutionise pub culture and British dining alike over the course of the next three decades. Pub grub, as it’s lovingly known by patrons, runs the gamut of Great British dishes from steak-and-ale pie, fish and chips, bangers-and-mash to full Sunday roasts with all the trimmings. But gastropubs have gone that step further to incorporate more extravagant, exotic and high-end grub.

Yes, walk into a gastropub and you might well find a mushroom risotto with truffle oil nuzzled up against cod, chips and mushy peas on the very same menu. The beauty of the gastropub is that it brings back a sense of pride to British dining whilst also helping us to retain that oh-so-essential characteristic of everyday British life: unfussiness. We can have our cake and eat it too. (Whether it’s a Victoria sponge or a frosted red velvet cake.)