I come now to all things to do with alcohol – from drinking out to home consumption and home brewing. Needless to say, it was all very different in those days. My original plan was to do this altogether but the subject has expanded to two posts.
I start with pubs. In the fifties alcohol was much more closely connected to pubs than it is now. Pubs were Public Houses for the consumption of alcoholic drinks – and that was all they were.
Pubs did not have restaurants attached to them. Pubs did not serve meals. Pubs did not provide bar snacks. Pubs did not sell sandwiches. Pubs did not sell crisps – no, crisps were the only edible things they did sell, and the only crisps were Smith’s crisps. You didn’t have to specify a flavour because there weren’t any flavours. There was optional salt – the famous little blue bags inside the packets. Presumably salty snacks were sold to make you thirsty and buy more beer. Wikipedia says that they were called Salt ‘n’ Shake flavour but I don’t believe this. They were called Smiths Crisps. (It was just crisps. No peanuts, no scampi fries, no pork scratchings, no other nibbles.)
There were many more pubs then, in residential areas and near to places of work – so that everyone was near enough to walk to the pub in the evening. In Ilford, the Cathedral Estate where I lived had been built with a bit of a middle class image, which discouraged working class habits like drinking beer. It was a large housing estate, planned specifically with no pubs, but this was unusual. Our nearest pub would have been The Beehive, at the other end of Beehive Lane, with many more at Gant’s Hill or Ilford or Barkingside, plenty within walking distance.
Every pub had two main rooms – two bars – the Public Bar and the Saloon. The Public Bar was the main bar, basically a place for working men to drink (and get drunk.) The Saloon had only a few visitors as its prices were higher. (You guessed it – It was for the rich and posh!) You could tell the difference by looking at them – public bars had old, worn, rough furniture, mostly just room for standing. Saloons had carpets, proper chairs, tables and more homely décor. The distinction is still there in many pubs today.
Public bars were full of men standing by the bar and drinking as fast as they could afford to drink, almost all of them smoking continuously. [You have been warned about sweeping generalizations. There might have been some men not smoking or not getting drunk.] They were not the sort of places frequented by unaccompanied women. In many places, a woman visiting a pub was assumed to be a prostitute. (No, I am not speaking from experience here.)
The main drink, almost the only drink, in pubs was draught beer, which came from wooden barrels, using a pump operated by hand. It was a physical process, called ‘pulling a pint,’ involving more power and skill than the modern taps. (Nowadays carbon dioxide is added in the pumping process. Draught bitter had enough gas to provide pressure from the barrels in the cellar.) One long pull might half fill the glass and subsequent pulls had to be judged to stop when it was full.
There was only one shape for the pint glass as shown above. It normally came with much more of a ‘head,’ much more froth at the top than is shown. (We were not troubled so much by weights and measure legislation and a frothy top was traditionally expected.) The pump handle was a simple, large handle unadorned by any brand name for the beer. All the customers ever asked for was a pint of bitter or a pint of mild. (It presumably did have a brand name but the brand – and advertising in general – were much less prominent. There was no choice of brand.)
While I continue with several more sweeping generalizations, I need to make many remarks that may now be considered sexist. As you will remember from  Sex Discrimination we were sexist then, so I am just describing how things were.
Men drank draught beer, generally bitter, occasionally mild and bitter. There were bottled beers, called light ale or pale ale, which were similar to draught bitter, and other darker beers called stout. Bottled beer came in different glasses and were of indeterminate volume – so you asked for a bottle rather than a pint. (A bottle was somewhere between a pint and a half pint.)
You often asked for bottled beer by its brand name – Watneys pale ale, Guinness, Mackeson stout or Newcastle Brown were the ones generally available. While most people kept to the standard draught beers (or perhaps a mixture of light and bitter) those who drank something like Mackeson seemed to do it as if chosen deliberately to appear somewhat idiosyncratic.
Men who could live with the ignominy of not being seen as serious drinkers could drink half pints or shandy (beer and lemonade).
There was a relatively new drink beginning to spread from the continent in the sixties called lager, available in bottles, not as bitter tasting as draught bitter. It was generally considered to be a drink for women, often as lager and lime. (That was a half-pint drink.) There were no imported Australian lagers.
(There were no draught versions of Guinness or lager or cider anything other than bitter – and draught beer always came from wooden casks.)
Other Drinks in Pubs
There were other drinks available, visible on shelves behind the bar. I think there were bottles of vermouths (Cinzano, Martini, Dubonnet) spirits – gin, vodka, whiskey, rum; port and sherry, wines, possibly some liqueurs. It was relatively rare to see anyone drink any of these. I think that optics on bottles were in use back in the fifties. (But, of course, I didn’t go into pubs until the mid-sixties! I may tell you about this later.)
The size of these drinks was a bit vague, with guidelines but no regulation. You just bought a Martini, or a large whiskey or double vodka, without specifying an amount. The Weights and Measures Act of 1963 formalized the measures as ¼, 1/5 or 1/6 of a gill and most pubs went for the smallest size. (This was almost the only time I saw the gill used as a quarter of a pint.) Scotland tended to be more generous. These have since been metricated to 25 or 35 ml.
Two other drinks are worth a mention. Cider meant Bulmer’s cider and generally it meant Woodpecker Cider. It came in quart (two pint) bottles and could be served in pubs as a pint or half-pint. Broadly equivalent to beer in its alcoholic content, it was much sweeter, so it was preferred by those who had not yet acquired the bitter taste of beer (not really a grown-up drink.) I think beer drinkers considered it a wimpy alternative to beer, although it was actually stronger. The only other cider was Bulmer’s Strongbow, not so sweet. This came in smaller bottles. Both have survived until today but they now have many other competitors, including draught versions.
Wikipedia has helped me in my research on Babycham, the ‘genuine champagne perry.’ (Yes, I know, Wikipedia helps me with everything.) It was launched in 1953 and was the first alcoholic product to be advertised on television. It was widely advertised everywhere and always evident behind the bar at pubs. (As for most drinks, I don’t remember actually seeing anyone drink it.) It was perry, a drink made like cider but from pears instead of apples, but its image was of champagne – expensive and luxurious, sold in tiny bottles and always shown with the old-style champagne glasses. It seemed to be an innocent, harmless drink, almost without alcohol, an introduction to alcohol for young women. (Sorry, life was sexist then.) I have never heard the word ‘perry’ used in any other context. (Yes, you can still buy Babycham.)
Pub licensing hours have grown like ordinary shop hours. The Defence of the Realm Act of 1914, as well as introducing wartime rationing and censorship, restricted pub opening hours from noon to 2:30 pm and 6:30 to 9:30 pm. Pubs had to keep to these hours – they had to be open between these hours, and had to close promptly. (Sunday opening hours were more restricted, with no Sunday opening in parts of Scotland and Wales.)
By the 50s, hours had extended slightly with an evening closing time of 10:30. Exceptions were rare so that all pubs closed at the same time of night. (Discos hadn’t been invented and we didn’t have nightclubs.)
Apart from pubs, the only places licensed to supply alcohol on the premises were restaurants – and then only with the consumption of a meal. This was not a significant source of alcoholic drinks as there were not many restaurants.
Several Acts of Parliament have changed the situation, at first allowing optional opening through the afternoon. By 2000 pubs could open from 11:00 and to 11:00 pm. (They were no longer required to open all the permitted hours.)
From 2005, pubs in England and Wales were allowed to apply to their local council for any opening hours, partly to end the concentration of drunkenness and violence around closing time – and to help the police. The most significant result seems to have been a rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions!
Now we have various opening hours. It is no longer restricted to sale at pubs. Alcohol can be served at cafés without the need to consume a full meal and is widely available.
Restrictions concerning age seem to be unchanged. At eighteen you can drink any alcoholic drink in a pub. At sixteen you can drink beer or cider (or wine at a restaurant if ordered by an adult.) These ages are unchanged.
In the fifties, no one under fourteen was allowed to enter a bar at a public house. You simply did not see children in pubs. This regulation certainly extended through the seventies and eighties but it now seems to have disappeared or been ignored. (It’s hard to be clear as the pubs where children are now very common may have been reclassified as restaurants.)
I have to mention the Campaign for Real Ale, founded in 1971, in the vain attempt to keep the old methods with beer coming from wooden barrels. Wikipedia assures me that it still exists but its definition of ‘real ale’ no longer specifies whether it is dispensed from a barrel or a metal keg. (I have to take the word of Wikipedia but there were discussions about draught beer from wooden barrels or metal casks back through the sixties. Perhaps CAMRA had a more informal precursor organisation.)
There are some pubs left bearing some resemblance to this picture but they now almost all serve food – sandwiches, bar snacks and meals. Most have a restaurant section or have become all restaurant. In Cheltenham, where I live now, I have seen many of the town pubs close to make way for housing developments. More of the country pubs have survived, mostly as pub/restaurants. Very few customers now visit pubs just for the alcoholic drinks.
There was too much to say about alcohol in just one blog. More to come – including home brewing and binge drinking.